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These stories were published Wednesday, July 30, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 149
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A.M. Costa Rica file photo
The Cartago basilica

All feet are pointing
to Virgin de los Angeles

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The country is beginning its annual religious ritual which will see an estimated 1 million persons go on foot from their homes all over Costa Rica to the Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles in Cartago.

Most will take to the roads Thursday or Friday so they reach Cartago in time for services Saturday, the Día de la Virgen de los Angeles. But some already are on the road and others arrived as early as Sunday.

The Policía de Transito put 200 officers in the field Tuesday for the specific purpose of protecting the pilgrims. They are concentrated in the San José and Cartago main roads, although some pilgrims come all the way from Nicaragua and Panamá. Some actually arrived in Cartago as early as Sunday. By Friday, the size of the transito force will have doubled, and hundreds more officers from the Fuerza Pública will be on the road.

Many Catholics here consider the Black Virgin, La Negrita, to be the Costa Rican manifestation of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. A youngster in 1635 found a dark stone statue said to be of the Virgin Mary. The statue mysteriously kept returning by unknown means to the site where the Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles stands now in the city some 23 kms. (about 14 miles) east of San José. 

The actions of the statue were interpreted by church leaders as a desire of the Virgin Mary to have a church built on the Cartago site, and one was.

The Cartago basilica today is an elaborate complex with an extensive courtyard for pilgrims. The Black Virgin is encased in gold and fine clothing at her place high above the main altar.  A nearby room holds the many valuable gifts and elaborate changes of clothes donated for the statue.

A spring, said to be the one near where the statue originally was found, has been converted into a complex area below ground level where water flows and is bottled for pilgrims.

Although most on the road are pilgrims with their minds on spiritual topics, the all-night nature of the walks and the numbers of young involved are magnets for thieves or worse.

Sanitation, garbage handling and security are principal concerns.

Typically, pilgrims enter the main aisle of the church on their knees to show reverence. Some travel much of the way on their knees. Others walk barefoot.

By Friday afternoon the pilgrims will be flooding through city streets and the principal routes to Cartago. The services Saturday will be televised.

For the first time, the city administration in Cartago has not halted the sale of alcoholic beverages for the event.

DEA eyes Costa Rica
for money laundering 

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now considers Costa Rica to be among the "countries of primary concern" for money laundering.

That assessment was contained in an intelligence brief published by the agency in May and available on the Internet.

The agency said that Costa Rica has a highly advanced financial system and the limited amount of safeguards in the banking sector make the country an attractive location for carrying out money laundering activities.

"DEA reporting indicates that Colombian traffickers are using couriers to bring millions of dollars in drug proceeds to Costa Rica and deposit those proceeds into banks," said the analysis. "The money is then wire transferred to bank accounts in the United States. Once this has been accomplished, associates of the Colombian traffickers utilize automatic teller machines and debit cards in Colombia to withdraw the funds from their U.S. accounts."

Large wire transfers do not have to be reported to authorities in Costa Rica the same way that large cash transfers do, said the DEA, adding that this loophole in the law allow launderers to use the Costa Rican system.

The DEA also said that narcotics traffickers are laundering drug proceeds through the purchase of real estate in Costa Rica, in addition to the movement of funds through Costa Rican bank accounts and offshore trusts. 

The DEA said that because there are no reporting requirements by traditional casinos, money launderers have an easy time representing the laundered funds as casino winnings.

The U.S. agency said that there are at least 50 online casinos and some 60 sportsbooks operating in Costa Rica and that an online casino can be set up for about $10,000, much less than the hundreds of thousands needed in other countries.

Drug proceeds are being laundered through investments in construction projects, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and product assembly plants, said the DEA, adding, "In fact, some of the largest malls in Costa Rica were built not through the use of bank loans, but rather through direct investments. Costa Rican law enforcement does not currently have the resources to uncover the origin of these investments."

The anti-drug agency faulted Costa Rica for a lack of international cooperation, a lack of funding, and a lack of anti-money laundering training especially for prosecutors.

The agency did say that the Instituto Costarricense Sobre Drogas and its financial intelligence unit has increased from one individual to five, but that is still not enough to investigate all the suspicious financial activity the law says it must.

The assessment was summarized this way:

"The money laundering laws in Costa Rica have changed in order to more effectively combat the concealment and laundering of illicit funds through Costa Rica’s financial sector. Changes must be made to banking regulations in order to ensure compliance with existing anti-money laundering laws. 

"In addition, the anti-money laundering legislation that is in place now should be strengthened with the addition of a conspiracy law. Although the new antidrug law is a vast improvement over the legislation utilized by Costa Rica in the past, the commitment by Costa Rica of the funding and manpower needed to truly combat money laundering in the country has yet to be seen."
 

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Even the salespeople at The Vault were confused
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Working for Roy Taylor at The Vault was confusing because there were no written procedures and salesmen were not routinely informed of changes in procedures.

Sales people in the organization frequently were not sure what they were selling and there was no consistency in offers made to investors.

Taylor, who police said killed himself while in custody June 24, was known for editing his sales pitches depending on his opinion of the person he was selling.

Documents from the failed investment firm now show that the confusion pervaded the operation.

One former salesman, Jim Peck, put his views in writing when he resigned Sept. 4. He told Taylor that "everyone at the sales level is calling each other and me desperate for information but seldom gets the answer they need when they need them."

The Vault advertised heavily to find potential investors. But a study of the firm’s operations shows that Taylor kept track mentally of what he was selling. He ended up with a number of corporations, and sometimes offered franchises to potential investors even when the business only existed on paper.

In addition, he would tailor investment proposals to the individual and to what he thought their finances would bear.

The Vault offered 3 and sometimes 4 percent a month on funds deposited by investors. It also attracted investors by designating them partners and providing them with some decision-making in certain businesses.

According to Peck, the flexibility at the top filtered down to the sales level. He wrote: "There are few written procedures in writing so everyone at the lower level is forced to go by the seat of their pants. This is hard on a salesman because they are unsure of what they are selling and they find it 

difficult to counter negative statements. There is no consistency even with interest rates. We advertise a leasing plan but . . . at the sales level no one has any knowledge about it."

Peck has recently been in the news because he started a business designed to find fugitive financier Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. He called the business Operation Recovery Task Force in interviews with reporters June 12. Villalobos, one of the two so-called Villalobos Brothers, vanished as his high-interest borrowing operation closed up Oct. 14.

In his Sept. 4 resignation letter, Peck told Taylor that he had been cultivating unhappy Villalobos investors with an eye toward getting them to invest in The Vault. "I was listening to them, trying to comfort them, offering them hope and information and eventually, I know they will return with money," he wrote in his resignation. 

Peck made no mention of his association with The Vault when he announced his plans to find Villalobos and collect money from creditors to do so. He described himself as an Arizona private investigator, although a friend said he has been living in Costa Rica for at least a year.

Kells Faulkner, who invested $3 million with Taylor, supervised the reconstruction of the firm’s $1.4 million "international headquarters" on the Avenida Central pedestrian Mall. She said that Peck’s concerns were legitimate because Taylor and only Taylor was the person who was responsible for training the commissioned salespeople who worked at the firm.

She and some associates are trying to salvage what they can of The Vault’s assets and have started a group to do that. She and her associates were the people who filed the original criminal complaint against Taylor in June that led to the police raid on his businesses and ultimately to his death. Investigators confiscated all the firm’s documents at that time.

Peck has not responded to e-mail messages for more information about working conditions at The Vault. A friend said he may be traveling.


 
Immigration rounds up
illegal robbery suspects

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Immigration police swept through the lower-income areas on the south side of San José Monday night and said they rounded up five gang members who made a living preying on pedestrians in the downtown area of the capital during the day.

In all some 81 foreigners were detained, and 58 will be deported. Of those being deported 52 are Nicaraguans, said a spokesmen for the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The five suspected robbers are members of what officers of the Policía Especial de Migración said was the Doña Yaya band that patrolled Avenida 2 and other well traveled parts of the downtown to waylay passers-by.

Marco Badilla, director general of Migración y Extranjería, said that more than 500 persons have been deported this year even through the Sala IV constitutional court banned deportations for three months while it considered an appeal that later was not approved.

Another woman dies
in bloody dispute

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Another woman has been killed by a former companion. The murder Tuesday morning was of Maritza Jirón Pichardo, about 35, in the Barrio Limoncito in Limón.

Fuerza Pública officers said they came to her home about 7:30 a.m. after neighbors called to report a disturbance. Officers found her slain with a knife.

Less than a kilometer (a bit more than half a mile) from the home police located the principal suspect, a man with the last names of Lara Bustos, and he was detained.

The woman has three children which had been placed in state protection several weeks ago. A spokesperson for the Judiciary said that the woman had filed complaints several times against the suspect with the Juzgado de Violencia Doméstica de Limón. The last time was May 22, and an order of protection and no-contact was issued.

The murder comes a week after the highly emotional murder of a mother and her two children in the Central Valley. Dead are María Martínez Pichardo, about 30, and her two daughters, Johana, 3, and Yorleny, 4, They lived in Triangulo de Solidaridad in San Gabriel de Calle Blancos, Goicoechea.  Jhonathan González Alvarado, the principal suspect, killed himself in prison less than 24 hours later, said officials.

Although both dead women have the same maternal surname, it is not known if their mothers were related.

Fishermen are facing
closed Nicoya season

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Fishermen are facing a closed season in the Gulf of Nicoya for September and October. 

Ligia Castro, executive president of the Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuacultura, announced the prohibition Tuesday at Casa Presidencial.

The closed season is so that some fish species can reproduce, she said. Fishermen will get a 75,000 colon a month subsidy to help them through the two months when they cannot fish in the gulf. That’s about $190 a month.

New security measure 
defended by minister

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The security minister was quick to defend a proposed law that would control the private guards in the country.

Rogelio Ramos, minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, reacted to claims by the Arias Foundation that the law would essential rearm the country by creating private armies.

Ramos said in a release from the ministry that the new legislation would avoid putting disqualified persons in such delicate positions. Private guard services have operated here since the 1980s without supervision or control, he said.

The release said that the law would establish staffing for the hours that guards work and would improve the quality of service.

Guards now and under the new law also have to comply with firearms regulations to obtain a gun permit.

The Arias foundation at a news conference said it was concerned by the force of some 600,000 private guards in the nation.

Photo by Pat Nethercote
These elementary school youngsters are María and Dennis, and they put on a show in El Carmen, La Suiza, for the Nicoya Annexation holiday Friday.

Pacheco to go west

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco will be headed to Taiwan again at the end of next month. The Asian nation is organizing a conference about Central American integration, said Pacheco. The topics include the proposed free trade treaty with the United States and  customs reform.
 
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Brazil's president faces waves of land invasions
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces new challenges as thousands of poor Brazilian squatters invade urban and rural property in an effort to pressure the federal government to provide land and social aid. The former radical union leader, who has had close ties to several leftist groups over the years, faces a delicate balancing act as he tries to stabilize the country's economy with conservative policies. 

Back when President da Silva was a union leader in Sao Paulo's industrial suburbs, he was an ally of leftist groups like the so-called "MST," who seek to have land distributed to the rural poor. In an effort to get da Silva's attention, the MST last week invaded land owned by carmaker Volkswagon on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. More than 4,000 set up camp demanding title to the 22-hectare (54-acre)plot of land. A news photographer was shot dead by men at the encampment who, according to news reports, may have been robbing a nearby gas station, and then disappeared into the camp. 

Days later things escalated further as MST members invaded vacant buildings in Sao Paulo. They have blocked highways and looted milk and food from passing trucks. They also invaded ranches in at least three states. Land owners are upset by the speeches of the group's founder, Joao Pedro Stedile, encouraging more civil disobedience. "God made the earth, not men. So no one can say, this land is mine!" Stedile told a recent gathering of farm workers. 

The number of land invasions by squatters is up 147 percent over last year, according to the government agency that oversees land reform. 

There are currently an estimated 150,000 people living in these settlements. 

Landowners and politicians have criticized da Silva's government for not doing enough to rein in the squatters. Jose Genoino, the head of da Silva's Workers Party, called for dialogue between the government and the squatters. "The fight for land reform is a priority," said Genoino. "The respect for social movements is a democratic principal for the Workers Party. But we can't go along with this climate of fear and insecurity. We think the right road is negotiation," he added. 

But President Da Silva's government lacks the funds to purchase land for everyone who wants it. The budget allows for fewer than 7,000 families to be resettled this year, in contrast to his campaign pledge of providing farms for 60,000 people. 

Meanwhile violence is escalating as landowners arm themselves and threaten to use force to keep squatters away. Brazil's Justice Minister Thomas Bastos has been one of the most vocal in calling for order. "We will not allow this, and we'll use all the resources necessary including use of force, to prevent anyone from taking a route that is not legal," he said. 

Members of the homeless movement voluntarily left one of the buildings they were occupying in Sao Paulo last week, but analysts say their actions highlight the need for immediate social reforms. 

They say the key is da Silva getting his pension-reform package through Congress in order to free up the funding for social programs. But with unemployment rate at 13 percent, up from 10.5 percent when Mr. da Silva first took office, he faces a daunting task. 


 
We are counting on some funny stories
It's time to tickle that funnybone if you have one
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica is a land of contradictions, and contradiction is one of the chief concepts of humor.

So now is a time to gently explore our foibles in the mid-winter humor contest sponsored by A.M. Costa Rica marking the second birthday of our Internet daily newspaper.  (Yes, it is "winter’ in Costa Rica.)

Send your humorous writings for publication to:

editor@amcostarica.com

Make your fellow readers laugh and win great prizes, such as:

• water skiing at Lake Poas.

• annual subscriptions to A.M. Costa Rica

• sunbathing expeditions to the sand dunes of Quepos

• Whale-watching expeditions at the patio of the Gran Hotel Costa Rica

• A night of guaro excess with the A.M. Costa Rica editor (your treat).

Any money prizes will be paid in post-dated checks.

We expect to have some famous judges. At least we will have judges.

 

Consider the possibilities:

• The Escazú Witch Project
• Fear and Loathing in Santa Ana
• Waiting for Enrique
• How Would You like to be President for a Day?
• The Attack of the 100-foot-tall ICE
• The Return of the Arias.
• The Taxista Always Rings Twice
• Mr. Smith Goes to Arbitration

But you can do better than that. The important thing is to be funny. You can use satire or straight humor. But you must write about Costa Rica. (George Bush is out. We can’t make this too easy.)

Your stories can be true, but exaggeration is a tool of humor. We will publish the good ones as fiction.

Some people say our readers cannot possibly top what really has been happening in Costa Rica. But we have faith.

Our second birthday is Aug. 15, and that’s the deadline.

Now some folks will be upset with us, thinking that we are picking on them. These are the folks who are humorously challenged. Why should we take the credit for them being so funny? Nevertheless, if you wish to send us hate mail or death threats, please do not clog up the editor’s mailbox like before. Send your hate mail or death threats to:

threats@amcostaric.com

Let the contest begin.

 No entries ready for today

U.S. braces for anniversary wave of terrorism
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

U.S. airlines are being told to step up security in light of new warnings about the possibility of more terrorist attacks by al-Qaida both here in the United States and overseas. With the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, authorities say they have received indications pointing to threats of more suicide hijackings around the world.

A U.S. official said this intelligence suggests al-Qaida may be plotting to hijack commercial airliners in the United States as well as in Italy and Australia in the days leading up to the Sept. 11 anniversary. 

"Al-Qaida continues to want to harm America," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, warning that even though some high level al-Qaida members are now in custody, the war on terrorism is far from over. He added:

"The Department of Homeland Security did issue an advisory over the weekend to airlines and 

security personnel based on some intelligence received about al-Qaida's continued interest in commercial aviation in America and abroad." 

"I think that anybody who has flown on an airplane since Sept. 11 knows that the security, while better, is not perfect and you have to be concerned that they're just going to try to grab some more airplanes," said John Pike, the director of Global Security.Org. 

U.S. officials say the credibility of the intelligence is still being assessed and that the threats are not specific to targets or plots. There has often been an upsurge in intelligence indicating possible terrorist activity around important national events like anniversaries and holidays and September 11 would be no exception. "September 11 was the greatest single terrorist act in recorded history. Obviously, al-Qaida is going to want to do something even more spectacular," stressed Pike. 

But at this point, authorities are not planning to raise the national terrorist threat level, from "elevated" where it stands now, to "high." 


 
 
Strategy session Friday on full Earth monitoring
Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ministers and policy makers from more than 30 countries will gather here Friday intending to forge a coherent strategy for Earth observation and usher in a new era of global partnership.

The first-ever political summit on Earth observation, being hosted by the U.S. departments of State, Commerce and Energy, will seek top-level international support to link thousands of individual satellites, aircraft and land-based data collection to create a comprehensive global observing system over the next decade to address environmental and economic concerns.

Attending the summit will be ministers from the G-8 and other countries that fund or use observing systems and are interested in the development of a coordinated Earth observation system. Senior officials from dozens of organizations will also attend.

Summit participants will also establish an intergovernmental working group scheduled to hold its inaugural meeting Saturday and Sunday to begin preparation of a 10-year implementation plan for the Earth observation system. A framework for the plan will be presented at a ministerial conference to be held early next year in Tokyo, Japan.

Currently, a rather loose set of space satellites, ocean buoys and other instruments on land, sea and in the air are operated by individual countries and international organizations to monitor the Earth and collect data. These systems have evolved over the last four decades to allow weather forecasts five days in advance, estimate crop yields, monitor water and air quality, and improve airline safety and operations, among many other benefits.

But experts say gaps or "blind spots" in understanding Earth and its complex systems severely limit scientific knowledge of how to address many concerns, such as drought, disease outbreaks, stronger agricultural production, and energy and transportation challenges. Issues such 

as climate change raise even larger questions about how the Earth functions and what the implications are for society.

Currently, a handful of countries have funded the joint deployment of nearly 825 ocean monitoring buoys worldwide. These buoys regularly drop below the sea surface to take measurements and then send the data to satellites overhead. But to be truly effective and fill data gaps, experts say at least 3,000 buoys are needed on the water.

According to experts, a fully operating Earth observing system might look something like this: satellites with high-resolution infrared sensors in geostationary orbit will monitor clouds, water vapor, ozone and aerosols; satellites in near-Earth orbit will measure winds, clouds and ocean circulation; satellite microwave sensors and radars will measure soil moisture and ocean salinity, while synthetic aperture radars will measure earthquakes and rainfall; robotic aircraft will be deployed into severe storms; a linked network of global sensors on Earth will monitor radiation, air pollution, precipitation, soil wetness and stream flow; and robotic vehicles deployed beneath the ocean's surface will measure salinity, temperature and currents.

Lautenbacher said the benefits of a comprehensive Earth observing system would be enormous. For example, just improving the accuracy of weather forecasts by one-half degree Centigrade would reduce the annual cost of electricity in the United States alone by $1,000 million.

Proponents point to the system of buoys and monitoring stations set up in recent years to monitor El Niño, the periodic disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific. While the economies of many countries were hit hard by the disruptive weather connected with the phenomenon in 1982 and 1983, early warnings from the new monitoring system helped farmers and emergency crews to be better prepared when El Niño struck again in 1997 and 1998. 

Benefits to U.S. agriculture alone, from altering planning decisions during the 1997-98 El Nino event, are estimated at $265-$300 million. 

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