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These stories were published Monday, Sept. 29, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 192
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Juicy pulp can be spooned out, and the shells of the pitihaya can be used for a mixed fruit filling.
A.M. Costa Rica photo
The texture is the treat with the pitihaya
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

What fruit looks like a rutabaga or a red artichoke and goes well chilled with lemon? 

The answer is the pitihaya or pitahaya, the fruit of a species of cactus, that is generally available now in the markets.

The fruit sold here has a bright red juice and a mild taste. The juice can stain in the same way boiled beets can leave a bright red stain.

These baseball-sized spheres are called dragon fruit in English. The taste is second to the 

texture that is enhanced by the hundreds of tiny black seeds that are found in the red, fleshy interior. Some have noticed a similarity to the texture of kiwi fruit. The Latin name is Hylocereus undatus.

Although the fruit can be yellow, only red pitihaya are generally found in stores here. The inner flesh also can be white, but fruit with red flesh are generally available here.

Dragon fruit are found through much of the Americas from Texas south. They are heavily cultivated in Asia, and other countries are beginning to notice their commercial value.

U.S. congressional trade group gets a big jolt
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Five members of the U.S. Congress got a big jolt as they traveled to Costa Rica late last week.

The U.S. Air Force DC-9, carrying the five, a spouse and staff members took a lighting bolt in the right wing as the craft approached a refueling stop at McDill Air Force Base in Florida.

"We came at lightning speed," joked Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican. She and Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, explained that the lightning punched a small opening in the top of the wing but the exit hole was the size of a banana, "a Costa Rican banana."

The Air Force hustled and found another plane for the congressional trade delegation. Thompson noted that extensive work would have to be done to see what other damage the lightning strike may have caused to the framework and electronics of the craft. They were members of a bipartisan group headed by Rep. James Kolbe, an Arizona Republican. Other members were Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, and Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Republican.

They were in San José to visit with President Abel Pacheco, Alberto Trejos, the minister of Comercio Exteriores, and others about trade policy. Kolbe met with reporters at Casa Presidencial after meeting with Pacheco.

Kolbe said that the U.S. visitors expressed concern that Costa Rica lined up against the United States and other First World nations at the recent World Trade Organization summit in Cancun, México.

Kolbe also said that the Cancun outcome was a serious setback for a proposed free trade area 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Mike Thompson and Candice Miller have a book on Costa Rica for later study.

of the Americas, and he said he doubted that  such a treaty will be crafted in time for the deadline of 2005 that officials have set. He added that the members of the delegation held various views on trade.

Five Central American nations, including Costa Rica, are negotiating their own free trade treaty with the United States that is supposed to be concluded this December.

The members of Congress were off to El Salvador without seeing as much of Costa Rica as they would have wanted and might have had the lightning not given them a jolt.

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Canadian called leader of scientific marijuana lab
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Canadian author who has been in Costa Rica since 1999 is the leader of a marijuana-growing operation that used hydroponics in a Curridabat home, investigators said.

Policía de Control de Drogas identified him by the last name of Webb and said he was detained during a raid Friday. Also detained was a Costa Rican woman with the last names of Salas Cambronero, said police. 

Agents said that Webb has made repeated visits to Canada and last returned to Costa Rica at Christmas.

Police confiscated 407 marijuana plants and said that plants grown hydroponically have significantly more kick than plants grown in a field. Agents said this was the first discovery of a hydroponics marijuana lab in Central America.

The plants are genetically selected to have more than seven times the percentage of tetrahidrocanabinol, the chemical that makes marijuana hallucinogenic, they said. Agents said such marijuana can bring up to $300 an ounce on the street.

Hydroponics is when plants are placed in a sterile 

Ministerio de Seguridad Pública/Humberto Ballestero
Several sizes of plants were among those confiscated Friday.

environment and their roots are bathed with the necessary liquid nutrients through a system of pipes and tubes. Since these plants were indoors,  operators could control the environment of the plants using artificial lights.

Police said that Webb has been working on two books while he has been here.


 
Santa comes to town
just a bit early

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you like Christmas, you will love Costa Rica where the Christmas season begins before September ends.

Stores in downtown San José have changed their stock and now are pushing Christmas ornaments and accessories. Universal on the pedestrian boulevard has about a quarter of its first-floor space dedicated to the holiday that is still three months away. Nearby stores are more or less getting into the Christmas spirit.

PriceSmart also has Christmas stock. Retailers in the United States frequently get heat if they start promoting Christmas too soon. Thanksgiving, Nov. 27 this year, is the traditional kickoff for the U.S. Christmas season, although mass marketers always push the point.

No such calendar barriers delay Costa Ricans, and shoppers were in a Christmas frenzy Saturday holding true to the Tico shopping rule that is you want it — and you see it — you buy it or it may not be there tomorrow.

Bomb shreds crowd
in Colombian city

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

FLORENCIA, Colombia — Suspected rebel militiamen detonated a motorcycle bomb in a nightclub district here in western Colombia early this morning, killing 10 people and injuring nearly 50 others. 

Authorities said the bomb was detonated by remote control at 3:30 in the morning, when men and women were streaming out of restaurants and discos in this town. A local governor said two police officers and a 12-year-old boy were among the dead, and that a young girl had lost a leg. Although the bomb was not large, it exploded in a crowded area, and the impact was severe. 

Military officials immediately blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest Marxist guerrilla group. The FARC has a strong presence in the foothills surrounding Florencia, and kidnapped three American defense contractors in the region earlier this year. 

Florencia is also on the fringe of a former rebel haven ceded to the FARC during peace talks that collapsed in 2002. 

The FARC has seen its mobility restricted in recent months, due to stepped up military offensives, but it continues to carry out a deadly bombing campaign. The group has hit electricity pylons, military outposts and a prominent Bogota social club, and sometimes forces civilians to carry the explosives.

New rules set
for Chavez recall

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan electoral authorities have approved new rules for a referendum on President Hugo Chavez's rule. 

The National Electoral Council  issued the new guidelines late this week here. The regulations cover the way the Venezuelan opposition collects signatures for a petition demanding the referendum. 

Reports say that under the new rules, the government's opponents must obtain authorization from the council to start a new petition drive. The rules also call for limits on the amount of time the opposition has to gather the signatures. 

The opposition says it will probably begin its latest petition drive at the end of October. Earlier this month, the elections council threw out another petition for a recall, saying the more than three million signatures gathered were collected before the mid-point of the president's current term. 

Venezuela's constitution allows for a recall to be held after the president reaches the halfway mark of his term. President Chavez marked the mid-point of his current six-year term on Aug. 19. 

Chavez opponents say that under the new guidelines, a recall election could take place as early as February 2004. The council would set the election date if it accepts the new petition. 

Chavez's critics say he has ruined the economy and is trying to impose Cuban-style communism on Venezuela. The populist leader says he is working to improve the lives of the country's impoverished majority.

Bush and Duarte
meet in Washington

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The White House says President George Bush has met with his Paraguayan counterpart, Nicanor Duarte, for talks on a number of bilateral topics.

A White House spokesman says President Bush Friday praised Duarte for his strong leadership and efforts to reform the democratic and economic institutions in Paraguay.

The spokesman says the leaders discussed the countries' close cooperation in the war against terrorism. The White House has described the landlocked South American nation as a "strong ally." President Duarte took office last month.

Hurricane Juan 
targets Nova Scotia

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Weather forecasters say Hurricane Juan is heading north in the Atlantic and is expected to hit the Canadian province of Nova Scotia by late Sunday. 

The U.S. National Weather Service says the hurricane's winds reached about 165 kph Saturday.  That’s about 102 mph.

Forecasters say the hurricane is not expected to gain any more strength. 

Juan is a Category Two hurricane, in which winds reach 154 to 177 kph. That’s 95 to 110 mph.

Costa Rican bowler
leads first round

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Marie Ramírez of Costa Rica leads with a 227.0 average and 1,135 total pins after the first round of competition at the 2003 AMF Bowling World Cup under way at Planeta Sipango bowling center here. 

Mohammed Al-Qubaisi of the United Arab Emirates is the men’s leader. Al-Qubaisi, who won the 1988 Bowling World Cup, ranged between games of 183 and 258 to average 224.20 for five games. His 1,121-pin total is three pins better than that of  Jose Smeke Lopez of Mexico, who is averaging 223.60. 

The 1994 men’s champion, Tore Torgersen of Norway, is third with 1,115 pins and a 223.0 average. U.S. national champion Bill Hoffman is fourth with 1,104 pins and a 220.80 average. 

Hoffman also rolled the high game of the day, a 297 score. 

Some 75 men and 62 women are competing in this year’s Bowling World Cup. Play resumes Monday morning at 8 a.m., with the men returning to the lanes. The tournament concludes Oct. 4.

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Martin is likely candidate
Next Canadian prime minister must mend fences
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

OTTAWA, Canada — Former Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin is almost assured of becoming the country's next prime minister after winning the leadership of his country's ruling Liberal Party. Martin is expected to take over early next year, at a time when U.S.-Canadian relations have been strained by disagreements on a number of trade and foreign policy issues. 

Martin clinched the leadership of Canada's dominant Liberal Party a few days ago when his supporters won 90 percent of the vote at a series of nationwide internal party meetings. 

This means the 65-year-old former business executive will succeed Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who has announced he is stepping down next February, after 10 years at the helm. 

Martin was Canada's finance minister from 1993 to 2002. He is credited with erasing a massive budget deficit and restoring solvency to Canada's public finances as well as investor confidence in one of the world's largest economies. 

He said that as prime minister, he will work to reduce Canada's public debt and improve conflict-ridden relations between Canada's central government and the powerful provincial premiers. On foreign issues, Martin wants to increase Canadian aid to developing countries and give Canada an even larger role than it already has in international peacekeeping efforts. 

Analysts say he will also have to use his political skills to improve relations with the United States. 

These were strained, earlier this year, by Canada's refusal to participate in the U.S.-led war against Iraq and by other issues, such as Canada's plans to legalize same-sex marriage and marijuana. 

Barbara McDougall, a former Canadian foreign minister, who heads the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, based in Toronto, says, "I think first of all, Paul Martin will want to develop a very congenial relationship with the president of the United States. It has always been in our interest to have that kind of relationship. We don't have that at the moment. The second thing that he 

will want to do is strengthen our embassy in Washington. It's important that our ambassador in Washington be someone who is seen by senior officials to have a good relationship with the prime minister."

As prime minister, Martin will also have to deal with trade disputes that have sprung up between Canada and the United States despite the signature 10 years ago of the North American Free Trade Agreement comprising these two countries and Mexico. 

"The Americans have levied some tariffs on lumber exports from Canada to the U.S. That's a significant export industry in Canada," said Carl Sonnen, who chairs Informetrica, an economic analysis firm based here, Canada's capital. "Recently, we had a case of mad cow disease or BSE and exports to the U.S. were cut off for a time, they have been opened a little bit. More generally, the Americans have a list of irritants or complaints that they publish each year for every country in the world. In Canada's case, the cultural industries are something that they are not particularly happy about. They think of those as something we protect." 

Ms. McDougall says trade issues may also stand in the way of a positive relationship between Canada and developing countries, as shown by the recent dispute over agricultural subsidies at the World Trade Organization conference, in Mexico. 

"Agricultural subsidies are the real holdout on the part of the developed countries. The European countries all subsidize their agriculture, the United States does and so does Canada. The developing countries are never going to be able to trade and build their trade and build their exports unless they can export their agricultural products to the developed Western countries," she said. 

Ms. McDougall says the next Canadian leader has a head start in efforts to resolve trade issues between Western nations and developing countries. 

As Canada's finance minister for nine years, Martin helped start the G-21 group, which includes the world's largest economies as well as developing nations like India, China and Brazil. 


 
Major new anti-crime treaty goes into effect today
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A new treaty described as a landmark in the global fight against organized crime goes into effect today.

The U.N. drugs and crime office said 147 nations, including China, Russia, the United States and most Latin American countries, have signed the first legally-binding convention against trans-national organized crime. The treaty obliges states to adopt joint crime control measures against money-laundering, corruption, the obstruction of justice and taking part in an organized criminal group. It defines a criminal group as three or more people working together to commit serious crimes for material benefit, such as kidnapping for ransom, a problem in some Latin American countries. 

The treaty sets new rules on extradition and joint investigations, so that criminal activities can no longer be obscured by bank secrecy. 

The U.N. said organized criminal groups are using

new communication technologies to make enormous profits from the smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings, especially women and children. 

According to the United Nations, around 50,000 women and children are taken each year to the United States alone and forced to work as prostitutes or as servants. Eduardo Vetere, director of the UNODC Center for International Crime Prevention, says there are additional legal agreements in the treaty to combat this. "One of the specific offenses, for which there is also an additional protocol, because there are details, which could not be covered by the convention, is the protection against trafficking of human beings," he said. 

Vetere said other protocols are going into effect regarding the smuggling of migrants and illegal trafficking in firearms. 

The United Nations plans an international conference next year in Vienna to see how the convention is working.

Health experts getting ready for SARS, Round Two
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Top U.S. health officials said Friday they can't predict when and if another outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) will strike, but they'll be ready when it does.

"Preparedness is absolutely essential," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a news conference at the agency's Atlanta, Ga., headquarters. "We have to learn to expect the unexpected."

SARS, a previously unknown disease, first appeared in late 2002. By the first quarter of 2003, it had escalated into an outbreak most concentrated in several Asian nations, but appearing ultimately in 29 countries. More than 8,400 people took ill with the flu-like disease; almost 1,000 died.

Even as the global health community rushed during those first months to contain and control a poorly understood, virulent disease, it was evident that SARS was likely to follow the pattern of other respiratory ailments by becoming dormant in warmer months and re-emerging in colder months. With those colder months now drawing closer in the Northern Hemisphere, health officials are taking steps to respond more rapidly than during the first outbreak.

U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy G. Thompson explained the far-reaching effort. The Department of Health and Human Services "is continuing to work with the free market medical community as well as the scientific community to make sure that our nation will be fully prepared if SARS re-emerges," he said.

Gerberding said effective SARS preparedness depends on collaboration between laboratories, public health officials and ministers of health in many countries. "We're all talking about SARS preparedness collectively. One country or one agency can't do this alone. It requires global connectivity to be successful."

At the same time, significant research is under way at the nation's premier health research agency, the National Institutes of Health, to develop better tools for accurately diagnosing SARS and for curing it.

The institutes are screening existing antiviral drugs and other compounds to see if any of them will work against SARS, Thompson said. He said the various research agencies involved in this effort "have been able to go through more than 1,000 compounds. They plan to screen as many as 100,000 compounds." The screening process has identified some substances that show promise doing battle against SARS, and Thompson said more intensive research is under way.

Individual citizens can also contribute to the SARS prevention effort by getting a flu vaccine, health officials point out. SARS and flu are marked by similar symptoms: fever, headache, body ache, and respiratory distress. When presented with a coughing, feverish patient, health care providers 

need to be able to determine whether the illness is common flu or potentially fatal SARS as quickly as possible. Reducing the number of flu cases through a widespread vaccination campaign will help achieve that. Gerberding emphasized, however, that flu can be diagnosed definitively while such tests are still lacking for SARS, which is caused by a coronavirus related to flu.

These two prominent health officials were unwilling to offer odds on the probability of a SARS recurrence, but Gerberding seemed to have few doubts.

"As an infectious disease expert ... I've never seen a pathogen emerge and go away on its own, so I think we have to expect that somewhere, sometime this coronavirus is going to rear its ugly head again," Gerberding said. The director also indicated that Asia is a likely place for SARS to begin its re-emergence, though she said the past cannot be used to predict the future.

Whatever happens, Gerberding said the global health community is in a better position today to cope with SARS than when it first appeared as an unknown killer. In fact, she suggested that SARS may signify a new development in global health that will be marked by the frequent emergence of previously unknown diseases "[T]his preparedness for SARS is going to pay off sooner or later, because if it's not SARS it will be something else and we'll be ready for it."

Bad plumbing seen
as SARS transmitter

Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

A team of disease detectives working to understand more about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) reports that poor plumbing may have caused rapid SARS transmission earlier this year in a Hong Kong apartment building. The World Health Organization released those results of a technical consultation Friday. 

The findings also indicate that poorly designed or maintained plumbing could contribute to the spread of other diseases that are transmitted by highly infectious fecal droplets.

In the Hong Kong case during the 2003 SARS outbreak, it is now suspected that virus carrying fecal droplets spread through multiple apartments via sewage and drainage systems with strong upward air flows and inadequate seals. The committee does point out that most SARS cases appeared to be spread during close face-to-face contact. 

The World Health report finds that building conditions in many countries may expose residents to dangerous sewage. "Fortunately, solutions are simple and already in place in most areas worldwide, but there remain places where shortcuts in design, construction and maintenance continue to compromise safety," said Dr. Jamie Bartram, head of the organization’s Water, Sanitation and Health Program.

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