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These stories were published Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 151
Jo Stuart
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Basilica de los Ángeles in Cartago as the sun began to set Monday.

By mid-evening the plaza was filled as were the roads enroute.

A.M. Costa Rica photos/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas

All roads lead to Cartago and the Black Virgin
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Ricans are experiencing what seems like a five-day weekend because Monday was simply a time to set out on the pilgrimage. From all over the country pilgrims come, filling the highways, streets and paths within 50 kms. of the Cartago destination.

Some were walking in bare feet this year. The weather cooperated with no rain Monday and a good chance of a dry ceremony today in honor of the Virgen de los Ángeles.

Others walked in groups. One set of neighbors from Tilarán at the north end of Lake Arenal wore identical T-shirts. Some limped or walked with the aid of crutches.

The pilgrimage, called the romería in Spanish, is also a time for commerce, as those who lived along the routes offered drinks and food to the walkers. Frequently the prices were at a premium. Those who arrived at the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles by nightfall Monday were treated with a series of religious ceremonies and also fireworks.

The entire Asamblea Legislativa will be in Cartago today along with President Abel Pacheco and his cabinet. The Virgen de los Ángeles is the patroness of the country, and more than a million persons are expected to visit the basilica in the week bracketing today's feast day of the Virgin, who
sometimes is called La Negrita or the Little Black One.

The representation of the Virgin is a small sculpture in rock that is venerated high above the main altar of the basilica. The sculpture dates from Aug. 2, 1635, when it was found by a girl. Because the sculpture kept returning miraculously to the spot where it was found, religious leaders took this as a sign to build a church on the site.

Police are not being generous to those who may disrupt the pilgrims. More than 40 persons have been arrested in the canton of La Unión and Cartago Centro.

Most were described as drunks who were harassing the passersby.

Motorists complained of four youngsters who  blocked the way of a main street near Cartago. The youngsters were demanding a 300-colon toll from motorists to let them pass, said police. The case is being handed by juvenile authorities. Traffic tieups are not uncommon as police close off roads for the safety of walkers. One robbery was reported.

In Curridabat, which is between San José and Cartago, police arrested persons carrying cocaine and marijuana. Nearly 1,500 officers are on patrol. So are a number of Cruz Roja workers who have been treating sore muscles and foot problems.

 Ailing visitor gets aid

Pilgrims on knees

Police command center near basilica

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2005, Vol. 5, No. 151

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Customs scam leads
to multiple arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators have made arrests in what they say was a scheme that swindled the country out of millions of colons in import duties.

Nine persons have been detained, and a total of 19 are listed as suspects, including employees of the country's customs agency.

The arrests came at midday Monday and was directed by Judicial Investigating Organization agents in Heredia and also the department's Sección de Fraudes.

Raids took place in Santo Domingo de Heredia, El Coyol de Alajuela and at points on both the north and south borders of the country, said agents.

The evasion of import duties and tax was estimated by agents at 500 million colons, more than $1 million. The merchandise involved was principally white goods, electronic equipment such as televisions, stereos and DVD players, name-brand clothes, name-brand sneakers, liquors and perfumes, said agents.

Investigators said that the gang would bring in truckloads of goods from the Puerto Libre de Colón in Panamá. Instead of paying duty and tax at the Paso Canoas border crossing, the goods would be declared in-transit for countries further to the north.

The goods would be unloaded in either Heredia or El Coyol. The paperwork would be given to one of the nine who were arrested Monday, identified as a woman who operated a customs brokerage. With the participation of customs employees on the Nicaraguan border, the paperwork would be prepared to show that the truck left the country. Then the goods would be delivered to distributors and retail outlets around the country, agents said.

Investigators said they expected to make more raids and confiscate more merchandise.

Spanish vice president
finally arrives here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, vice president of Spain, finally made it to Costa Rica. She arrived about 6 p.m. Monday after the Asamblea Legislativa hurriedly passed a resolution permitting her Spanish air force jet to enter Costa Rica.

The vice president was met by First Vice President Lineth Saborío, Marco Vinicio Vargas, vice minister of Relaciones Exteriories, and Juan José Urtasun, the Spanish ambassador here.

The arrival was at the Juan Santamaría Airport. Activities that were scheduled for today have been moved to Tuesday.

The situation was a major diplomatic embarrassment for Costa Rica. The Constitution says that the assembly must give permission for every foreign military vessel or aircraft that enters the country. However, due to a squabble over other issues, some deputies did not make the legislative session Thursday, and there was no quorum. So deputies could not vote on the arrival of the Spanish jet. No session was held Friday.

But the matter was at the top of the agenda for Monday.

Calls to 113 will be
free for rest of year

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An attempt to save money on the national telephone directory will cost the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

The Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos has ordered that the communications company provide free directory assistance for the remainder of the year. The service usually costs 28.80 colons (about 6 U.S. cents) a call. However, because the telephone books were printed with only part of the country represented in different editions, the authority has been after the institute to make an adjustment with customers.

The directory assistance number is 113. Fees from this service represent about one half of 1 percent of the institute's income in a year, said the authority.

Arbitration panel backs
Latin nations on bananas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An arbitration panel at the World Trade Organization has found against the European Union and its plan to levy a 230-euro-a-ton tariff on bananas from Latin American countries. The arbitration panel also encouraged the countries to negotiate their differences.

The decision does not signify the end to the so-called banana wars because the European Union can appeal.

In March Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, followed by Venezuela and Nicaragua and Brazil notified the World Trade Organization that they were requesting arbitration after the European Union would not budge on the tariff.

The 29-page arbitration decision said that the proposed tariff would not allow the Latin countries access to the European market envisioned by the World Trade Organization and its many treaties.

The European Union has devised the tariff to replace a quota system by January. Critics said the European Union was favoring its African and Caribbean former colonies. Under the quota system some Latin American produce entered without producers paying a tariff. But a 230-euro-a-ton tariff would make Latin bananas uncompetitive, the nations have said.

Death of baby investigated

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Homicide investigators are looking into the death of a 3-month-old, boy, and the principal suspects are two girls, 9 and 12.

The baby died Sunday night when it was suffocated by a piece of plastic wrapped around its mouth and nose. The death happened in a house in Playa Bejuco near Parrita on the Pacific coast. Unofficial reports said that the pre-teens were playing with the baby before the death.
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Massive search of north Pacific brings no results
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Mark Vockery liked to go on unusual trips, so his visit to Central America with his wife of a year, Laura, was not a first-time adventure. The couple had been married for a year but only now did they have time for a honeymoon, said friends.

The Kentucky couple continue to be the object of a major Pacific sea search. Also missing are the three-man crew of the sports fishing boat King Fisher I in which they left Flamingo Friday at midday.

The Cruz Roja had little to report Monday. No trace of the vessel had been found despite the major search.  Meanwhile, family and friends were going to hold a prayer vigil at First Christian Church of Ashland as spiritual support for the honeymooners, according to WLEX-TV

Vockery is a fire and safety instructor at Eastern Kentucky University, so friends say they are confident that he can save himself from danger, said the television report.

"He's just a great guy. Safety oriented-type person," said William Hicks, a coworker quoted in the television report. "He lives what he teaches, so I'm hoping that that'll work to his advantage."

Mr. and Mrs. Mark Vockery in wedding day photo
A Cruz Roja spokesman said that the sea was sufficiently rough Friday that some other boats returned to port early. But the weather has been nearly perfect since. And still no sight of the craft. Also missing are Captain Harold González Rodríguez, his brother Danilo González Rodríguez, both in their 20s, and Mayel Gómez Alanís, a 16-year-old.

Vockery comes from a military family, and U.S. aircraft were expected to participate in the search. The Cruz Roja confirmed that a special high-altitude search plane from El Salvador was joining the effort.

Arguments for Enrique's authorship unconvincing
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

Distributors of a new message claimed to be from Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho say they have authenticated the note with secret sources. But they will not identify the sources.

They claim to be acting in the way a reporter acts. In fact, reporters generally try not to have secret sources because in protecting them one frequently ends up in jail.

An analysis of the news

The core of the argument is that "Only a trusted confidant or the individual himself can authenticate the one responsible for a message." This is part of a defense that came from the United and Concerned Citizens, a group of Villalobos creditors who support him.

Of course, that statement is not entirely correct. Handwriting experts can determine with a high probability who wrote a document. And scientific examination can reveal fingerprints on a document and its origin.

The matter would be crucial if the message said anything. But the message duplicates some that have come in the past: "Drop your charges against me or you will be the last ones paid."

A.M. Costa Rica has declined to publish news stories about similar messages in the past because editors did not know the source. The newspaper has published a news story based on a signed document from Luis Enrique Villalobos that was FAXed to the newspaper on the day the businessman closed up his high interest operation.

And the newspaper did publish a news story based on an e-mail that said it had come from Luis Enrique Villalobos and had been forwarded by a man who works for his brother Oswaldo. In both cases, the newspaper disclosed the source so that readers could judge.

This newspaper also did not publish a news story on a man who claimed to have spoken to Luis Enrique at his hiding place and promised to deliver box loads of money. Nor would the newspaper have accepted
advertising from the man without making a rigorous background check.

Freedom of the press allows newspaper editors to make their own decisions on what constitutes news and the way a news story shall be presented. Reasonable people may differ on the handling of news stories.

A.M. Costa Rica does not doubt the honor of those who present messages from Luis Enrique Villalobos. Most seem to be well-meaning. However, there has been a continual drumbeat from the first month since the Villalobos operation failed in which creditors are asked to withdraw or not file criminal complaints and trust Enrique.

Time has moved more than two years since the businessman vanished, and even the most steadfast friends could be forgiven for protecting their financial interests with a criminal filing.

This latest message also comes on the eve of a trial in which Oswaldo Villalobos will have to answer allegations of fraud, money laundering and illegal banking. The judges are unlikely to be gentle with a man who helped run an organization that cannot account for some $1 billion in creditor money.

In the note put forth by the United and Concerned Citizens, the writer, said to be Enrique, maintains his innocence and blames some hidden conspiracy. Of course the easiest way to stop the trial would be to pay off those who have filed the criminal complaints.

No one else has a valid claim on the Villalobos money. There are about 600 complainants with an estimated loss of some $84 million. And maybe this is the reason for the drumbeat to get creditors to withdraw their complaints.  Some have.

Meanwhile, it would be helpful if Enrique would simply apply his thumb print to the next message.

The Villalobos operations, when it was raided July 4, 2002, had about 6,200 active accounts. What the Villalobos brothers did with the money their mostly North American clientele gave them still is uncertain. It appears that the family brokered Colombian pesos in exchange for U.S. dollars. That is not unusual in that Oswaldo ran the Ofinter S.A. money exchange house.  Perhaps the true nature of the business will come out at the trial.

Violence so bad along Mexican border that U.S. closes consulate
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

NUEVO LAREDO, México — An armed battle Thursday between criminal drug gangs in the U.S.-Mexico border region and continued violence along that border has caused the United States to close its consulate here for one week starting Monday, said Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Garza said he decided to suspend all operations at the consulate except for emergency services for U.S. citizens.

"I have made this decision so that we can assess the security situation for our employees, American travelers to the region, and visitors to the consulate," Garza said in a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy Web site in Mexico City.

As part of the U.S. Embassy's security assessment, "we will be gauging what should be a swift and certain response from the government of Mexico, to bring this situation under control," the ambassador said.

Garza said that the security situation will be reassessed at the end of this one-week period, and "we will determine whether conditions will permit the resumption of normal consular operations in Nuevo Laredo."

News reports said a group of armed men arriving Thursday in several vehicles fired machine guns at a home on a street in Nuevo Laredo.  People inside the house were said to have returned fire with powerful weapons of their own, and a massive shootout followed.  The gun battle also involved the use of
 grenades and a rocket launcher.  No one was reported injured in the battle.

The closing of the consulate follows the U.S. State Department extending its previous warnings on travel to Mexico, citing increased violence on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Garza said last week that more than 100 violent deaths have occurred on the Mexican border since June.  Garza said 18 policemen in the Mexican state of Nuevo Laredo have been killed in 2005, including eight in July.

"These disturbing reports make clear that Mexico needs to do much more to bring safety and security to our common border," said Garza, who noted that the State Department had issued two previous warnings in 2005 on the subject of traveling to Mexico.

At the same time, the ambassador acknowledged that the Mexican government is beginning to address concerns about the "unacceptable level of violence along our border."  Putting an end to violence along the border is a "shared responsibility" of the United States and Mexico, he stressed.

As a "friend of Mexico and a partner in its struggle to restore order to the area," the United States is providing assistance to its southern neighbor's law enforcement agencies and regional governments, Garza said.

"A lot of hard work lies ahead in our common effort to put an end to lawlessness along our border," he added.

Venezuelan cardinal says that Hugo Chavez is a paranoid dictator
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The only cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church here is reported to have described the country's president, Hugo Chavez, as a "paranoid dictator."

The comments appear in Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper. In an interview with El Tiempo, Rosalio José Cardinal Castillo Lara said Chavez needs, quote, "an exorcism."

The cardinal, an outspoken critic of Chavez, said relations between the Catholic church and Venezuelan government are deteriorating.

A vast majority of Venezuelans are Catholic, and
Cardinal Castillo says the church enjoys greater credibility than the government.

Cardinal Castillo accused Chavez of rounding up scores of political prisoners, and he says there is no real democracy in the country. But, Chavez, who is up for re-election next year, maintains that he strongly supports a democratic system.

Local elections are scheduled in Venezuela this week, but the opposition claims the electoral process is rigged in favor of Chavez's supporters.

Cardinal Castillo was a high-ranking member of the Vatican staff of Pope John Paul II. He is now retired and living in Venezuela. He is well known as a critic of Fidel Castro.

Jo Stuart
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