A.M. Costa Rica

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These stories were published Friday, July 16, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 140
Jo Stuart
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Police radio operator linked to car-theft conmen
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A  police radio operator has been accused of helping scamsters who preyed on people who had their vehicles stolen.

Officials expressed concern that information leaks had taken place. The radio operator is accused of supplying three other men with identifying information of stolen cars and their owners. The trio would use this information to extort money from the owners on the pretext that they could ransom the stolen vehicle.

Rogelio Ramos, minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, said he supported totally the efforts of prosecutors to solve the case. Investigators included officials from the Ministerio Público, independent prosecutorial arm, and the Judicial Investigating Organization.

The radio operator, identified by the last names of Salazar Vega, had worked since 2000 in the 

delegación of the Fuerza Pública in Alajuela, said investigators. The man was arrested in his Alajuela home Thursday morning. In addition to being arrested, he was suspended from his job.

Officials have been troubled for some time by leaks of information that could only have come from police and those close to the police. Real car thieves frequently attempt to sell the vehicle back to its owner as a way of maximizing their profit.

With inside information, scamsters can impersonate car thieves, contact the owners and make a deal. However, the vehicle never is returned.

Officials said that the man arrested Thursday only worked in Alajuela. As such he only would have had access to information in that province. Scamsters, however, work all over the country, demonstrating that other leaks of official information exist.

Big victories sometimes are the small ones here
I was astonished the other day when I started to write with my new Farber Castill pen and no ink came out. Then I was indignant. Three weeks and the ink was used up? I decided not to take that lying down and so I went back to Sauter’s where I had bought it, confident that the salesman would remember me. 

Deciding not to use an indignant approach (indignant gets you nowhere in Costa Rica, I have learned), I stayed astonished. Inside the store was the tall salesclerk of before, standing by some shelves. I walked over to the pen department and he followed me, asking how he could serve me. I slowly whipped out my pen and asked him if he remembered me, I had been in about three weeks before and bought it. He didn’t remember me. "You taught me the word boligrafo," I said. Then he remembered me — as all good teachers remember good students. "I can’t believe it," I said in astonishment. "But this wonderful German pen no longer works. What can I do?"

"No problem," he replied. He plucked it from my hand and walked behind the counter, took out a new pen, tested it, and handed it to me. Then he, rather dramatically, tossed mine into the wastebasket. 

"Thank you very much," I said.

Walking out the store I wondered if he would retrieve the pen to check out my honesty. I felt a bit guilty that he didn’t do it immediately. Maybe I just wasn’t using it correctly. Guilt comes easily to me.

Once home, Dannys, our super, told me they would be coming to put in a new water tank for me. I have been asking for this for about four years since I became convinced that the reason I had no hot water pressure was due to the heater. In the last couple of days Dannys had installed a new plastic roof over my pila — now it no longer leaks. And the repairman from Samsung had come to fix the knob on my little washing machine so I no longer had to bail water. I was on a roll.

Two men actually showed up the next day, a very good-natured older man and his young 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

assistant. They carried the shiny brand new tank through my kitchen to the pila, and after the installation, cleaned up the mess they had made. As soon as the tank was installed and the electricity turned back on, I went into the bathroom to check the shower. Nothing came out. The installer smiled like a co-conspirator and told me to be patient. He then went into the bathroom and after a few minutes the water was running. He opened the shower and the strongest spray I have seen in six years came out of the showerhead. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could test it. 

I told him that I turned off the electricity to the tank every night to save money. He said that it was wiser to leave the tank on over night and turn it off during the day. More efficient. His young assistant nodded wisely in agreement. I didn’t ask him why. I worked it out for myself that maybe because it was warmer during the day, the water stayed hot. As they were leaving and I was thanking them, the older man said, "Now you won’t have to shower like this anymore." And he pushed himself against the door and tilted his head in a very good imitation of my own method.

Taking a shower that night I discovered I had plenty of hot water with enough force to take a shower without sidling up against the wall. I also discovered that taking lukewarm showers for so many years I can’t handle a hot shower anymore. Now I understand how so many Costa Ricans can take cold showers. It is all a matter of adaptation. I wonder if that’s called the reverse lobster effect. 

I went to bed very pleased with the events of the week. Ink was coming out of my new pen, hot water was coming out of my shower. And the water was emptying from my washing machine without my bailing it. Happiness is such a relative thing

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Air controller strike
remains stagnant

By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Officials are beginning to talk about replacing striking air traffic controllers.

Right now the jobs are being filled by foreign controllers brought in when the local employees went on strike three weeks ago.

The official hand was strengthened Wednesday when a judge in the Alajuela labor court, the Juzgado de Trabajo de Alajuela, declared the strike at Juan Santamaría International Airport to be illegal. Controllers had three days to appeal this decision.

Javier Chaves, minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes, said Thursday that other Costa Ricans are standing by to be trained to take on the jobs left by the strikers. He was responding to a question about the cost of bringing in foreign controllers to work here on a per diem basis.

Chaves said he wanted to wait for the results of a meeting he had scheduled Thursday afternoon with the strikers, but a report later said than not much happened at that meeting.

The controllers say they are entitled to a 35 percent increase in salary due to an agreement negotiated several years ago. The government disagrees.

Officials get ready
for big pilgrimage

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Transit officials have unveiled their plans to control traffic while more than a million pilgrims take the traditional walk to Cartago to be there Aug. 2.

Ignacio Sanchez, director of the transit police, said that 400 officers will be on duty, nearly half in the general vicinity of Cartago. The rest will be at other points in the country.

The pilgrimage attracts walkers from all over Central America to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles.

Transit police will be joined by hundreds more Fuerza Pública officers.

The main concern for traffic officials is the circulation of vehicles for those who work or live in Cartago. The transit plan will go into effect at 2 p.m. Aug. 1. Part of the plan calls for shutting down two lanes of the Autopista Florencio del Castillo to traffic and regulating the flow of vehicles to and from Cartago.

Drivers will face
inspection fee today

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Riteve SyC, the company that has a monopoly on vehicle inspections in Costa Rica, will go ahead with charging for reinspections starting today.

The company said that it has waited for a letter from Javier Chaves, minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes, which a company statement said was necessary for it not to impose the additional charge. The company chided Chaves for talking to the press about stalling the reinspection fee but then not sending the required letter.

The company said that the reinspection fee was in the original bidding contract to take effect at the end of the second year of inspections. The reinspection fee will be half the original inspection fee. For passenger cars, the original fee is about $20 and reinspection is $10.

Three fishermen found

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three fishermen who left Limón for the Caribbean Sunday in an open boat have been located in official care in Panamá. That was the word Thursday night from the nation to the south.

The three men were presumed en route to Isla Uvita, but they faced worsening weather Sunday.

The Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas had a plane up Tuesday and boats on the Caribbean looking for the craft without success.

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Andre Dumani and Carlos Miguel Imbach were along the pedestrian boulevard Thursday asking people to write on a brick about a problem they have or had. The men are artists and are preparing a show in which the bricks figure. The show opens next Thursday at the Spanish Cultural Center in Barrio Escalante at 7 p.m.

Saray Ramírez Vindas/A.M. Costa Rica

Economic freedom report links growth, productivity
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Countries that adopt and maintain institutions and policies that encourage economic freedom attract investment, enhance productivity and grow rapidly, according to a report from a major U.S. research institute.

In contrast, countries stagnate when they stifle trade and erode incentives to engage in productive activities, said the authors of "Economic Freedom of the World 2004," released Thursday by the Cato Institute in Washington.

In the report, authors James Gwartney and Robert Larson said the "cornerstones" of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange of resources, freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property.

This type of economic research can have a substantial impact on U.S. policy, John Taylor, under secretary of the treasury for international affairs, pointed out during a Cato press event announcing the report.

As an example, Taylor cited the creation of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which is the Bush administration's supplemental aid program for countries that demonstrate a commitment to govern justly, encourage economic freedom, and invest in education and health care for their people.

The study released by the CATO Institute rated countries according to measures in five categories: size of government, legal structure and protection of property rights, access to "sound" money or credible currencies, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation.

By choosing policies that encourage economic freedom, countries are able to attract more investment, which leads to more growth, Taylor said.

The study rated Hong Kong the highest of the 114 countries studied, closely followed by Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other top 10 countries are Australia, Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg.

Most of the lowest-ranking nations are in Africa or Latin America, or are former Communist states, according to the report.

Botswana was rated the best of sub-Saharan countries, and Chile, tied with Germany at 22nd, was given the best rating in Latin America.

Costa Rica was in 31st place, with a 7.1 score. That’s a slight drop from 2000 and 2001 when the country was rated at 7.3 and 7.2 for 23rd  and 24th place.

Costa Rica always scores well because it does not have an army. The country always gets perfect scores in such subcategories as military conscription and military interference in the judicial process. 

The slight decline for this year reflects a decline in score in categories that rank the amount of government consumption and the highest tax rates. Bigger government and higher taxes result in lower scores.

The bottom five nations are Venezuela, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar. However, there are other nations for which data are not available, such as North Korea and Cuba. 

The rankings of other large economies are: Japan and Italy, 36th; France, 44th; Mexico, 58th; India, 68th; Brazil, 74th; China, 90th; and Russia, 114th. 

The scoring reflects the political biases of the CATO Institute, a well-known conservative center.

The authors found that countries with more economic freedom have substantially higher per capita incomes.

They also found that life expectancy in countries with the most economic freedom is more than 20 years longer than those with the least. Adult literacy rates increase and infant mortality drops in countries with more economic freedom, they said.

Increases in economic freedom also are linked to decreases in child labor and increases in clean water.

With fewer regulations, taxes and tariffs, economic freedom reduces the opportunities for corruption of public officials and the size of shadow economies, the authors added.

Gwartney and Larson said political rights, such as free and fair elections, and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, also are tied to economic freedom.

Overall, in the countries rated between 1980 and 2002, global economic freedom has risen, the authors said. They saw improvements in monetary policy, the lowering of high marginal tax rates, liberalized exchange rates, and reduced tariff rates.

They also noted that trade has increased to 25 percent of the countries' collective gross domestic product.

The report pointed to several former centrally planned economies that have made "substantial" moves toward economic freedom since 1990: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

In contrast, it says 10 countries' ratings declined between 1995 and 2002: Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Argentina, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, the Republic of the Congo and, to a lesser extent, Norway.

Taylor noted that since the end of 2002, the last rating period included in the study, some of these countries have made improvements in their economies.

Gwartney is a professor of economics at Florida State University and Lawson a professor of economics at Capital University in Ohio.

The Cato Institute publishes the Economic Freedom of the World Report in conjunction with The Fraser Institute of Canada and more than 50 other public policy research organizations around the world. The report was first published in 1996.

Turtle group here gets National Wildlife grant
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Programa Restauracion de Tortugas Marinas, known as PRETOMA, has been awarded a grant from the National Wildlife Federation’s Species Recovery Fund. The Costa Rican organization will use the grant to restore populations of the leatherback sea turtle, one of the most critically endangered species in the world. 

The Species Recovery Fund provides grants to organizations working with local communities to provide direct, on-the-ground benefits to imperiled species. PRETOMA is a group of biologists, naturalists, conservationists and citizens working to protect, conserve and restore the sea turtles.

 "Eastern Pacific leatherback sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years, yet are now facing extinction within the next 10 years if nothing is done to save them," said Alexander Gaos, PRETOMA beach projects director. Funding will allow PRETOMA to use hands-on leatherback conservation efforts and help avoid the loss of this magnificent creature, he said.

PRETOMA is one of eight Species Recovery Fund grant recipients selected this year from over 200 applications submitted by conservation organizations and individuals throughout the world. The Species Recovery Fund is an integral part of

the national Wildelife Federation’s effort that seeks to raise awareness of and improve conditions for endangered species.

"A critical component of conservation involves people taking action on a local level to protect the wildlife and wild places they know and love," said Ron Ohrel, the federation’s Species Recovery Fund manager. "These grants provide the means for local organizations to implement innovative, community-based wildlife conservation efforts that will provide direct benefits for wildlife."

Poaching, habitat destruction, and incidental capture and death from commercial fishing have all contributed to the leatherback’s decline. The $7,000 grant issued by the federation will be used to establish a permanent research and monitoring project for the leatherback sea turtle on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, PRETOMA said. 

PRETOMA will also build a hatchery to protect leatherback and other sea turtle nests from poaching and natural predators in order to increase survival rates of turtle hatchlings and to assist in the restoration of sea turtle populations. 

"Leatherbacks are such amazing and unique creatures," said Gaos. "It would be a shame if future generations were only be able to read about them in history books."

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Popular D.C. bank characterized as money laundry
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  U.S. senators, investigating claims that Riggs Bank illegally helped former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet conceal his wealth and evade efforts to freeze his assets, have expressed outrage that senior bank officials did not prevent their managers from engaging in money laundering.

"This investigation has developed evidence of poor compliance and lax oversight regarding federal laws, in this case laws designed to protect the integrity of the international financial system and combat money laundering," said Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

According to a 112-page report prepared by the minority Democratic staff of the subcommittee, Riggs Bank managers, working with Pinochet from 1994 to 2002, set up phony offshore companies and hid the existence of his accounts from U.S. examiners.

The report was released at a Senate hearing Thursday that heard testimony under oath by R. Ashley Lee, Riggs' executive vice president and chief risk officer. His testimony concerning Pinochet's accounts appeared to conflict with sworn written statements by federal regulators whom he formerly supervised at the Treasury Department. 

"There is a very direct conflict on a very critical point," said Sen. Carl Levin, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee. Levin said he wants the Justice Department to investigate the discrepancy. 

Lee was the lead examiner of Riggs for Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency from 1998 to 2002. OCC regulates U.S. national banks.

The Senate report said that Lee instructed agency staff members assigned to audit the Pinochet accounts not to put their examination memos or supporting paperwork into the agency's electronic files.

Lee denied the report, saying, "I made no instructions to anybody."

Riggs, a Washington-based bank operating since the mid-19th century, has numerous customers in the capital's diplomatic community. It was accused by federal regulators earlier this year of failing to report suspicious transactions in accounts controlled by diplomats from Saudi Arabia and officials of Equatorial Guinea.

"Million-dollar cash deposits, offshore shell 

corporations, suspicious wire transfers, alteration of account names — all the classic signs of money laundering and foreign corruption made their appearance at Riggs Bank," Levin said. "When a bank such as Riggs operates with such reckless abandon and federal regulators are so ineffectual in their oversight, it does little to inspire confidence in our country's determination to stop money laundering."

Coleman accused Riggs Bank of failing to provide internal controls and effective monitoring of large financial transfers and suspicious activity.

Simon Kareri, a former Riggs senior vice president who had managed the Equatorial Guinea accounts, invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination at the hearing and refused to answer questions on the bank's handling of those accounts.

The State Department has cited Equatorial Guinea for human rights abuses, corruption and diversion of oil revenues to government officials.

Levin asked Riggs officials about one alleged incident in which a Riggs account manager brought to the bank a suitcase, weighing about 25 kilograms, full of dollar bills for deposit into an account belonging to Nguema Mbasogo Obiang, Equatorial Guinea's president.

In prepared testimony to the committee the bank said, "It is clear that Riggs did not accomplish all that it needed to."

The Comptroller of the Currency recently fined Riggs a record $25 million for allegedly violating laws to prevent money laundering, citing the way it handled the Saudi embassy and Equatorial Guinea official accounts. The bank neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing when it agreed to pay the fine. 

Comptroller officials testified at the Senate hearing that Riggs "lacked sufficient policies, procedures, and controls to identify suspicious transactions concerning the bank's relationship with Equatorial Guinea."

The officials said that they will immediately begin a review of comptroller actions with Riggs to determine whether "we took appropriate and timely actions to address shortcomings found in the bank's process and its responses to matters noted by examiners."

Treasury officials said they do have rules aimed at preventing conflicts of interest for former employees considering job offers in the private banking sector.

Capital punishment meted out in Trinidad murders
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — A Trinidad court has sentenced two men to die by hanging in the murders of a former news anchor and her family.

A Port-of-Spain court Wednesday ordered the deaths of Daniel Agard and Lester Pitman only one week after the British Privy Council found mandatory death sentences for convicted murderers to be legal in the Caribbean nation. 

The Council acts as Trinidad's Court of Appeals. 

The men were found guilty of slitting the throats of former BBC anchorwoman Lunette Lithgow Pearson, her 83-year-old grandmother Maggie Lee, and Lee's son-in-law, John Cropper during a December 2001 burglary of Cropper's home.

A bank surveillance video introduced into evidence showed Agard withdrawing money from Cropper's accounts just after the victim's death.

Dominican recognition of Taiwan likely to continue
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The new president of the Dominican Republic is likely to continue to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Diplomatic officials in both countries said Thursday that president-elect Leonel Fernandez, who takes office in August, will maintain diplomatic ties with the island while improving relations with mainland China.

The Dominican Republic is one of 26 countries that 

recognizes Taiwan as a state despite diplomatic pressure from China, which views the island as a rebellious province.

The reassurances were issued in response to published reports that a Dominican Republic Senate leader warned Taipei earlier this month that ties might be broken under a Fernandez administration.

Dominican Republic envoy to China, Carlos Guzman, reminded Reuters Thursday, that President Fernandez maintained ties with Taiwan throughout his first term as president, from 1996 to 2000.

Former Mexican president focus of murder probe
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — A special prosecutor appointed by Mexican President Vicente Fox to investigate the deaths of dozens of protesters at the hands of paramilitary forces may bring charges against one of Fox's predecessors.

Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo says only that former President Luis Echeverría is a focus of his investigation. He says he will file charges by July 24 in the 1971 Mexico City massacre in which a paramilitary group, the Falcons, killed at least 26. 

The 82-year-old former president, who was in office at the time of the killings, has denied involvement in the episode.

The opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, warned this week it might refuse to negotiate with Fox over his policy initiatives if Echeverria is prosecuted. 

The PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until Fox's election in 2000, says the president is dividing the nation. Fox says he is righting past governmental wrongs. 

Jo Stuart
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