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(506) 223-1327        Published Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, in Vol. 6, No. 167       E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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Robber with gun kills Fuerza Pública officers
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two police officers died Tuesday when they tried to arrest a man suspected of stealing a laptop computer from a fellow bus passenger.

As the suspected robber got off the bus he started shooting and hit Johny Hidalgo Díaz, 24, in the chest and then shot him three more times in the back, officials said. Then he put three bullets into the stomach of fellow officer Cristian Zamora Murillo, also 24, officials added.

They said this is what happened:

The two policemen had stopped the San José-Pavas bus about 25 meters from the Liceo de Pava, and that is where the shooting took place about 9 a.m.

The gunman fled, but Zamora, mortally wounded, started chasing the man. He crossed paths with a municipal policeman who jumped in a car and started to follow the suspect.

The municipal officer soon was joined by a third Fuerza Pública officer, and the policemen chased the suspect to the vicinity of the Hospital Psiquiátrico in Pavas when the Fuerza Pública office got off some shots.

A gun fight ensued and the suspect fell to  the ground with a fractured pelvis and leg. 

Johny Hildalgo

Cristian Zamora

He was captured and taken to a nearby clinic.

He gave several names to police, who said he was a Nicaraguan and carried a residency card. Officials were going to seek fingerprints to make a positive identification. They also were going to see if he was responsible for a series of violent local robberies.

Meanwhile, back at the scene of the initial shooting rescue workers tried to save  Hidalgo, who died there. He entered the Fuerza Pública July 1, 2003, officials said.

Zamora went to Hospital San Juan de Dios where he died in the late afternoon. Zamora became a policeman Jan. 15, 2001.

They are the fifth and sixth policemen to die on duty this year.

Effort being made to change nation's wild highway culture
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez took note of the fact that normally tranquil Costa Ricans are anything but when they get behind the wheel of a car.

The bad news is that highway deaths are twice the murder toll, he said, pointing out that some drivers frequently jump traffic lights and direct their cars at pedestrians. "Really, it's grotesque," he said.

Arias and other officials were inaugurating the 18th annual week of road security Tuesday. And the president used the occasion to outline the changes his administration will seek in the traffic laws to make them more stiff.

The number of cars has nearly doubled in 10 years, and the highway network is small and deteriorating, Casa Presidencial noted.

The government will address both education and legislation. Karla González, minister of Obras Públicas y Transporte said that "We have to say enough and reinstall authority in the highways to save lives." Some 300 new Tránsito officers will be hired. The initial goal is to reduce highway deaths 19 percent.  Some 616 persons died in 2005 in highway mishaps, according to the ministry.

But officials also hope to change the culture of the highways. That's why school children were invited and the minister of Educación Pública, Leonardo Garnier, received material for a Brigada Vial, or road brigade that will be given to students. Teachers will discuss 

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
These youngsters from the Escuela Napoleon Quesada in Zapote check out their kits.

highway topics, safety and road deaths with students.

The changes sought by the Arias administration are contained in the strategic plan for road safety. Included are proposals for better inspection of school buses, support for the half dozen pedestrian bridges being constructed over main highways and changes in the penalties for violation of some traffic laws. Going through a red light now is a 5,000-colon offense, less than $10.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 167

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Plans for Heredia hospital
presented by Caja chief

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Heredia will get a new 200-bed hospital in 2009 if plans outlined Tuesday come true.

Eduardo Doryan, executive president of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social said that his organization is about to advertise for bids. In three months he said he expected to present the bids to the Caja board of directors. Construction could begin in 2007, he said.

Doryan was meeting with President Óscar Arias Sánchez and gave details of the project afterwards.

The new hospital will be the most secure in the country with anti-fire devices, he said. This was a clear reference to the fire that killed 19 last year at another Caja hospital, Calderón Guardia in San José where fire safety measures did not work.

The new facility will replace the 117-year-old Hospital San Vincente de Paúl. The location is 400 meters south of the existing hospital on 11 hectares (27 acres). The building will have 36,000 square meters of space (387,500 square feet).

Representatives of the following firms also were at the meeting because they are pre-qualified to bid on the job: Estructuras S.A., EDICA Ltda., Van der Laat & Jiménez S.A., Gonzalo Delgado S.A. and Consorcio Edificar S.A., said Casa Presidencial.

The Caja is the country's social security agency and provides free or nearly free medical services for most Costa Ricans.

A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Ana Durán Salvatierra, vice minister of Gobernación, cuts a ribbon to inaugurate the new lockup for illegal aliens.

Immigration is ready
to break in new jail

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It's a place that would strike fear into the heart someone without proper papers.

Done in institutional white and blue, the new immigration lockup does not look very friendly. But it is five-star luxury compared to the existing facilities.

Immigration and security ministry officials inaugurated the new jail Tuesday. It is in Hatillo, a southern suburb.

The place hasn't been used yet, so it is spiffy clean. That will change in the next 15 days as the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería begins to put detainees here.

The facility is designed to accommodate 150 persons, but Mario Zamora, the immigration director, said that only about 30 persons will be housed there at first.

There is a domitory-style cell each for men and women, three cells for families and three small cells for dangerous persons, officials said. The new lockup meets international standards.

The jail is being rented for 800,000 colons ($1,550) a month from the Iglesia Ciudad de Dios, which paid about 75 million colons (about $145,000) to constructed the facility. The initial contract is for one year.

Zamora said that the detention facility is designed especially for foreigners who are either dangerous or a flight risk. Others will not see the inside of a cell but have regulations to keep them available for immigration hearings.

Sometimes foreigners languish for two or more months in the immigration facilities while funds are located to deport them, said Zamora.

The current lockup is in the center of San José, but the facility it shared with a Fuerza Pública delegación is being returned to the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, the owner.

Stolen traffic light parts
blamed for traffic tieups

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Thieves are dismantling the aging traffic lights in San José as quickly as workers can repair them, according to transit engineers.

The public works ministry reported Tuesday that two more stop lights were rendered useless over the weekend. Thieves took electronic parts from one.

One light is near the Contraloría de la República in Sabana Sur. The other is on Avenida 10 at Calle 20. At that location, thieves took nearly 300 feet of cable that connects the stoplight with its controller.

The ministry said that damage to traffic lights is causing serious problems with traffic.

Mario Chavarría, director of engineers for the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte, said criminal reports have been filed on four other thefts of parts from traffic lights. These thefts took place during one week this month. These traffic signals were in Barrio Cuba and in Hatillo. He said that electric meters also are being stolen.

The engineering department came in for some bad publicity over the weekend when La Nación focused in on five nearby traffic signals. They were in Llorente de Tibás near the newspaper's facilities. The newspaper reported Tuesday that the traffic lights were not operating when an accident took place in the intersection Monday.

The ministry said that two teams worked all morning Tuesday to get the lights back into service. La Nación said no one was available to fix the lights Monday because the day was a holiday.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 167

Photo provided by the Ramírez family
Mar y Sombra
half gone

The bar of the famous Mar y Sombra restaurant no longer exists.

The beachside establishment in Manuel Antonio has been engaged in a land dispute for much of its 40-year existence.  A law passed in the 1970s states that all property within 50 meters of the high-tide mark is public property on which no building can rest.  Mar y Sombra sits inside this zone. At least it used to.  It is uncertain if the Municipalidad de  Aguirre will come after the rest of the structure.

Floating colon a concern even for insurance monopoly
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Business operators in Costa Rica have many questions about what will happened when the Banco Central changes the way it supports the colon currency.

And one of the biggest businesses is the Instituto Nacional de Seguros, the insurance monopoly. The institute known as INS has many investments as insurance reserves, and much of this is invested in the national financial market.

So the insurance monopoly set up a roundtable discussion Tuesday where the nation's top financial executives attended. There was no clear outcome, but the speakers outlined risks that citizens and business people will face under the new system.

For more than 20 years, the Banco Central has been defending the colon by establishing fixed daily rates for buying and selling the colon currency. The rates varied slightly among commercial banks. Someone with a stack of colons could go to sleep at night knowing that the cash would be worth only slightly less against the dollar the next morning. The rate to buy dollars on Aug. 1 was 514.96. Tuesday the rate was 516.25, a difference of just 1.29 colons or about a quarter of a U.S. cent.

In defending the colon and maintaining an artificial value for the colon, the Banco Central benefited the commercial banks, but the government agency went in the hole $2.8 billion. It covers this debt by printing more currency in colons, thus contributing to inflation.

As Francisco de Paula Gutiérrez, Banco Central president, and others explained Tuesday by December the exchange rate of the colon against foreign currencies including the dollar will be allowed to fluctuate within limits fixed by the Banco Central.

The limits are being called the floor and the ceiling. The gap between these two points will be between 4 and 5 percent, officials said. That means that the value of the colon could decline or increase that much in a short period.

If the value of the colon hits either of these limits, the
Banco Central will step in to either buy or sell dollars to defend the rate.

One concern is what is being called passive dollarization, meaning that nearly 55 percent of the debt in Costa Rica is expressed in dollars. But those who have this debt generally earn their income in colons. So, as financial officials noted, this puts them at great risk, be they individuals or companies. A significant change of the colon against the dollar could mean that the debtor would not be able to pay the creditor, they noted.

The speakers Tuesday agreed that to avoid abrupt change in the value of the colon a secondary market will have to be developed where companies and individuals can reduce the risk of rapid change.

Other countries with larger amounts of currency in the marketplace have the advantage of a futures market in currency where speculators guess at the future value of a currency and merchants can guarantee the exchange rate they will get at a date in the future.

But, pointed out the financial experts, no system, fixed or flexible, can solve the problem of the country's financial problems which are characterized by high public expenses when compared to income.

The Banco Central, for its part, wants the central government to take over its $2.8 billion debt.  The central government would be able to float bonds on the international market to cover the debt, something the Banco Central cannot do.

The Banco Central, it has claimed, would then reduce the amount of currency it prints and distributes because it will not have to use paper to pay its continuing debt.

The central government, on the other hand, already pays more than 50 percent of the annual budget in interest on the outstanding debt.

The insurance monopoly is facing yet another problem. A proposed law would open up the national insurance market to private competition whether or not Costa Rica embraces the free trade treaty with the United States.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, Vol. 6, No. 167

Ant from Costa Rica called world's fastest predator
By the University of California at Berkeley
News Service

A species of Costa Rican ant is entering the annals of extreme animal movement, boasting jaws arguably more impressive than such noteworthy contenders as the great white shark and the spotted hyena.

Biologists clocked the speed at which the trap-jaw ant, Odontomachus bauri, closes its mandibles at 35 to 64 meters per second, or 78 to 145 miles per hour — an action they say is the fastest self-powered predatory strike in the animal kingdom. The average duration of a strike was a mere 0.13 milliseconds, or 2,300 times faster than the blink of an eye.

A research team led by Sheila Patek, assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated the trap-jaw ant's mandible strikes with the help of advances in high-speed videography. The researchers published their results in Monday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They found that the jaws, used to capture prey and to defend the ant from harm, accelerate at 100,000 times the force of gravity, with each jaw generating forces exceeding 300 times the insect's body weight. The ants in this study had body masses ranging from 12.1 to 14.9 milligrams.

"You'd think the relevant number is the mandible closing speed, but it's actually the acceleration that is most impressive," said Professor Patek. "The acceleration is huge relative to the tiny mass of the mandibles. The mandibles are operating in the outer known limits in biology in terms of speed and acceleration."

Professor Patek acknowledged that falcons can dive as fast as 300 miles per hour, but that the raptors must start from very high altitudes and get a boost from the force of gravity to reach those speeds. In comparison, animals such as trap-jaw ants and mantis shrimp (which formerly held the record for swiftest strike in the animal world) utilize energy stored within their own bodies. The mandibles of the trap-jaw ant, for instance, are held cocked by a pair of huge, contracting muscles in the head. The muscles are sprung when their corresponding latches, each on a shield-like plate called the clypeus, are triggered.

"Having a latch system is critical in obtaining the explosive speeds," said Professor Patek. "In general, muscles aren't good at generating fast movements. If a person were to throw an arrow, it wouldn't get very far. But by using a crossbow, elastic energy is stored in the bow, and a latch releases the stored energy almost instantaneously. As a result, the arrow shoots out very fast and goes much farther. That's exactly what really fast organisms are doing."

It's no wonder, then, that the ants can launch themselves into the air with a mere snap of their jaws, achieving heights up to 8.3 centimeters and horizontal distances up to 39.6 centimeters. That roughly translates, for a 5-foot-6-inch tall human, into a height of 44 feet and a horizontal distance of 132 feet, an aerial trajectory likely to be the envy of circus acrobats and Olympic athletes.

The jump's trajectory depends on the purpose of the mandible's strike. When the ant, either alone or in a group, approaches and strikes a large intruder with its jaws, it is simultaneously catapulted away from the trespasser, perhaps leaving behind a crippled victim in the process. In these so-called "bouncer defense" maneuvers, the trap-jaw ants clear, on average, 22.3 centimeters horizontally, but only 0.8 to 5.7 centimeters vertically.

In comparison, when the ant needs to escape quickly from an intruder, it strikes its jaws against the ground to fling itself into the air. In these "escape jumps," the ant is jettisoned to heights of 6.1 to 8.3 centimeters, but just 3.1 centimeters horizontally.

Escape jumps also yield a faster initial spin rate, 63 revolutions per second, compared to the relatively slow spin rate of 36 revolutions per second for bouncer defense jumps.

Study co-author Andrew Suarez, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that when the ants jump to escape from harm, they are airborne from 0.22 to

Photo courtesy Alex Wild/
In addition to whole-body locomotion, trap-jaw ants use their powerful mandibles to capture prey. 

0.27 seconds, often long enough to keep them away from a lizard's tongue, which takes 0.11 to 0.28 seconds to strike.

The researchers suggest that the "popcorn effect" of multiple ants jumping at once may also serve to help them escape by confusing potential predators. Suarez, along with study co-author Brian Fisher, associate curator and chair of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences, witnessed this jumping frenzy first-hand when they were in Costa Rica collecting the worker ants for this study. The ants are common in Central and South America.

The researchers said the difference in aerial trajectories may be more a function of the angle at which an ant's mandibles hit their target rather than an intentional maneuver, although that is something they intend to investigate further.

Perhaps less impressive is the ants' apparent inability to control the direction of their jumps, or even their orientation when landing. Yet, the researchers note that even when an ant lands on its back or head, the insect is so light that it can still walk away no worse for wear.

That the ants use their jaws for both capturing prey and for defense is a notable example of multi-functionality. The trap-jaw ant, like other ants, initially used its mandibles only to catch its dinner, but along the way in its evolutionary history, whole body locomotion was added to the jaws' repertoire.

"O. bauri appears to be rather unusual among trap-jaw ants in that it definitely uses its jaws for functions other than prey capture, namely defense," said Suarez. "It remains to be seen if other trap-jaw ants have co-opted their high speed mandibles for other purposes."

While many examples of multi-functionality exist among other animals — bird feathers are used for both heat regulation and flight, for example — the researchers note that the spring-latch system for the jaws has evolved a remarkable four times in ants, at least, and perhaps twice in evolutionary history has the system been used for propulsion. These multiple independent origins of such structures — a rare occurrence in evolution — offer insights into how novel behaviors may evolve in biology.

The researchers used a high-speed video camera filming at 50,000 frames per second to visualize the mandible movements. The jumps were detailed at a relatively slower 3,000 frames per second. Motion pictures, by comparison, are typically shot at 24 frames per second.

"The debate about whether these ants were intentionally using their jaws to jump or not date back to the late 1800s, but no one was able to prove it until now," said Patek.

Joseph Baio, a researcher at Berkeley's Department of Integrative Biology, also co-authored the study.

Protesting teachers in southern México tell parents to keep kids home
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Striking teachers and other protesters have blocked streets and taken over radio stations in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca.

The protests began with a teachers strike to demand higher wages three months ago and have escalated into a campaign to force the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, to resign.
Monday was to be the first day of school in Oaxaca. Teachers took over radio stations and broadcast messages telling parents to keep children at home.

Protesters also set fire to several buses and blocked highways, gas stations and bus terminals.

Early Monday, there was a shooting attack on a radio station that had been taken over by protesters earlier this month.

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