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These stories were published Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 195
Jo Stuart
About us
A.M. Costa Rica photo
The afternoon is foggy at the Plaza de la Cultura because warm and hot air mixed.
Passport dispute might be a blow to tourism
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In a dispute that will have long-term effects on tourism, Costa Rican lawmakers are still not sure that they will allow U.S. and Canadian citizens to enter the country without a passport.

That is the practice now, and tourists from those two countries need only a birth certificate or other official, government-issued document to obtain a tourist card at airports in Costa Rica.

That card is valid for 90 days just as if the bearer had brought a passport.

Costa Rica is passing a new immigration law that does not contain the present administrative exemption for U.S., Canadian and Panamanian citizens. For a brief period, Costa Rica enforced the passport rule earlier this year with chaotic results.

A number of U.S. tourists had to quickly obtain passports, and that meant driving to a major city where passports were issued overnight. Others cancelled trips. 

The United States, too, has tightened the issuance of passports. The fee for an adult passport is $85, and if a citizen is caught in a crunch, expedited service cost $60 more.

Some tourist operators believe that the need for a passport and the expense might send U.S. and Canadian travelers to other countries.

Some lawmakers share that view, so a change was proposed in committee to allow for an administrative exemption for U.S., Canadian and Panamanian citizens who arrive by air. This would let the visitors to continue using a driver’s license or other official document 

instead of a passport. This was reported by A.M. Costa Rica Sept. 19.

The issue is particularly crucial in the north Pacific beach communities which are being 

marketed to North America as quick and easy tourist locations with direct flights into the Daniel Oduber International Airport.

However, the Defensoría de los Habitantes and the Procuraduría General de la República, the country’s  legal 

department, have come out against the change.  So have deputies of the Partido Acción Ciudadana, and they have sought an advisory ruling from the Sala IV constitutional court.

The dispute is tied up with the current concern for the protection of children because some officials believe that foreign criminals and pedophiles will find it easier to use fake driver’s licenses or birth certificates instead of a full-blown passport.

There also is a sense of getting even. The United States recently required Costa Ricans to get a transit visa even if they just briefly touch a U.S. airport on a flight elsewhere. 

So the exemption is tied up in committee until the Sala IV ruling and until deputies decide what to do. The measure already has been approved on first reading, but a second and final committee vote is needed. Then the full assembly must vote.

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Was he here for dialogue or to give a warning?
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Robert B. Zoellick said that he is far from being disappointed with his discussions with Costa Ricans, but he left a lot of concerns in his wake.

Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, met with officials, businessmen and President Abel Pacheco Wednesday in a whirlwind visit. Although he spoke in carefully chosen diplomatic phrases, Costa Ricans heard that the country might be left out of any free trade pact with the United States.

The issue is the opening of the telecommunications market in Costa Rica, something officials here say they will not do. The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad is the most powerful single entity in the nation, and it wants to stay that way. With its subsidiaries, it is the telephone, Internet, power and telecommunications monopoly. It also runs a big annual deficit.

"The younger generation will need a better telecommunications system than their parents," Zoellick told reporters after meeting with Pacheco. Still, he said the purpose of his visit was to have a dialogue. Using the example of the nation of Jordan, Zoellick noted that free trade stipulations such as the strengthening of intellectual property rights mean jobs, not just in the United States but in the nation on the other side of the treaty. These rights insure the protection of literary, musical, software and similar creations.

In discussing agriculture, the Bush cabinet member said "We all have sensitive sectors together" and these may have to be protected for a time. Zoellick noted that the proposed treaty would not be in full force for 15 years.

A.M. Costa Rica photo
The trade rep gives his views

Zoellick left for El Salvador Wednesday afternoon, and he has plans to visit Nicaragua, too. His visit is meant to generate support for the Central American free trade treaty with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, particularly in light of the diplomatic meltdown in world trade talks at Cancun in September.

The policy of the Bush administration is that free trade generates jobs and reduces poverty. Opponents see a trade treaty as U.S. economic imperialism.

A.M. Costa Rica/Wendy Bishop Strebe
This is the guy who can surprise you.

Once in awhile
neighbor drops in

By Wendy Bishop Strebe
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

What do you do if you are a guest at a jungle lodge on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, walking up the trail to your cabina, and you see a sloth hanging out in a tree within three feet of your face? 

Do you scream and run?  Do you try to pet it?  Do you grab your camera for a photo op.  Do you stand in wonder at the amazing creature staring back at you, and count your blessings that you were in that particular place at that moment in time?

This is a common dilemma at Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.  Everyone wants to see a sloth, but few actually know how to handle the unexpected close encounter.  Of course, many guests forget to look around them as they are traveling up and down the trail.  The things they are missing when in a hurry on this particular path may elude them forever.

The sloth, of the anteater and armadillo family, is a remarkable creature that lives primarily in trees. Unlike armadillos and anteaters, sloths are rather endearing. Sloths come down from the canopy, occasionally, to take care of necessary needs and then climb back up.  It is truly a gift to get to see one of these unusual creatures up close.  Never, under any circumstances, touch a wild sloth or attempt to bother it, experts warn.  They have very long claws and are not interested in playing with humans.

If you have spent your time in Costa Rica traversing concrete lined streets and you haven’t been fortunate enough to see a sloth in the jungle, you need to make the effort.  Common in Talamanca, sloths are unforgettable.

Mrs. Strebe is from Puerto Viejo de Limón and operates the Cashew hill Jungle Lodge there.

Our readership hits
record in September

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Steady readership of A.M. Costa Rica reached its highest point in the two-year history of the electronic daily newspaper in September.

According to independent statistics from the newspaper’s Internet service provider, 55,317  "sessions" were logged. The user session statistic can be seen as equivalent to "unique visits," according to the definitions maintained by the statistical program.

The sessions statistic was 123 higher than the previous high. That was in January at the height of reader concern about the failure of the Villalobos Brothers financial operation and others. 

Total hits for September were 894,788, still lower than the 908,726 hits registers also in January.

Total statistics for the year are available HERE and always linked to the front page.

In addition to being a success story for the newspaper, the increased demand for Costa Rican news signals a resurgence of economic activity. The expat economy has taken blows from the failure of the high-interest financial operations here as well as world economic woes and tourism concerns due to terrorism.

Homeland Security
moves in on State

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Homeland Security is taking authority for most visa policy, under provisions of the Homeland Security Act passed in 2002. Homeland Security and the Department of State have completed a memorandum of understanding which defines the new relationship between the two agencies. 

Homeland Security will establish visa policy and ensure that security requirements are fully reflected in the visa process. The State Department will continue to manage the consular corps and the visa process. 

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary  of Homeland Security, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday to explain the new arrangements developed by the two agencies. He said the policy changes are based on the premise that the visa process is the "forward-based defense of the United States against terrorists and criminals." 

The law allows Homeland Security to assign its own personnel to embassies to oversee visa issuance. They are already on duty at the embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Hutchinson said. 

"The Saudi team has already provided valuable assistance and expert advice to consular staff in Riyadh, confirming two fraud cases and providing training to consul officers on fingerprinting techniques and fraudulent documents," Hutchison said

Ibero bloc a possibility

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

ESTORIL, Portugal — Officials from Spain, Portugal and at least 19 Latin American countries met here Wednesday to discuss the creation of a political bloc that would give them a stronger voice on the world stage. 

The meeting, involving leaders from the Ibero-American nations, took place in this western Portuguese town.  Officials from the group have been meeting since 1991, but have yet to create a permanent bloc that would speak with one voice.  The issue is expected to be high on the agenda when the Ibero-American leaders re-convene next month in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. 

Jamaica has a freeze

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Jamaica has ordered an immediate hiring freeze on all public sector jobs in the Caribbean country. The finance ministry says it ordered the freeze due to rising wage costs and growing deficits.

The move comes nearly two months after Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson suspended the hiring of government consultants for similar reasons. Jamaica faces a $238 million deficit in its budget this year.

U.S. food going to Cuba

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A leading U.S. farm cooperative has signed an agreement to sell $8 million in corn and soy to Cuba. Officials with Iowa-based FC Stone signed the agreement Monday in Havana. A company spokesman says FC Stone has sold $33 million in food to Cuba since late 2001.

Cuba started buying food from the United States in 2001 after Washington eased its trade embargo on the Communist island to allow U.S. farm producers to sell their goods directly to Havana for cash. 

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Campaign urged to demand quick trial
Rights workers worry that Ríos Montt will win
By Nicole Gamble*
Written for Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center www.americaspolicy.org

The Guatemalan Constitutional Court's recent decision to allow ex-dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt to run for president in 2004 could be disastrous for the indigenous communities and human rights workers trying to bring him to justice for acts of genocide in the early 1980s.

On July 14, the Constitutional Court voted 4-3 to allow Ríos Montt's candidacy in the election slated for Nov. 9. A run-off election was set for Dec. 28, should no one candidate score a majority.

The courts had previously ruled to deny his eligibility twice before, in 1990 and 1995. According to Article 186 of the 1985 Constitution, leaders of coup d'etats are not eligible to run for president. Moreover, to prevent powerful political leaders from undoing this article, an additional caveat was included in the provision stipulating that it cannot be amended. However, the Achilles heel of Article 186 may be what Ríos Montt and his supporters have long argued: that the 1985 law cannot be applied retroactively.

Ríos Montt came to power by coup in March of 1982 and ruled through August of 1983, when his defense minister deposed him. He currently is president of the Guatemalan Congress. The Constitutional Court's decision has sparked heated controversy, with many claiming that the bench was stacked in Ríos Montt's favor. 

Since 1995, Rios Montt's party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), has controlled the appointments of several justices. Additionally, what should have been a random lottery process for selecting the justices to hear the case regarding Rios Montt's eligibility was in fact conducted in private by the Constitutional Court's president, a former minister in the FRG government and childhood friend of current President Alfonso Portillo.

In a recent report from the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Anabella de Len, a council member of the Gran Alianza Nacional political party responded to the decision by claiming that all the legal processes in the country have been "strangled."

This is not the first time that ex-dictator Ríos Montt's actions have been shrouded in controversy. According to human rights organizations both in Guatemala and internationally, Ríos Montt has long been known as one of the worst human rights abusers in Latin America, and his government presided over some of the worst acts of genocide in Latin American history. Guatemala's civil war produced more casualties than the so-called "dirty wars" of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile combined.

As dictator of Guatemala, Ríos Montt carried out what is known as the "scorched earth" policy. This policy was first established by the man he overthrew, former dictator Gen. Romeo Lucas García, who was president from 1978 to 1982. In the scorched earth campaign, the indigenous Mayans were not only subjected to torture, rape, and execution, but were also forced to flee their homelands into the highlands with insufficient means for survival. Many of those fortunate enough to survive massacres died later from starvation, hypothermia, disease, or bombardment by army helicopters.

The scorched earth campaign purposefully meant to leave few, if any, Mayan survivors. Its henchmen spared no one. Over 300,000 children were orphaned. Pregnant women had their unborn babies torn from their wombs without anesthesia in hopes of what was termed "destroying the seed." Homes and crops were also destroyed, and water sources were poisoned. At the same time, 1 million Guatemalans were displaced and many forced into exile. By the end of the Ríos Montt and Lucas García regimes, Guatemalan security forces had massacred approximately 132,000 Guatemalan civilians and razed an estimated 440 Mayan villages.

In 1997, a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission published a report that implicated the Lucas García and Ríos Montt regimes in years of genocide. 

The Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory Project Report confirmed the conclusions of the U.N. Truth Commission and went beyond the previous report to explicitly accuse Lucas García, Ríos Montt, and their respective military high commanders of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Following the findings of both the U.N. and the Catholic Church, the 23 indigenous Mayan communities that suffered the brunt of the scorched earth campaigns have unified as in the 

Association for Justice and Reconciliation to condemn the actions of the state under the two dictators. Aided by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action, the Mayan communities have filed two unprecedented complaints, against Lucas García in May 2000, and against Ríos Montt in June 2001. Both also name members of the military high commands under the dictators.

Analysis on the news

The two groups based their legal complaints against both the regimes on the fact that since 1973, the Guatemalan Criminal Code allows for the prosecution of individuals suspected of genocide. Articles 376 and 378 define the legal basis for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Article 376 reflects international laws by adopting almost verbatim the prohibition of genocide included in the 1948 U.N. Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

"Genocide is hard to prove," stated Christina Lauer de Pérez, an attorney at the Center for Human Rights. Consequently, the case is still in the investigative phase. Since May 2000, the center and the special prosecutor for the Attorney General's Office have been interviewing the 101 survivors and witnesses to the atrocities committed in the communities represented in the Mayan communities. With depositions from the 23 villages completed, the two groups and the special prosecutors are merely waiting for the additional physical evidence before bringing the case to trial.

Before the testimonial phase of the case, investigators carried out numerous exhumations. Teams of forensic anthropologists worked at various massacre sites searching for anything from clothing scraps to ballistic evidence or military weapons left behind, which would provide evidence of military involvement in the massacres. Forensic reports from all of the exhumation sites have not yet been completed, but the center hopes to receive them by the end of this year.

Additionally, the center is still waiting for reports from academic specialists in the specific regions of the massacres. These reports will provide important information on the context of the massacres and will be used to show patterns in the systematic killings. Currently, reports for three out of the five regions in question have been completed and the remaining two are expected by the end of the year.

CALDH and AJR aim to have the cases on trial by the end of the year. "We are into the final investigations," Lauer commented. "We would expect by the end of the year to have enough evidence to initiate the trial." She said the goal is attainable, providing Ríos Montt is defeated in the presidential campaign. Were Ríos Montt to win the upcoming election, his immunity as a democratically elected president would make it nearly impossible to press charges.

According to the center, international support is essential for convicting both dictators. In cooperation with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA,the center has recently launched an international postcard campaign. Concerned citizens in hundreds of cities across the United States, Canada, and the UK are sending postcards to the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office to denounce the actions of Lucas García and Ríos Montt and to demand a transparent, expeditious trial in Guatemala. The postcards have been collected in Guatemala for presentation to the attorney general in a public forum this autumn.

Proving that election fraud is still a very real concern, the U.N., the Organization of American States, the European Union, as well as many international and Guatemalan civil society organizations will be conducting formal observations of the Guatemalan elections. Currently, Ríos Montt lags in polls by only 3.3 percent.

For more information:

To participate in the postcard campaign:

Genocide prosecution details from the Center for Human Rights Legal Action http://www.justiceforgenocide.org/

Guatemalan presidential elections http://www.prensalibre.com/especiales

*Nicole Gamble served as the summer coordinator of the GHRC genocide case campaign <ghrc-usa@ghrc-usa.org>.

The article here has been abridged slightly for space. See full article online at:

Diving Safaris Costa Rica photo
Clean-up participants display the haul of trash they collected from the beach
Playa Hermosa sweep attracts nearly 100 workers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica*

Dozens of volunteers and businesses turned out in force Sept. 20, for the annual Playa Hermosa Beach Cleanup put on by Diving Safaris Costa Rica. Nearly 100 residents of the Guanacaste resort community scoured the sands both on shore and underwater to rid the beach and surrounding area of garbage, while just under 30 area businesses donated cash, clean-up supplies, t-shirts, food, drinks and prizes for the event.

The cleanup in Playa Hermosa is scheduled each year to coincide with International Cleanup Day, which normally takes place during the third weekend in September. Diving Safaris hosts the event as part of its support for PROJECT AWARE, an environmental awareness program run by the international recreational dive association, PADI International.

"This was our most successful beach cleanup ever, especially because of the huge number of kids who came to help out," said Diving Safaris owner Earl Gibbs. "It shows we’re getting the message out early that a litter-free community is a better place to live."

Indeed, three-quarters of the people who came out to clean up were children this year, thanks in large part to the event’s chief coordinator, 14-year-old Kelley Mae Gibbs, who made a special effort to invite kids to participate. "If kids know early that 

a clean environment is important, then I think they will be more responsible when they grow up," she said.

The kids and adults who participated gathered an estimated 400 pounds of garbage over a four-kilometer area on and around the beach, filling about 15 large trash bags in four hours. They picked up mostly empty bottles, cans, food containers, straws, plastic spoons and cigarette butts. But there were a few strange items as well, including a cement sculpture of a headless rooster.

Afterwards, the volunteers headed to Diving Safaris for hot dogs, hamburgers and a post-cleanup raffle. Among the prizes, donated by business operators in Hermosa and nearby towns, were scuba lessons, sailing trips, dinners for two, pizza, professional underwater photos and free Internet time. "We had great support from the business community," said Gibbs. "Virtually everyone in Hermosa, from the smallest shop owners to one of the two largest resorts, donated something for the event."

When the day was done, the cleanup had raised $267 (108,000 colones) from cash donations and raffle ticket sales. The money was given to the Playa Hermosa Beach Association to continue the effort to keep the beach clean. 

*This article and photo are courtesy of Diving Safaris Costa Rica.

N.Y. bank takes fall for failing to report suspicions
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C.  — A U.S. bank has pleaded guilty to failing to file a "Suspicious Activity Report" in a case involving a Colombian national who had set up an independent foreign currency exchange business in Colombia's capital city of Bogota.

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  said the New York-based Delta National Bank and Trust Co. pleaded guilty in a U.S. District Court in Baltimore to one count of failing to file the report. As part of its plea agreement with the government, Delta National will forfeit $950,000 to the United States.

Immigrations and Customs, the primary investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Delta National opened accounts in December 1998 for the Colombian national, whom the agency did not identify, at the bank's Miami branch office. Since the mid-1990s, this customer had operated the foreign currency exchange business. ICE said that, typically, the purpose of foreign currency exchange businesses is to act as a broker between customers who have U.S. dollars and wish to purchase Colombian pesos, and vice versa.

Immigrations and Customs said such businesses in Colombia have been identified by Delta Bank's principal regulator, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and other U.S. federal agencies, as a "high risk" for laundering the proceeds of illicit narcotics trafficking and other criminal activity.

Immigrations and Customs said the Colombian helped fellow countrymen with transactions at 

Delta National that were conducted as part of the foreign currency exchange business. The agency said Delta National was aware of this assistance but failed to file a report of the transactions. The total amount involved in the foreign currency exchange transactions that required reporting was between $5 million and $10 million, said Immigrations and Customs.

In simple terms, money laundering consists of conduct or acts designed in whole or in part to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of money to avoid a transaction-reporting requirements under state or federal law. Laundering is used to disguise the fact that the money was acquired by illegal means.

One of the U.S. Department of Treasury's three entities involved in combating money laundering, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, said that "dirty money" can take many routes, with the ultimate goal being to disguise its source. The money can move through banks, check cashers, money transmitters, businesses, casinos, and even be sent overseas to be transformed into clean, laundered money.

The tools of the money launderer can range from complicated financial transactions, carried out through webs of wire transfers and networks of shell companies, to old-fashioned currency smuggling, the enforcement network said.

The network said in its strategic plan for 2003-2008 that one of its major goals is to support efforts to eliminate safe havens for money laundering and terrorist financing worldwide. Its mission will be accomplished by "networking governments, people, and information, both domestically and internationally," the unit said.

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