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These stories were published Wednesday, May 19, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 98
Jo Stuart
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Look for the thief with the bright red sunburn
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some thieves near Siquirres probably are getting a continuous x-ray, but they do not know it.
The Judicial Investigating Organization issued an urgent warning Tuesday because burglars Monday night broke into an office of engineers and took, among other items, a small cylinder that is 
used to make x-ray  inspections of pipelines.

The investigative organization said that the radioactive source, marked Gamma yr-192, was contained in a small box. If the leaded box is opened, anyone within a 5 meter radius can get a lethal does of radiation, they said.

The engineers are believed to be subcontractors of the Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo, a government agency that builds and maintains petroleum supply lines.  By using x-rays to inspect the finished lines, the engineers can determine if the pipe has been constructed correctly.

The Judicial Investigating Organization warned the crooks or anyone else who might come in contact with the capsule to leave it alone and to notify authorities.

Hurricane season predicted to be above average
Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

As many as four major hurricanes and 15 tropical storms could rise out of the Atlantic Ocean in 2004 to threaten the United States, the Caribbean and Central American nations, according to the annual forecast issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1, and continues through Nov. 30.

The agency said its research indicates a 50 percent probability of a greater-than-normal number of storms in 2004. The historical average number of tropical storms to develop in a year in the Atlantic basin is 9.7. The average for storms that develop into hurricanes is 4.7, but the administration is forecasting six to eight storms developing into hurricanes in 2004. 

Typically such storms, even when they veer west, do not touch Costa Rica, but places further north are vulnerable. Costa Rica frequently 

feels the rainy backlash of such storms even though they remain in the Caribbean.

U.S. officials announced the forecast in Houston, a city located near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico with a history of dangerous storms. 

"We cannot stop these storms, but we can take steps to limit our vulnerability," said Michael Brown, undersecretary for Homeland Security. "Awareness and preparedness for hurricanes, and even tropical storms, and knowing what to do to mitigate their devastating effects, are our best defense." 

In the central Pacific, forecasters are predicting four to five tropical cyclones, which is typical for that area. The central Pacific hurricane season also runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

The full text of this press release with satellite photos of 2003's Hurricane Isabel is available HERE!

Immigration law given high legislative priority
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The revision to the immigration laws is high on the agenda in this new legislative session, according to José Vargas, head of the government’s party in the Asamblea Nacional.

As expected, the massive reform of the tax laws and the creation of new taxes is in No. 1 spot, Vargas told those at a press conference Tuesday morning at Casa Presidencial.

Both the immigration law and the tax plan worry expats here. The draft of the Ley General de Migración y Extranjería eliminates the category of rentista for those who wish to live in Costa Rica. The fiscal reform plan may end up taxing the foreign income of expats here as well as that of Costa Ricans. However, many expats receive nearly all their income as pensions and investment earnings from North America.

Vargas said the immigration law is in No. 4 position in the government’s agenda. He is a 

member of the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, as is President Abel Pacheco.

The party and its legislative allies control the one-house body. Officials said a high position on the agenda usually means a quick vote.

The Association of Residents of Costa Rica, an organization that caters to foreigners moving here, has said it will lobby to seek changes in the immigration law. The rentista status allows someone to move here and gain legal residency by showing he or she has $60,000 in a bank. The other much-used category is that of pensionado, which requires that the applicant have a recognized pension of $600 or more a month. The rentista category is one of the few ways that a foreigner without a pension and perhaps not of retirement age can legally live here.

Also on the agenda is President Pacheco’s 2-year-old plan to include environmental guarantees within the country’s Constitution.

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Virus variant dumping
multiple copies here

By  the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Local computers have come under attack from a virus program that duplicates itself hundreds of times. 

The mail server of the Radiográfica Costarricense S.A. appears to be struggling under the load of automatically generated messages.

The virus has the subject line "Oh. God its," "Details," "Illegal sings in e-mails," "mail delivery failed," and others.

Over an eight hour period Tuesday night, A.M. Costa Rica received more than 750 such e-mails.

Curiously, all the virus messages passed though the Internet monopoly’s anti-spam program and despite their numbers were declared not to be spam or unwanted junk e-mails.

The e-mail carried a virus as an executable file in an attachment.

The virus resembles those messages that have been distributed for months. The only difference is that once the virus invades a computer it does not send out just one copy of itself to other computers but multiple copies, perhaps as many as 100.

As with older types of virus messages, the e-mail contains a false identity. Several copies seem to have originated with Bell South servers in the United States.

One set of virus messages claims to have been generated by a product of Ultimate Software of Weston, Fla. This is probably a lie because the firm only makes payroll and other human resource programs and not automatic mailers. 

This may indicate that the latest virus comes from someone who does not like ultimate Software.

Pacheco seeks accord
on sex exploitation

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco wants a unified international system involving the Organization of American States to battle sexual exploitation of children.

He also called for international accords similar to the anti-drug pact between Costa Rica and the United States to fight pedophiles.

Pacheco spoke at the opening of a hemispheric meting on the topic at the Teatro Melico Salazar Tuesday.

Pacheco described sex exploitation as a multi-million dollar industry with ramification in all countries and with resources and powerful influences that attack the dignity, integrity and the life of boys and girls.

"This is the first step in this fight: to admit that our boys and girls are being exploited, treated like merchandise, violated in their most sacred rights," said Pacheco, adding: "To deny the existence of the problem is a form of complicity with the pedophiles."

Mobile robbery suspects
captured in twin raids

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men suspected of harvesting their robbery victims off the city streets have been detained after a police raid early Tuesday.

Twin raids were conducted in Alajuela and Paso Ancho for the 23- and 25-year-old men.

The case involves a rash of robberies, mostly in the southern part of San José in which men in a car would drive up to solitary pedestrians and take their possessions.

Such crimes are prevalent mostly after dark all over the Central Valley. In this case, agents of the Judicial Investigating Organization were looking for a red car, and they found one during the raid.

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Britain still is a holdout on EU constitution
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Two days of urgent talks by E.U. foreign ministers here have failed to bridge the major gaps blocking agreement on a constitution for the 25-nation group. 

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw clashed with his counterparts from France and Germany, in particular, as they argued over issues such as voting procedures and human rights. 

The British government faces strong skepticism in parliament over the new E.U. constitution, and has promised to put the document to a public referendum. Officials say to get the constitution approved they must secure veto power for all members on any new E.U. rules related to taxation, foreign and defense policy, and social security.

Britain also asked for an amendment in the document's Charter of Fundamental Rights. It wants to ensure that the charter does not end up creating new social and employment rights under European Union law.

With agreement still elusive, France urged Ireland, which holds the E.U. rotating presidency, to issue a 

final draft. Ireland has called another meeting of the foreign ministers for the beginning of next week.

The goal is to settle on a constitution by the next E.U. summit in mid-June. 

The E.U. members failed to make their last deadline for agreement in December, and they are under pressure to agree by their new self-imposed deadline next month. Experts say the organization needs the document in order to be able to operate efficiently, having just increased its membership from 15 to 25 at the beginning of this month.

If Britain or any other country fails to ratify the constitution, it is to be set aside. Some in Britain are concerned that if that happens due to a British 'No' vote, other members will draft a new document that would, in effect, give Britain second-class status in the organization.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen says he remains confident an agreement can be reached. But the British foreign secretary says the wording must be right, and he warns that next month's summit could come and go without its key constitutional centerpiece.

Greenpeace faces prosecution under ancient U.S. law
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MIAMI, Fla. — Authorities here are using a 132-year-old federal law originally created to prevent prostitutes from boarding cargo vessels to prosecute the environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace.

The case stems from an incident two years ago when Greenpeace activists boarded a container ship headed for the Port of Miami and unfurled a banner reading, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." 

Greenpeace says the vessel was loaded with 70 tons of illegally harvested mahogany cut from Brazil's endangered Amazon rain forests.

The Greenpeace activists who participated in the action were arrested, charged and punished. 

But the government 15 months later leveled 

charges against the entire Greenpeace organization under the 1872 law making it a crime to board a ship without authorization. Greenpeace attorneys say the prosecution is politically motivated by the Bush administration. 

Prosecutors have declined to comment publicly.

If convicted, the environmental group could face a maximum of five years probation and a fine of at least $10,000.

Greenpeace says it has received support from former vice president Al Gore and other environmental and civil liberties groups.

The 1872 law was originally enacted to stop the 19th century practice of "sailor mongering" in which brothel owners sent prostitutes carrying booze to ships entering the harbor to lure the sailors off their vessels. 

Trade talks begin to include three Andean nations
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

CARAGENA, Colombia — Representatives from the United States, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are holding free trade talks here in hopes of reaching an agreement by next year. 

The Andean countries want to extend existing trade accords that allow them to export items such as fresh flowers to the United States without tariffs. 

The agreements, set to expire in 2006, were put in place to help countries on the front lines in the fight against the illegal drug trade. 

U.S. representatives hope a new accord will give 

them access to another 80 million consumers. The United States already has free trade agreements with Chile and Mexico, and has wrapped up talks in recent months with many Central American countries. 

Discussions on a so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas that would include the entire Western Hemisphere except Cuba have stalled because of disagreements over farm subsidies. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said an Andean Free Trade Agreement would remove barriers for farmers, workers and export businesses. He said he hoped to include Bolivia in future talks. 

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Impact crater is in Australia
Before dino deaths another rock killed nearly all
By the University of Rochester News Service

Evidence is mounting that 251 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs dominated the Earth, a meteor the size of Mount Everest smashed into what is now northern Australia, heaving rock halfway around the globe, triggering mass volcanic eruptions, and wiping out all but about 10 percent of the species on the planet. 

The "Great Dying," as it’s called, was by far the most cataclysmic extinction event in Earth’s history, yet scientists have been unable to finger a culprit as they have with the dinosaur extinction. A new paper published in Science, however, claims to identify the crater made by that meteor, and it builds upon an ongoing body of evidence by researchers at the University of Rochester in New York and the University of California at Santa Barbara, that points the finger for the Great Dying squarely at the heavens.

"This is very likely the impact site we’ve been looking for," said Robert Poreda, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester. "For years we’ve been observing evidence that a meteor or comet hit the southern hemisphere 251 million years ago, and this structure matches everything we’ve been expecting."

In 2001, Poreda and Luann Becker, research scientist in geology Santa Barbara, announced that they had detected in 251-million-year-old strata, specific isotopes of helium and argon trapped inside buckyballs—a cage-like formation of carbon atoms—that could only have come from space. 

Since they were laid down in this same strata around much of the globe, the implication was that a giant meteor had struck the Earth, vaporized, and settled around the southern hemisphere. This past November, the same three authors, Poreda, Becker, and Asish Basu, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, published another article in Science that found actual pieces of the meteorite that struck the Earth in the same global strata.

Many experts scoffed at the idea of a giant meteor causing the mass extinction between the Permian and Triassic periods, but Poreda points out that many also scoffed at the idea that a meteor was responsible for a later and lesser extinction at the Cretatious/Tertiary boundary that marks the end of the dinosaurs. Now, the impact theory is largely accepted.

The team knew that the chances of finding the crater, even one from an impact large enough to nearly wipe out life on Earth, would be difficult because the majority of the Earth is covered by ocean. Had the meteor struck there, its telltale crater would have long ago disappeared. 

As luck would have it, an oil-drilling exploration team in 1970 found a "dome" in the area of Bedout, just off the northwestern coast of Australia. Now covered by two miles of sediment, this area was most likely dry land 251 million years ago. Frequently, such domes herald large oil deposits, but in this case the drilling team found only what it labeled as "volcanic rock." The core samples were 

shelved and forgotten for 25 years, until in 1995 a report in a journal aimed at the oil industry mentioned that the rock might have been formed from a meteor impact.

It wasn’t until Becker caught wind of the "volcanic" find in 251 million-year-old rock that the team members began to think they’d found their smoking gun. Poreda and Becker investigated the core samples first hand. "They were unlike any volcanic rocks I’ve ever seen," says Poreda. "In a volcanic explosion you may find angular pieces of rock that are broken apart mixed with the volcanic melt. In these samples, though, the rocks were shock melted from an impact. We left convinced Bedout was our crater."

The clincher was the presence of a feldspar glass in the shape of a feldspar crystal. Such features do not form in volcanic eruptions. Many of the samples showed evidence of sustaining an intense shock, meaning the meteor likely hit a bed that contained feldspar crystals, shock-melted their interiors, melting their insides the way a microwave oven might bake a potato’s inside while leaving the outer areas cool.

"Once we looked at Bedout with the understanding that it was likely a crater, the geophysics just fell into place," says Poreda.

Geophysical analysis shows the rock strata underlying the dome at Bedout is fractured exactly the way the team expected — showing rock strata older than 251 million years old broken apart, with younger rock above laid down without the fractures. 

Simulations of a six-mile-wide rock striking the area suggest a crater rim should be visible about 60 miles from the central dome, and despite the extreme age of the impact site and the rearrangement of continental plates since then, there is evidence of a rim at that distance. The team has plans to explore the geophysical outlay of the region with more scrutiny.

Coincidentally, the Bedout crater, at 120 miles across, is almost exactly the same size as the Chicxulub crater in the Caribbean that has been identified as the impact site of the meteorite that dealt the dinosaurs their death blow. It’s likely that the bodies that struck at each site were of the same size and traveling at similar speeds.

Along with both impacts correlating strongly with two of the greatest extinctions in Earth’s history, the team has found that massive lava flows in two different parts of the world have similar corrolations. Basu showed that massive lava flows in India date back precisely to the Chicxalub impact, and recently he also reported that similar giant lava flows in Siberia coincide exactly with the Bedout impact.

"There have been five mass extinctions throughout the Earth’s history," says Poreda. "Now we have very strong evidence that massive meteor impacts happened precisely at two of those extinctions."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration  and the National Science Foundation paid for the research..

Jo Stuart
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