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These stories were published Friday, July 12, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 137
Jo Stuart
About us
The latest on Ofinter S.A.

Money exchange firm goes
on offensive with ad

Plus a reader gives his views


El Niño now official:
Rain will be irregular

Special to A.M. Costa Rica
with staff input

It's now official: El Niño is back. It's not the powerful, climatic juggernaut of 1997-98, but a milder, weaker version that may begin affecting weather in the fall, according to U.S. National Weather Service. 

The agency's climate experts said this week that mature El Niño conditions likely will develop in a few months. Scientists said weather conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean included consecutive months of warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures and abnormally heavy rainfall in areas of South America. These conditions met the Weather Service’s threshold to be classified as an El Niño.

For Costa Rica, the return of the weather phenomonon means that the dry season and the wet season of 2003 will be under the influence of El Niño. The 2003 wet season, begining in April, will be characterized by an irregular distribution of rain and an irregular intensity, said the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional de Costa Rica.

The dry season for 2003 probably will be drier than normal and hotter, the institute said. Traditionally wet areas will get less rain, and some traditionally dry areas will be wetter. Some concern exists for sources for domestic water due to the irregularity of predicted rain.

"This time around, El Niño will not be as powerful as the 1997-98 event, but we'll track it closely for any change in its projected strength," said Vernon Kousky, a meteorologist and climate specialist at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md. Once it matures, Kousky said the El Niño should maintain a weak-to-moderate strength.

Kousky said El Niño tends to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity. He added that El Niño may not be strong enough to be a factor in this year's hurricane season. In May, the agency released its Atlantic Hurricane season outlook, which called for the potential of nine to 13 tropical storms, with six to eight hurricanes — two to three classified as major (Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.)

The Climate Prediction Center is part of U.S. Weather Service, which is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and a number of foreign nations, including Costa Rica.

The Institution Meteorológico Nacional de Costa Rica Web site is at http://www.imn.ac.cr/

Projections of AIDS deaths at 68 million

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

BARCELONA, Spain — AIDS could kill 68 million people by the year 2020, according to the most recent global analysis conducted by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. 

In reports presented this week at the XIV International AIDS conference, experts are attempting to outline a picture of nations where populations are devastated by the epidemic.

The International Labor Office presented an analysis of how sustainable development will be undermined by the loss of human resources expected to result from the epidemic. 

In a press briefing Thursday, Desmond Cohen, International Labor Office economist, said nations cannot achieve the goals of sustainable development if they continue to lose the people who know how to run the machinery of civilized society.

"How (do you) keep schools functioning, or transport systems functioning, or water supplies functioning, or police services functioning when 20 to 30 percent of the people you have trained are, in fact, dying of HIV/AIDS?" Cohen said.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Happy Birthday to my Mother!

Sunday my mother will be 94 years old. She was born Mickey Roda, or at least I thought she was. But recently she told me her name was actually Dominica, and they changed it when she went to school. Today, she is known as Margaret Carlson. I think she got tired of being associated with a mouse.

Mom was the oldest of eight children of Italian immigrants. Although she was an A student, 
loved school and hoped to become a teacher (or her dream future — to be an actress and a dancer), she had to leave in the 9th grade to help care for her younger siblings.

In her early teens, she married my father, more by mutual agreement of the families than my mother. She was widowed before she was 30 and found herself facing the Depression with four children to support. She 

Jo' s mom at 75
did this by opening a beauty shop in the village of Mayville, New York.

Her shop was successful, partly because she was very good at what she did, partly because she was beautiful, charming and funny, and partly because during the Depression getting your hair done was a cheap way to feel better.

I remember during that time that it was not unusual to see a strange, scruffy looking man sitting on the steps of our side porch with a plate of food — a tramp who had gotten off the train in Mayville. After my father died, I recall my mother giving his clothes to a poor man. She was holding up a jacket to see if it would fit. They were both crying. Later, one of these hopeless wanderers told me that our house was marked as a welcoming place to get a hot meal.

Mom was a strict disciplinarian, which is perhaps why I didn’t appreciate how funny she was until we were both older. My sister Annetta, who was the oldest of the three girls, got the brunt of most of it and most of the responsibility for the rest of us (except for my brother who was four years older and almost in another world).  He kept to his attic bedroom experimenting with electricity and inventing things. For a long time, I thought he was actually Thomas Edison.

Movies were our favorite pastime, and when Mom at first said no, Annetta, Donnetta (the baby of the family) and I would tap dance into the beauty shop, do a waltz clog and belt out a song that we’d learned from Judy Garland, ending with our plea for money, also sung. If that didn’t melt Mom’s heart, it worked on her customers.

When I reached the age of 31, an age that I could remember my mother being, I forgave her every spanking, every shouted word, everything. I knew I could not do what she did. And, too, I wondered, with her beauty and her brains, what she might have been or done had her lot been different.

A widow a second time at 67, (she married a great guy at 47), she has lived alone and kept her own house until about a year and a half ago when she moved into an assisted-living residence. My sister Annetta is still taking responsibility now, not only for Mom but also as the glue that keeps our family in touch.

At the age of 86, my mother got her first passport and came to Costa Rica to visit me. That was when I learned she was afraid of two things: deep water and snakes. She told me that although she missed me, she understood why I wanted to live here.

The last time I visited Mom she was still at home and we were beginning to worry about her forgetfulness. She knew this. We had invited company for dinner. I was in the kitchen and Mom was setting the table, complete with candles.  After a bit, she came into the kitchen and said, "Well, Jo, at least you don’t have to worry about me setting fire to the house. I can’t remember where I put the matches."

Mom is considered a member of the Greatest Generation.  And any way you want to measure it, she qualifies. Happy birthday, dear Mom.

More Jo Stuart HERE!

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Money exchange firm goes on offensive with ad
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Ofinter S.A., the embattled money exchange business, Thursday issued a seven-point rebuttal to what it said were allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering.

The firm took half-page advertisements in the major Spanish-language daily newspapers and used the paid space to say that the press and some public functionaries have unjustly said in their reporting or statements that the money exchange house is linked to illicit activities. The ad said the firm roundly rejects these insinuations and that it never consciously participated in such crimes.

The firm also said that it has been working as a money exchange house for five years under the supervision of the Banco Central de Costa Rica and the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras.  During that time it never was admonished or suspended for any of its activities, it said.

The firm also said that it does not form part of any web of drug traffickers or money launderers, and it is sure that is can show this in court.

But the firm also said it will not be more specific or say anything else because of the current investigation and that "we await with faith in God, the just and favorable decision of the courts constantly analyzing all the actions that we will take to defend our honor and the truth of the facts that have been attributed to us."

The ad was signed by someone identified as Alvaro Segura Carvajal, general manager, and placed by Mauricio Fonseca Alvarez, whose role was not further clarified.

The ad was more interesting for what it did not say. For one thing it never mentioned the personal loan part of the business where many millions of dollars have been accepted as investments, mostly from North Americans.

The company’s Mall San Pedro office and one in downtown San José were raided July 4 by Costa Rican officials executing a search warrant issued at the request of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Investigators here also raided the house of one of the owners and the house of the firm’s accountant.

At the same time Canadian police were arresting six persons, including several with links to Costa Rica. Some of them had invested money with Ofinter. They face money laundering charges in Canada.

At the time of the arrests, the Judicial Investigating Organization said that at least $300,000, the product of narcotics trafficking, had been deposited with Ofinter. Police also confiscated about 300 kilos of cocaine and 1,000 kilos of marijuana oil, but not in Costa Rica.

Despite the claims in the advertisement Thursday, no official or reporter has specifically charged Ofinter with drug trafficking. This and other 

newspapers have reported that investigators have frozen upwards of 50 bank accounts maintained by the firm.

Diario Extra did report Saturday that Guillermo Hernández, of the Centro de Inteligencia Conjunta Antidrogas, the drug police, said that the two brothers who own the firm were under investigation for receiving money from drug dealers and intermediaries. But he stopped short of calling this money laundering and he did not say whether any such money was accepted by people who knew the source.

Newspapers also have reported the company’s stated goal of continuing to pay monthly interest to its investors. The firm is one of the high-interest operations in San José, and it pays 3 to 3.5 percent a month, in cash, to investors who do not want to roll over the money as a new investment. The firm is believed to have many thousands of investors, both here and in North America. Many retired North Americans depend on the monthly interest to live.

Ofinter is owned by Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and brother Osvaldo. And this raises another point that the advertisement Thursday did not clarify.

Villalobos accepts investment money — $10,000 minimum — from persons referred to him by current customers. He conducts this operation in separate offices adjacent to the Ofinter S.A. facility, which is simply a place to change money from colons to dollars and back.

The advertisement did not clarify if it was talking just about the money exchange business or also about the investment opportunities business run by Villalobos.

The money exchange is licensed and under government supervision. But neither Villalobos nor Ofinter is licensed to make loans, and he does so, he says, simply on an interpersonal basis among friends. However, the back office has all the attributes of a lending operation, including application forms for new clients and two small, three-sided booths where customers can count in private the money they just received.

When an A.M. Costa Rica reporter visited the office Monday, a man who introduced himself as "David," said he was the manager. He would not identify himself further, and he did not say of what he was the manager.

He declined any comment, although he did promise to deliver a business card to Enrique Villalobos. A.M. Costa Rica would have published their statement without charge had the firm made contact.

Those investors who visited the office in the last few days report business as usual. Several said they had been paid interest that was due. The bulk of the firm’s assets are believed to be in other countries. The next scheduled interest payment for investors is due at the end of the month.

This reader says that rules of investments are clear
We received a number of letters on the topic of Ofinter S.A. during the last week. Most who sent letters do not want their name used, and we feel uncomfortable just publishing them without checking. We are happy to publish letters on this topic. The following author specifically agreed that we could publish his letter. If you wish to comment on the situation, please send your letters to editor@amcostarica.com

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I read with interest your article re: 'The Brothers" and how people are blaming the government and amcostarica.com.

When I arrived in Costa Rica over three years ago, it took less than two  weeks for me to hear about 'The Brothers'. Since amcostarica.com did not even exist, I find the concept that you have any responsibility for current actions ludicrous. 

The money in the banks will be frozen for weeks if not months. In another case like this, the money was frozen for well over a year. You can bet that local and North American government agencies will be very interested in Ofinter's client lists and will do everything they can to ensure no money is distributed without people coming forward and clearly identifying themselves and the amount of their investment. Despite what the company says, it will not be business as usual. Tax collectors must be licking their lips in anticipation of being fed hidden information about their citizens.

I do look to the government and wonder why they did not intervene in a company that was clearly involved in unusual financial transactions with uninformed investors. It is not as if officials did not know what was going on.

Lets look at some facts: 

• You are going to give your money to people who are not regulated; 

• They will not tell you how they will invest your money; 

• They do not provide any corporate information; 

• They pay returns several times more than banks or traditional investments; 

• If they are paying you 36 percent-plus they must be making more;

• How many investment worthy businesses would pay these high interest rates? (Since most of the money was in U.S. dollars, there was no foreign exchange risk).

Catch up on previous stories

Previous stories that we have published on The Brothers Villalobos and Ofinter S.A.:

Friday, July 5:
Money exchanges raided

Monday, July 8:
North American investors hold their breaths

Anti-terrorism efforts target cash flow from drugs

Tuesday, July 9:
Investment firm says it will continue to pay

Wednesday, July 10:
Bank account lock may endure for some time

Thursday, July 11:
Some expats starting to get mad about fund freeze

Does it seem like something wrong here? Does this really sound like an acceptable investment fund?

When banks are paying out between 3 percent to 8.5 percent per year for a one-year term deposit, how can anyone receiving 3 percent-plus per month be surprised when there are problems.

Some very basic common sense investment rules:

Rule # 1. The higher the return, the higher the risk. 

Rule # 2. If something looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true. 

Rule # 3. Diversify your investments.

Rule # 4.  Unless a company will provide complete disclosure as to how they will invest your money, DON'T GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY.

The ONLY people investors can be angry with is themselves. In the real world, it is BUYER BEWARE. 

It is about time North American's take responsibility for their own actions and stop blaming and looking to others.

Simon Shaw

Inspections to start
with possible protests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Monday could be an interesting day. National car inspections start that day, and foes of the program vow to block access to inspection stations.

Fuerza Pública is mobilizing officers to counter any protests.

The inspections by Riteve SyC are the object of protest because many motorists and taxi drivers believe that their vehicles will never get through the inspection.

The company has been advertising to win the public opinion battle, but it suffered a setback this week when telephones to its appointment center went unanswered. The company quickly doubled the number of people working there.

The appointed telephone number is one of those pay exchanges: (905) 788-0000. Stations will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

One complaint against the firm was that it is Spanish. Actually it is a joint venture between a Spanish corporation and a Costa Rican company. But that does not stop taxi drivers from placing signs on their cars saying "No to Spanish inspections." 

Several requests for aid have been filed with the Sala IV constitutional court. Several actions cite the monopolistic nature of the tests, something that might not be permitted by the Costa Rican Constitution.

Riteve has invested upwards of $22 million for 11 inspection stations and several mobile units. Automobile inspections cost 8, 805 colons, a little less than $25. Vehicles with license plates that end in 1 or 2 have from Monday to mid-August to get an inspection.

Important vehicle inspection points would seem to be ownership papers, brakes, tire tread wear, windshields, wipers, break, turning and running lights, shocks and suspension.

Country attracts
three film teams

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Technical teams from three different countries are taking advantage of Costa Rica to film top tourist spots and residents in their daily lives.

The companies are from the United States, Austria and France, according to a spokesman at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, which issued the invitations to the film organizations.

The firms are International Video Corp. of the United States, Universum ORS of Austria and the French Television Arts Network.

Thursday the French film crew, which included Francois de Roubaix and Pascal Lorent, arrived in the country. They will film "Imágenes de Costa Rica" that will feature these volcanoes:  Poás, Rincón de la Vieja, Turrialba and Irazú. 

They also are interested in visiting the cataracts of Sarapiquí to film segments of "Paz Waterfall Gardens," and a coffee-growing area that will provide the setting for "Ruta de Cafe,’ a project being done jointly with the Instituto Costarricense de Tourism and the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica

The French team will remain here until July 23.

The Austrian team will be in the country until July 29, and members will be working on a documentary "The Rescue of the Mountain Almond Trees" that will be transmitted by Europe Television, ORS Universum and the European State Network.

The Almond trees mostly are located north of San Carlos and in the frontier zone along the San Juan River near Nicaragua. The trees have been the victim of heavy logging activities

American Travel, a popular U.S. show that is seen on 120 stations visited Costa Rica earlier this month. The on-air team includes Bruce Ritzschke, John Bartell and John Goerner. The team also filmed for a program called Geoquest for students.

The team filmed the Plaza de la Democracia, Teatro Nacional and other downtown sites as well as in Parque Nacional, Corcovado, Drake Bay, the 
Murciélago islands and Caño in the southern Pacific of the country.

Anti-Chavez marchers
demand that he quit

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in Venezuela Thursday to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez. The event passed off peacefully, but the city's military air base was later the scene of a breakaway demonstration.

Thursday's demonstration marked three months to the day since eighteen demonstrators were shot dead during a similar march. That incident led to a two-day removal from power of President Hugo Chavez, after the armed forces withdrew their support. 

On this occasion, there was no violence, despite the marchers' frustration at not being allowed to follow their planned route, past the presidential palace of Miraflores. 

The intention had been to hand in letters demanding the resignation of President Chavez, who, for many in the opposition, is a dictator who wants to follow in the footsteps of Cuba's President Fidel Castro. 

Chavez spent the day in the city of Maracay, one of his political and military strongholds. Later, as dusk fell, thousands lined the fence around the La Carlota air base in the capital hoping to meet with military leaders, while National Guard troops in riot gear reinforced the perimeter. 

Opposition leaders addressed the apparently spontaneous breakaway demonstration, declaring a policy of civil disobedience.

Challenges many,
OAS chairman says

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A number of "daunting challenges" face the Organization of American States in the year ahead, says Roger Noriega, new chairman of the Organization of American States Permanent Council.

Noriega said that in addition to deepening democracy in Latin America, strengthening hemispheric security and supporting the Committee Against Terrorism should be priorities for the OAS member states.

He added that the council should also enhance its efforts to encourage development, maximize the benefits of free trade, and support the Summit of the Americas process.

Visa responsibility
causing ripples

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C — While the U.S. State Department is willing to transfer the authority for issuing visas to a proposed Department of Homeland Security, Colin Powell, secretary of state, says the actual issuance of visas should remain within the department and its worldwide embassies and consular posts.

"We have the experience, the training, the language skills and the dedicated people to perform this mission," Powell testified Thursday before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Homeland Security.

The Select Committee is conducting hearings on President Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security, made up of elements taken from existing federal agencies, to safeguard the United States against a continuing threat from terrorism and other dangers.

Bush sent the measure to Congress June 18. His proposal would draw approximately 170,000 federal workers from scores of federal agencies with an estimated first year budget of $37.4 billion.

One of the measures contained in the sweeping legislation is that the Department of Homeland Security assumes responsibility for policy guidance on, and regulation of, visa issuance.

Powell said the new secretary of homeland security would have all of the intelligence and law enforcement information as well as authority of federal law to make policy judgments as to who should be authorized to receive a visa to enter the United States.

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