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These stories were published Wednesday, June 18, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 119
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Unstable
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This was the scene from space Tuesday as unstable weather, indicated by colors, dominated Central America. Costa Rica is circled.

The map shows from central Mexico south to northern South America. The more unstable, the brighter the colors.
 

Image via the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional
Package is valued at $833,900
Tourism Web page to be fixed, contractor says 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica’s new tourism Web page is not  working at 100 percent, but the head of the company managing the site said that he would take steps to make required changes.

The Web page, www.visitcostarica.com, is also supposed to be a way for tourists to make reservations for trips to Costa Rica. A reporter found out Sunday that the airline reservation system did not work and that most of the hotels listed on the pages did not have functioning e-mail or Web page links.

The English version of the Web page has a few typos, and a listing of five-star hotels includes a place in Acosta where the rate is $20 a night high season. Although listings for each hotel has spaces for several photos, none could be found although not all hotel listings were checked.

The new corporation Soluciones Globales del Norte S.A. signed an agreement with the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo last Aug. 7 in which it agreed to have the Web page going in six months. That would have been by March 7.

The new company is a consortium of Despegar.com, a major travel agency in Latin America, and Global Bay, Inc., a New Jersey Web developer. The total contract, which runs for two years is valued at $833,900, although other services are offered besides the Web page.

The Web page itself cost $216,000 to design, according to the contract. In addition, the company collected $2,000 a month for maintaining the site and $2,000 a month for hosting.

The company also agreed to handle calls about tourism with a call center and also to field e-mail messages.

The e-mail message sent by A.M. Costa Rica about problems with the site Sunday was fielded by Federico Fuchs, the top officer of Despegar.com, which has locations in Miami, Fla., and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He responded Monday and asked if the reporter had had trouble with the Web site. He responded again Tuesday and said changes would be made.

The Web site promotes "100% beaches, 100% ecotourism, 100% action" and "100% culture" with subpages addressing those themes. A key element is a search engine by which visitors to the site can find hotels, rental cars and airlines. 

The consortium of the two companies won the bid for the job in a competition that closed Feb. 18, 2002. The specifications were elaborate. Some in the tourism industry have been concerned about the cost of the site. 

The issue of the Web page was raised in Golfito two months ago with then-Minister Rubén Pacheco. He resigned March 25, and the new minister is Rodrigo Castro.

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Pilot network set up to fight sex abuse of minors
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Security officials will set up pilot networks to fight sexual exploitation of underaged individuals and they will count on the support of international agencies to help them.

That was announced Tuesday by the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The network will concentrate its efforts in Limón and San José, the announcement said. The new twist is that police agencies that have not been charged in the past with the responsibility of keeping track of child exploitation will be brought into the network. That includes the Fuerza Pública, Policía Municipal and the Policía de Tránsito. The Judicial Investigating Organization and the various regional prosecutors also will be involved in the network.

The plan grew from a two-day discussion of steps Costa Rica could take to reduce trafficking in youngsters for sexual purposes.

The ministry said that help would be welcomed from ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution Child Pornography & Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose) and Fundación Paniamor of Costa Rica. These are private agencies. Help also would be sought from Ireland Aid, the governmental 

agency from that country, the European Union and the International Labour Organization, a U.N. agency.

The meeting also set out responsibilities for each police agency and specified ways that the agencies would communicate on the topic. Rogelio Ramos, minister of security, said that fighting exploitation of minors was a priority for his office.

The penalty for exploiting minors sexually can be as much as 16 years in prison here in Costa Rica. The nation’s emphasis is primarily directed toward sex tourism. The situation is complicated because some minor women are hardened prostitutes who actively seek out clients and sometimes use false identification.

Most of the bars and clubs frequented by tourists downtown are strict in checking identifications and in keeping persons younger than 18 from entering. However, those interested in minors can find them by consulting taxi drivers, hotel workers or older prostitutes. Some brothels  are less strict on the age requirements.

Many prostitutes who work legally here in San José report that their careers began when they were 14 or 15 here or elsewhere. Others say the work is a family tradition encouraged by a mother or older sister.


 
Fraud from afar targeted by industrialized nations
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States has joined with other industrialized countries to enhance cross-border cooperation against consumer fraud, the Federal Trade Commission says.


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A press release issued Tuesday describes guidelines for such cooperation. They contain broad principles regarding international law enforcement coordination, as well as specific information on how countries can best work together during the course of joint investigations. They also detail the authority of international consumer protection agencies worldwide, invite private-sector cooperation in anti-fraud efforts, and set the stage for future discussions regarding consumer redress.

The guidelines were just released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 wealthy countries.

"Cross-border fraud, perpetrated through 

telemarketing, Web sites, and spam, harms consumers and consumer confidence in the global marketplace," said Mozelle Thompson, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. "The OECD guidelines announced today reflect an international commitment by consumer protection law enforcement agencies to work together to combat these schemes."

The guidelines define cross-border fraudulent practices, present principles for cross-border cooperation and press OECD member countries to find ways to redress consumers harmed by cross-border fraud.

"Fraud against U.S. consumers is more and more frequently being committed by individuals outside our nation's borders," said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. "The FTC is dedicated to continuing to work diligently to protect consumers, and the Guidelines announced today will improve our ability to coordinate with our international law enforcement partners to stop cross-border scams. This is an important first step to establishing an integrated global anti-fraud enforcement strategy, and the FTC appreciates the OECD's efforts to put the Guidelines into place."

Copies of the new OECD Cross-border Fraud Guidelines are available from the FTC's Web site.

Death toll in Peru's rebel war could be as much as 60,000
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates as many as 60,000 people were killed or disappeared during Peru's 20-year war between leftist guerillas and state security forces. 

After two years of investigation, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has concluded that the number of people killed or disappeared in the civil war between 1980 and 2000 could be more than double earlier projections. 

Speaking through a translator at the United Nations, the Commission's president, Salomon Lerner, presented the findings, which will be formally released in August. "We have felt that there is a minimum of 40,000 dead and it might be more than 60,000. That is the ceiling," he said. "We can never know exactly what the maximum number was." 

The commission, backed by the current Peruvian government, was investigating the conflict that followed the government crackdown of Maoist Shining Path Guerrillas and the Marxist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. 

Investigators found that state security forces, not leftist rebels, were responsible for most of the deaths and disappearances. Commissioners say 

more than 75-percent of the victims come from Peru's poor and indigenous population. 

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who led the country during the 1990s, fled to Japan in 2000 during a corruption scandal. Lerner says that Peru plans to ask Japan to extradite Fujimori in a matter of weeks. Lerner says the former president refused to meet with him during a recent visit to Japan and would not apologize to his country. He was born of Japanese parents.

The commission, as part of its probe, listened to thousands of people and obtained more than 17,000 testimonies. It also poured through previously undisclosed official documents from the military tribunals of that period. 

Commissioner Sophia Macher says the commission wanted to give a voice to the victims. "Having collected testimony from those who suffered the violence, for us this was part of reparation in and of itself," she said. "The fact that we were collecting these testimonies, for us, this was part of recognition, acknowledgment of what happened to these people in the country." 

Commissioner President Lerner says that in addition to compensation, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is recommending broad political reform, particularly of Peru's justice system.


 
Pacheco tells teachers
no more is possible

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco Tuesday night called upon striking teachers to return to the classrooms. In a radio and television talk strikingly similar to that which he addressed to striking communications workers two weeks ago, Pacheco said that teachers had won almost all of what they had wanted.

But Pacheco said that demands for improved pensions would be illegal based on court decision and advice from the country’s legal advisers.

The teachers walked out mainly because the Ministerio de Educación Pública could not pay them correctly. Pacheco said last night that 99.5 percent of the teachers were being paid correctly.

In addition, school transportation had been improved and the Asemblea Nacional was close to approving additional funding to pay teachers for working  200 days this year, he said.

In fact, as Pacheco was talking the national deputies were approving an emergency budget for some 22 billion colons (some $55 million) to pay for the extra time.

Pacheco also promised that responsibilities for the schools would not be shifted to the municipalities. This also is something teachers feared as lawmakers tried to increase the power of the local governments.

The sticking point is the demand that some 8,000 teachers between 45 and 49 years of age retire with 100 percent salary. This is what Pacheco said was contrary to the laws about pensions:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot do this. I cannot pass it above the judicial resolutions and ignore the opinion of the Procuraduría General de la República. This is illegal and unconstitutional." He said the plan would cost 30 billion colons or some $75 million.

Pacheco said that the pension plan only would benefit some 8,000 teachers, and he called on the other 47,000 to return to work.

The teachers staged a big march again Tuesday to Casa Presidencial. They have been on strike for three weeks.

The communication workers, employees of the Instituto Costarricensse de Electricidad, also continued to strike when it seemed that all their issues were resolved.  By surrendering to these workers, the Pacheco administration encouraged the teacher unions to put more issues on the table.

No unneeded taxes,
lawmakers promise

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Lawmakers promised Tuesday not to enact any new taxes without certainty of its necessity.

These were the words from the Comisión Mixta de Ordenamiento Fiscal, the special commission set up to consider the administration’s proposed fiscal package.

The deputies promised to reinforce the controls over government money and to closely examine every reform.

In a statement, the group said it was clear that government money was not being used with the greatest efficiency.

Argentina again seeks
Falkland negotiations

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The government is calling on Britain to resume negotiations on the future of the disputed Falkland Islands, which Argentina refers to as Las Malvinas.

Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said reclaiming sovereignty over the south Atlantic archipelago is an objective of the Argentine people. He made the comments Monday before the U.N. General Assembly's decolonization committee. 

Bielsa also said it is not acceptable for the United Kingdom to use its confrontation with a former military government as an excuse to avoid negotiations on sovereignty. 

Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982, during the former military government of Leopoldo Galtieri. The invasion triggered a 10-week war for control of the territory. Nearly 1,000 people died, most of them Argentine. The conflict ended in a British victory. Britain considers the Falklands one of its territories, saying it inherited them from Spain in 1833. Britain has said the sovereignty of the Falklands is not negotiable.
 
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Crackdown promised
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By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The new government has announced a set of measures to crack down on tax evaders. 

President Nestor Kirchner sent a package to Congress Tuesday aimed at recovering some of the billions of dollars the country loses each year to those who don't pay taxes. 

Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna said the package includes proposals to widen powers of the country's main tax agency and increase sentences for tax evaders. He said the government wants to focus on tax evasion before reforming the tax system. 

The proposal is President Kirchner's first major economic initiative since taking office on May 25. 
 
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Indictments issued in deaths of illegal immigrants
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  A Texas grand jury has indicted the alleged ringleader of a major smuggling operation, which resulted in the deaths of 19 undocumented aliens.

The aliens were found dead in a trailer after it had been abandoned May 14 in Victoria, Texas, by a driver bound for Houston. A total of 55 undocumented aliens are known to have survived the ill-fated journey. The undocumented aliens, who were from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, had each been charged about $1,800 for the trip.

At a press conference Monday in Houston, U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said Karla Patricia Chavez Joya, the alleged ringleader, and 13 others have been charged in a 58-count federal indictment for conspiracy, smuggling, endangering the lives of the immigrants, and causing the deaths of the 17 people whose bodies have been identified so far.

Shelby said that "from the beginning, our objective has been to identify and hold accountable all those responsible for this tragedy, wherever they might be found."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston said the smugglers are charged with offenses which are "death penalty eligible." A decision to seek the death penalty would be made by the U.S. attorney general "after a careful review of the evidence in the case," said the spokesperson.

Chavez, a native of Honduras who had a residence in the border town of Harlingen, Texas, was accused of concealing and harboring aliens upon their arrival in the United States at drop houses in Harlingen. She was said to recruit drivers to transport the aliens to points within the United States, and is further alleged to be responsible for coordinating and providing for the transportation within this country of undocumented aliens smuggled and harbored by other traffickers.

The 25-year-old Chavez was taken into custody by
Guatemala officials Friday as she entered Guatemala from Honduras, where she had fled following the events in May. Chavez was deported by Guatemalan authorities the next day and arrested by U.S. agents as her flight touched down in Houston.

Shelby said the arrest of Chavez in Guatemala "and the return of this indictment are proof of our continued commitment" to apprehending those responsible for the Harlingen tragedy.

The spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office said greed, not charity, is the motivation for smuggling aliens into the United States.

"We emphasize the fact that (the smugglers) are not engaged in this criminal enterprise for ... altruistic reasons to help someone find an American dream. They're in it for the money," said the spokesperson.

The danger of using smugglers is continually being broadcast on English- and Spanish-language stations along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Just recently, the United States and Mexico launched a new bi-national campaign to dramatically reduce migrant deaths on their common border.

The plan, announced June 3, called for the two countries to accelerate mutual collaboration to safeguard migrants by placing additional personnel and life-saving equipment along the border, paying special attention to the "high-risk" corridor between the U.S. state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.

The plan includes new U.S. Border Patrol Spanish-language public service announcements that warn potential migrants about the risks of trusting smugglers to bring them into the United States, and the dangers and consequences of illegal crossings. 

U.S. official says nation still has welcome mat out
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has increased background checks on persons applying to enter the country, but these checks "do not target any one particular group" and the United States is not taking away the "welcome mat" to foreign visitors and immigrants, says a top immigration official.

William Yates of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services spoke during a panel discussion Monday at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee annual convention here. He said the aim of the national security background checks is to ensure that the people who receive immigrant "benefits" are legally entitled to those benefits.

"We do the same type of background checks on every single applicant for a benefit," said Yates, acting associate director for the immigration service.

The moderator of the panel said the aim was to provide information on U.S. immigration policy and explore issues pertaining to racial profiling, detentions and the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System's Special Registration program.

Critics have questioned whether the entry-exit program is a legitimate step to enhance national security, and they say use of nationality-based criteria for special registration is discriminatory. Officials say special registration based on national origin will be phased out over the next three years.

Yates said the United States is not "taking away the welcome mat" from those interested in visiting or immigrating to the United States. While he admitted that backlogs and delay in processing applications for immigration benefits such as citizenship and adjustment of status to permanent residency existed, he said the U.S. officials are working toward a more efficient system and "to get rid of the backlogs."


 
 
Creditors will petition to get Villalobos pardons
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A group of U.S. creditors of the Villalobos Brothers borrowing operation plans to petition President George Bush, among others, in order to win a pardon for the fugitive financier and his brother.

They don’t expect Bush to pardon the Costa Rican businessmen, but they want him to use international law to pressure Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco to issue the pardon.

In effect, the guilt or innocence of the Villalobos Brothers would not be determined by the Costa Rican justice system where the case is now. The two brothers would be considered guilty only if after the pardon is issued they do not pay off their creditors, according to material posted on Internet sites about the plan. Their activities that prompted police investigation would be irrelevant.

In fact, the originators of this plan want the Villalobos Brothers to be pardoned of the crimes of financial itermediation and money laundering but only pardoned of the crime of fraud if they pay back their creditors.

The plan is based on the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and an amendment to the act put forward by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in 1994. Under the law, U.S. aid is cut off to countries that expropriate the property of U.S. citizens. Under the amendment, the U.S. president can ask the U.S. representative to the Inter-American Development Bank to vote against any loans to countries that have:

". . . nationalized or expropriated or seized ownership or control of property owned by any United States citizen or by any corporation, partnership, or association not less than 50 per centum of which is beneficially owned by United States citizens. . . ."

The plan rests on the theory that the money seized by Costa Rican officials when they launched a detailed investigation of the Villalobos enterprise really belongs to the creditors. Under Costa Rican law, the courts can confiscate money and assets involved in any activities linked to illegal drug dealing.

The originators of the plan even suggest that a time may come when they file suit against the U.S. president to force him to take the action to pressure Costa Rica. The strategy also calls for creditors to contact members of Congress.

The proposed petition being circulated by the originators paints a grim picture of how creditors suffered after the Villalobos Brothers stopped paying their estimated 3 percent per month interest last September.

"The seizures of July 4-6, 2002, have already severely damaged many United States citizens and companies owned by such citizens. Enterprises which depended on repayments to supplement their current revenues and working capital have had to close, and others are for sale or in liquidation. 

"Individual citizens who depended on such payments for their ordinary living expenses in Costa Rica are severely straitened: Some of them have lost or are losing their homes through foreclosures; others have been or are being evicted from their homes because they could not or cannot pay their rent; many have been forced to sell non-essential personal items at sacrifice prices in order to make ends meet; many are surviving on severely restricted diets."

The United States is conducting a worldwide crusade against money laundering and the type of activities being investigated in the Villalobos case. Under the Foreign Assistance Act, the U.S. president also has the power to waive the effective parts of the law if to do so is in the national interest. Some of the U.S. aid being sent to Costa Rica is designed to fight drug trafficking.

The plan to pressure Costa Rica basically seeks some $8 million that has been confiscated from relevant Villalobos bank account. Prosecutors are looking elsewhere for more funds. Meanwhile, Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho continues to be an international fugitive and his brother remains in custody here.

The brother, Oswaldo Villalobos, showed up at a hearing Tuesday in which Prosecutor Walter Espinoza argued against an appeal of a motion for habeas corpus. The motion that would have freed Oswaldo was denied by a lower court. 

A reporter who happened to attend the session said that no decision was made, although several options were suggested for the ailing Oswaldo Villalobos, including freedom with the responsibility to report to officials each day. The reporter for a Spanish news outlet also said that concern was voiced over Oswaldo’s physical condition for which he has been in Clinca Catolica.


 
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