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(506) 2223-1327           Published Monday, June 20, 2011, in Vol. 11, No. 120           E-mail us
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Thefts and robberies of U.S. passports here decline
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Thefts and robberies of U.S. passports are on the decline, although the reason or reasons are hard to pinpoint.

The stolen passport trend, which gave Costa Rica a black eye, appears to have peaked in 2007 and has continued to decline since, according to Paul D. Birdsall, U.S. consul general in Costa Rica. It is to his office that U.S. citizens come to obtain a new passport when their passport is lost or stolen.

Birdsall said that 1,108 passports were reported stolen in 2010, down from the peak of 1,450 in 2007. That was when Costa Rica made international news as the country where the greatest number of U.S. passports were taken. The countries included those that hosted far more U.S. tourists.

The numbers might be a little bit soft because citizens reporting missing passports are asked what happened. Some are just not sure, Birdsall noted Friday. The figures he gave are just for passports that have been stolen or robbed and not all the passports reported lost or missing here.

The passports usually are taken as part of the theft or robbery of other belongings. The downward trend has continued into 2011 with 417 passports classified as stolen through May compared to 525 in 2010, according to embassy figures.

Why reported thefts and robberies have declined is a real puzzle with a number of possible factors. Birdsall said that he thought the Policia de Turismo, the special tourism police force, has had an impact. Most of the officers travel in pairs on bicycles in the areas with high tourist concentrations like the central Pacific beaches.

A favorite technique of crooks is to wait until a tourist is in the water swimming and then ransack belongings left on the beach. The presence of tourism police impedes these thefts.

The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo just agreed last week to allocate about $600,000 to the security ministry to double the size of the force to 312 officers. Mario Zamora, security minister, said that the special 5-year-old police force has been able to reduce by 40 percent crimes reported by tourists.

The passport statistics suggest a far lower cut in crime.

Crime statistics are not very accurate in Costa Rica except for major cases like murder and bank robberies where there is sure to be a report. U.S. passport thefts, on the other hand, are highly accurate because tourists cannot get back to the United States without some form of substitute. Each morning at the consulate entrance to the  
* About 48 to 52 percent of these are U.S. citizens, based on Insituto Costarricense de Turismo data.
•• U.S. Embassy data.

Passport thefts 2011 vs. 2010
no data
no data
* About 48 to 52 percent of these are U.S. citizens, based on Insituto Costarricense de Turismo data.

embassy on the Pavas boulevard U.S. theft and robbery victims can be found seeking a replacement.

Birdsall also noted that U.S. passports issued recently contain a computer chip and enhanced security measures that make creating a doctored document nearly impossible. However, he noted that illegal passport brokers can work to match the physical description of a crook to the selection of passports that have been obtained as the result of crimes. The big advantage, he noted, is that these passports can be used to enter countries other than the United States because most nations in the world give easy access to U.S. citizens.

Once a passport is reported as stolen or lost to consulate officials, an entry is made in a data base, and the document is useless for trying to enter the United States, he noted.

Birdsall also credited a better informed public for cutting the number of stolen or robbed passports. Most travelers now know that they cannot leave their street sense at the airport.

Even when taken, passports no longer seem to be highly valued by crooks.  When an A.M. Costa Rica editor was robbed at knifepoint two years ago, a crook took the passport and then threw it into the gutter.

When someone got their hands on passports of a missing French couple this year in Quepos, the documents ended up in a trash container in Jacó.
It may be that crooks have simply graduated to more lucrative enterprises.

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Our reader's opinion
Another big tourist trap
is using U.S. cell phone here

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

In your Friday, June 17th edition, writer Daniel Woodall claimed in an article about unlocked iPhones:

"Local calls at 10 cents a minute and text messages for under a penny are far cheaper than using a cell phone in Costa Rica under a global roaming plan from AT&T."

This is far from true for U.S. travelers to Costa Rica. First, you must sign up for the World Traveler International Roaming package for $5.99 per month. Then you pay the reduced rate of $1.99 per minute for voice calls, plus taxes and fees. (This is as opposed to the standard rate of $2.89.)

Data usage is .195 cents a kilobyte. (Per a 2010 report from Google, the average webpage is 320 kb. That's 63 cents a webpage!)

Sending a text messages is .50 cents per message, except for photo and video messages, which are $1.30 a message. The only bargain is receiving messages of any type, which are charged at your package's U.S. rate.

Obviously, this can get very, very expensive very quickly. Travelers beware!

On a related note, be very careful if you try to use wifi only on your iPhone while traveling. Users are supposed to be able to use wifi in airplane mode, which would avoid the above fees. However, my iPhone stopped letting me use wifi in airplane mode once I entered Costa Rica. (?!)

I turned off 3G, cellular data and data roaming in my settings. I only used my phone on wifi networks, and only made calls through VOIP services. Unbeknownst to me, the phone forced this usage through ICE's network.

Due to lag time, the network usage didn't show up on my phone for almost a week. I wound up with a $600+ bill. Using my iPhone cost me more than my airfare (or buying an unlocked iPhone). Learn from my mistake.

Heidi Allen
Austin, Texas

Jehovah’s Witnesses inviting
public to 2011 convention

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Jehovah’s Witnesses have launched a campaign to invite all to hear discussions about the Bible’s description of what many people refer to as the God’s Kingdom. Witnesses are convinced that each of their neighbors will be intrigued and even encouraged by what will be presented at the 2011 “Let God’s Kingdom Come” District Convention from Friday to Sunday to be held at the Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in San Antonio de Belén, the organization said.

This week Jehovah’s Witnesses is extending a personal invitation to everyone in Costa Rica to attend the three-day event in San Antonio de Belén. The theme is based on several passages of the Bible. How the Bible illuminates and clarifies the import of those words for modern Bible readers will be the focus of the program. Admission to the convention is free, and no collections will be taken.

Locally, all of the country’s English Witness congregations will be supporting this concerted effort to increase awareness of the convention. An estimated 700 will come to San Antonio de Belén over the weekend for the convention.

Witnesses said they look forward to welcoming many non-Witnesses to the convention and believed that all who attend will benefit from the practical and timely information presented.

Throughout Costa Rica, there will be 27 conventions in four cities.

Find out what the papers
said today in Spanish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here is the section where you can scan short summaries from the Spanish-language press. If you want to know more, just click on a link and you will see and longer summary and have the opportunity to read the entire news story on the page of the Spanish-language newspaper but translated into English.

Translations may be a bit rough, but software is improving every day.

When you see the Summary in English of news stories not covered today by A.M. Costa Rica, you will have a chance to comment.

This is a new service of A.M. Costa Rica called Costa Rica Report. Editor is Daniel Woodall, and you can contact him HERE!

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, June 20, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 120
Latigo K-9

Sámara residents seek more help after murder of tourist
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Residents and business operators in the Pacific coast community of Sámara are organizing in an effort to seek better police protection there.

The effort follows the murder of an Argentine tourist as she relaxed in an open-air hotel restaurant Thursday night.

Some Sámara residents say they are upset by the increase in criminality and criminals. Some also believe they lack effective policing.

They do not want their names used and said they were intimidated by the illegal Colombians who are involved in the local drug trade.

Community leaders were planning a protest march Sunday in response to the killing, but there was no confirmation that it actually took place. Said one:  "It is a bit scary for us citizens to get involved because these guys are ruthless."
Dead is 29-year-old Carolina Silva Pacheco. The Judicial Investigating Organization said she was the apparent robbery victim when two men tried to take her portable computer. The restaurant is in the front of the establishment and separated from the roadway by just a low fence. Like many Pacific coast businesses, it is not enclosed.

The women enjoyed surfing, and Sámara has a reputation as a surfing location. In addition, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo has been trying to generate more visitors from South America.

The judicial police put the time of death at 9:45 p.m.

While she struggled with one robber, a second shot her in the head, agents said.

The area has been plagued by home invaders, and at least two persons in Sámara and the Pacific coast of the Nicoya peninsula have died during such crimes. Still, the killing of a tourist as she sat in a hotel restaurant is a first.

Another stash of suspected cocaine found in cab of truck
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The seizure of a suspected 60 kilos of cocaine demonstrated Sunday that Costa Rica has not broken up every drug gang.

The country's anti-drug police conducted 15 raids June 9 as they followed up on discoveries of cocaine shipments discovered last April 29 and June 1. They arrested 10 persons and said that they were involved with Los Zetas, the feared Mexican cartel.

Sunday it was a drug dog that found a stash presumed to belong to another criminal cartel operating here. The dog
managed to sense that cocaine was hidden in the cab of a truck that stopped for inspection at Peñas Blancas at the northern border with Nicaragua.

The 60 packages were found in the roof of the cab after officers conducted a detailed search acting on the dog's suspicions. Agents think the drugs came by way of Panamá.
The individuals rounded up June 9 are suspected to be experts in shipping drugs overland in hidden spaces in vehicles.

The truck driver was a Guatemalan who was taken into custody.

Emergency commission invests $6.4 million against floods
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The national emergency commission says it is investing about $6.4 million in flood prevention work in Guanacaste.

Officials of the Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias were in Guanacaste last week to outline the projects.

Among the jobs is work on the Ríos Palma-Bolson and Cañas-Charco that will help keep nearby communities such as La Guinea, Corralillos, Bolsón and Ortega from being isolated by floods. That is critical because the area is an
 agriculture producer and flooding keeps the products from going to market and inflicts financial loses on the residents.

This is a $700,000 job, the commission said.

A recent study said that the destruction of a previous dam inflicted harm on the vegetable crop production of the area.

There are five other projects that have been approved for bidding that will seek to channelize the various rivers of the area. Also being put out to bid are geological, hydrological and topographical studies that will assist in the design of a vehicle bridge over the Rio Nosara, the commission said.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, June 20, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 120

CR Home

Not-so-sneak thief grabs bag and bails out of public bus

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Passengers in a moving public bus have a reasonable expectation of security, but a technique crooks are now using shatters that belief.

A Canadian resident on her way to Nicaragua found out the hard way Saturday. A crook activated an emergency system and caused the bus driver to jam on the brakes.

The crook then grabbed the woman's backpack, unlocked the rear emergency door and jumped to the pavement where he was picked up by an accomplice following the bus in a private vehicle.
The woman, Samantha Lowe, a dual Canadian and Australian citizen from Vancouver, was not hurt, but she had to suspend her planned visit to Nicaragua so she could return to San Jose to obtain a new Canadian passport.

The technique appears to be new version. Typically crooks wait until a bus pulls up at a rest stop to pilfer passengers' belongings. In some cases, passengers are unaware assistants because they leave their backpack or bag unattended on the bus while they go for lunch or coffee.

A companion with Ms. Lowe said that not much valuable was taken. She said she was surprised that this happened in Costa Rica.

Ms. Figueres sees progress on climate change issues

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The top United Nations climate change official, a Costa Rican, said Friday that progress has been made on key issues during the just concluded negotiations in Germany, while areas that will need decisions by the world’s political leaders before a worldwide conference later this year have been identified.

Progress had been made on the development of an adaptation fund, a green fund and a technology mechanism aimed at boosting global clean technology cooperation, through, among other initiatives, the creation of a climate technology center and network for technical cooperation, said Christiana Figueres. She is the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. She was commenting after the end of the 12 days of talks in Bonn.

She singled out the need for a link between negotiations on mitigation under the convention and mitigation under the Kyoto Protocol – an addition to the convention that contains legally binding measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – as an issue needing special attention by world leaders ahead of the U.N. climate change conference scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa, at the end of the year.

“Governments are realizing that this link needs to be dealt with to get to a global solution and that will require high-level leadership during the year,” Ms. Figueres said.

She said that the Kyoto Protocol remained “critically important because it contained key rules to quantify and
monitor efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and important market-based mechanisms that enable cost-effective mitigation.”

These include, among other mechanisms, a system whereby countries can gain credits by assisting other countries in clean industry and agriculture.

Warning against the possibility of a looming regulatory gap between Kyoto Protocol commitment periods, Ms Figueres said: “Governments can double their efforts and come forward with middle ground solutions and options which are acceptable to all sides.”

Ms. Figueres said South Africa, the incoming president of the convention, had already scheduled a ministerial level meeting in Berlin in July and the ministers would also meet again approximately one month before the Durban conference. In addition, the South African presidency and the current Mexican presidency are planning to engage heads of state and government on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September.

With 195 Parties, the convention is the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 192 nations. Under the protocol, 37 States, consisting of highly industrialized countries and countries undergoing the process of transition to a market economy, have legally binding emission limitation and reduction commitments.

The ultimate objective of both treaties is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, June 20, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 120

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U.S. lax policy on gun sales
draws fire from all sides

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Obama administration is continuing an investigation into the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms  for allegedly allowing guns to be smuggled into México after they had been purchased in the United States by people who were suspected of criminal activity. The allegations have fueled anger and mistrust on both sides of the border.

In testimony earlier this week before the Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House, bureau agent John Dodson told how he was ordered by supervisors to allow guns purchased by so-called straw purchasers to pass on to others. He said bureau surveillance teams watched as the alleged straw purchasers re-sold the guns to others, but, he said, they were not allowed to move in and make arrests.

“I had no question that the individuals we were watching were acting as straw purchasers and that the weapons they purchased would be trafficked to México and or other locales along the southwest border or other places in the United States and that ultimately these firearms would be used in a violent crime,” said Dodson.

The incidents described by Dodson and other agents took place under an operation that the agency had dubbed “Fast and Furious” and was part of a Justice Department effort to track guns to powerful drug lords and other criminal leaders who could then be targeted for arrest. Although the idea may have been to pass over smaller fish, like the straw purchasers, in favor of capturing bigger fish, the operation ended up allowing as many as 1,700 firearms to be trafficked to criminals both in the United States and Mexico.

At least 195 of the weapons were later traced to México, where a violent drug war has claimed around 40,000 lives in the past five years. Two weapons linked to the “Fast and Furious”operation were found on the scene where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered near Nogales, Arizona, in December of last year.

Sen Charles Grassley, a Republican, condemned the bureau operation as counter to the mission the agency was established to carry out.

“ATF is supposed to stop criminals from trafficking guns to Mexican drug cartels or, I guess, any place else. Instead the ATF made it easier for alleged cartel middlemen to get weapons from U.S. gun dealers,” said Grassley.

Grassley and others on the committee have complained that the bureau and Justice Department have provided little information about the gun-tracing operation, how it was conducted and who supervised it.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the Justice Department inspector general to investigate the allegation. He recently told reporters that such operations are difficult to carry out because guns can be purchased legally in the United States and federal agents need to make sure illegal transactions are involved before making an arrest.

“Now, whether there should be guns allowed to travel or let them run, whatever the phrase is, is something we have to look at and examine and that is one of the reasons I have asked the inspector general to look at the facts and see exactly what happened and see if what happened was appropriate,” said Holder.

Among the people with an intense interest in the case are family members of Agent Terry, who are seeking answers as to why guns allegedly purchased for illegal purposes were allowed to pass on to criminals who may have used them to kill the Border Patrol agent. 

Many Mexicans also demand explanations. Since the revelations about the bureau operations first came out in news reports three months ago,  Mexican commentators and lawmakers have thoroughly condemned the “Fast and Furious” operations as an abuse of Mexico by the United States.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón began a national effort to stop drug trafficking and gain control over powerful criminal gangs shortly after he took office in December, 2006. In the years since then, he often has complained about guns being used by criminals in México that have been traced back to gun shops in Houston, Phoenix and other U.S. cities. U.S. Customs officials began an operation at border crossings two years ago to check vehicles traveling into México for guns.

U..S government officials say little about the bureau's “Fast and Furious” operations can be made public at this time because it might compromise criminal investigations and prosecutions that are now underway.
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Prison standoff continues
at Venezuelan facility

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Hundreds of Venezuelan troops are trying to regain control of a large prison east of Caracas where thousands of armed inmates have been holding them off for a week.

Since June 12, 24 people have been killed at the El Rodeo prison in Guatire, east of the capital – 21 prisoners, one visitor and two national guardsmen who stormed the complex Friday and died in a gun battle.

Authorities say they have control of about three quarters of the facility. They sent in more national guard units to maintain control of most of the prison, and to disperse angry crowds outside that have demanded more action by the government to protect their friends and relatives inside the prison. 

Smoke has been coming from a portion of the prison, Rodeo One, and gunfire has echoed through the cellblocks.  The complex holds more than 5,000 prisoners, far more than it was designed to house.

Although troops failed to gain full control of the prison Friday, authorities said they recovered large quantities of weapons – rifles, shotguns, pistols and grenades – plus drugs and more than 100 cellphones.

National guard units used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters Friday. Many of the prisoners in the secured sections were moved to other locations over the weekend.

Violence has broken out in Venezuela's crowded prisons many times in recent years.  During the first three months of this year alone, human-rights groups say more than 120 prisoners have been killed in such incidents.

Brothers Castro pay visit
on hospitalized Chávez

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez got a visit from Cuba's top leaders as he recovers from surgery in a Cuban hospital.

Photographs published Saturday in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma, show Chávez with Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother, Fidel.

The newspaper said the three met Friday and discussed relations between their two countries and world events.

The Venezuelan leader had surgery in Cuba last week for what officials said was an abscess in his pelvic area.

Officials have said the 56-year-old Venezuelan president is recovering well but have not said when he is expected to return to Caracas.

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