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These stories were published Tuesday, July 9, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 134
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Investment firm says it will continue to pay
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The scene Monday morning looked like a convention of Gringos outside the offices of Ofinter S.A. on the second floor of San Pedro Mall.

Two policemen had been detailed to handle the anticipated crush of investors trying to make sure their money was safe, and even a chain barrier had been erected in front of the door of the money exchange house.

But there was no angry crowd, and the rotating 40 or so North Americans who did show up were in surprisingly good humor. They got even more happy when they heard that the company had committed to paying them monthly interest, as usual, on their dollar investment.

At least three employees of the company mingled among the North Americans and told them that the money exchange would open soon. It did by 11 a.m.

An employee said that the money exchange business did not open as usual at 9:30 a.m. because police and a public prosecutor were continuing to search the premises.

Ofinter is the company that pays 3 to 3.5 percent per month interest to investors, who come into the fold only through invitation. The San Pedro location also is one of five locations police raided Thursday at the request of Canadian authorities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested at the same time six persons there.  Some had ties to Costa Rica, and had invested with Ofinter.

The firm actually has two parts. The front door is a traditional money exchange where a visitor can exchange colons for dollars.  But a side door leads to the offices of the investment part of the company.

That section opened later in the day than the money exchange, but by late afternoon no one 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
This closed door gave some investors a few jitters Monday, but Ofinter S.A. was back in business by 11 a.m.
was waiting, and a few investors said they had
received money and reassurances. A security guard confirmed that those investors who sought interest payments had been paid. One North American said he had made an investment during the afternoon.

The problem was that as part of their investigation, Costa Rican authorities froze 30 Ofinter accounts at Banco Nacional. One man said that he has a $14,000 interest payment check that he had been unable to cash late last week due to the freeze. He was seeking some money to carry him over. He had but a $50 bill.

Ofinter and its owner, Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, work in an unusual way. When investors make a deposit, they receive in return a check made out for the amount of their deposit to hold as security. The Banco National account that corresponds to these security checks also has been frozen, one investor was told.

However, a helpful young lady also told the investor not to worry because the bulk of the Villalobosí money is outside Costa Rica.

Villalobos could not be contacted Monday, but a man who identified himself as David, the manager of the investment operations, said about 4:30 p.m. the firm would have no comment. 

A photocopied sheet explained to investors that interest payments would be made as usual, although principal payments would not be. The sheet also asked for prayers.

Villalobos is known as a religious man. He is a member of the International Baptist Church near Santa Ana, and he has a small Bible display set up in his investment office waiting room.

The Canadian police allege that those arrested there are members of a drug and money laundering ring. The specific allegation is that about $300,000 of their money went through the Villalobos operation, according to the Judicial Investigating Organization here. Canadian officials also grabbed nearly 300 kilos of cocaine and 1,000 kilos of marijuana oil used as a base for other drugs.

Agents here chose to further the investigation by raiding both the San Pedro and downtown San José offices of Ofinter, the home of its owner and the home of its accountant. Typically, in cases where a third party bank holds information investigators need, they merely present themselves and a warrant to the main office.  In this case agents came in force.

The linkage between the North American community and the Villalobos organization is ample. There are no estimates of how much money Ofinter might be handling for persons here and elsewhere. However, some estimate that upwards of 70 percent of the North American residents here have money with Ofinter. Some Costa Ricans also are believed to be investors.

The Villalobos organization has been in business for years, prompting wonderment among all who hear of the scale of its interest payments.

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Personal report by our travel editor
The many pluses and minuses of retirement here
A trendy twist on the American dream is to abandon the U.S. altogether, in search of a new Eden. Retirees perforce comprise the greatest exodus, lured to foreign sunspots where their Social Security checks extend further than at home. Two of these latter-day pilgrims discover the delights and imperfections of Eden . . .

By Patricia Martin
A.M. Costa Rica travel editor

Several years ago, my husbandís first Social Security check signaled a mixed reaction in our New York apartment. Shouts of "hooray for retirement!" and a spastic tap dance soon gave way to ponderous shuffling and a sobering afterthought:

"Where on earth can we live on that?" 

The question persisted, providing enough retirement brochures to keep hearth and debate aflame for the next two winters. All we knew for certain was that Alaska was not the answer. We longed for the casual lifestyle of a warm climate, sustainable on the pension with some help from a savings account. Our choice eventually narrowed down.

"Well, is it Florida or Arizona?? You pick," said my exasperated spouse.

"Florida has hurricanes. Arizonaís better."

"No, Arizonaís too hot."

"You said I could pick!"

"So pick Florida." 

The stalemate was broken one December day when we found ourselves on a plane bound for Costa Rica. Costa Rica?? Precisely. One of the brochures had guaranteed an affordable paradise in this wedge of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama, tempting us to investigate. 

The worst case, we figured, would be the proverbial "nice place to visit" while the Arizona-Florida argument continued. Our apartment contents had been hastily stored, and four suitcases packed for a wait-listed reservation in high season. On a momentís notice, sporting cotton slacks and sandals in a raging blizzard, we fled like fugitives to the airport. 

Charged with adrenaline on the seven-hour flight out of New Jersey, my husband and I were flying higher than the plane. Then came a reality attack. Maybe the publicity was all hype!  What about snakes? The language barrier? Could we still get David Letterman and Jay Leno. .Zip-lock bags...a decent hamburger? And should we be rushing off to the rainforest like two aging hippies? 

Only the last question was answerable. Yes, yes! Sí, sí! The mountains surrounding Juan Santamaría Airport offered a welcoming embrace upon our arrival. I squinted into the blazing day, dismissing further thoughts about our destiny with the trite remark: "Well, weíre here."

"Yeah," said the puzzled voice beside me, "wherever here is."

Six years have passed since that day, and we havenít left Costa Rica. Maybe itís not quite the elusive Eden, but at least weíre among friendly people in a civilized country of astounding natural beauty, where pensioners can indeed manage well. 

For instance, apartment rentals in San José suburbs where we live are plentiful in the $350-$500 range, and a decent house may be leased starting at a few hundred dollars more.  The average San José restaurant doesnít threaten New Yorkís culinary reputation, yet many excellent ones have sprung up here in recent years, offering fine international fare at half the U.S. tab. And where else can you hear a world-class symphony orchestra at a beautiful, historical theater for as little as $5? 

Elder residents whether foreign or Tico enjoy additional privileges. Thanks to a little gold card called "Ciudadano de Oro," seniors get discounts on merchandise, travel free on local buses, and go straight to the head of the bank queue. Itís true that Americans sometimes encounter a double standard of prices, but in this instance, equality prevails.

While our grocery bills tend to run the same as back home, we could certainly cut them considerably by following the local diet rich in rice 

Patricia and Peter

and beans. After trying it, we reverted to our accustomed ways, and shelved the Beano.

In this tiny country of less than four million people,
budget accommodations exist side by side with exotic resorts in the mountains, seashore, or 
rainforest regions. From clean and simple lodgings at $28 a night to luxury suites at $250 and up, the travelerís choice is vast.  Clothing hardly constitutes an expense, with shorts or jeans for daytime wear and a few casuals for evening outings, anywhere in Costa Rica. 

As to our prior concerns, we havenít had to give up Letterman or Leno, Zip-locks or burgers ó and Iíve yet to see a snake. What greets my eye instead on a
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given morning is winged exotica, vibrant vegetation and skies of deep blue. Even during the rainy months, sunshine often prevails until the late-afternoon deluge, making the season bearable. Whenever Iím  feeling waterlogged, I recall those New York winters and remind myself that at least I donít  have to shovel rain. 

For me, the slow transition to Spanish has been a trial, whereas my husband already had a solid grounding in the language. In any case, major businesses have bilingual staffs, and Ticos, as Costa Ricans are known, tend to be gracious about mangled conversation attempts. Spanish courses average between $500 to $1,000 a month ó hideously expensive by this countryís standard of living, and prohibitive for many a foreign resident on a meager pension. My way around it is to ration the courses sparingly, at which rate I expect to be totally bilingual by my 105th birthday.

While thereís no doubt that U.S. retirees can usually fare much better here than in their native land, not all are up to the cultural challenges, let alone the red-tape entanglements, wretched roads, and the absence of systems and services taken for granted back home. Thus far, the two of us have been willing to endure these inconveniences for the considerable benefits of the country, and have incidentally learned the un-American virtue of patience. 

Our staying on wasnít so much a matter of decision as just plain laziness. Enjoying the scenic wonders of Costa Rica and the languid pace, we kept deferring any plans to return to the States, and before we knew it, the days fell into a procession of months and years. 

During this time weíve befriended not only Ticos but a micro-society of Gringos among the tens of thousands here. While some of our conferees feel that theyíve attained their new Eden, others express a lingering sense of exile, which on occasion we share. Homesickness remains a hackneyed topic at our gatherings.

It occurs to me, though, that if my husband and I were to return to the United States to live, our homesickness might be for Costa Rica. The question of where to call home is simply too weighty for me, especially on a glorious day as I lounge in my tropical garden in the thrall of nature. 

Following Scarlett OíHaraís lead, Iíll think about it mañana when I can stand it. 

For the present, home is here, and Iím still having a good time discovering where here is. 

Driving may be a dance, but it's no slow waltz
By Paul DesRochers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

I rented a car on my first visit to Costa Rica. The guidebooks suggested finding a hotel in San José, then taking a drive to Manuel Antonio. I was staying on the eastern side of town and noted that my journey began on the western side. Fortunately, the car rental company took me across downtown. I look forward to becoming a resident and learning how to navigate that challenging journey by myself!

Before I go on, let me say this isnít going to be a Gringo criticism of the country Iíve grown to love and want to be my home. Itís just about first impressions. 

The car rental guy showed me how to get on the way, using town names instead of the route numbers, which existed in the guidebooks and the maps but not on the roads. 

Along the way I got off course just one time. I soon found the error of my ways and got back. I was stopped by a police officer who spoke to me in English and apologized for stopping me. He expressed his hope that I was enjoying my time in his beautiful country. Then, with more apologies, he said he noticed I was speeding and had to give me a ticket but not to worry --ó I could pay it when I returned to the car rental company. (It turned out that the ticket cost me $15).

I then drove (somewhat more slowly) through the winding roads to my destination, which was so utterly beautiful that it would have been worth walking there.

After two days in Manuel Antonio (far too short), I began my journey back. I was in a hurry and the road windings and fumes from huge trucks were more noticeable. Iím a non-practicing Catholic, but I found myself crossing myself and reciting 

Hail Marys when I had to pass those smoke-bellowing behemoths going 5 kilometers per hour on two-lane roads with limited visibility. But I arrived back in San José safely and vowed to go to church the next Sunday to give thanks.

On several other visits, I took lots of buses and taxis. At first, the trips were terrifying. My Gringo eyes saw Ticos ignoring stop signs. Pedestrians seemed to be at risk of being killed if they believed they had the right-of-way. A taxi drive around the circle across the Mall San Pedro seemed like plunging into utter chaos and certain death. Horns constantly honked. Drivers seemed to cut into each other with abandon.

Yet Iíve never seen road rage in Costa Rica. Ticos appeared to be aggressive but never angry. Quite a contrast from what I see back in Texas with pointed middle fingers, humongous SUVís, scary tailgating and lots of cases of drivers being crashed into or even shot in a place where bearing arms is legal.

Iíve discovered that the driving in Costa Rica is an elaborate dance. A dance with lots of bluffing but ultimate yielding to those in the way -ó and a profound respect and care for other drivers beneath the bluff. Thereís a rhythm to the dance with a unique Costa Rican flavor, mysterious, warm and friendly. . . just as I find the people. Somehow the traffic moves seamlessly. Thereís a grace to the dance, full of awe and wonder to me.

Before I get up the nerve to drive again in Costa Rica, I will deeply learn the beautiful language, experience the culture, develop more friendships with Ticos and Ticas, and travel more by bus and taxi. Then I will try to learn the dance. My goal will be to enter without fear that circle in front of Mall San Pedro.

Paul DesRochers is a reader living in Dallas, Texas.

Medical course aimed
at wilderness guides 

By  the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A course is being offered for guides, tour operators, lodge owners and others interested in getting wilderness medical training. The course, Wilderness First Responder Certification, is slated to take place in Mastatal, Costa Rica from Nov. 1 through Nov. 9.

Aerie, a wilderness medical training school, and Rancho Mastatal, an environmental learning retreat and lodge located in the last virgin rainforest of Costa Ricaís Puriscal, are hosting the certification program.

The course addresses injury and illness prevention, patient assessment, long-term injury management, improvised splint and litter construction and environmental emergencies.

Approximately half of the course is classroom lecture and half practical scenarios. Students also receive American Heart Association CPR for the Professional Rescuer certification.

Those who wish to register or learn more about the course should contact Rancho Mastatal by Sept. 1. In Costa Rica, the phone number is (506)  770-8314, or interested persons may visit their web site at www.ranchomastatal.com.

Paris debates status
of cityís prostitutes

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PARIS, France ó A debate is raging here over the fate of about 7,000 prostitutes who work in the city. The Paris city government is considering legislation to outlaw prostitution, but others want to legalize it with conditions. 

Walk along the Rue St. Denis in downtown Paris, and soon the tourists and the cafes thin out and seedier landmarks take their place. Sex shops, patrolled by tough-looking security guards, compete for customers. So do French, African, Asian and Eastern European prostitutes who solicit on just about every corner. 

The government of Parisian Mayor Bertrand Delanoe wants to crack down on prostitution in the city, by fining and imprisoning the clients and managers of streetwalkers. Other anti-prostitution activists, such as Jean-Pierre Cochard, want to go even further. 

Cochard is a former magistrate who heads a national anti-prostitution association called Les Equipes. He believes prostitution should be abolished not only in Paris, but throughout the country. The debate has heated up since a conservative Paris lawmaker, Francoise de Panafieu, suggested last week that prostitution should be tolerated, but strictly regulated, as in the Netherlands. 

In Dutch cities like Amsterdam, health inspectors visit brothels housing the prostitutes, who must pay government taxes. Brothels were once popular in Paris, as well. Artists like Toulouse Lautrec and certain French "gentlemen" visited the city's famous "maisons closes," where prostitutes worked. The brothels were legal and supervised by the Paris government. 

But in 1946, brothels were banned and shuttered. Today, prostitutes have fanned out from downtown Paris, to parks on the city's outskirts. On the St. Denis strip, reaction to the idea of reopening legal Paris brothels was mixed. 

One 43-year-old prostitute called Monica expressed approval. She said legal brothels might force out criminals involved in sex trafficking, and allow prostitutes like herself to receive health and retirement benefits. 

Under a new French law, clients who have sex with child prostitutes can be jailed and heavily fined. Several French cities, including Strasbourg and Orleans, have banned prostitution in certain districts.

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AIDS vaccine enters
human testing stage

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A U.S. biotechnology company says it could have a vaccine to prevent AIDS in less than three years if tests around the world show it works and is safe. Officials of the California firm VaxGen say they believe that tests will show their vaccine to be effective in preventing transmission of the AIDS virus HIV.

Thousands of volunteers at high risk for the virus are being inoculated with the vaccine in two separate trials worldwide to see if it keeps them from acquiring the disease. 

One is testing the vaccine in 5,400 heterosexual and homosexual men and women in North America and Europe. The other is experimenting with a group of 2,500 injection drug users in Thailand.

An AIDS vaccine is considered the best hope for curtailing the pandemic, even if it does not work in everyone who receives it because blocking some transmission would prevent many new cases.

If the VaxGen vaccine works well, company president Donald Francis says his firm will be ready to begin production of the drug by early 2005. "The computer models show that if you have a 30 percent effective vaccine, you ultimately can drive the epidemic into the ground generation after generation," he explained. "Our desire obviously is to have a 100 percent effective vaccine."

Francis says the VaxGen vaccine worked well in chimpanzees and in small, preliminary human studies of safety and efficacy. He expects the results from the current, much bigger human experiments to be available early next year.

The vaccine works like every other vaccine. It introduces parts of the disease molecules into the body to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. The antibodies thus enlisted into service then are available to block the complete disease organism from attaching to healthy cells. VaxGen says its vaccine is safe because only a molecule on the surface of the virus is used in it to attract antibodies, not the deadly parts of the virus.

"Antibodies protect against viral infection," Francis said. "That's what vaccines are based on. That has been the foundation. I'm talking about preventing infection in the first place. If you have the right antibodies, you will not get infected with HIV or any other viral disease. The question is, can you make those right antibodies? That's our hope with the vaccine."

The experimental vaccine comes in two formulations: one for the HIV subtype found in North America and Europe, the other for one that infects Thailand. Should the test results be strong, the company plans to market the various formulations with production help from a South Korean vaccine manufacturer. The challenge will be to develop a version for Africa, which has several subtypes of the AIDS virus.

Dozens of AIDS vaccines are in various stages of development and testing, but the VaxGen product is the furthest along. Thai and U.S. health officials announced at a conference Monday they are awaiting approval of their governments to begin testing it in combination with a second experimental vaccine later this year in Thailand.

The second compound is made by the Swiss company Aventis Pasteur. Rather than stimulating antibodies, it evokes a response from white blood cells. It would be used for the initial inoculation with a later boost from the VaxGen product.

The tests are designed to determine if this dual approach is better than using just antibodies alone. 

Esctasy is topic
for police confab

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officials from Costa Rica, México, Belize, and the United States will be discussing the increase in use of the drug ecstasy (3,4-Methylenedioxy-N-Methylamphetamine) during a two-day conference at the Hotel Trup Corobici on the General Cañas Highway at Bulvar de las Americas.

The prinicipal speaker today is Eladio Páez, a detective with the Miami, Fla., police department.

Esctasy is a so-called club drug taken by young people when they are out dancing or at concerts. A release by the U.S. Embassy said that the primary users of the drug are young people between 18 and 25 years.

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