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These story were first published Tuesday, Aug. 21

U.S. gets blame
for gun smuggling

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Arms smuggling is a growing problem in Latin America, and the United  States is the source of many of the weapons that are being bought and sold illegally in the underground market. 

That claim was the focus of a meeting  Monday of hemispheric police and public security officials in Rio de Janeiro. 

 There are no reliable statistics on the extent of illegal arms trafficking in  Latin America, but authorities believe it is on the rise. 

John Malone, who is the deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco, and Firearms, said many of the weapons sold illegally in Latin America come from the United States. He says last year his bureau traced  some 9,500 U.S.-made guns that ended up in South America illegally.  Another 5,000 guns were traced to Mexico alone. 

Malone says automatic and semi-automatic weapons are becoming the  top choice for smugglers and their customers. "We've had an inordinate  amount of AK-47 [assault] type of rifles," he said. "We've had a lot of  handguns. We've had a lot nine millimeters. In years past there were a lot of  38-caliber [revolvers] recovered, because that was the type of weapon that  had been manufactured for decades. They're still being manufactured, but  the weapons of choice recently have been the nine-millimeter,  semi-automatic type of handguns." 

These weapons end up in the hands of criminals, especially drug traffickers.  Street gangs in the big cities of Latin America also receive many of these  smuggled, American-made guns, Malone said, adding there is also evidence the Colombian guerrilla group, FARC, has been buying U.S.-made guns  on the black market. 

Malone said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is trying to  stop arms smuggling to Latin America at the source. "We've got more  agency personnel looking at it," he said. "We've enhanced our crime gun  analysis branch, so we can determine firearm trafficking patterns here in  South and Central America. What we want to do is find out where the guns  are coming from in the United States and stop the flow there, rather than  stop the flow on this end." 

Bureau investigations show many of the smuggled weapons originate from  the U.S. states of California, Florida, and Texas., Malone said. 

Malone is among several hundred delegates attending the two-day  conference in Rio de Janeiro on public security in South America. The  meeting, sponsored by the International Association of Police Chiefs, has  brought to together top security and police officials from the Americas to  discuss issues such as arms and drugs smuggling, money laundering, and  corruption. 

Turtle research

Professional Tortuguero guide Leo Jones demonstrates the articulation of the jaw and skull of a green turtle at Mawamba Lodge, which maintains a collection of animal parts for research. The green turtles are in the middle of their egg-laying season.  SEE BELOW
West Nile virus
suspected in Ontario

Canadian officials said Monday they were conducting tests on a dead crow found in Windsor, Ontario, in early August because preliminary tests showed the presence of the West Nile virus. 

A bluejay found in a town west of Toronto also showed signs of the virus. 

Mosquitoes transmit the virus to humans, but birds serve as a necessary intermediary. In some cases, the virus causes inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord and death.

The virus has killed nine people in the United States, but this would be the first appearance in Canada. 

The disease first appeared in New York in 1999 and prompted a strong but controversial public health response, particularly on Long Island, where some residents objected to the aerial spraying to kill the mosquitoes.

                From A.M. Costa Rica wire service

The turtle season is in full swing
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Nesting season is in full swing for the endangered Caribbean green turtle. The sprawling, unkempt 22-mile beach at Tortuguero is the most important Western Hemisphere site for this activity.

And tourism is booming because people come from all over the world to witness the fascinating process, despite darkness and sometimes reluctant turtles.

The Tortuguero nesting zone is the eastern side of a 1,500-meter-wide sand spit that runs north and south in northeast Costa Rica.

The major population center is the town of Tortuguero, which was founded, ironically, by turtle hunters in the middle of the last century. Now the town is a center for ecotourism. Residents work as guides. There even are life-size concrete statues of the famous turtle maintaining vigil downtown. 

The statues may be the only really good look tourists get of the turtles because all nesting activity takes place at night, and white lights are prohibited. The local guides may carry flashlights as they lead their charges single file through the darkened beach. But even these lights are covered with red tape to avoid scaring the sensitive turtles.

The female green turtle (chelonia mydas)  is easily 140 kgs. (more than 300 pounds). They resemble small Volkswagens as they pull themselves from the surf, trundle 30 or 40 meters up the dark beach and begin building a nesting pit in the sand. 

Frequently the crush of tourists is too great, and the timid turtle turns around and flees to the ocean.

The two-hour process dovetails nicely with rules imposed by rangers at Tortuguero National Park, which includes the beach front nesting sites. Local guides may take up to 10 adult tourists in a single group for the challenging beach walk in the dark.

Guides signal each other when a turtle appears, so up to 60 persons many eventually be clustered around a laying turtle. Rules allow up to 100 tourists on the beach at one time. Two such two-hour waves are permitted each night.  Tourists pay $10 each to join a group.

A number of lodges in the area can provide access to groups, and other guides work from the town itself. 

Turtles become less nervous once they begin laying their eggs in the tear-shaped sand pit . Most pits are about a half-meter deep (about 20 inches) and more than a meter (39 inches) wide. that's when tourists cluster around to view the actual egg-laying. The guide's red beam illuminates the process.

When done, the turtle covers and camouflages the nest, then makes tracks, literally, for the sea.

Costa Rica in 1975 established Tortuguero National Park, in part to protect the turtles. The 26,000 hectar (70,000 acre) park includes many canals and river channels famous for diversity of wildlife. 

From July through October, the main attraction is the green turtles. Some females may repeat the egg-laying process five to seven times, each time depositing 100 to 120 eggs. After about 60 days, the newly hatched turtles begin their race to the sea and their slim opportunity for survival.  Turtle researchers say that only one in 1,000 to 10,000 new turtles will return to spawn. The rest are killed by hunters, predators, shrimp nets or pollution.

During the hatching season that runs through Christmas, tourists can visit the beach on their own in the daytime to witness the 6 cm.-long (2 1/2-inch) turtles scurry to the surf—if they are lucky.

Researchers report that the number of nests turtles made on beaches between 1971 and 1996 have doubled, and the numbers of green turtles are on the upswing. They credit the creation of the park, conservation efforts and public awareness.

Tortuguero may be reached by private bus from San José coupled with a boat ride of more than an hour up the Tortuguero Canal. Travel agents have the information. Travelair maintains a Tortuguero route. The tourist rate is $100 roundtrip. Residents pay less. 

Websites of interest:

The official site of the Caribbean Conservation Corp.: http://www.ccccturtle.org

Mawamba Lodge is a well-maintained resort adjacent to the beach with a swimming pool: 


Tortuga Lodge & Gardens says it is the first hotel in the area. 


A web search turns up many pages on Tortuguero, including those of a number of hotels.

Gary Brooking, a member, and Bob Miller, president, both of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, get a daylight view of a green turtle, though concrete, during an association tour to Tortuguero last weekend.

All that is left at dawn on the Tortuguero beach are tracks showing that the turtles have come and gone. 


Cuba travel ban

may face U.S. vote

The U.S. Treasury Department, which just stepped up enforcement of the ban on travel to Cuba, is now being urged to pull back. Congress may vote to ease the restrictions as soon as next month, according to legislative sources. 

The ban on visiting the island has been on the books for years, to limit the flow of tourist money to President Fidel Castro's government. But the number of people charged with violating the law has recently risen sharply.

The enforcement has an effect in Costa Rica where many U.S expats make vacation trips to Castro's island. In addition, some U.S. residents use trips to Costa Rica as a disguise for trips to Cuba, although Mexico draws many more  such travelers.

Typically, the U.S. traveler buys a round-trip Cuban ticket with cash, and Cuban immigration officials conveniently fail to stamp the passport.

In the three months from May through July the Treasury Department sent letters to 443 U.S. citizens suspected of traveling to Cuba illegally. That compares to just 74 such letters in the previous four months. Those who can not prove their innocence can be fined up to $55,000, though lawyers say the average penalty is about $7,500.

The move has angered members of Congress, who would ease rather than tighten the 40-year economic embargo on Cuba. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan urged Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to call off the enforcement, which he says  makes no sense. 

"This new enforcement action is apparently an attempt to take a swing at Fidel Castro," he said. "All it really does is hit American citizens with fines that are horribly inappropriate for defying a travel ban that has largely been unaggressively enforced in recent years."

The Treasury Department says the surge of letters is part of an effort to clear a backlog, which began in the Clinton Administration. But President George W. Bush said he intends to strengthen the economic blockade. 

The House of Representatives, which the president's party controls, voted last month to stop the Treasury from enforcing the ban. Mr. Dorgan said he will propose to lift the restrictions outright when the Democratic-led Senate reconvenes next month. 

But Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies in the House leadership have stopped such ideas several times in the past few years. And Bush could veto any measure.

A.M. Costa Rica wires services contributed to this report.

Shark targets include three surfers

Three shark attacks occurred Sunday in the Daytona Beach area of Florida, not far from where sharks bit three surfers Saturday. 

None of the injuries was life threatening. Most of the attacks occurred in an inlet where sharks often gather to feed on smaller fish. 

One 17-year-old victim of Sunday's shark attacks will require leg surgery. Saturday's victims were contestants in a surfing contest. 

Shark fears have been heightened across Florida after a shark bit off the arm of an 8-year-old boy at Pensacola Beach in July. Surgeons re-attached the boy's arm.

via wire reports

IRA officials nabbed in Colombia 

Three men suspected of being members of the Irish Republican Army worked with local Colombian Marxist guerrillas to perfect a devastating fire bomb before their arrest a week ago in Colombia, according to police and intelligence sources.

British and Irish news reports said an investigation found that the three worked on the bomb with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Police found an unidentified residue on the men's clothing after their arrest that might be a form of Semtex, a potent explosive. Police arrested them when they returned from a FARC-controlled area.

Peter Robinson, a Democratic Unionist politician in Northern Ireland, claimed security sources had told him that tests were being carried out on vaporized explosives with the potential to obliterate buildings and kill anyone in their vicinity.  The bomb used a mixture of gas and explosives to produce a fireball similar to napalm, he said. 

From A.M. Costa Rica wire services
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