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These stories were published Thursday, June 10, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 114
Jo Stuart
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Three U.S. citizens on run after marijuana raids
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three U.S. citizens are on the run after agents busted up three indoor marijuana growing operations in Alajuela.

The trio have not been identified, but investigators are believed to know who they are and have photos of the fugitives. All three are reported to be 29 years old.

Investigators arrested a fourth individual in the case, a 29-year-old Costa Rican woman, Tuesday in Itiquis de Alajuela. They identified her by her last names of Cordero Paniagua.

The first police action took place May 30 when agents raided two apartments in Residencial Romelia and a house in Urbanización San Valentin in Alajuela. A spokesman for the Judicial Investigating Organization said that agents found a large quantity of cultivated marijuana and hydroponic growing systems.

In the Residencial Romelia raid, agents reported they found some 220 small marijuana plants in one of the bedroom closets. The setup had grow lights, water supply tubes and a tank of carbon 

dioxide. In another two bedrooms agents reported finding dried marijuana and material for the construction of hydroponic growing systems.

In a fourth bedroom, agents said they found bags of processed marijuana and a scale. In the patio they reported encountering seven containers, each with a marijuana plant.

In the second apartment in the same area, agents found another hydroponics system with 59 adult plants growing in artificial light. In this apartment agents became aware of the connection with the house, and they conducted yet another raid where they found 65 more plants in containers.

Agents said they became aware that the men involved in the operation made frequent trips to Jacó, so they enlisted the aid of agents there who raided living quarters Friday. Found was evidence linking that place to the marijuana-growing ring, agents said.

Investigators said they were working hard to locate the three men, who were described as heavily tattooed and with closely cropped hair.

A.M. Costa Rica photo
That’s not a new hairstyle on Don Pepe, it is the insult to important persons everywhere: a pigeon. The statue of José María Figueres Ferrer stands in the Plaza de la Democracia downtown. The pigeon? Well, he/she pretty well has the city to him/herself.
Yet another scandal
plays well on television

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The television sequence was like the best of Mike Wallace and the U.S. show "60 Minutes."
Alex Solís Fallas, brother of the more well-known politician Ottón Solís, admitted under questioning that he had signed his brother’s name to a legal document and then in his capacity as a notary had authenticated it.

Alex Solís is the new contralor general de la República, and he was admitting what the director of the notary professional organization had described as a crime the evening before.

Posing the questions were Ignacio Santos and Pilar Cisneros, who deliver the 7 p.m. news on Channel 7 Teletica. They were following up on Costa Rica’s newest scandal involving a public official.

Alex Solís contended that he signed the document with the knowledge and confidence of his brother. The official of the Dirección Nacional de Notariado had said Tuesday that a notary should not be involved in authenticating when there is a personal relationship. Teletica played these comments as the television news reporters interviewed Alex Solís.

The contralor general works for the Asamblea Nacional as a fiscal watchdog. Alex Solís was just sworn in Monday. He has been invited back to the congress to explain himself. Some deputies say he should be fired, but he said Wednesday night that he would not resign.

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Canadian sent to jail
for one year's detention

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A judge in Puntarenas has ordered that a Canadian businessman be jailed for six months while prosecutors investigate his conduct with the Asociación de Desarrollo de Paquera.

The man is Francesco Pécora, according to a spokesperson for the judicial system. He has been involved with the association and has been the subject of a series of news stories in La Nación, the Spanish language newspaper. 

Pécora was arrested in his home in Hatillo, a San José suburb, Tuesday. At the same time, police officials raided the office of the development association, which is near the western end of the Puentarenas-Paquera ferry line.

Officials said that Pécora had a pending bad check case in Hatillo and a parole violation warrant in Canada. He claimed to be very wealthy and prepared to share some of that wealth with the struggling town on the Nicoya Peninsula.

The development association last month cut all ties with Pécora after La Nación revealed that he was offering to make a multi-million dollar loan in exchange for an advanced fee. Pécora had been elected an official of the association.

Police raid La Carpio
to arrest 11 persons

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police returned to the marginal community of La Carpio Wednesday to conduct raids and arrest 11 persons, three of them minors.

The raids were part of the investigation to identify who fired shots at police and threw rocks last week in a violent confrontation between residents and Fuerza Pública officers. The raids were conducted by the Judicial Investigating Organization, the Ministerio Pública, the country’s independent prosecutorial arm, the Unidad de Intervención Policial or tactical squad of the Fuerza Pública and prosecutors.

The investigation centers on aggravated resistance, blocking the public right-of-way and the violent use of firearms. Prosecutors sought a year of preventative detention for the adults.

Six policemen of the 22 hurt still are recovering from wounds suffered May 31 in the confrontation.

The perception has been that residents in the area are mostly Nicaraguan. But two of the eight persons arrested Wednesday are Costa Rican. About 4,656 families totaling 22,000 individuals live in La Carpio, which is an area west of San José lacking in many community services.

During the raid, agents confiscated one pistol and found material for the construction of firearms and ammunition. The area is controlled by gangs. Agents also found evidence of robberies and assaults.

There was no violence Wednesday.

The adults arrested were Alexander Salas Orias, 18, a Costa Rican; Carlos Artola Orozco, a Nicaraguan; Michael Espinoza Agüirie, a Costa Rican; Ever Antonio Araica Navarro, a Nicaraguan; José Alberto Mendoza Arauz, a Nicaraguan; Eduardo José Rivera Calderón, a Nicaraguan, and Victor Castillo Rocha, also a Nicaraguan

Canadian Club picnic
planned for June 27

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The Canadian Club will be hosting the annual Canada Day Picnic at Pedregal in San Antonio de Belén Sunday, June 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The entry fee is 2,000 colons (about $4.60), but children under 12 are admitted free, the club said.

Hotcakes with Canadian maple syrup will be served while supplies last followed by hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, vegetarian chili and coleslaw with appropriate condiments and beverages.

A supervised children’s program includes pony rides, clowns, face painting, music and other activities.

A raffle will allow participants to be eligible to win a ticket via Continental Airlines anywhere Continental flies in North America and a one-troy- ounce wafer of gold plus other prizes. 

All money raised goes toward the Canadian Club outreach program which supports schools, orphanages and homes for the elderly in Costa Rica.

Cartago library renewed
as area cultural center

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The old Cartago library, remodeled and refurbished, will open today as a cultural center for the community.

A 6 p.m. inauguration is planned. Guido Sánez, the minister of Cultura, Juventud y Deportes, will preside. The ministry worked with Bancrédito and the Centro de Patrimonio of the ministry to find the 30 million colons needed for the job. That’s about $70,000.

The structure will house ministry offices, exposition areas, conference rooms and space for the bank, officials said. The building is on Avenida Secunda between calles First and Third.  The building is a national historical site.
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Aug. 15 will be the date for Chavez referendum
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez will face a mid-term recall referendum Aug. 15, the country's electoral council has officially announced. But there is controversy over the council's decision to use an untried electronic voting system. 

After a struggle lasting almost two years, the political alliance known as the Democratic Coordinator that is seeking to oust President Chavez has succeeded in gathering enough signatures to trigger the recall referendum provided for in the president's own, 1999 constitution. 

The opposition accuses Chavez of trying to establish a dictatorship in Venezuela. But although most polls show the president would probably lose the vote, the opposition still has a long, hard road ahead. 

To begin with, it needs not just a majority of votes cast, but to exceed by at least one vote those received by the president himself in the 2000 election. Then there is the question of the electoral council, which the opposition sees as split 3-2 in favour of the government. And if that were not enough, there is the novel, touch-screen voting machinery, supplied by a consortium with no previous  experience and known ties to Chávez. 

On announcing the official result, council Chairman Francisco Carrasquero added that the referendum process would be totally automated. 

Even before his announcement, the minority, pro-opposition members of the council expressed grave doubts about this decision. They had been demanding a simultaneous, manual count of the voting slips produced by the machines. But this has so far been ruled out, leading to suspicion among opposition supporters that an electronic fraud may be planned.

The announcement of the recall referendum is important progress in resolving Venezuela's political impasse, according to U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"We believe the setting of the date for the recall election is an important step forward," he said at a Washington, D.C., briefing.

"We have always supported a constitutional, democratic, peaceful and electoral solution to the current impasse in Venezuela," Boucher explained. "And setting this date for Venezuelan voters to decide is certainly the best way to achieve that kind of electoral solution."

The Aug. 15 date would allow Venezuelans to remove Chavez, if they choose, and hold elections within 30 days to select a new president. According to Venezuela's constitution, if the vote had been held after Aug.19, more than a year after the halfway point of Chavez's current six-year term, and the president lost, his vice president would serve out the remainder of his term until 2007.

Lawyer Villalobos defends self in Internet posting
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The informal group that supports the Villalobos Brothers is filing another court brief, and their lawyer has had to post a message to an Internet group to defend his strategy of the case.

The group, the United and Concerned Citizens of Costa Rica, said on its Web site that the lawyer, José Miguel Villalobos Umaña, would file a habeas corpus appeal with the Sala IV constitutional court.  "The petition requests the court to declare an end to the investigation by Fiscal Walter Espinoza in accordance with Article 378 of the Penal Code," said the group, adding, "Article 378 of the Code places a one-year term limit to the investigation of cases ruled complex procedures."

The group and Villalobos, the lawyer, contend that when the case of the brothers and their borrowing operation was declared complex by the courts April 25, 2003, a one-year time limit began ticking away.

"If we win, the investigation ends and the case will move swiftly toward a decision to take it to trial or to shelve it," said the group through its lawyer.  "If we lose, it will be clear that the law can be disrespected without anyone in the Judiciary caring.  We will await the decision and trust that the rule of law prevails." 

The new legal brief presumably is the unspecific strong action the group said it would take May 28 when a higher court ordered Oswaldo Villalobos jailed for yet another four months of pretrial detention.

Several persons, including another Costa Rican lawyer, have disputed the interpretation of Villalobos the lawyer in Internet e-mails. They say that a time limit on holding Oswaldo Villalobos has not yet been set. What would be the rationale in declaring a case complex and then insisting that the fiscal or prosecutor complete the case in a year, they ask.

Villalobos replied in Spanish to these critics on a popular Internet discussion list Tuesday. He did not address the substance of the criticism but said that 

he was unhappy that another lawyer would criticize him. He said that he had taught constitutional law for 10 years and had worked at the legislature in answer to criticism that he lacked direct experience in court.

Villalobos, the lawyer, has been unsuccessful to date in doing what the informal group asked him to do. He has collected about $130,000 of a contracted $300,000 fee and also announced several times that he is forming a new political party and running for president.

The lawyer was interviewed on television Wednesday night on an unrelated constitutional issue.

The United and Concerned Citizens is the group that wants the prosecutors to drop all charges so that Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho can return and start paying off the estimated $1 billion in funds he has said he is safeguarding for his estimated 6,600 creditors. Luis Enrique is an international fugitive, and Oswaldo has been jailed off and on since November 2002, in part because his brother fled.

Luis Enrique has said he ran the borrowing business alone, but investigators say that Oswaldo had a major role in that business, too, in addition to his operation of a string of money exchange houses.

A similar habeas corpus appeal by lawyer Villalobos failed to generate any action by the courts.

The Villalobos Brothers case is nearly two years old. Agents raided the Mall San Pedro operation July 4, 2002. The brothers closed up their operation the following Oct. 14, and Luis Enrique vanished. 

Many Villalobos creditors living here have found themselves in reduced circumstances, and many cannot return to the United States because they have not declared as income the 3 percent a month interest that Luis Enrique used to pay them. 

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service, the tax collecting agency, has been monitoring the situation and agents probably have a copy of a list of  Villalobos creditors. Evading U.S. taxes is a felony.

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Cuba frees four dissidents and loses a ball player
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

HAVANA, Cuba — The government has freed four dissidents who spent more than two years in jail without trial. And one of its best baseball players has fled the island nation.

The case of one of the four dissidents, Leonardo Bruzon Avila, gained international renown. In April, Miami-based Cuban opposition groups said Bruzon was in a coma and weighed less than 40 kilograms after his fourth hunger strike.

The activist told reporters at his home in Havana that he wants to continue to fight for human rights. 

Amnesty International had him and the three others, Carlos Alberto Dominguez, Emilio Leyva Pérez and Lazaro Rodríguez Capote, on its list of prisoners of conscience.

The dissidents, all arrested in February 2002, are members of a human rights group called the 24th of February Movement. 

Meanwhile, the stepfather of one of Cuba's most promising young baseball players says the young slugger, Kendry Morales, 20, has defected to the United States.

Henry Nuñez confirmed Wednesday that Morales has defected. He says the man called home on Tuesday to say he had arrived in the United States and was well. Morales did not say where he was.

Morales had been suspended earlier this year by Cuba's National Baseball Commission after several unsuccessful attempts to leave the island nation. Nuñez said it was his stepson's eighth attempt to leave Cuba. 

A Spanish language newspaper in Miami reported that Morales and 18 others left Cuba over the weekend on a boat bound for South Florida. 

A switch hitter who can play outfield and first base, Morales is a versatile player and considered among the best of Cuba's young baseball talent. He turns 21 June 20.

E.U. joins those trying to help Haiti survive floods
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The European Union (EU) has joined the United States and the international community in providing humanitarian aid for victims of the floods that struck Haiti and the Dominican Republic beginning May 24.

The E.U. said it is providing about $2.5 million (2 million euros) to the two countries for water/sanitation activities and for emergency supplies of essential items including temporary shelters, cooking equipment, and hygiene products. The E.U. said many families in the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola have lost their homes and all their possessions.

The E.U. said that in working with other humanitarian organizations, it has already provided much-needed initial aid to the stricken region, where up to 50,000 highly vulnerable people have been identified.

The area where the floods struck is one of the 

poorest on Hispaniola, the E.U. said, adding that Haiti already faces serious humanitarian problems as a result of the country's political crisis and extreme poverty. The E.U. said the Dominican Republic, although more prosperous than Haiti, was badly affected by previous floods that struck the country in November 2003.

In addition to the United States and the E.U., the lengthy list of international groups aiding victims in Haiti and the Dominican Republic includes the 15-nation bloc of Caribbean countries, Caricom, the Fund for International Development of the Organization of Petroeum Exporting Countries, the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program, and the Organization of American States. 

Another contributor, the Pan American Health Organization, launched an emergency health appeal May 28 seeking $300,000 to support immediate health-sector needs after the floods that hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti caused nearly 2,000 deaths and left more than 12,000 people homeless.

Two rebel groups in Colombia make moves toward negotiations
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — México is expected to name a mediator for possible peace talks between Colombia's government and second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, ELN.

Officials from both countries made the announcement Tuesday.  They say Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, and his Colombian counterpart, Carolina Barco, reached the agreement during an Organization of American States General Assembly in Quito, Ecuador.

Last Friday, a jailed leader, Francisco Galan, was freed on a 24-hour pass for talks with senior officials here and a Mexican diplomat. Galan asked the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for a cease-fire and amnesty for political prisoners as a condition for future peace talks.

Meanwhile, Colombia's main right-wing paramilitary group is calling on the United States departments of State and Justice to take part in peace negotiations with the Colombian government. 

One of the group's leaders, Adolfo Paz, made the request in a television interview Tuesday night in which he also denied that his group is involved in drug trafficking. He invited the United States to come to the negotiating table to clear up any doubts about the group's activities. 

A year and a half ago, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia  declared a ceasefire to begin peace talks with the government. But the group has said talks could be derailed by U.S. efforts to have group’s leaders arrested and extradited on drug trafficking charges.  The United States has put the group on its list of terrorist organizations that was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks there.

Jo Stuart
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