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These stories were published Monday, June 2, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 107
Jo Stuart
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Costa Rica's Central Valley, home to half the population, has a northern fringe of volcanoes, ranging from Arenal in the west to Turrialba and Irazú in the east.
Professor says big eruption is inevitable here
By Gail Gallessich
Universtiy of California at Santa Barbara

It might be 500,000 years or five years, but the Central Valley of Costa Rica will definitely experience major volcanic activity again, according to Phillip B. Gans, associate professor of geology, in a talk to the Geological Society of America.

"The Costa Ricans were not around for the last big one," said Gans. "But it's inevitable (that there will be) another pyroclastic flow like the last big one in Costa Rica, (and it) will make the Mount St. Helens eruption look like nothing." 

Pyroclastic flows are high-speed avalanches of hot ash, rock fragments, and gas that roar down the sides of volcanoes during explosive eruptions, or when the steep edge of a dome breaks apart and collapses. These flows, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and move at 100 to 150 mph, are capable of knocking down and burning everything in their paths. 

Gans determined that volcanism in Costa Rica has been occurring for at least 24 million years. He discovered that major pyroclastic eruptions have occurred many times over the past million years in the vicinity of the Central Valley of Costa Rica, with the most recent about 324,000 years ago. 

The cities and towns of the Central Valley, including the capital of San José, were built on the vast flow deposit that was produced by that eruption. If the same eruption were to occur today, within a matter of hours the entire Central Valley and all of its major cities would be awash in hot ash and pumice which would end up covering the entire area with a new deposit up to several hundred feet thick. 

Volcanoes are unpredictable beasts, said Gans. However, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 

Washington State gave a four-month warning. Due to careful monitoring of the small earthquakes inside the volcano, and the bulging of the surface of the volcano, the residents of the area were prepared. Although 25 people died in this eruption, it is still considered a success story in terms of evacuation. 

"We don't know if we will get a similar warning for a very large eruption like the ones that have occurred prehistorically in the Central Valley of Costa Rica," said Gans. The Central Plateau is home to more than half of the nation's population and is flanked by several large volcanoes, some of which are still active. 

Gans initiated his work in Costa Rica when a colleague asked him to determine the ages of some volcanic rocks from Costa Rica. He found that very little was known about the volcanic history of Costa Rica, and so he spent the next several years collecting and studying 450 volcanic rock samples from the whole country. 

Gans' laboratory is known for its precision dating of volcanic rocks. He was able to put together a detailed history of volcanic activity as well as a geologic map of the country. To date the volcanic rocks, he used the natural radioactive decay rate of potassium. This radiometric age is a measure of how long since that material formed, which gives the age of the eruption. Using this method, Gans can measure a rock that is 10 million years old to an accuracy of a tenth of one percent. 

Gans was assisted in this work by his graduate student, Ian MacMillan; G. Alvarado-Induni and W. Perez, both of the University of Costa Rica in San José; and A. Calvert of the U.S. Geological Survey. 

This story is reprinted with permission from  93106, The Staff & Faculty Newspaper of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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Nation faces another long week of labor turmoil
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nation faces a week of strikes with no letups in sight. Nearly all teachers will be on strike today, as will the communication workers.

Both groups plan a joint rally and march Wednesday.

President Abel Pacheco met with key cabinet ministers Sunday to discuss the situation. The president has been particularly frustrated by the striking workers of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad because he  believes that he has agreed to nearly all their demands.

Routine services have not been affected by the strike by the institute known as ICE. Telephones continue to function. The Internet, although slower at times, continues to work. However, repairs and new connections are not being made. Agencies to receive payments are closed, but banks and private service centers accept payments for monthly bills.

Several teacher organizations have been on strike since the middle of last week. Now all five of the major teacher unions and organizations have said they will not work today.

The government has had more success in Limón where an agreement was reached over the weekend with a variety of local organizations that had threatened to strike today.

The government agreed to extra pay for dock workers, a $10 million general investment in 

development of the area and a plan to repair train tracks for rail service in the area. Limón has been hard hit by storms, and there has been a lot of damage over the last year. The province also feels it is a stepchild to the rest of Costa Rica.

Ástrid Fischel, the minister of Educación Pública, has become a target of the teachers, and it is unlikely that the strikes will end until she agrees to leave her post. It is her ministry that has been unable to give teachers their correct pay for three months. Mininster Fischel has blamed sabotage in the software that pays educators.

The teachers want their correct pay and they also want interest on the money the government has failed to pay them. Then there is the matter of additional pay for the 200 school days teachers must now provide students. The government planned on fewer days until the courts said the school term should be 200 days.

The ICE workers say they are striking to insure that the institute gets some $100 million in bonds floated on the international market. The Central Bank and the government have been reluctant to do so because they do not have confidence in the financial information provided by ICE. To float bonds internationally based on false numbers could destroy the country’s reputation and adversely affect the already declining bond ratings.

Nevertheless, the government has come up with several plans to float lesser amounts and still augment the institute’s income by increases in telephone and electrical rates.

Strikers in Peru
to defy government

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — Union leaders in Peru have vowed to defy a state of emergency and continue protests against the government. 

President Alejandro Toledo imposed the 30-day state of emergency last week after teachers, farmers, public health workers and judiciary employees launched protests demanding better pay and lower taxes. 

The measure authorizes police and the military to use force to clear blocked highways, detain protesters and enter homes without warrants. It also restricts freedom of movement and prohibits public assembly. 

Saturday, Peruvian officials said they will continue with the state of emergency until peace is restored in the strike-plagued nation. The wave of protests has created a political crisis for President Toledo, who took office in July 2001 and has seen his popular support drop to around 15 percent. 

Critics say his declining popularity is due to his failure to deliver on campaign promises to bring about prosperity. 

Teachers went on strike about three weeks ago demanding salary increases. Farmers later staged a walkout calling for lower taxes on their crops and protection from imports. Last week, judicial employees and thousands of doctors, nurses and other health workers walked off their jobs to demand higher wages.

Powell for pact
on immigration

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States still wants to move forward with Mexico on an immigration accord. But, he says, quoting here, "it's going to take a lot more time and effort."

Powell made the comment earlier this week in an interview with reporters. The text was released Friday.

Powell told reporters he understands desires by Mexican President Vicente Fox to move more quickly on the issue. But, Secretary Powell said the United States has not made more progress on an immigration accord because of security concerns that followed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Secretary Powell did say he is working with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez on some of the easier aspects of immigration reform.

Earlier this week, Mexican President Vicente Fox appealed to the United States to focus on immigration issues. 

He told The Washington Post that recent immigration-related tragedies underscore the need for a new accord between Mexico and the United States.

Earlier this month, 19 immigrants died after being trapped inside a trailer found abandoned in southern Texas. Several suspects were arrested in the incident.

Mexican authorities in Veracruz also discovered 31 illegal immigrants from Central America locked in a cramped, windowless trailer. Mexico is a crossing point for Central Americans trying to reach the United States illegally. 

Anti-tobacco pact
unanimously OK’d

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The 192 member states of the World Health Organization have unanimously endorsed an anti-smoking treaty targeted at reducing smoking-related deaths and disease.

Tobacco use is one of the leading causes of preventable death and disability in the world, according to a May 30 World Bank press release. The Bank contributed to the treaty's negotiations.

When ratified by 40 countries, the treaty will commit signatories to stringent curbs on the advertising, marketing and sale of tobacco products within five years and recommend that at least one-third of the space on cigarette packets be devoted to health warnings, the release said. Countries will also be urged to increase their international cooperation on regulating cross-border tobacco advertising and preventing smuggling, according to the release.

"Mitigating the devastating health damage caused by tobacco use is made especially difficult by nicotine's powerfully addictive properties, low prices of tobacco products and the constant, often subtle reinforcement of social norms and encouragement to smoke through billions [thousands of millions] of dollars of advertising each year," the release said.

Church in Cuba is neutral

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The leader of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church has defended the church's role on the island and rejected criticism it is not doing enough to support opponents of the government. 

At a conference Thursday in Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega said backing the opposition is not part of the church's mission. The cardinal, however, was quoted as saying the church cannot be asked to support the government.  Cardinal Ortega said that the church will stick to its spiritual mission and work for reconciliation among Cubans. 
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Bandits target
armored car 

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Men on a motorcycle over powered guards and took more than 1 million colons, more than $2,500, from an armored car at a supermarket Sunday afternoon. 

The holdup was at a Pali store in Aserri south of San José. The vehicle was operated by Vargas, Mejia y Associates, one of several such companies in the Central Valley.

The vehicle and its guards were servicing supermarkets that were open on Sunday.

Municipal worker
held on drug count

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police arrested a municipal employee of Paraíso de Cartago Friday in that community as a suspected drug dealer.

The Policía de Control de Drogas of the  Ministerio de Seguridad identified the man by the last names of Dannemberg Ramírez and said he was 34. He is believed to be employed as a meter reader.

Police said he was distributing cocaine via various bars in the town.

Murder suspect
gets more time

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Tribunal de Casación Penal in Golfito has ordered two more months of preventative detention for a woman accused of the death of Shannon Martin, a University of Kansas student murdered there May 13, 2001,

The woman who has the last name of Cruz has been in jail since last November. A trial will be held shortly in the southwestern Costa Rican community.
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Immigration resumes sweeps for illegals here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officials took to the streets of Limón Friday night and detained 37 persons, including a Canadian, for immigration violations.

The action came just two days after the Sala IV constitutional court rejected an appeal that had put the status of illegal immigrants in limbo for two months.

The sweep in Limón took place in the center of the city, in Barrio Cristóbal Colón and in several other areas where bars and nightspots are found.

The Canadian, whose name was not given, is one of three persons who will be deported immediately, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública. That is because the individual and two other persons, a Colombian and a Panamanian, had been detained previously, appealed their immigration status and lost the appeal.  Others who were detained Friday have the option of making an appeal.

Marcos Badilla, director of the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería, reminded those who are here on tourist visas that they are not allowed to work during their stay.

That rule is generally violated in beach towns by foreigners, many of them English-speaking. Badilla’s comments suggest a crackdown may be coming on tourists who work here.

The Sala IV did not agree with an appeal of unconstitutionality that was filed about the six-month to one-year jail term possible for those who return to Costa Rica after having been deported. However, the Sala IV did impose a moratorium on holding illegal immigrants in jail. And the immigration police were hampered in their ability to conduct sweeps. For two months they only grabbed people sought for criminal charges or in violation of health or safety codes.

The decision last week that the law was constitutional now allows immigration police to continue sweeps for illegal aliens.

Lawyer says he has Villalobos mystery message
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

José Miguel Villalobos Umaña, the lawyer representing a group of investors, revealed Sunday that he has received a message from Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, the fugitive financier.

But lawyer Villalobos said that he was not going to make the contents of the letter public for a few days. Said the lawyer:

"We have received a communication from don Enrique Villalobos about this case, which arrived in a sealed envelope and which we will make public in the next few days, to place within the petition of habeas corpus against the prosecutor and judge, to show evidence of the abuses of power and the discrimination against the Villalobos with which this case has been 

If the message is authentic, it would be the first known contact with Enrique Villalobos since he sent an e-mail message to A.M. Costa Rica through an intermediary last Jan. 1.

"We are certain the delivery of this note is a sign of confidence on the part of don Enrique for the UCCR and the strategy we are following," said the lawyer Villalobos. "Soon we will all know it's contents  and understand the sentiments and wishes of don Enrique.."

The UCCR is the United Concerned Citizens & Residents of Costa Rica, a group of investors who generally believe that Enrique Villalobos is blameless and a victim of a corrupt government. The group has hired lawyer Villalobos for a total fee that may approach $300,000. The group is still raising the first third of that fee, and a message from financier Villalobos could help that effort.

The habeas corpus proceeding would be to attempt to spring Oswaldo Villalobos, the brother of Enrique, from preventative pre-trial detention. More and more, the efforts of the group have been moving toward defending the Villalobos brothers. Lawyer Villalobos is the former minister of Justicia who was fired by President Abel Pacheco in a dispute over a new prison.

Lawyer Villalobos has said he wants to create a new political party and run for president in three years. He has staked his political reputation on the innocence of the Villalobos brothers.

In another weekend e-mail, the lawyer also said that a report by auditors of the Judicial Investigating Organization failed to show any 

illegal activities by the Villalobos brothers in their high-interest loan and money changing business headquartered at Mall San Pedro.

Said the lawyer: "What the report concludes is that, according to investigators, those activities that were directed to the gathering of funds from investors, were disguised by the purchase of currencies. That is to say, that the dollars that were taken in, were then reported as a purchase of currency.  That is not a crime, but the report deals with the topic for more than 30 pages without being able to find any indication of illegal activity."

The lawyer is correct that the report does not specify any crimes. That was not its purpose. But it does show close links between the money exchange house and the high-interest operation. The report also says that Oswaldo Villalobos was heavily involved in the high-interest lending operation.

Luis Enrique Villalobos has said that the two operations were totally separate, and a certain amount of sympathy developed for Oswaldo when he was arrested in November because investors believed he had only been involved in the legal and regulated money exchange house, Ofinter S.A.

The report also lists a number of transactions in which the names of the beneficiaries of the sales of currency were hidden. In January 2002 there were 36 such transactions for a total of $1.23 million, said the report.

The report also said that "The accounting books of January and February 2002 over the sale and purchase of dollars do not reflect the reality of the transactions." In other words, investigators do not have books that show exactly what went on.

Luis Enrique Villalobos said as much when he closed up his office Oct. 14. He told A.M. Costa Rica then that he feared a second raid that might uncover material missed the first time law enforcement officials raided his operation July 4, nearly 11 months ago.

However, lawyer Villalobos called the transactions that hid the names of the beneficiaries administrative breaches.

Luis Enrique Villalobos stopped paying the 2.8 to 3 percent monthly interest he provided his investors last September. He has perhaps $1 billion in investor money on his books, much of it because investors rolled over their interest repeatedly. There are about 6,500 separate investment accounts held mostly by North Americans.

Pacheco says he turned down Milanes donation 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco said he turned down a big campaign donation from Louis Milanes, operator of the Savings Unlimited high-interest investment operation that went bust last Nov. 26.

Pacheco made the revelation last week in testimony before the special Asamblea Nacional committee set up to probe campaign financing.

Pacheco said that he had met with Milanes and that the businessman subtly offered him a big donation in cash for the campaign. But Pacheco said he turned down the offer after consulting with Rogelio Ramos, minister of Seguridad Pública. Pacheco did not say when the meeting took place, but it would have been sometime in 2001 before the presidential elections.

Pacheco also said that Milanes offered to donate toys for poor children and proposed the formation 

of a group of 30 to 40 physicians to offer services to persons with few resources.

When he learned that Milanes was in the gambling business, he contacted Ramos. Ramos told him that Milanes, otherwise know as "The Cuban," was involved in "mysterious things" and for that reason he was not disposed to become involved with him, said Pacheco.

Milanes was involved with casinos in the San José area and with Saving Unlimited, a firm that offered monthly interest up to 4 percent for investors who placed their money with it. Milanes claimed that Savings Unlimited generated its income from gambling development.

The operation is widely regarded as a ponzi scheme after it folded in November. Milanes is an international fugitive. A ponzi scheme pays old investors interest from funds placed by new investors to give the impression of profitability.

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