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(506) 223-1327                  Published Wednesday, July 18,  2007, in Vol. 7, No. 141           E-mail us   
Jo Stuart
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Death toll in Panamá now nears 120
String of tainted products clouds Chinese exports

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Chinese manufacturers are facing harsh scrutiny after a series of health scares involving toxic exports.  In nearby Panamá, officials are struggling to understand how a poisonous chemical made in China was wrongly mixed into a cough syrup formula, killing more than 100 people since last year. 

China has denied wrongdoing in the incident.  In Panama City, where families of victims say the Asian manufacturing giant should bear part of the blame.

The label "Made in China" is starting to raise red flags for some importers around the world.  This year, health concerns over Chinese exports have led to recalls of pet foods, toy trains and automobile tires in the United States and other nations. In Costa Rica the recall was of a tainted toothpaste.

In Panamá, officials have confirmed the deaths of nearly 120 people who took tainted cough syrup last year, and they say more than 250 other deaths are being examined.  Investigators say a local firm mixed the medicine, using the cheap, industrial solvent diethylene glycol, which the company says was incorrectly labeled as a safe and more expensive ingredient, called glycerin.

Infectious disease specialist Nestor Sosa saw several of the patients suffering from kidney failure after taking the tainted syrup. He said the mortality of patients in this case was quite high.  More than half of the patients died, based on how much cough syrup they took and the medical care they received.

Sosa said he had heard of cases of poisoning by diethylene glycol in people who drank automobile antifreeze, which often contains the substance.  But finding the poison in cough syrup was a surprise to Panamanian health officials and U.S. investigators who were asked to help find the cause of the deaths.

One of those affected was Carlos Umanzor, a Panama canal worker who died six weeks after first taking the cough syrup.  His widow, Lediana said some of the blame for his death belongs to the Chinese maker of the diethylene glycol, for its alleged role in labeling the product.

She said there was a chain of events that led to the deaths, adding that it is hard to understand how the diethylene glycol could have been labeled something else, and no one inspected it.

China has denied any role in the deaths.  The government says the diethylene glycol was sold with the proper labels to a Spanish company, which later sent the chemical to Panamá.  Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke recently about a series of
health scares tied to Chinese products.

He said Chinese manufacturers are working tirelessly to supply the international market, and he said he hopes Chinese products will not make consumers cautious.

The Chinese statements have been met with skepticism by families and representatives of victims in Panamá, such as attorney Ivette Landero.

She said China can deny the allegations, but Panamanian investigators have evidence proving otherwise, including the original containers of diethylene glycol.

Landero's mother has suffered kidney failure and other illnesses after taking the cough syrup, but she survived.  Landero says her family and others hope to file charges in Panamá to claim damages from the Chinese maker of the toxic compound.

It is unclear if Panama's government will seek to penalize the Chinese company, in part because the two nations have no diplomatic relations due to Panama's support for Taiwan.

Carlos Carrillo, an attorney for Panama's health minister, says publicity in the case already has damaged China's reputation.

He said the poisoning incident serves as a warning about other products from China or other countries, because there have been more recent examples of tainted products.

Earlier this year, officials in the United States, Panamá and other nations, as well as Costa Rica, recalled several shipments of Chinese-made toothpaste, after they were found to contain the same diethylene glycol.  Sosa said the alert in Panama was prompted by a consumer who saw the substance listed on one of the toothpaste boxes. No health problems were reported in Costa Rica as a result of the toothpaste, but as much as a truckload of the unregistered, smuggled toothpaste was confiscated.

Sosa said Panamanian consumers had been educated about the dangers of the substance after the incident with the cough syrup.  He said people in another country may have assumed diethylene glycol was a normal ingredient. Chinese officials say the amount of diethylene glycol in the toothpaste, about 5 percent, was harmless.

In recent years, diethylene glycol has been found in tainted medicines in several countries, and caused scores of deaths in Haiti and Bangladesh.  Experts say health safeguards currently in place may not be enough to keep such toxic ingredients out of the drug supply and prevent another incident.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, July 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 141

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Non-Catholic religious groups
get a health and safety code

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Places of worship by non-Catholic groups got what amounted to a health and building code Tuesday when President Oscar Arias Sánchez signed a decree.

The action was welcomed by religious leaders because they believe the document will eliminate discrimination against religions that are not the official one of the state.

Arias went to the Centro Evangelístico in Zapote to sign the document which he said verified the equality of everyone before the law.

The measure is in response to complaints by some religious groups that they have been picked on by officials or even neighbors. Several persons continually bring constitutional court actions against their church neighbors for noise. The document signed Tuesday established rules for noise even by the most excited evangelical.

The measure established a building code that includes sanitary facilities, demands emergency exists and access for the disabled and mandates fire-retardant materials in some places.

The document outlines a method for obtaining a permit for a place of worship that is not unlike the requirements for a business or factory. The applicant needs a review by the Ministerio de Salud, certain specific documents, diagrams and surveys.

The decree prohibits basement churches and it also outlaws circular staircases as the principal fire exit route. The electrical system must be certified.

Churches that do not now conform will have six months to bring their structure into compliance. If there still is a problem, the church governing board will be given a year longer to prepare a remediation plan. There are a lot of storefront churches and churches in older, non-compliant structures.

Some facilities have been closed by the health ministry because of unhealthy or unsafe conditions. Those running these facilities will have time to fix the problems.

For new construction, the document reads like a building code establishing setbacks and sideyard measurements, types and sizes of doors and windows plus prohibiting reflective fake doors that a person may seek to use in case of fire.

While he praised the religious diversity of Costa Rica, Arias also managed to work in a plug for the referendum on the free trade treaty that will be Oct. 7.

Cops enlist more cuidacarros
to help keep eye on streets

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Fuerza Pública is accepting all the help it can get. Tuesday some 65 cuidacarros or car watchers received recognition after three weeks of training in Cartago.

This is the Programa Vigilantes Independientes that seeks to make persons in their daily activities the allies of the police.

The car watchers will be working in Antigua Metrópoli, San Rafael de Oreamuno and Paraíso, said the Fuerza Pública.

The 63 men and two women have received training on recovering valuables, human relations, and protection of the crime scene among others, said Jorge Solano, regional director in Cartago for the Fuerza Pública.

The ceremony Tuesday brings to 125 the persons who have received this training. They received a reflective vest, a cap and a wallet card that accredits them as assistants to the police. The program was supported by the Cámara de Comercio, Industria, Turismo y Servicios de Cartago.

Police have always had an uncertain relationship with cuidacarros. Some car watchers are themselves thieves and robbers. Nearly all make their money from voluntary contributions by motorists. Frequently the motorist finds that the parked vehicle has been ransacked but the cuidacarros knows nothing. This is one reason the police have embarked on programs to instill more professionalization.

Immigration officials in dark,
this time for a reason

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you have an appointment today at the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería, forget it. Have another cup of coffee and maybe go back to bed.

The central immigration department will be out of service today because the Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz, the electric company, is doing maintenance work in the area and has to pull the plug, an immigration spokesperson said Tuesday.

Those foreigners who have appointments for today between 8 and 9 a.m. can show up Thursday, and those with apppointments scheduled for today between 10 and 11 a.m. can show up Friday at the same time, said an immigration spokesperson.

Costa Ricans who are seeking passports can apply via the immigration Web site or at the new service being operated by the Banco de Costa Rica, said the spokesperson.

Our readers' opinions
Time for no-tolerance policy
against criminals and thieves

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
In the article on Page 2 of 17 July, 2007 a pat on the back to Mr. Arturo Vargas, who was injured while helping a robbery victim.
Costa Ricans or for that matter anyone else either visiting or living in Costa Rica need to let these criminals know that “crime will not be tolerated any longer.”
There is no reason theft needs to occur. People shouldn’t have to live behind bars and be afraid to walk the streets or go shopping.
A NO TOLERANCE policy should be adopted by ALL.
Shopkeepers can post something at the entrance to let would-be criminals know that they are being watched. Neighborhood watch groups started. Stickers on car bumpers, doors, windows — NO TOLERANCE. The more the community and its people say “NO” and make any kind of effort to deter such activity the better for everyone.  Let’s all make it a real “Pura Vida”- not just talk about it. Step up – do something !!!!!
R. Everman
Not revolutionary force

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

The article at top of Page 3 of July 17, 2007, entitled "Summit of presidents will mark 20 years of regional peace" stated that "the United States paid for a revolutionary force, the contras..."

The contras, as the name implies, were a COUNTER revolutionary force not a revolutionary force. The United States has never paid for nor supported revolutionary forces in Central America but has, instead, supported reactionary forces to keep the corporate elite in power while crushing all revolutionary movements of the working class.
M. King

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, July 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 141

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Marijuana mogul invested in Costa Rica, U.S. attorney says
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
and staff reports

A California man who supplied $95 million of supposedly medical marijuana to retail customers used the sale proceeds to purchase property in Costa Rica, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

The man is Larry R. Kristich, who with employee James Carberry, has been indicted for operating a chain of marijuana stores in seven different cities in California.  The indictments were announced Tuesday.

In 1996, voters in California adopted Proposition 215, which authorizes the distribution of “medical marijuana” in certain circumstances.  Under federal law, however, distribution of marijuana for any purpose is illegal, said the U.S. Attorney's office.

The stores, located in Oakland, San Francisco, San Leandro, Ukiah, Bakersfield, San Diego and West Hollywood, did business under the name Compassionate Caregivers. The indictment alleges that sales of marijuana and related products at the stores totaled more than $95 million, and that Kristich used profits from marijuana sales to purchase expensive automobiles and real estate in Costa Rica.  The indictment charges that, with a business associate, James L. Ealy, Kristich set-up non-drug related businesses to launder the profits of the marijuana stores.

According to the Registro Nacional, Kristich owns something less than a luxury car here. He is listed as the owner with clear title of a four-door 2004 Yaris. He is not
 listed as owning any properties in his own name, but many expats and Costa Ricans put vehicles and real estate in corporations that are not easily linked to them individually. Shannon Ryan, the assistant U.S. attorney directly involved in the case, was not available late Tuesday to discuss the holdings of Kristich here.

Carberry, the employee of Kristich, is the manager of a marijuana store in West Hollywood known as “Yellow House,”  said the indictment. The indictment alleges that
Yellow House had an automatic teller machine and credit card readers in the store to facilitate purchases.  In a single month at Yellow House, the indictment alleged that $1.7 million in marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinol-laced products were sold.

In a separate indictment, John C. Moreaux, a former Compassionate Caregivers employee, was indicted for operating a second marijuana store in West Hollywood.  In the indictment, Moreaux is alleged to have possessed a shotgun inside the West Hollywood marijuana store.  The indictment further alleges that Moreaux has a prior felony conviction, and cannot lawfully possess any firearms.

Under federal law, conspiracy to distribute marijuana carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison, while a violation of the money-laundering statute carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime, said the U.S. Attorney's office, adding that every defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in court.

Costa Rican colon accompanies U.S. dollar in its decline
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

The Costa Rican colon has been keeping pace with the dollar this year even though the U.S. dollar has weakened against other major world currencies.

In testimony Tuesday before the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee three economists agreed that the weakening dollar is likely to decline further.

Because the colon is so closely tied to the dollar, remaining even with the U.S. currency means declining in value against other currencies. This is good for export and tourism here. But U.S. vacationers are finding Europe more expensive this year.

On Jan. 1 the U.S. dollar cost 515.84 colons and could be sold for 519.95 colons, according to the reference rate maintained by the Banco Central. This rate is a weighted average of the price of currency at the nations banks and money exchange houses.

Tuesday the U.S. dollar cost 516.66 colons and could be sold for 520.69 colons. The difference between the rates on the two dates was less than a single colon and about 0.17 percent.

In the past the colon has declined from 8 to 9 percent a year. For example the decline in 2005 was 8.4 percent, thanks to a controlled devaluation established by the Banco Central. Now the colon is allowed to float within limits. This decline was a boon for persons earning or bringing dollars to Costa Rica as well as those who purchased exports.

Many Costa Rican services, Internet access, for example, are keyed to the dollar.

In Washington, Financial Services Committee member Ron Paul, a conservative Republican presidential candidate, 
 called attention to the dollar's weakness Tuesday. The U.S. currency, he said, has this year lost 9 percent against the euro and even more against some other currencies.

"It's lost more than 10 percent against the British pound," he said. "And lo and behold, the Indian rupee — if you had been holding Indian rupees — you would have made 13 percent."

Paul asked the panel of three economists whether Americans should be worried by the dollar's decline. Alan Meltzer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the dollar is weak because of America's rising external deficit.

"The long-term problem is a serious one," he said. "If you ask, over the long-term what is likely to happen to the dollar, you'd have to believe that over the long-term the dollar is going to decline in value. Why is that? Basically, because we invest more than we save. We save too little."

Benjamin Friedman from Harvard University said no other country could get away with having such large trade deficits. It is, he said, irresponsible for the United States to incur an external deficit equal to 6.5 percent of its national income.

Jamie Galbraith, the son of the late Nobel-winning economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is a professor at the University of Texas.

"The problem, as I see it, is that the system — like all monetary systems — is inherently precarious," he said. "It is subject to a shock, a crisis, a panic, a collapse down the road."

None of the economists would predict how much further the dollar will drop. But they said a further decline could help by lowering the prices of U.S. exports, thereby boosting exports and reducing the size of the external deficit.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, July 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 141

British railways get taste of copper thefts that plague Ticos
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

Costa Rica is not the only place where nighttime thieves steal increasingly valuable copper wire.

British authorities have connected this unusual crime wave to the booming economies in China and India.  And they see the crime wave as a serious threat to the British railway system.

Copper used in cables to control Britain's rail system is stolen and sold in China and India.

Rail officials say that last year the theft of copper caused more than 240,000 minutes of train delays. The metal is used in cables that control railway signals. Police say robberies at tracks and depots have increased by almost 500 percent.

The global price of the refined metal has risen five-fold since 2001 and hovers at about $7,500 a metric ton.

British police say they believe the stolen copper is sold to scrap yards, then on to smelters, and is transported to China by ship. If Costa Rica is an example, then some of the copper is turned back into new cable and exported.
Andy Trotter is deputy chief constable of the British Transport Police. "We can track the rise in crime directly to the price of copper in the world market. So, because there's a big demand across the world, the Chinese and Indian economies are growing hugely, and some strikes in South America, that then results in a criminal somewhere in the north of England deciding to steal some copper."

The ratings company Standard & Poors says the prices for copper and other metals are rising because demand is growing, and new mines and smelters are not producing new supplies.

Anna Campopiano from the London Metal Exchange says China's huge appetite for commodities of all kinds, including copper, is pushing prices forward. "As an emerging economy they're developing their infrastructure at quite a remarkable rate, and that has a huge impact on the demand for metals such as copper"

China is already the world's largest market for copper, accounting for about 20 percent of global consumption.

The thefts in Costa Rica are mostly of electrical lines and controls for traffic signals, and the thieves are usually addicts who convert their nighttime loot into a small payment by crooked scrapyard operators.

Death toll in Brazilian airplane crash at Sao Paulo airport is at least 200
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Brazilian authorities say at least 200 people are dead after a passenger plane burst into flames Tuesday evening on landing in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The governor of Sao Paulo state said all 176 people aboard the plane are likely dead. Many on the ground are also believed to have perished.

The plane, belonging to Brazil's TAM airline, was carrying 176 people when it skidded on a wet runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport and hit a gas station.

The airline said in a statement that it is working to confirm
the identity of the people who were on board.

Reports said at least seven people — some of them on the ground — were injured. Dozens of ambulances raced to the scene after the crash happened.

The Airbus A320 plane had flown to Sao Paulo from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil.

Last September, 154 people were killed when a Brazilian passenger plane collided with a small executive jet and crashed into the Amazon jungle. The executive jet landed safely.

Bolivia's president announced plans to take over the nation's railroad again
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Bolivia's president has announced plans to nationalize the country's railways.

Speaking at the opening of a tourist railroad outside the capital, La Paz, President Evo Morales said Bolivia will retake control of Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles.

Bolivia had sold a controlling share of the rail company in 1996. If the nationalization goes forward, Bolivia will have
to buy back shares from Chile's Luksic Group and the U.S. firm Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., based in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Since taking office last year as the country's first Indian president, Morales has declared his intention to resume government control of many previously state-run industries.
Bolivia nationalized the oil and gas sector last year and is currently negotiating with Telecom Italia to buy its controlling stake in Bolivia's former state telecommunications company, Entel.

Protest over seed and fertilizer by farmers in Perú leaves at least 17 persons dead
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Protesting farmers have clashed with Peruvian police in a confrontation that left a protest leader dead and at least 17 people, including two police officers, injured.

Police say activist Jorge Altamirano Roman was shot and killed Monday as officers outside the southeastern city of Andahuaylas tried to control a crowd of at least 1,000
farmers. The protesters had blocked roads to the city, set fire to vehicles and attacked people and property with rocks and clubs.

The farmers, from one of Peru's poorer regions, Apurimac, were protesting high fertilizer and seed prices, and poor transportation links, among other grievances. Elsewhere in Peru, a nationwide teachers' strike was underway to protest a new educational reform law.

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