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(506) 2223-1327        Published Tuesday, June 10, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 114        E-mail us
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Map shows the range of the monk seal. Red dots are sightings and hollow dots are where archaeologic evidence was found showing presence of the animal. Black triangles are locations of place names that suggest the presence of the seal. Costa Rica's Caribbean was part of the range.
range of monk seals
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration graphic

Caribbean seal species is officially listed as extinct
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

After a five year review, the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen for more than 50 years, has gone extinct — the first type of seal to go extinct from human causes.

Monk seals became easy targets for hunters while resting, giving birth, or nursing their pups on the beach. Overhunting by humans led to these seals’ demise, according to NOAA biologists.

The last confirmed sighting of the seal was in 1952 in the Caribbean Sea at Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and the Yucatán Peninsula. This was the only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

"Humans left the Caribbean monk seal population unsustainable after overhunting them in the wild," said Kyle Baker, biologist for the Fisheries Service southeast region. "Unfortunately, this led to their demise and labels the species as the only seal to go extinct from human causes."

Caribbean monk seals, Monachus tropicalis, were listed as endangered March 11, 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and relisted under the Endangered Species Act on April 10, 1979. Since then, several efforts have been made to investigate unconfirmed reports of the species in or near the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, southern Bahamas, and Greater Antilles. These expeditions only confirmed sightings of other seal types, such as stray arctic seals.

Five-year status reviews are a requirement of the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the status of a species listed as threatened or endangered remains accurate and has not changed, for better or worse. The most recent review began in 2003.

Fisheries Service plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register, seeking public comment to permanently remove Caribbean monk seals from the Endangered Species List. Species are removed from this list when their populations are no longer threatened or endangered or when they are declared extinct.

“Worldwide, populations of the two remaining monk seal species are declining,” said Baker. “We hope we’ve learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives.”
monk seal
Artist depiction of a monk seal

Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are endangered and at risk of extinction with populations dipping below 1,200 and 500 individuals.

Fisheries Service is responsible for protecting the Hawaiian monk seal. That population is declining at a rate of about 4 percent per year, and biologists predict the population could fall below 1,000 animals in the next three to four years, placing the Hawaiian monk seal among the world’s most endangered marine species. Unlike the Caribbean monk seal, Hawaiian monk seals face different survival challenges, such as lack of food sources for young seals, entanglement in marine debris, predation by sharks and loss of beaches to erosion.

Other species of marine mammals that have gone extinct in modern times include the Atlantic gray whale (1700s or 1800s) and stellar sea cow (late 1700s), presumably due to overhunting by whalers. Exploitation of Caribbean monk seals began during the same time period.

Caribbean monk seals were first discovered during Columbus’s second voyage in 1494, when eight seals were killed for meat. Following European colonization from the 1700s to 1900s, the seals were exploited intensively for their blubber, and to a lesser extent for food, scientific study and zoological collection. Blubber was processed into oil and used for lubrication, coating the bottom of boats, and as lamp and cooking oil. Seal skins were sought to make trunk linings, articles of clothing, straps and bags.

Scientists are unsure about exactly when Caribbean monk seals went extinct. Although there have been no confirmed sightings since 1952, it is conceivable that undetected seals persisted for a short period thereafter. The seals lived 20 to 30 years, so experts believe that some adults possibly lived into the 1960s or 1970s.

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Police deploy their forces
along the Panama border

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Apparently stung by newspaper revelations that the southeastern border was an open door, security agents descended on the area around Sixaola in force this weekend.

However, the police operation met with limited success. Just 12 persons were denied entry into the country out of more than 1,000 checked.

Officials did seize two California licensed vehicles, but they did not say why.  Some marijuana and handguns also were seized, they reported.

The police campaign began Thursday and ended Sunday. Involved were the Policía Especial de Migración, the Policía de Fronteras, the Unidad de Zapadores, the Unidad Canina and the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas.  Zapadores are specialists in mines and explosives.

June 1 the Spanish language daily La Nación published a lengthy series of articles pointing out the well-known fact that there is little police supervision of the Sixaola crossing from Panamá. The story said that the few officers assigned to the area remain in their small structure while hundreds of new arrivals pass by. The border with Panamá is the Río Sixaola and the usually entry point is a rickety bridge over the river.

There is heavy traffic in the river, too, with small boats taking illegal immigrants from Panamá to the Costa Rican bank. Those expats who have traveled to Panamá along the Caribbean coast are aware of how lax the border controls are.

During the show of force over the weekend, coast guard boats patrolled the river from its mouth to the community of  Margarita upstream.

Police units also made patrols at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.

The border was beefed up once before. In May 2006 then minister Fernando Berrocal sent a police detachment to the border to close it to illegal immigration. At the same time he announced that a boarder police force would be created. There now is a Policía de Fronteras, but Sixaola did not seem to be part of the beat.

Gradually the police officers in place along the border were called away, and the regular force there was just a handful.

Judiciary considers role
of providers of alcohol

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

While lawmakers have yet to act on a measure to increase the drunk driving penalties, court officials plan a video conference today that questions the legal role and responsibilities of bar and package store operators in such cases. The 1 p.m. conference here is being televised from the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina. It comes on the heels of another death in a suspected drunk driving case.

José Andrés Segura Alfaro, 11, died Saturday night while he walked home from Catholic Mass with his father. Detained was the driver of the car that hit the boy, identified by the last names of Herrera Espinoza, said the Poder Judicial. The death took place in San José de la Montaña, Heredia. Herrera faces a murder charge, but a judge gave him conditional release Monday until trial, said the Poder Judicial.

Road may be reopened

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Transportation officials are expected to lift restrictions on the Interamerican Sur today. The road has been closed to all but emergency traffic since Tropical Storm Alma cut the road at Cerro de la Muerte two weeks ago. Recent temporary repairs allowed emergency officials to move supplies and other necessities. But travelers had to take the coastal route.

Our reader's opinion
Private business owners
should have smoking choice

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I have been following the heated letters about the smoking ban started by Barry Schwartz when he objected to the loss of civil Liberties.

I can see both sides of the argument, but it seems to me that there may be a simple solution to the matter that would satisfy everyone. First let me say that the law should not tell people how to run their business right down to the smallest details.

My proposal is quite simple. If we must have a smoking law, it should be this: All restaurants and bars must post a sign that designates whether the establishment is either a smoking or non-smoking establishment.

In doing so it is up to the owner to decide which system would benefit his business based on the clientele that they may have at their own discretion. At this point the general public can choose for themselves, simply by reading the sign out front whether or not they choose to enter the business.

This may be too simple to be accepted by our lawmakers but the benefit is obvious. Each group can have what they want without forcing their beliefs upon the other group. It will not require a lot of policing, and both groups get exactly what they wanted all along.

Not smoking in public buildings and malls is understandable, but please let the restaurant and bar owners choose which group of clientele they want to cater to.
Tom Roucek Broker

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There are volcanos, but then there are scary supervolcanos
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Under certain conditions a run-of-the mill volcano can erupt and convert itself into what scientists call a supervolcano. Such supervolcanoes produce extraordinary damage and may have long-term worldwide effects on climate.

Researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada have simulated in the lab the process that can turn ordinary volcanic eruptions into supervolcanoes. Their results were just published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the universities reported.

The study has implications for Costa Rica where much of the population live near active volcanoes. In fact, Volcán Arenal has been acting up for the last five days with frequent slides of volcanic ash from the cone to the skirts of the mountain. The volcano is one of the country's top tourist attractions.

Supervolcanoes are orders of magnitude greater than any volcanic eruption in historic times, said the universities. The blasts are capable of causing long-lasting change to weather, threatening the extinction of species, and covering huge areas with lava and ash, said the university.

Using volcanic models made of Plexiglas filled with corn syrup, the researchers simulated how magma in a volcano might behave if the roof of the chamber caved in during an eruption, according to a summary of the work.

“The magma was being stirred by the roof falling into the magma chamber,” said John Stix, chairman of McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “This causes lots of complicated flow effects that are unique to a supervolcano eruption.”

“There is currently no way to predict a supervolcano eruption,” said Ben Kennedy, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. “But this new information explains for the first time what happens inside a magma  chamber as the roof caves in and provides insights that
could be useful when making hazard maps of such an eruption.”

The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 — the only known supervolcano eruption in modern history — was 10 times more powerful than Krakatoa and more than 100 times more powerful than Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens, according to the university. The blast caused more than 100,000 deaths in Indonesia alone, and blew a column of ash about 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) into the atmosphere, it said. The resulting disruptions of the climate led 1816 to be christened “the year without summer.”

"And this was a small supervolcano,” said Stix. “A really big one could create the equivalent of a global nuclear winter. There would be devastation for many hundreds of kilometers near the eruption and there would be global crop failures because of the ash falling from the sky, and even more important, because of the rapid cooling of the climate.”

In an earlier study, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, discovered that a massive injection of hot magma underneath the surface of what is now the Long Valley Caldera in California sometime within 100 years of the gigantic volcano's eruption was what likely triggered that supervolcano, which coated much of the western half of the United States with ash fallout 760,000 years ago. That work, based on trace metals, was reported in the March 2007 edition of the journal Geology.

The 20-mile-long Long Valley Caldera was created when the supervolcano erupted. It is one of the world’s largest volcanic craters, said Rensselaer.

In a 2004 report researchers from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan and National Taiwan University concluded that the explosion of a volcano in western Indonesia took place at the beginning of the earth's last ice age. Researchers found evidence that glass shards from an earlier eruption on the same site were hurled more than 2,000 miles. They suggested that the ash from the explosion could have caused the cooling leading to the ice age.

Lottery scam indictment dismissed against California man
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Prosecutors have dismissed an indictment against Scott Henry Walther, who was indicted in 2007 stemming from his association with a Costa Rican-based lottery scam, according to documents and an assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California.

The assistant U.S. attorney, Ellyn Marcus Lindsay, who worked on the case, would not elaborate on the exact reason for the dismissal but confirmed that the decision was satisfactory to prosecutors. She was reached by telephone at her Los Angeles office.

“I felt that it was in the interests of justice that the charges be dismissed,” she said, “I think the resolution was appropriate.”

Walther of California originally was indicted in a fraudulent lottery scheme wherein solicitations were sent by e-mail guaranteeing increased chances of winning foreign and domestic lotteries. The company misrepresented itself as a government-backed or legitimate lottery company affiliate. Victims of the scheme lost approximately $20 million.

The scheme itself lasted for more than 15 years before federal agents shut it down in July 2006 according to an
A.M. Costa Rica article published about the case on March 14, 2007.

According to Ms. Lindsay, Walther's case was delayed when his lawyer fell ill and died. With no representative to meet with, prosecutors were unsure of Walther's role, if any, in the scheme.

When the lawyer died, U.S. officials were prevented from getting Walther's story until after the indictment Ms.
Lindsay said, “As a prosecutor you'd like to hear both sides based on all the evidence you can possibly get, and with Scott Walther we felt ambivalent because the evidence against him looked really, really bad” at first.

Walther, who brought the dismissal to the attention of reporters, was one of six men indicted in the fraud case. Henry Walther, Scott Walther's father, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and international money laundering March 6, 2007. Henry Walther currently is serving time.

Charges against Dennis Emmett, William Cloud, James Ray Houston and Sonny Vleisides remain. Emmett is being extradited to the United States from Costa Rica, said Ms. Lindsay, and Vleisides is being extradicted from Italy. Cloud is also being extradited from Amsterdam, and Houston has not been apprehended, according to Ms. Lindsay. 

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, June 10, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 114

Del Monte expands its holdings here in $403 million deal
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. said Monday that it has acquired the shares of a banana producer and a pineapple producer in Costa Rica as well as a related sales and marketing company. The price was $403 million.

The production companies are Desarollo Agroindustrial de Frutales, S.A., a producer of high quality bananas in Costa Rica, and Frutas de Exportacion, S.A., a major provider of gold pineapples in Costa Rica. The group has the name of  Caribana.

This transaction further strengthens Fresh Del Monte's position as one of the world's leading fresh produce companies, the firm said.

"We are enthusiastic about the financial and operating advantages that the acquisition of Caribana creates for Fresh Del Monte Produce, and ultimately, our customers and shareholders," said Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh, Fresh Del Monte's chairman and chief executive officer.

"Caribana is a natural fit with Fresh Del Monte," he added. "Their products perfectly mirror those that we currently offer. This transaction substantially increases Del Monte branded banana and Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet pineapple production for us from Central America. Acquiring Caribana dramatically expands our ability to supply
high-quality products to our customers in an environment of rapidly rising global demand."

Caribana's production and packing facilities are close to the existing Del Monte Costa Rica operations, he said, suggesting that this would result in savings.

Caribana sells approximately 18 million boxes of bananas annually. In 2007, Fresh Del Monte purchased approximately 5 million boxes of bananas from Caribana, the company said.

The acquired gold pineapple production is estimated to be approximately 11 million boxes per year, the company added

As a result of the acquisition, Fresh Del Monte's current land holdings in Costa Rica increased by approximately 13,000 hectares, about 32,123 acres. In the transaction, Fresh Del Monte also acquired state-of-the-art packing facilities, as well as modern farming equipment, the firm said.

The Caribana group is a major producer of bananas in Costa Rica with a management team that has more than 25 years of experience in growing bananas for U.S. and European customers. The group is also a well-established pineapple producer that supplies gold pineapples to customers in North America and Europe, sold under the Linda brand.

U.S. urges Chávez to take firm action on Colombian rebels
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The United States Monday challenged Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to follow through with concrete actions on his call Sunday for an end to the long insurgency in Colombia. The Venezuelan leader called on Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias guerrillas to put down their weapons and release hostages unconditionally.

The comments appear to be a major reversal in policy for the Venezuelan leader, who has been a strong verbal supporter of the Colombian rebels and also, allegedly, a financial and material backer of the insurgent movement.

In his weekly television program Sunday, Chavez said he believed the time has come for the rebels to release all its hostages without conditions as a humanitarian gesture.

He further called for an end to the organization's five-decade-long military campaign against the Bogota government, saying guerrilla warfare is out of step with the Latin America of today and "is history."

The Chavez remarks have drawn a cautious welcome from Colombian officials and also here in Washington, where State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Venezuelan leader should back up the words on the rebels with tangible action.

"Those are certainly good words. And we would encourage Venezuela to follow those good words with concrete actions," he said. "And Venezuelan government should make every effort, public and in private, to distance itself from any relationship it may have had with the FARC. And I say that based on the news reports that we've seen  
concerning a relationship in the past between Venezuela and the FARC."

The Furezas Armadas Revolucaionarias de Colombia has long been listed by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization and three U.S. military contractors are among the hundreds of people held hostage by the group, some of them for many years.

Venezuela's relationship with the group drew international attention in March after Colombian troops raided a rebel camp just across the border in Ecuador and killed a senior guerrilla commander.

Colombia said it seized computer evidence in the raid showing large-scale Venezuelan financial and material support for the guerrillas, including the provision of weapons and ammunition.

Under questioning here, spokesman McCormack said U.S. experts are still examining evidence from the raid provided by Colombia, and said he would not speak publicly about information the United States may have obtained independently on the Venezuela-rebel relationship.

Several members of the U.S. Congress, citing the Colombian accounts of the computer evidence, have urged the Bush administration to cite Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In his broadcast comments Sunday, Chavez said rebel activities have become an excuse for the United States to threaten Venezuela. He has in the past depicted the group as a legitimate insurgent force to which countries in a region should give de facto recognition.

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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.

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U.S. Southern Command
begins new headquarters

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The U.S. Southern Command broke ground on a new state-of-the-art, $237 million  headquarters facility Friday in Doral, Florida. The facility is scheduled to be finished in 2010.

Hensel Phelps Construction Co., with oversight by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is building the new 630,425 square foot headquarters on 55 acres adjacent to the current facility in Doral.  The new facility will be large enough to accommodate the command’s entire staff, said a news release.

The U.S. Southern Command relocated from its previous home in Panamá to Miami in 1997 after the Panama Canal treaties were signed by the U.S. and Panamanian presidents on Sept. 7, 1977.  Miami was selected as the new home for the command from among 100 proposed military and civilian sites because of the city’s strategic linkages to the 32 countries and 13 territories in the Caribbean, Central and South America that make up the command’s area of focus, said the release.

The organization is a joint command comprised of more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and several other federal agencies.

World's military spending
reported to up 45%

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A Swedish research organization says global military spending has increased 45 percent over the past decade, while noting increased support for new arms control talks.

In its annual report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says international military spending reached nearly $1.4 trillion in 2007 — a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Arms sales by leading manufacturers during the same period jumped 8 percent.

Commenting on the data, institute chief Bates Gill said there is growing urgency around the globe to bring a mainstream momentum to arms control. He also said disarmament by the largest nuclear powers — the United States and Russia — could play a critical role in spurring reduced military spending elsewhere in the world.

The report says arms sales by the world's 100 largest manufacturers totaled $315 billion in 2006 alone. It identified the United States as the largest arms supplier to other countries since 2003. It says the U.S. plus Russia, Germany, France and Britain accounted for 80 percent of all military sales over the period.

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