Your daily English-language news source
After six days of calm, some North Americans are beginning to get angry that a major source of cash has been frozen.
Other investors are searching for investment houses that also offer substantial monthly interest rates.
Thatís the fallout from a Costa Rican investigation of Ofinter S.A., a money exchange firm that also offered high-interest investments to a predominantly North American clientele.
Costa Rican authorities raided two locations of the money exchange firm last Thursday and also the home of one of the owners and the home of the head accountant. The pretext for the raid was a request by Canadian police who simultaneously arrested in that country six persons who now face money-laundering charges.
But it quickly became obvious that Costa Rican probers had a parallel investigation because they took many boxes of papers and announced that they had been monitoring the money exchange houses for two years.
The company is operated by Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and his brother Osvaldo, therefore the name usually used by North Americans: "The Brothers."
Where the money exchange operation ends and the private loan business begins is hard to say. At the San Pedro Mall, the money exchange is one of a number of businesses facing the pedestrian traffic.
Also there is McDonalds and a bookstore. But a side door leads to a waiting room and the offices where customers have given employees investment money, a minimum of $10,000.
In return, the company has been paying 3 to 3.5 percent interest per month, and the monthly payments represent a significant source of income for expats living here.
The source is so important that even last Friday some observers suggested that some North Americans were so heavily invested with their retirement funds that suicides might result if the company did not reopen.
Others have suggested more recently that closing the firm would be a major economic blow to an already struggling Costa Rican economy. There are no hard numbers on how much money was invested with the firm, but estimates of monthly interest payments are as high as $3 million.
So far the firm is still in business, but authorities have frozen up to 50 bank accounts in Costa Rican institutions, thereby crippling normal operations.
|The firm has denied any wrongdoing
even though it is clear that at least $300,000 of tainted funds did flow
through the company to the Canadians. Some visited or lived in Costa
Some North Americans correctly point out that many banks have been caught unknowingly providing services to drug dealers or mobsters. And this is where the anger comes from.
A lot of investors were upbeat and optimistic on Monday. But now that they realize the firm might be undergoing a long legal process with the Costa Rican officials, tempers are flaring. And the government is getting the blame. The investigation could last up to a year or more with the accounts continuing to be frozen.
Some speak of jealousy by established Costa Rican government banks who lost a lot of investors by paying only 4 to 5 percent a year compared to Ofinterís 42 percent compounded.
Others suggest darkly that the Costa Rican government seeks to solve its serious financial situation by confiscating the funds of The Brothers.
Typically in a situation like this, the government gets much of the blame because investors strongly support the managers of the investment fund. In the early days of freedom in Russian, the failure of MMM cost a lot of Russians their entire savings. The investment house had advertised heavily and paid a very attractive monthly interest rate.
In Albania, a similar investment failure in 1997 caused widespread revolution and extensive bloodletting when 500,000 Albanians lost all they had in a firm promoted on state television.
In both case, investors came out against the governments that had taken steps to regulate the financial entities.
No one is expecting revolution here, and the investors are predominantly foreign nationals. Yet hostility against government regulators is growing. There even is some hostility against A.M. Costa Rica. A few letterwriters said this newspaper placed unnecessary prominence on the financial situation with Ofinter.
Despite the problems with Ofinter, some North Americans were out looking for investment companies that also promise high interest rates. There are several. Whereas Ofinter wonít say specifically how it earns funds to pay investors, other firms say they invest in the casino industry. Others are into agriculture. One even offers 4 percent per month, said a person who follows the industry.
Of course, the danger exists that once Costa Rican authorities terminate the Ofinter investigation they will begin looking at other companies.
The experts are going to take another look at the problem of street children. And they will arrive at the same conclusion:
The problem is wrapped up with every strand of society and simply throwing money around will not solve much.
Some who have been social workers for a long time remember in 1979 when the problem of street children was declared solved. But such youngsters are back in force, and statistical projections say there will only become more.
Numbers probably represent the brightest spot here in Costa Rica. There are not that many street children when compared to other countries with much greater poverty and lack of hope.
These are the kids patrolling the streets, sometimes in criminal gangs. They smoke dope, engage in crime and prostitution and sleep in doorways.
In San José there even are middle-aged men who have been on the street for 30 or more years. They work now in marginal jobs, beg and seek the crumbs from a society they never really joined.
"If you can save two of every 100, you are doing good," said a long-time, experienced social worker. Some have done better. Small groups of children have been rescued with strong determination, a little money and the promise of a future.
Bruce Harris of Casa Alianza met with President Abel Pacheco Monday. Casa Alianza is an advocate for children, and the organization agreed to bring in experts to study the problem here.
Harris knows the problem well. He has been involved with ills in Guatemala many times greater, and in Honduras, 33 children and youth were murdered during the month of June ó two of them in police detention, according to the organization.
Thatís one response to street children. Kill them. That happens all over Latin America, and Harris has said that he worries unless the situation is reversed here, Costa Rica could be the next killing ground.
The kids are born with little prospects. Their dysfunctional mother, perhaps a drugged-up prostitute. The father, a drunk or an addict. You will find the kids on San José south side smoking crack from a pipe at 500 colons a button.
Drug use walks hand-in-hand with these abandoned
|strong dose of teen rebellion, and
from more traditional surroundings join the crowd. Add incest and physical abuse to round out the mix.
Thatís why they are on the streets. What happens there is even worse.
Refuges provide part of the answer. There are some good ones in San José and elsewhere.
But too many working in the field do not envision an end to the problem. They have long since forgotten the big picture and are content with helping children in ones and twos. You hear words like "impossible," "hopeless," "overwhelming."
Nearly everyone agrees money is not the answer. Education and the possibility
of jobs motivate some. Others fall back into their drugged up ways and
personally solve the street children problem by becoming a street adult.
Or a dead kid.
AIDS could cause
By A.M. Costa Rica wire service
BARCELONA, Spain -ó The International AIDS Conference in Barcelona continues Thursday after releasing a new study saying AIDS could orphan more than 25 million children worldwide by 2010.
The joint study released Wednesday by the United Nations and U.S. Agency for International Development says 13 million children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS in 88 countries. The highest concentration of AIDS orphans lives in sub-Saharan Africa.
Carol Bellamy, U.N. Children's Fund chief, suggests attacking the crisis through international support for extended families and community institutions, such as non-governmental and religious organizations. Another study says new medicines are still too expensive for victims in developing nations.
About 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These include 28.5 million people in Africa and 6.6 million in Asia, a region that officials call the current hotbed of rapidly escalating HIV infection.
Jay Trettien passed away last Friday morning. I received an e-mail from his wife early Thursday saying Jay was terribly ill and she was rushing him to the hospital. Then, I received another message on Friday saying Jay had passed away.
Life is short, desperately short for all of us. But Jay knew that. He almost left a few years back, but he cheated death. I only wish he could have done it again.
Anne lost a husband, we lost a friend, the Del Rey lost a bartender, but Costa Rica lost one of their biggest supporters and admirers.
During the years I knew Jay, I was fortunate enough to have him tutor me in the finer points of Costa Rica. He often would say that it was unfortunate that most people come to this country and think itís the size of the "Gringo Gulch" with nothing more to offer. He showed me the history, culture, art and beauty of this fine country.
He was extremely well versed on where to go to see
|the real Costa Rica: those little
out of the way areas and towns that gave you a window to his perspective
on life. And, he loved to share them with people who would ask ó you only
needed to ask.
Just as if you were at the bar, if you whistled or yelled to get his attention it could be a long and dry encounter. Sarcastic, curt, honestly cruel, aloof and insensitive could be used to describe Jay at times . . . and this was when he was in a good mood.
Jay was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, raised in Boca Raton, Florida, schooled in New York, New York and educated by traveling the world before dying in San Jose, Costa Rica. We will miss him for he was and is a friend.
In September, I will share a white wine spritzer with my friend, sitting where I usually do, looking to where Jay usually put himself with one foot up on the cooler.
It is a shame that we all lost a friend, but even more tragic that Costa Rica lost such an ambassador.
God bless you Jay.
|U.S. House passes bill
to give pilots guns
By A.M. Costa Rica wire service
WASHINGTON, D.C. ó The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow thousands of commercial airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit to use against terrorists.
Wednesday's vote was an overwhelming 310 to 113.
It would let as many as 70,000 pilots volunteer to be trained and deputized with the authority to use lethal force to protect the cockpit. Backers of the measure say pilots are the last line of defense aboard an aircraft. They claim that if pilots had been armed, the September 11th terrorist attacks would have failed.
But opponents, including President Bush, say giving pilots guns is too dangerous and threatens the passengers and entire planes. They support stronger cockpit doors and armed undercover agents aboard flights. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to face tougher opposition than in the House.
Reich praises Brazil
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, has hailed Brazil as a "very good friend" of the United States that is cooperating with the Bush Administration on such issues as fighting terrorism, narco-trafficking, and international crime.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday in Brasilia, Reich said the U.S.-Brazilian relationship is so strong that when a problem arises between the two countries, such as on trade, "it becomes magnified because of the lack of other more serious problems."
"I am not minimizing the importance of trade," said Reich. "But when taken in the context of international relations today, what is happening in the world with terrorism, narco-trafficking, organized crime, pollution, and everything else, our relations with Brazil stand out as very good."
Flight saves mother, baby
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Close coordination between rescue workers and a Security ministry police saved the life of a 24-year-old woman and her new baby.
The rescue happened in Piedra Grande where a woman, Roxanna Ortiz Jiménez began bleeding. She was six months pregnant. Her husband quickly called the emergency number.
At 9:30 a.m. a helicopter, piloted by Jorge Rovira of the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública, took off, picked up the woman and her husband and took both to Hospital de Turrialba.
|U.S. urges Venezuelans
to keep march calm
By A.M. Costa Rica wire service
WASHINGTON, D.C.óThe United States is urging Venezuelans to remain calm and respect the rule of law in advance of an opposition march Thursday marking three months since a failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez.
There are concerns among both supporters and opponents of President Chavez in Venezuela that the demonstrations might lead to the same kind of violence that preceded the April coup attempt.
At a briefing in Washington, Philip Reeker, state department spokesman, said the United States shares those concerns, appealing to Venezuelans to keep the protests peaceful and to focus on political reconciliation.
"Tomorrow, Venezuelans are going to mark the events of April 11, that produced a constitutional crisis, led to the deaths of 17 people, and the injury of over 100 others," he said. "Those events three months ago, I think, should act as a sobering reminder to all of the importance of dialogue, of peaceful resolution of conflict and of course the rule of law." The violence that broke out at the April 11 opposition march, and ensuing rioting in Caracas neighborhoods that left another 60 people dead, were followed by the overthrow move by military officers opposed to President Chavez' populist policies.
But the effort to depose him crumbled and Chavez, himself a former senior officer, returned to power three days later, pledging to seek national dialogue.
Spokesman Reeker said the Bush Administration supported the political-peacemaking mission to Venezuela by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who left Caracas Wednesday after four days of consultations, but without convening the meeting between President Chavez and leading opponents that he had hoped for.
The spokesman said the State Department expects to consult with the
former President on the results of his trip, and also he stressed a standing
offer by the Organization of American States to facilitate Venezuelan reconciliation.
Use of animals
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Donít count on seeing any lions, tigers or bears when the circus comes to town. Scratch the camels and elephants, too.
The chimps are out. Seals, too.
That will be the effect of a decree President Abel Pacheco said he will sign as soon as some technicalities are taken care of. He told reporters this Tuesday at his daily Council of Government.
He was accompanied by Carlos Manuel Rodríguez. The decree, when signed, will take effect when published in the governmental gazette. Circuses still will be able to traverse the country to move from Panamá to Nicaragua and back.
Pacheco and Rodríguez were making some segments of the environmental movement happy. Several groups have been working to eliminate shows that use wild animals. Horses, cows and other domesticated animals will be permitted in shows.
|What we published this week:||Monday||Tuesday||Wednesday||Thursday||Friday||Earlier|