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These stories were published Wednesday, May 21, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 99
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Police failed to find Enrique's vault, pair say
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho maintained a hidden strongroom in the Mall San Pedro complex, and police failed to find the location when they raided the high-interest operation last July 4.

That’s what two individuals close to the situation said in e-mails over the last two weeks.

The first to mention the strongroom was Henk Guichelaar of Longview, Texas, who maintains a presence in Internet discussion groups under the username Skyboy.

In an e-mail May 9 to a disaffected investor, Guichelaar said that Villalobos was trying to distribute September interest payments to his many investors when he got wind that a second raid would take place. He added:

"A truck was backed up against the door to his ‘vault’ which opens to one of the parking levels at Mall San Pedro and our interest money (and then some) was taken to a safe place where it is to this day."

A second individual, J. Duke Moseley, said Tuesday that he, too, was aware of the vault. Said Moseley:

"It is a small room and was surrounded by cameras and such. Easy access to the parking lot. After all was said and done a long-time investor told me about the place and I went to 
see it. There was nothing there (of course) but the room was as described."

Moseley, too, is well known as a participant in Internet discussions on the case. He lives here.

Villalobos paid much of his monthly interest in cash contained in manila envelopes. Officials involved in the Villalobos investigation were asked if they had knowledge of the so-called vault last week via the public relations officer for the courts. But they did not reply.

Guichelaar did not say how he had such intimate knowledge of the Villalobos operation. He has not answered e-mailed questions. But if true, the report means that Villalobos spirited away many millions of dollars just before he closed down his high-interest operation Oct. 21.

Last September Villalobos said he was trying to set up a system whereby investor monthly interest would be deposited directly into their bank accounts. 

That statement does not square completely with claims that Villalobos had vast sums in cash on his premises. And if the money was there in cash and later taken elsewhere, the question remains as to why Villalobos did not at least pay overdue interest to creditors who lived in Costa Rica.

Villalobos may have had as much as $1 billion in investor money on his books when he fled. At 3 percent monthly interest, some $30 million would accrue every 30 days. 

However, many investors rolled over their interest as new principal, so the exact amount paid in cash each month is not known. A reasonable estimate is from $2 to $3 million.

Four are held as beach bandits on Pacific coast
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police in Santa Cruz have taken into custody four persons who may have been involved in a shootout with a robbery victim in Tamarindo last weekend.

The four also are suspected of a string of robberies near the beaches of Tamarindo, Playa Grande and Matapalo. All these beach communities are on the north  Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Officers of the Fuerza Pública in Santa Cruz spotted a suspicious vehicle near the Banco Nacional office in that regional center Monday. The vehicle was the same one that had been seen near locations where robberies took place, said officers.

Inside the vehicle officers found a 34-year-old woman with the last names of Campos Fonseca 

and a 32-year-old man with the last names of Caicedo Sandoval. Also inside the vehicle were backpacks that had the same characteristics as those that had been reported taken in several beach robberies.

While they were making the arrests, police noticed that two persons nearby quickly left and got on a Liberia-bound bus. Officers stopped the bus and took into custody a 36-year-old woman with the last names of Rodríguez Vargas and a 27-year-old man with the last names of Gómez García.

Also inside the vehicle investigators found electronic devices, clothes and other items that had been reported stolen.

The shootout in Tamarindo took place when a would-be robbery victim pulled a gun on his attackers and engaged them in a gunfight, said police.

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Police muffed Milanes grab, Michael's wife says
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The wife of Michael Gonzalez, the jailed Savings Unlimited executive, said she is among the front ranks of people who want to bring Louis Milanes to justice.

She said she went so far as to tip investigators to an international telephone number the fugitive was using but agents did not follow up.

Despite her efforts and her husband’s cooperation with officials, it is Michael who is in jail, and the situation is ruining their lives.

The wife is Svietlana Saviouk Azofeifa. While her husband spends his days in San Sebastian prison, she takes care of the couple’s 14-month-old son and the house they may soon lose.

This week she embarked on an effort to rally whatever friends Michael may have so that he will not have his preventative detention sentence extended this week or next. He has been in prison for six months.

Michael Gonzalez, a good salesman and a fluent English speaker, was the man North Americans met when they walked through the frosted glass doors of Savings Unlimited in Edificio Colón. It was he who outlined the high-interest deals available from the company. And it was he who oversaw the office on a day-to-day basis.

But the man who owned the business, Milanes, was the person who fled with other executives the weekend of Nov. 20. Gonzalez stayed behind with his wife and child.

His wife, also a Costa Rican and a former employee of Savings Unlimited, said she is scared because she has seen cases where individuals have been jailed for three years before trial. But she says she is heartened by several messages she received in response to an e-mail distribution about Michael last weekend.

People and police who want to keep her husband in jail don’t really understand the situation, she said, adding that she and her husband also had the bulk of their savings invested in Savings Unlimited.

"I just wanted to kill him," she said of Milanes after she found out he had fled and closed down the investment operation. Even though Milanes 

fled, much of his money stays behind in the form of hotels, casinos and other investments, and those who put their money with him will not get any of the cash returned, she said. The woman said she and her husband have come close to actually filing a formal criminal complaint against Milanes.

When she learned that a former Savings Unlimited employee had been talking to Milanes by telephone after he fled, she said she turned that information over to Judicial Investigating Organization agents. She said she learned that Milanes had been in the Canary Islands, Spanish soil off the coast of Africa, and also Venezuela.

Meanwhile, investigators picked up her husband a short time after the investigation began. And he cooperated and told all he knew, his wife said.

Yet police did not follow up on the telephone tip nor cut her husband any slack for his efforts, she said.

Meanwhile, she has been renting the family home to keep up the payments while she and her son live with her parents. The renting has not been continuous, and the couple probably will lose the house, she said.

Milanes may have had about $240 million in invested money when he took off. Investigators arrested his brother and a female associate, but they both are out of jail on bond. Another associate, nabbed later in Panamá, remains in custody.

Gonzalez’s wife does not see how even bail can help her husband because they do not have any money nor will they get any support from the Milanes organization, she said, adding, "It’s not fair. It’s not fair." 

Some investors will disagree and hope that Gonzalez stays in jail. They blame him for being an insider and point to his earlier association with Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, another operator of a high-interest scheme who is in flight.

But Gonzalez’s wife said that these people just do not know how Savings Unlimited was set up. And she hopes for a trial so her husband can clear himself, that is if they can afford the legal help.

Svietlana Saviouk Azofeifa may be reached at svietlanasaviouk@yahoo.com or at these numbers: 237-3864 or cellular 811-5702.

Central Bank sharpens pencil to float ICE bonds
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Walter Bolaños, minister of Hacienda, said Tuesday that the Banco Central is studying a new set of numbers from the communications monopoly with the goal of finding the financial justification to float some $100 million in bonds on the international market.

The bond issue is the major demand by striking employees of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad. Workers walked off their jobs Friday with the bond issue the major provocation. The Central Bank said that it could not justify the bond issue based on financial information supplied by the electrical, telephone and Internet monopoly.

Meanwhile, the situation was not good in Bolaños’ own backyard. Workers at the Ministerio de Hacienda and Tributación Directa walked out Tuesday morning demanding raises. The ministry is the financial and tax collecting arm of the government.

Bolaños made his comments at Casa Presidencial after the weekly Consejo de Gobierno meeting with President Abel Pacheco.

Pacheco called upon communication workers to 

show patience, goodwill and faith. He noted that a 
hike in electrical rates has been submitted to the Autoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos. The institute is seeking the rate hike.

Bolaños said that by floating the bond issue for the Institute, known as ICE, in the international market with the help of the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica interest rates inside the country will not be affected.

The topic of teachers also came up. The educators are planning a strike Monday. Astrid Fischel, minister of Educación Pública, said that the long-running problem of teachers’ pay will be resolved this month. 

Teachers have been the victims of a faulty computer program that has been cranking out paychecks without regard to amounts actually earned. Some teachers received nothing or little, others received payments grossly disproportionate to their real salaries. 

Teachers have been complaining for two months and demonstrating for a month. Although officials claimed that 99 percent of the teachers were getting their correct pay, the teachers claim the percentage is much lower.


 
Bush meets Cubans
on Independence Day

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Bush marked Cuban Independence Day Tuesday with a broadcast message to the Cuban people and a meeting at the White House with Cuban dissidents who now live in the United States. 

In a brief message broadcast to Cuba on Radio Marti, the president spoke in Spanish of his hopes for the Cuban people. He said he hopes Cubans will soon be able to enjoy the same freedoms and rights as American citizens, adding dictatorships have no place in the Americas.

Bush carried on that theme during a private meeting at the White House with a group of Cuban dissidents who now live in the United States, and the families of some opposition figures now imprisoned by the Castro government.

Ana Lazara Rodriguez spent 19 years in Cuban jails, and wrote a book about the treatment of women held as political prisoners. She said a pattern of brutality has existed for decades.

"I came to explain to the president that what is important is not that I have spent many years in a political prison, that we have been beaten and confined in isolation for one year or two years sometimes, but what is important is those things continue happening in Cuba and the world must stop that," she said.

Both the broadcast and the meeting were designed to showcase U.S. support for the opposition movement in Cuba on that country's Independence Day, May 20. Last year, the president marked the occasion with a speech in Miami, Florida, the heart of the Cuban-American community. 

Soldiers pocketed
cash, army says

By the A.M. Costa Rica Wire services

BOGOTA,  Colombia — The Colombian army says arrest warrants have been issued for more than 100 army soldiers accused of pocketing millions of dollars in cash found last month during a raid on a leftist rebel hideout. 

Military officials say the troops came across $14 million in cash while searching a stronghold of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in southern Caqueta province. 

They say the soldiers never reported finding the money and that a large number of the men abruptly left the army a short time later. So far, 40 soldiers have been arrested in connection with the scandal. 

Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez says wages for soldiers should be increased to prevent corruption. She says Colombian soldiers are risking their lives for the country yet are earning very little money.

U.S. raises alert
to second highest

By the A.M. Costa Rica Wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. government raised the national terror alert level to high on Tuesday amid fears that the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco could spread to the United States. 

The threat level was raised from yellow, or elevated status, to orange, signifying a high risk of terrorist attack. Orange is only one step down from the highest level of alert.

The decision to raise the alert level came after top Bush administration officials reviewed intelligence reports based on intercepted communications suggesting an increased possibility of terrorist attacks inside the United States.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security said, "There has been an increased specificity in terms of the threats that we hear, but not necessarily specific in terms of the target. And so that is the reason for the national increase in the alert level."

Hutchinson said al-Qaida continues to be the principal terrorist threat, but he said other anti-U.S. groups were of concern as well.

He also noted the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and said there was concern that terrorists might try similar tactics inside the United States. He said, "Those would include use of small-armed-equipped assault teams, large vehicle-born explosive devices and suicide bombers. This is not to indicate this is going to happen in the United States. But when we see a pattern of activity overseas directed at United States targets, we certainly have to be aware that there remains that potential of use of those types of tactics here in the United States."

Homeland Security officials are now encouraging state governors and local authorities around the country to take steps to bolster security, especially in areas where large public gatherings are planned.

Earlier Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assured members of Congress that his new department is up to the challenge of making the country secure from terrorist attack.

Death investigated
near major hospital

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators were at the scene of a death early today near the San Juan de Dios Hospital on Paseo Colón just west of downtown San José.

A stolen car led police on a chase, and the vehicle ended up near the hospital with a dead person inside. The victim could be seen clearly to be a man in the driver’s seat.
 
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Lack of labor standards hurt treaty, lawmaker says
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Officials negotiating a free trade agreement with the countries of Central America should require those countries to adopt and enforce internationally-recognized labor standards, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin said.

In remarks Monday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Levin said that a recent visit to Central America convinced him that current labor conditions in the region pose an obstacle to the proposed U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The congressman said the treaty negotiations should be viewed as an opportunity to move Central America towards adoption and enforcement of the five core International Labor Organization standards: prohibitions on child labor and forced labor, non-discrimination, and the rights to associate and to bargain collectively.

Levin, the ranking Democrat on the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he found a strong "anti-union culture" that effectively prevents workers from organizing in several "maquila" garment factories he toured during an April visit to El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

"In short, in each of the three Central American countries I visited, the rights to associate and organize and to bargain collectively are not realities. Indeed, the opposite is true. 

The laws themselves are inadequate and do not embody the five core labor standards. And, even where there are laws on the books, they are not well enforced and are often used against workers trying to organize," Levin said.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative launched formal Central American treaty talks in January, aiming to conclude a free trade agreement by the end of the year. Under U.S. law, the pact would have to be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives before it could enter into force.

Commenting on the negotiations, Levin strongly criticized a U.S. draft proposal for labor standards similar to those in the recently concluded U.S. trade deals with Chile and Singapore. The current course, ignoring the critical differences between the Central American countries and Chile and Singapore, is a serious mistake, he said. 

Levin also suggested the United States should consider adding the Dominican Republic and possibly other Caribbean countries to the free trade talks.

Western Hemisphere becomes top U.S. agricultural market
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The economic vitality of U.S. agriculture depends on the United States' ability to develop and enhance market opportunities with the burgeoning middle-class population in regions such as the Western Hemisphere, said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Testifying Tuesday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Penn said that in fiscal 2002, the Western Hemisphere replaced Asia as the top destination for U.S. food and agricultural exports. Countries in the region bought over $20 billion — or nearly 38 percent — of U.S. exports, said Penn.

"Not only are these countries major customers, but they are competitors as well," Penn said, adding that Canada, Argentina, and Brazil are key agricultural exporters.

"We have heard a lot recently about Argentina and Brazil, in particular, and how they are not only competitive, but also poised to increase their production capacity tremendously over the next few years," Penn recalled. 

"While some may see only the negative in that, it is important to remember that these countries also share our strong commitment to trade liberalization and are allies in our efforts to negotiate a fairer and more market-oriented trading system."

Penn said that in order to promote further trade reform, the Bush Administration is pursuing an "ambitious" trade agenda, which includes building on the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as enacting the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.


 
 
'Mad cow' find jars Canadian exports to the U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The United States has banned shipments of cattle and livestock products from its largest trading partner, Canada, after the discovery of a case of mad cow disease there. 

A single cow in Canada has been confirmed as having bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is better known as mad cow disease. 

The incurable brain-wasting illness led farmers in Britain to destroy millions of cattle in the 1980s and 1990s. A rare human form of the disease is thought to result from eating contaminated cattle products.

Lester Crawford, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says the U.S. ban covers more than just Canadian livestock.

"The biggest concern we have is with animal feed that might be exported from Canada to the United States, and so we are blocking any shipment of it to the United States," he said. "And there are also some other materials that contain protein from animals we're concerned about, but primarily we are concerned about feed."

He says the first case turned up in Canada 10 years ago, but did little damage to trade between the two countries. "The 1993 event had very little effect because it was contained and Canada did a great job," he explained. "We believe this will be the same thing, but we don't know at this point."

The infected animal was an 8-year-old cow in the Canadian province of Alberta. Debbie Barr, a senior veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says the cow did not show outward signs of the disease, but that the illness was confirmed as part of routine surveillance.

"The only thing that we know right now is that we have one case in one cow," she said. "Certainly, our investigation, a key part of our investigation will be to determine where this cow has been in the eight years of its life." 

Dr. Barr says Canada exports what she describes as a "huge amount" of cattle material to the United States, including a $1.6 billion export industry in Alberta, alone. 

Meantime, Canadian officials say none of the infected cow's meat entered the food chain and its remains were sent for rendering.


 
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