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(506) 2223-1327       Published Friday, May 22, 2009,  in  Vol. 9, No. 100     E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Sala IV backs banks who put squeeze on expat cash
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Expats who have been annoyed, upset and angered at the prying demands of bank officials should not count on help from the Sala IV constitutional court.

The constitutional court has dismissed out of hand appeals from two Banco Popular y de Desarrollo Comunal customers who have had trouble with frozen accounts.

The two persons who made the separate appeals appear to be Costa Rican, but expats who have accounts at Banco de Costa Rica or Banco Popular have been complaining about the excessive demands and presumed invasion of personal privacy by bank employees.

Even A.M. Costa Rica columnist Jo Stuart had her account frozen for a time. A La Fortuna woman, Ellen Neely, complained in a letter Monday about the demands of the Banco de Costa Rica branch workers there. She said she only had $885 in the account.

A Parrita woman complained by telephone to a reporter Wednesday that a bank employee there demanded to see three years of her U.S. tax returns.

This is all part of the bank efforts to know their customers, as required by anti-money laundering laws. The process is called in Spanish actualization de datos.

Basically Banco de Costa Rica wants its account holders to bring in the same type of documents that they needed to open the account. These include a current utility bill, a residency cédula or cédula de identidad for citizens and a personaria jurídica for a corporate account. But some bank workers are demanding to see Costa Rican tax returns, reports to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, U.S. bank statements and in some cases contracts between the account holder and those customers who do business with him, her or the corporation.

Expats are particularly vulnerable because they frequently have international financial activities. Some have significant funds deposited to meet immigration requirements. In the La Fortuna case, Ms, Neely made certain payments from her account here to credit card companies in the United States.

The Parrita woman said that she received a monthly payment of deferred commissions from the United States. Many expats receive U.S. Social Security payments here.

Banco Nacional has not yet begun checking on its patrons, but that will come soon. Private banks have been checking on significant deposits and major activity for years in their accounts. One private bank customer said his bank closed his account this week because he did not respond rapidly to their demand for information on the account holder. A bank messenger delivered a check the next day, he said. The account balance was $64.

A reporter had a brief discussion Tuesday with Mario Rivera Turcios, general manager of Banco de Costa Rica. Rivera promised to provide a definitive list of documents that bank customers will have to supply to update their records. A bank public relations worker promised to send the list Wednesday. It had not arrived Thursday.
Cold cash

Bank workers are justifiably gun shy because Banco Popular was just hit with a 300 million-colon fine by the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieros. That's about $525,000. Bank employees were carrying money across the Panama border for deposit in a Banco Popular branch there to benefit three customers of Banco Universal de Panamá.

The banks are operating to comply with the demands of Chapter 5 of a 2001 law, No. 8204, which requires financial institutions to have a full identity check of their customers, particularly when the funds involved are more than $10,000 and when the account is being opened. The law covers individuals who just have a safe deposit box at the banks. The financial institutions also have to keep five years worth of records on each account, says the law.

The requirements of banks and other financial institutions, like stock brokers, is contained in a law that is mostly about drugs and refers to laundering of drug proceeds.

The banks seem to be acting more aggressively than the law requires.

The Sala IV constitutional court did not appear to have a detailed hearing on the case. The vote was to throw out the two requests for court aid. It appears that the court did not dwell on the merits of the arguments. The legal term is rechazó de plano.

The first appeal came from a man identified as Gerardo Valderrama González. He filed his brief March 30 after Banco Popular refused to accept a deposit. It appears the holders of the account on which the deposit check was written had not provided their up-to-date information to the bank.

The second appeal came from a man with the last names of Villalobos Delgado, who filed after the bank froze his account because he had not provided up-to-date information.

The Poder Judicial said that the constitutional court did not find any rights violations in the actions of the bank, although the one sentence decisions suggest that the cases were not examined closely. The court decision was made April 30 but was not made public until Thursday.

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Highway agency searched
in gutter contract probe

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-corruption investigators searched offices of the agency in charge of the roads Thursday as part of a probe in contract overpayments.

The Ministry of Obras Públicas y Transportes took steps to distance itself from the criminal investigation and issued a statement saying that officials there had reported the situation in the first place.

This is the case where the ministry's road agency, the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad, paid six times too much for private contractors to clean highway gutters.  The details came in a report from the Contraloría de la República in February.                                                         

The error is being called a mathematical one. The math also was faulty when the Consejo de Vialidad, tried to determine the area of the gutters to be cleaned. The conversion from square meters to lineal measurement also was faulty and costly, the Contraloría said. The higher incorrect costs involved 22 projects, the Contraloría said.

The Consejo estimated that the value of the work was 418.55 colons per linear meter. That's about 75 U.S. cents. Instead, contractors were paid 2,790.34 colons or about $5 per meter, according to the Contraloría report.

The total value of all the contracts was about $10 million.

Investigators entered the Consejo building in Sabanilla. The Poder Judicial confirmed that the raids related to the gutter contracts.

The prosecutor for Económicos, Corrupción y Tributarios with the Unidad de Fraudes, de Delitos Económicos y Delitos Informáticos of the Judicial Investigating Organization participated.

In a short time, the ministry issued its statement.

Karla González, the minister, was quoted as saying that the ministry noticed the overpayment in August 2007 and sent the whole case to the Contraloría, which supervises contracts. The statement said that the ministry hired its own criminal lawyer to investigate the case. It was on the advice of the lawyer that the ministry referred the case to the prosecutors, it said.

The contracts were awarded in 2005, before the administration of Óscar Arias Sánchez took over.

Two-day gathering offers
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By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Want to offer company services to the world?

The Promotora del Comercio Exterior and the Cámara de Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación are sponsoring Costa Rica Services Summit 2009 June 3 and 4 in the Hotel San José Palacio.
This event will feature specialized lectures and business meetings between potential buyers, business partners and Costa Rican companies specialized in technology, audiovisuals, entertainment, medical tourism, architecture, construction and engineering, said organizers on a Web site.

Costa Rican companies are paying up to $250 each to participate. Foreign companies attend free. There are 220 potential Costa Rican company participants.

Pineapple plant neighbors
block main Limón highway

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Neighbors of the Del Monte pineapple facility that was closed by environment officials this week took to vital Route 32 Thursday to set up a roadblock.

The Partido Acción Ciudadana praised the neighbors and the closing of the packing plant but asked why the action took two years.

Experts from the Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo found what they said was excessive contamination from bromacil and other agrochemicals in local water sources. These were principally around the towns of Milano, El Cairo and la Francia.

But Rafael Elías Madrigal, a legislative deputy from the Partido Acción Ciudadana, called for a moratorium on pineapple expansion in all corners of the country. He cited specifically the pineapple areas of Siquirres, Guácimo, Pital and Buenos Aires de Puntarenas.

The packing plant and surrounding pineapple production land is in Babillonia de Siquirres.

Del Monte said that the concentrations of herbicides and insecticides found in the drinking water was less than the limits published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The company said it would appeal the closing. Del Monte has owned the facility for less than a year.

Panamá bank opens in Escazú

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The first Costa Rican branch of the Banco General de Panamá was inaugurated Thursday in Trejos Montealegre, Escazú.

The bank styles itself as Panamá's biggest financial institution. President Óscar Arias Sánchez praised the arrival of the bank as a boon for national development.

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New immigration bill readied for legislative vote Monday
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The full legislature is expected to discuss and possibly vote Monday on the new immigration law that has been the topic of so many expat conversations.

A committee is believed to have eliminated many of the sections that expats considered burdensome, like the $5,000-a-month requirement to be a rentista.

Also trashed was a clause that would have made the law retroactive and forced current pensionados and rentistas to meet the new standards. E-mail and telephone campaigns from expats were responsible for changes from the original draft.

Now the financial requirements are $1,000 a month for pensionados and $2,500 a month for rentistas, with both amounts covering close family members. However anything can happen on the floor of the legislative plenario.

If the lawmakers vote, the action will be the first approval. The measure would need a second vote on a non-successive day to get full legislative approval. Then the bill goes to President Óscar Arias Sánchez for his signature. The rules would go into effect six months after the new law is published in the La Gaceta official newspaper. Those who obtain residency before the time the law is effective will do so under the old rules.

The current requirements are for pensionados to have a
$600-a-month income and for rentistas an income of $1,000 a month.

The new law also requires all foreign residents to become members of the Caja Costarricence de Seguro Social.

Legislative aides released the plenario calendar for Monday, and it showed the immigration law in No 1 position, higher even than an administration bill against organized crime.

When Arias took office in 2006 he moved unsuccessfully to stop a new immigration law from going into effect. That law, passed in the last days of the Abel Pacheco administration was considered to be too harsh. It drew criticism from Roman Catholic Church officials, for example, because they thought their relief operations for illegal immigrants could be considered trafficking.

Officials called together representatives from a number of interest groups and social organizations to consider a new immigration law. For some reason, North American and
European expats were not included. That is why the higher requirements for pensionados and rentistas got into the initial bill.

For Arias and his advisors, the law is more than just about immigration. They lump it together among the handful of citizen security bills that are moving through the legislature. Among other changes, the final draft contains measures to reduce corruption in the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.

There are a lot of benefits to in-person social networking
It probably began with chat rooms: a place to have discussions about an agreed-upon topic with like-minded people.  The most familiar to me was Costa Rica Living. Somewhere along the line the blog was created and a person could keep a public journal, and readers could respond. 

Pretty soon there were Web sites where you could meet the love of your life. But they cost money, and along came Facebook where you could meet new friends and show off who you were at no charge – and maybe meet the love of your life. And now there is Twitter.  (I am sure I have left out many Web sites that have appeared in between.)

All of these connection sites available through the Internet paradoxically isolate us from the people we know and who are nearby as they enable us to make connections with people we don’t and probably never would have met in person.  There are even virtual worlds that people can retreat to.  As some technical wizard on TV said, they have “redesigned what it means to have a social life.”  Social networking has replaced social gatherings. But not for me.

I have joined a few of these “circles,” mainly because a friend or acquaintance, whom I seldom see, has invited me.  But I have never posted anything.  I finally joined Twitter on my own when I saw that Jane Fonda had joined.

 I figured that if she could figure out how to do it, I could.  As yet I have not tweeted or twittered and probably won’t.

When I was wondering why not, I realized that between my columns and the e-mails I receive and answer, I am very content with my connection to the rest of the world and want to nurture my personal circle of friends. 

Four of these friends have just returned from traveling, and so I decided to have a cheese tasting party to welcome them back (partly because two of them brought me some cheese when they returned).

But as I prepare for the party I have a great suggestion for the people who tweet, (Are we Twitter members called Twits? Surely not!) 

One of the books Steve brought back was not one I asked for but one that intrigued him.  He found it in Garrison Keilor’s Bookstore in Steve’s old neighborhood in St Paul.  It is a very small book with a seven-word title, “Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak,” It is by “Writers Famous & Obscure.”              
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

tangible benefitsTangible benefits of face-to-face connectivity

This should be easy for tweeters, who would like a change from talking about their comings and goings.  Write a six-word (or 140 character) essay on why you live where you do, or on whether you prefer social networking online or in person. Or a memoir of love and/or heartbreak. Or on what you would serve at a welcome home party for your friends.   

Now I must go and unwrap the cheeses, prepare the fruits, find my napkins and tablecloth, count my wine glasses and clear off the sideboard.  I probably should make a list because I know there is more to do.

Well, like all parties, except political, this one had to come to an end.  But not until more than five hours later.  It was a great party.  The cheeses ranged from Greece to Minnesota and the food from Morocco to Costa Rica.  The wines, too, were international. 

The conversation lasted long after we’d had our fill. Food, along with the conversation, is not something you can share in an online get-together. 

But, then, you don’t have the clean up afterwards, either.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, May 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 100

flu cases world wide
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A summary of swine flu cases and deaths around the world
Six more confirmed flu cases are reported in Costa Rica
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

Swine flu cases have reached 26 in Costa Rica with the addition of six more confirmed cases Wednesday. There still are two cases listed as probable.

The Ministerio de Salud noted that women are represented disproportionately in the confirmed cases as are the 20-29 and 0 to 9 age groups.

The six newly confirmed cases are in Heredia and San José.

The World Health Organization says the number of swine flu cases around the world has surged above 11,000, including 85 deaths.

Three more deaths have been confirmed in México, the epicenter of the outbreak, while the United States is reporting two more fatalities linked to the virus — a 13-year-old boy in the southwestern state of Arizona and a 21-year-old man in the neighboring state of Utah.
The U.S. death toll has now reached 10 confirmed fatalities.

The U.S. has the greatest number of infections, with nearly 5,500 confirmed cases, while Mexico, with nearly 3,900 cases, has the most deaths with 75.

The World Health Organization says the virus has now spread to 41 nations. Cases have been confirmed throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

Despite the expanding nature of the outbreak, the World Health Organization has not raised its pandemic alert from Phase 5 to the declaration of a pandemic at Phase 6.

Japan confirmed its first case in Tokyo Wednesday. More than 250 cases have been reported throughout Japan.

Egyptian Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali Wednesday warned of the dangers posed by the swine flu to millions of Muslim pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia. He said Egypt is considering opening quarantine centers for those returning from the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

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This is a brief users guide to A.M. Costa Rica.

Old pages

Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each week day.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.


The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.


A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.


Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

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Electricity via plant material
gets high efficiency marks

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Scientists say electricity made from plant material, or biomass, is a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly way to power automobiles than ethanol, a gasoline alternative that's also made from biomass.

As public concerns increase over oil prices and global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels, scientists have turned their attention to alternative energy sources created from plants.

So-called biomass technology is being hailed as a way to make ethanol, a gasoline alternative to fuel combustion engines. But biomass is also attracting interest as a fuel for power plants to generate electricity that could then be used to charge the batteries for electric vehicles.

In a study published this week in the journal Science, researchers compared the energy efficiency of liquid ethanol made from corn and bioelectricity made from switchgrass, a wild, woody perennial, drought-resistant grass that can be grown in marginal or abandoned farmland.

Study co-author Elliott Campbell of the University of California in Merced says bioelectricity came out on top in a number of areas.

Campbell told a Science magazine interviewer that use of bioelectricity in transportation resulted in far fewer greenhouse emissions than internal combustion fuels.

Campbell added that cars powered by biomass generated-electricity drove 81 percent more kilometers per unit of land than cars fueled by corn-based ethanol.

"What we found is that if you burn this biomass to make electricity to power electric vehicles you can get a lot more transportation and a lot more greenhouse gas offsets than if you converted it to ethanol," Campbell.

Scientists say electricity derived from switchgrass is the most efficient energy source they studied. They say it would take far less valuable farmland to produce energy from switchgrass than it would take to produce the same amount of energy in the form of corn-based ethanol.

In the move toward biofuels to replace petroleum products, Campbell says cars powered with bioelectricity appear to be the way to go.

"If we're going to anticipate that shift and think holistically about the best way to build up our bioenergy resources infrastructure, then we might want to start thinking about bioelectricity as a viable energy pathway," said Campbell.

The authors of the study say they now need to consider other issues related to biomass energy conversion, such as water consumption, air pollution and the relative costs of converting biomass to ethanol or to electricity.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, May 22, 2009, Vol. 9, No.100

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Heredia rail crossings
being marked and signed

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The transport ministry says it is putting up signals and lights at the six most dangerous intersections with the new Heredia-San José train line.

The ministry listed the Pirro section of Heredia centro and the Fosforera crossroads, the Santa Rosa crossing in Santa Domingo, in Colima, the crossing with the Tibás radial 300 meters north of Cinco Esquinas, and on the highway between Cinco Esquinas and Calle Blancos in the Durman Esquivel section.

The valley train already has caused three deaths. Most of the crossings are unguarded and marked only with an aging sign. The train has been out of service since 1998.

The ministry said that passenger service would start in a few weeks, but a work train derailed Friday due to movement of the soil under the lines. There also is concern about the strength of the bridge over the Río Tiribi.

Three women face charge
of faking home mortgage

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three women are accused of forging documents and negotiating a mortgage on a house they did not own.

The three were picked up Wednesday in San Juan de Dios de Desamparados, Las Gradas de Cristo Rey and Plaza González Víquez by agents of the Sección de Fraudes of the Judicial Investigating Organization.

One of the women, identified by the last names of Araya Rivera, was remanded for four months of preventative detention. The other two were given conditional liberty with stipulations.

The property is in Tres Rios, but the Poder Judicial did not say who gave the mortgage. The amount was 25 million colons or about $44,000 at the time.

Cyclists want passengers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Motorcycle drivers cruised Paseo Colón and Avenida 2 en masse Thursday to protest a proposal in the legislature that would prohibit passengers on such vehicles.  The measure is considered anti-crime because many contract killers ride double on a motorcycle.

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