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(506) 2223-1327               Published Monday, Oct. 12, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 201          E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Believe it or not, the little green dots represent the epicenters of earthquakes in Costa Rica from 1985 to 2008, based on a new map released last week by the Red Sismológica Nacional.

Arrows show the direction of tectonic plates that are causing many of the quakes.
Earthquake map

Preparation lacking for those inevitable earthquakes
By Garland M. Baker
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Even though it is common knowledge that Costa Rica is a seismically active country, not everybody knows that it is the third country in the world with the highest seismic activity. In fact, it is the most seismic nation in Central America. One would expect that in a country ranking among the first earthquake-prone nations, its government and population would be decently prepared.

However, Costa Rica might also be among the least prepared countries to deal with seismic disasters, which directly threatens not only its citizens but also its growing Expat community.

They say the best way to predict the future is looking at the past. From the time important events started getting recorded as news (the beginnings of 1900s), Costa Rica has documented rough encounters with its seismic reality, from which the following events are the most significant:

May 4, 1910. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake shook Cartago (the country’s capital at the time),  destroying the city, causing between 400 and 700 deaths and leaving hundreds injured. This is the earthquake with most casualties so far. A photographic account is provided by a North Carolina man who posted family photos of the event.

March 4, 1924. Orotina – a town located west of San Jose, 30 minutes from the Pacific Coast – suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, causing the highest level of destruction ever recorded in Costa Rica, and killing 70 people.

Oct. 5, 1950. A 7.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the second biggest city in the northern Pacific province of Guanacaste, releasing the most tectonic energy ever recorded in the country and killing dozens of people.

April 22, 1991. Limón – the biggest city in the Caribbean province with the same name – was shaken by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, causing major structural damage and 50 casualties.

Jan. 8, 2009. A 6.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed the mountain town of Cinchona – in the province of Alajuela – killing 23 people, leaving 7 people missing and injuring dozens, plus changing the area’s landscape and scenic attractions after causing 180 landslides.

Looking into how the government has responded to the latest seismic event, one can foresee what the future holds. The Cinchona earthquake caused 280 billion colons ($482 million) in damages. It destroyed 30 kilometers of roads from Los Cartagos to Cariblanco, of which five kilometers disappeared. Only 40 of the surviving people have obtained government housing and 300 are still waiting in relatives’ homes. 261 families are scheduled to receive their homes in July or August of next year. So far, the government has been sending money to 500 families to rent apartments in nearby towns, but in the next few weeks, the Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social  will continue helping only priority cases.

Now more than nine months after the Cinchona quake, President Óscar Arias Sánchez and Vanessa Rosales of the national emergency commission inaugurated a new location for the town. That happened Friday. The location is in Ujarrás de Cariblanco in Alajuela province. The 60 hectares (148 acres) cost nearly $1 million and will accommodate 93 families who were earthquake victims. Arias thanked the families for their great patience and said that construction would begin soon.

Meanwhile, the emergency commission finally has begun distribution of construction materials to help other victims repair damage. The first delivery of concrete blocks and concrete was in Santa Bárbara de Heredia at the end of September.

In general, surviving victims say government assistance has been insufficient. Irregularities involving the emergency commission response and operations have been reported, including inefficient distribution of goods donated by the population to the affected area. There was overspending on construction materials two years ago for disaster prevention projects that were never completed and are not being used to relieve the housing needs in Cinchona. There also is the general lack of disaster action planning and retention of funds donated by
the Costa Rican population to the earthquake victims who still need them.

The question is when a disaster like the one in Cinchona occurs in the Central Valley, who is going to control effectively the money destined for emergencies

Multiple warnings have been given by experts through the media for years. A major earthquake has been predicted by the experts for the area of Nicoya since the 1990s, and the population has been sufficiently informed by newspapers and news programs since then.

For example, A.M. Costa Rica reported Sept. 7 that a new Universidad de Costa Rica report characterized the nation as a web of quake faults. Although residents of the Nicoya Peninsula are reminded periodically that a major earthquake is likely there, Costa Rica also has at least 150 local faults that can cause serious damage, the Red Sismológica Nacional, an agency of the Universidad de Costa Rica has warned.

The last earthquake recorded in Nicoya was the one in 1950, and they are expected to occur every 50 years. The peninsula is supposed to be lifted 1.5 meters, but the event will not produce a major tsunami like the one in Asia in 2004, only a minor one due to the lifting of the land.

Big tsunamis are formed only when the ocean floor is lifted. When the shore land is being modified, the ocean does not react as strongly. The towns where most destruction is expected are Filadelfia and Santa Cruz, since they are located in an area where the fault is closest to the surface. This will create a liquefaction effect due to sandy soil characteristics. This earthquake will also be felt in San José, more strongly than the event that occurred in Limón in 1991.

The Red Sismológica Nacional report said that the Cinchona aftermath showed that the country lacks a clear policy on construction. Many of the deaths in Cinchona happened because the land gave way beneath structures.

The Red Nacional said that an important step would be having the nation implement a system of risk management. Such a proposal has been presented by the Colegio de Geólogos de Costa Rica to the central government and to the national emergency commission.

The largest seismic hazard along the whole Central American region is located in the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Three tectonic plates converge underground: the Cocos, Nasca and Panama Block. Besides, there are important faults all around the south Pacific territory.

San José is the city with the highest seismic risk in Central America, followed by Guatemala City and San Salvador, due to deficiencies in building structures and urban planning. In addition, greater San José hosts 2.5 million people, 57 percent of the total population in the country.

Of great concern is the road chaos an earthquake would cause in the Central Valley. Experts from the Laboratorio Nacional de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales determined that most bridges in the valley are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, a condition evidenced in most bridges after the 7.7 magnitude earthquake in Limón. The lab will issue a seismic code for bridge constructions in 2010 which will complement the new edition of the general seismic code.

Not surprisingly, Escazú and Santa Ana, areas where most expats live — besides the Pacific Coast — are located over many tectonic faults, and many real estate projects are in high risk of landslides. Ms. Rosales of the national emergency committee said that developers should not be frightened by Costa Rica’s earthquake hazard. Instead, they should just follow the seismic code and environmental recommendations when building.

However, a country completely unprepared for expected and recurrent hazards presents a problem to any foreign investor.

Garland M. Baker is a 37-year resident and naturalized citizen of Costa Rica who provides multidisciplinary professional services to the international community.  Reach him at  Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica.  Find the collection at, a complimentary reprint is available at the end of each article.  Copyright 2004-2009, use without permission prohibited.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 201

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Some progress reported
in Honduran negotiations

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Negotiators for rival camps in Honduras' post-coup standoff are reporting significant progress.

Representatives for ousted president Manuel Zelaya and for the de facto leader Roberto Micheletti say they have managed to agree on 60 percent of the issues.

But one negotiator from the Zelaya camp, Juan Barahona, remained more pessimistic about the possibility of a negotiated resolution, saying the advances were not enough.

The two groups have yet to agree on the core issue of whether Zelaya will return to power ahead of the scheduled Nov. 29 presidential election.

The negotiations center around the San Jose Accord put forth by President Óscar Arias Sánchez, who called for Zelaya's reinstatement until his term ends, as well as amnesty for him and the coup leaders. The de facto government previously rejected this plan.

Police used tear gas and a water cannon to chase away a group of more than 100 pro-Zelaya demonstrators from the hotel where the negotiations were taking place.

Zelaya was ousted June 28 in a military-backed coup under allegations that he was illegally trying to change the constitution to extend his term in office.

The reports of advances in negations come a day after a diplomatic delegation left Honduras without resolving the stalemate.

Envoys of the delegation, sponsored by the Organization of American States, met with representatives of both sides, as well as Micheletti. He criticized the diplomats for failing to understand why Zelaya was forcibly removed from office. Micheletti also criticized the suspension of aid to the Central American nation.

The international community has refused to recognize the interim government, and called for Zelaya to be reinstated with limited powers until a presidential election is held. Zelaya's group insists that elections scheduled for Nov. 29 be delayed if he is not reinstated by then.

Man accused of tricking
pedestrians seeking money

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A 45-year-old Heredia man is facing robbery allegations, but there is a twist.

The man is accused of picking up pedestrians around Nicoya. Sometimes he would just rob them, according to the allegations, but other times he would trick them.

In pretending to be a pirate taxi driver, the man would tell his passengers that they were eligible to receive a donation from a U.S. company that was handing out money nearby. He would direct them to a place where they could fill out a form for this grant.

But he also warned them not to bring valuables, which he generously agreed to watch. Of course, when the victim returned after finding out there was no U.S. company or free money, the man was gone, said the Judicial Investigating Organization. They attributed six such cases to this man and asked the public to report similar crimes from that area.

Fishman will be replacing
Calderón on Unidad ballot

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Partido Unidad Social Cristiana will be picking its own president to replace Rafael Ángel Caderón Fournier on the presidential ballot.

Fishman was a vice president under Abel Pacheco, but Pacheo evicted him from the inner circle early in the administration. The reason never was given. He later won election to the top Unidad post.

Calderón, of course, is convicted of accepting an illegal commission and sentenced to prison although the case is on appeal.

Unidad was going to meet Sunday to nominate a candidate, but party leaders got together to pick Fishman. A party assembly Saturday will endorse the selection.

Manuel Antonio robbery
leads to quick arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men held up a tourist couple in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio at knifepoint Thursday and fled with their possession. Police captured two suspects a short time later. The Fuerza Pública said its officers recovered various credit cards, two cameras. a cell phone and other articles belonging to the couple. The two men were 20 and 22. Also recovered was a knife and a small quantity of marijuana, said police.

Banco Nacional has plans
to finance accreditation

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Banco Nacional will provide funds so that health providers here can obtain international certification. The goal is to help local providers meet the international requirements so they can market effectively for medical tourism.

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users guide

This is a brief users guide to A.M. Costa Rica.

Old pages

Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each weekday.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.


The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.


A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.


Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

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Contacting us

Both the main telephone number and the editor's e-mail address are listed on the front page near the date.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 201

Expats likely to be blindsided by new 'luxury home' tax
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Most expats who own what the government categorizes as a luxury home probably are unaware that they are subject to a special tax Jan. 1

The tax has been the subject of many newspaper articles, including several when the measure passed the legislature a year ago. The law went into effect Oct. 1, and owners of homes worth more than 100 million colons, about $172,000 have until the end of the year to register their property and to provide an estimated value.

The possibilities for fines and assessments are numerous. For example, if the Dirección General de Tributación experts think a homeowner has undervalued a property by more than 10 percent, there is a hefty fine of five times the taxes that should have been paid.

A systemic problem is that Tributación seems committed to a cost approach to valuation rather than one that determines real value from the comparison of sales prices. Accurate figures for property sales are not now available in Costa Rica because many purchasers lie and state a low figure for the transaction despite what they actually paid. Notaries go along with this charade.

The law, No. 8683, is designed to provide funds to give housing to the extreme poor. The law also would appear to be a boon for appraisers and others who would help homeowners complete the complex forms.

Some expats think that the measure will damage the already frail real estate market. The law is likely to hit hotels hard because they are included as places of habitation.

A homeowner with a house worth just 100 million colons could expect to pay a tax of just one-fourth of a percent. That is 250,000 colons or about $430.

A property owner with a home and grounds worth 500 million (about $860,000) would pay three-tenths of a percent on any value over 250 million. That's 750,000 colons or $1,288. The total tax would be $2,363.

Certain structures used for housing are exempt from the law, including public and church properties, structures owned or occupied by non-profits engaged in social work, housing at the Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas, Universidad EARTH, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza and the Universidad para la Paz, and structures declared historic by the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes.

To avoid a threshold amount creeping lower, the government is empowered to apply an adjustment based on the annual cost of living.

Not apparent in the proposed law was that hotels will be covered. Discussion at the time said that commercial enterprises would be exempt, but a worksheet put out by Tributación specifically includes hotels. That could be a significant financial blow to struggling hotel owners.

The declaration that an owner makes by Jan. 1 is good for three years unless Tributación finds fault. A new declaration has to be made during the first 15 days of the fourth year. 2009 is a special case in that owners have
tax rate chart

three months to present their estimates of value. Then
they have to pay three-months of the taxes to cover the period from October to Jan. 1. Then they also have to pay the 2010 tax by Jan. 15.

One curve thrown by legislators is that the money paid for this tax is not deductible on income tax statements, according to the law.

Condo owners have a special reporting problem. They have to include their portion of the value of the property held in common, like swimming pools, access roads, ranchos or meeting rooms. Each condo board will have to establish a value and pass that information on to the individual owners.

Owners who hold property in common with others seem to have to report the value along with the other owners.

Another group with special problems are snowbirds who might not be paying attention to political and tax developments in Costa Rica. They own property here but only visit one or two times a year.

A description of the new law is HERE.

An example of forms to report ownership and also value are HERE.  Real forms are supposed to be available this week.

The law also said that municipalities have to report the issuance of building permits. The Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y Arquitectos, which approves building plans, also has reporting obligations, said the law.

The income from the tax is earmarked for the Banco Hipotecario de la Vivienda, which would use the funds to build housing for the poor now living in slums, according to law. According to figures from the Ministerio de Vivienda y Asentamientos Humanos there are 182 such slums in the metropolitan area with 116 in San José, 41 in Cartago and 16 in Alajuela. Some 208 slums are outside the Central Valley, according to the ministry.

The ministry reported that by 2004 some 32,797 families were living in slums or makeshift subdivisions, but the number certainly is much higher.

The tax on luxury homes is supposed to last just 10 years, but lawmakers have been known to extend taxes.

Tributación tries to reduce land value to a math formula
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Someone stayed up nights exerting gigantic effort to make the new luxury tax law as complex as possible.

Tax experts have established standards for everything from rolling landscape to the default price of rural land.

The specifics are in a decree issued by the Dirección General de Tributación Sept. 24.

Although the technical specifications seem reasonable in the beginning, they quickly become complex. The rules specify a cost approach to valuation and ask homeowners to use a manuel that has construction costs listed. Then it asked the homeowner to estimate the useful life of the structure so a depreciation index can be applied. So far that is fairly standard.

But when it comes to land, Tributación moves away from the cost approach and says that homeowners should use a code that identifies where the property is located. Then there are corrections for street frontage and type of street, grade, area, and other aspects. There even is a correction for the degree of grade. All land is not the same, and no more is being made, so a cost approach is invalid. But
Tributación seeks to compartmentalize properties even though properties that appear similar can have major differences for various reason.

More subtle corrections are made with a number of strange formulas that appear to be made up by Tributación:

And then there is a really interesting formula for forest land:

Although this may seem very obscure, Tributación is sure to have technicians very conversant in these techniques who will be evaluating the valuations of homeowners.

The decree is on the Web site.

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Real estate
About us
San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 201

Police sweep the same area of Avenida 7 where they have been checking identifications and other documents since a 78-year-old man was killed by a stray bullet.

police raid
Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública photos

Police continue the pressure on area where man died

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Fuerza Pública officers returned Sunday to the so-called Tierra Domincana and detained five persons for being illegal immigrants. And they detained a Colombian who had refugee status but also carried a gun, officers said.

Police attention into this area along Avenida 7 around Calle 4 was heightened last week when a 78-year-old man died from a bullet that strayed from a confrontation between Domincans and Colombians.

They also may have been prompted by a big Sunday story in La Nación that said that the underworld had taken over the area.

In fact, the area is one of working class individuals who happen to be Dominicans or Colombians, and some engage in small-scale drug dealing and street crimes.

Fuerza Pública officers have yet to arrest a dangerous criminal. Last week they detained a man they said was selling drugs at an Internet cafe.

Officers also found amounts of crack and cocaine in their Sunday sweep. They checked the IDs of at least 50 persons, they said.

The Colombian man, identified by the last names of
confiscated handgun
This is the 9-mm. pistol taken from a Colombian who had refugee status, police said.

Garcia Valencia, will face a judicial action.

Three persons in the country illegally were found Sunday in some of the area's cheap hotels or rooming houses. Some probably will face a followup from the Ministerio de Salud due to the conditions there.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 201

Casa Alfi Hotel

Study says global warming
will reduce tropical fish

By The University of British Columbia news services
Major shifts in fisheries distribution due to climate change will affect food security in tropical regions most adversely, according to a study led by the Sea Around Us Project at The University of British Columbia.

In the first major study to examine the effects of climate change on ocean fisheries, a team of researchers from The University of British Columbia and Princeton University finds that climate change will produce major shifts in productivity of the world’s fisheries, affecting ocean food supply throughout the world. The study was published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“Our projections show that climate change may lead to a 30 to 70 per cent increase in catch potential in high-latitude regions and a drop of up to 40 per cent in the tropics,” says lead author William Cheung, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom who conducted the study while in Britsh Columbia.

“Many tropical island residents rely heavily on the oceans for their daily meals. These new findings suggest there’s a good chance this important food source will be greatly diminished due to climate change.”

Previous studies have looked at how climate change affects global food supply but were limited to land-based food sources. These studies have also predicted that tropical areas will see a decline in land productivity.

The team, led by a fisheries professor, Daniel Pauly, also found that regions with the highest increase in catch potential by 2055 include Norway, Greenland, Alaska and the east coast of Russia. Meanwhile, regions with the biggest loss in catch potential include Indonesia, the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), Chile and China.

While greater catch potential in colder regions might appear beneficial, the authors caution that more research is needed to account for the multitude of dynamic factors that affect every ecosystem.

“We need to keep the big picture in mind when looking at the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of climate change,” says Pauly. “Major shifts in fish populations will create a host of changes in ocean ecosystems likely resulting in species loss and problems for the people who now catch them.”

“While warmer waters might attract new species to colder regions, the rise in temperature might make the environment inhospitable to current species in the region that cannot move to even higher latitudes. Often these species are important to the diets and culture of native subsistence fishermen.”

The team’s projections also show that Canada’s overall catch potential will remain approximately the same. The west coast may see a decrease of almost 20 per cent from 2005 to 2055 while the east coast may get a 10 per cent boost.

The study analyzed 1,066 species ranging from krill to sharks that constitute roughly 70 per cent of the world’s catch. The authors used models that include a large number of environmental and biological factors that affect fisheries. They ran these models through two climate change scenarios, one more conservative than the other, and measured the impact of the scenarios on fish distribution from the years 2005 to 2055. The authors did not include the highest emission level scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would have produced even more dramatic results.

A summary of this study is HERE.
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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 201

Latin American news
Pope Benedict canonizes
new saints for Catholics

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Pope Benedict celebrated a canonization Mass Sunday in Saint Peter's Basilica during which he proclaimed new saints.  They included a Belgian priest, Father Damien, who cared for leprosy victims in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century.

Tens of thousands of faithful attended to watch the pope elevate the individuals to sainthood, including a Belgian priest known as "the leper's apostle."

The others were 19th century Polish archbishop Zygmunt Felinski, two Spanish monks, a Dominican, Francisco Coll y Guitart, and a Trappist, Rafael Arnaiz Baron. The latter was considered one of the greatest mystics of the 20th century.

A woman was also elevated to sainthood: Jeanne Jugan of France founded the order of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the 18th century. By the time she died, her institute had 2,500 workers looking after elderly and solitary women in 177 homes around the world. The pope said the new saints responded with their whole existence to the Lord's call to follow Him, being witnesses of charity and defending the truth.

The Belgian priest Jozef De Veuster, better known as Father Damien, was elevated to sainthood for his work with leprosy patients on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the 19th century. His work was described during the ceremony.

Father Damien, said a Vatican official, was unanimously recognized for his work despite abuse by the civilian authorities and withering public opinion. He died of leprosy in 1889.

A large delegation of some 500 people from Hawaii, including the bishop of Honolulu, Richard Silva, traveled to Rome to take part in the ceremony.  Among those present in the basilica was a group of elderly Hawaiian leprosy patients, sitting on wheelchairs.

An 80-year-old retired teacher and Hawaiian resident, Audrey Toguchi, also attended the special occasion. She is believed to have been miraculously cured of terminal cancer after she prayed to Father Damien.

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