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These stories were published Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 206
Jo Stuart
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Rights court facing cash crunch, top judge says
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The president of the San José-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights says the court is in trouble due to lack of money.
The president addressed the Organization of American States’ Permanent Council Wednesday and urged it to provide the resources to save the court.

In his report, the president, Antonio Cançado Trindade, a Brazilian law expert, described his request as an "alert cry" to save the 

Judge Cançado Trindade
inter-American human rights system from collapse. He said more money is necessary for the court to properly carry out mandates arising from the organization’s resolutions.

Some of the resources Cançado Trindade requested for the court were more staff lawyers and secretariat "infrastructure."

He also detailed the costs of running the court, the increase in the cost of living, and expenses to publish and distribute documents like court rulings.

The law expert called for semi-permanent status for the human rights court, which he said needs more sessions to properly cover matters and hearings.

Agreeing that the work of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is crucial to promoting and protecting human rights in the nations of the Americas, the delegates expressed support for the case presented by Cançado Trindade.

Denis Antoine, chairman ambassador of the Permanent Council and Grenada's permanent representative to the organization, said the Inter-American court's report and request would be referred to two standing committees 

Other nations may eye Villalobos accounts
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Customers of The Brothers investment company may find themselves fighting legal battles on many fronts if they choose to sue the government of Costa Rica.

Several of the estimated 6,000 customers who no longer receive interest payments because bank accounts are frozen are discussing legal action, including action against the government.

Costa Rican officials raided the investment operation of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho July 4 and froze a number of his bank accounts. Monday Villalobos announced he was suspending his operations because he could not meet his obligations with frozen accounts.

But those who seek to sue Costa Rica probably ought to look north to the United States and Canada. Some of the Villalobos accounts are frozen in banks there, and governments of those countries also have asset forfeiture laws that allow them to take suspicious money.

Most legal observers believe any legal action now against the Costa Rican government would be premature because judicial authorities are simply investigating the case. No charges have been filed. And no one has said that Villalobos has done anything wrong. Other investors are discussing a suit against Villalobos to recapture their principal.

As part of the investigation judicial officials are tracking Villalobos bank accounts and accounts of his known corporations. Such investigations are relatively easy today with the multitude of banking treaties that exist in the international community.

Investigators are believed to have located a substantial number of accounts elsewhere. They have frozen 50 in Costa Rica alone. 

Villalobos, at least, has accounts at the prestigious Whitney National Bank in New Orleans, La., and BAC Florida Bank.

The balances in the accounts are such that government officials already are beginning to speculate on how the money may be used by officials if the funds are confiscated. The money would go a long way toward balancing the Costa Rican national budget, something 

More letters BELOW!

President Abel Pacheco has vowed to do. The amount may exceed $1 billion.

The United States has a complex web of state and national civil forfeiture laws that allow officials to simply take money that may have been involved in criminal activity. Then it is up to the owner of the funds to sue and prove the government wrong. The usual expectation of "innocent until proven guilty" does not apply in these civil cases.

Civil forfeiture in the United States covers funds involved in illegal money transmittal businesses, money laundering, Internal Revenue (tax) Code violations and a host of others. The predominately North American investors here and elsewhere might be surprised to find themselves on the same side of the fence as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has called the forfeiture laws "a license to steal."

Costa Rica has such laws, too, but there have been few cases here to generate legal precedents and nothing of the scale of the Villalobos operation.

Villalobos paid 2.8 to 3 percent interest a month to his investors. That return allowed many to live well. At least half of his investors live in the United States, although most have visited Costa Rica.

Canadian officials appear to have documented the passage of $380,000 in money linked to six drug and money laundering suspects there. The money went through Ofinter S.A., a firm Villalobos says is owned by his brother Osvaldo. However, the Villalobos offices were adjacent on Mall San Pedro's second floor. 

Costa Rican investigators are believed to be trying to establish a link between Ofinter and Villalobos that is sufficient to allow them to confiscate the investment funds. The name "The Brothers" of the investment operation is believed to come from a time when both worked together. Luis Enrique Villalobos said he sold his interest in Ofinter, a money exchange house, five years ago.

Villalobos repeatedly has said he is not involved in anything illegal.

A.M. Costa Rica’s first Halloween story contest

Since Halloween is not really celebrated in Costa Rica, we thought we would help to get everybody into the spirit.
We are looking for your original horror stories of 1,000 words or less.

Sure, you can scare the bejeezus out of a group of boy scouts around a campfire, but can you frighten our readers?

The stories will be judged by the A.M. editor and staff on the basis of their originality and spook-factor. Extra points will be awarded to stories related to Costa Rica.

The scariest will be published in our Oct. 31 edition, and the winner will receive $25. The deadline for submissions is Tuesday, Oct. 29. Send your spooky stories to editor@amcostarica.com

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U.N. food report states hunger goals not on track
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

ROME, Italy — Efforts to end world hunger are not on track to meet the 1996 World Food Summit goal of reducing the number of hungry by half in 2015, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization declared Wednesday in its annual report "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002."

The report estimates that 840 million people around the world were undernourished in the period from 1998 to 2000, a number that is being reduced by only about 2.5 million people each year. This information’s release coincided with World Food Day. 

The FAO calculates that the aggregate total of the world’s hungry must be reduced by about 24 million a year if the 1996 goals are to be achieved.

West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, have reduced significantly both the prevalence and the number of undernourished people. But prospects are troubling for Central America, the Near East and East Asia, excluding China.

Millions die each year from hunger, but an estimated 2,000 million suffer from micronutrient malnutrition, which can provoke a wide variety of health problems.

With another $24,000 million, the organization said real progress could be made in eliminating hunger. That investment would result in a gain of $120,000 million, as healthier people led longer and more productive lives.

Meanwhile, in a statement recognizing Wednesday as World Food Day, Ann M. Veneman, U.S. agriculture secretary, reemphasized the Bush administration’s commitment to end hunger.

Heightened attention is being devoted to this problem, she said, citing discussions on hunger at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in September and a June reaffirmation of an international goal to end hunger.

Ms. Veneman said technology will be invaluable in the pursuit of increasing agricultural productivity, ending famine and improving nutrition.

"Current and emerging technologies have the potential to increase farm yields, improve the nutrient content of foods, deliver inexpensive, edible vaccines, improve distribution, reduce food waste, reduce the use of chemicals, and offer new marketing opportunities and income sources for farmers," Veneman said. "This is the power and promise of science and technology."

U.S., Costa Rica take steps toward free trade treaty
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The United States and Costa Rica signed an accord Wednesday that encourages both nations to work together toward a final free-trade treaty.

Representing the United States was Grant Aldonas, undersecretary of commerce for international trade. For Costa Rica, Alberto Trejos, minister of Comercio Exterior, did the signing.

The agreement says both countries will exchange information about commercial opportunities in each country by means of a data base. The two nations also agreed to help develop tourism via promotions, joint efforts and shared information.

The signing marks another step in bringing the United States together with the five nations of the Sistema de Integración Económica Centroamericano. Negotiations already have 
begun for a free trade treaty between the Central American nations and the United States. President George Bush calls this a priority of his administration.

Trade between the countries is $5.4 billion a year.

The signing ceremony marked the end to a four-day tour through Central America. The trip here included meeting with President Abel Pacheco.

Speaking Monday to government officials and business leaders in Managua, Nicaragua, Aldonas said governments need to create an environment characterized by the rule of law in which entrepreneurship and the private sector can thrive.

He urged business leaders to encourage their governments to follow the principles of good governance and pursue policies that promote growth, transparency and strong institutions.

Aldonas said the U.S. economy remains fundamentally sound, and that Central America, through strengthened economic ties with the United States, will help build a future of tremendous economic opportunity, the Commerce Department said.

Combined U.S.-Central American trade has more than doubled since 1992, and totaled more than $20 billion.

Civilians hurt in Colombian offensive

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEDELLIN, Colombia — The army says a military offensive in a poor neighborhood here has left at least 13 soldiers and leftist rebels dead. At least 20 people, most of them civilians, were wounded. 

Military officials say the clashes happened in the Comuna 13 area Wednesday as hundreds of security forces, backed by helicopters, stormed the neighborhood to oust the guerrillas. 

They also say the insurgents unsuccessfully fought back, firing rifles and hurling explosives at the security forces. 

Authorities say the rebels belonged to an urban militia known as the Armed Command of the People. The group is reportedly linked to the country's second-largest rebel force, the National Liberation Army. 

Luis Perez, mayor of Medellin, says Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordered Wednesday's offensive so that the security forces could establish control over the neighborhood. 

For several months, rebels and illegal right-wing militias have fought for control of Comuna 13 and other outlying neighborhoods here in this country’s second-largest city. 

The city has a history of extreme violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, the now-defunct Medellin cartel killed hundreds of citizens in a bid to control narcotics smuggling.

Civil leaders call for
tougher crime fighting

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Business organizations and civic groups are calling on the government here to take more dramatic steps against kidnapping and other violent criminal activities. 

One of the main demands is for honest accounting on the part of law enforcement agencies.

As the crime stories mount and fear spreads in the streets, business leaders here are calling on government officials to do more to counter the plague of kidnapping. 

The nation's largest employers’ group, Confederacion Paternalde la Republica Mexicana, has taken the lead in this battle, challenging law enforcers at all levels to take decisive steps against kidnappers. 

Jose Antonio Ortega, the employers’ group spokesman, says there is much the government can do. 

He said his organization is taking a stand for public order and legality. He said the government has failed to enforce the law and has not done enough to help victims and their families. 

Among the things the employers’ group wants from the government are realistic figures regarding the number of kidnappings. The business organization maintains its own, unofficial accounts, indicating that there are around four kidnappings a day, on average, in Mexico. According to the records kept by the organization there were 15,000 kidnappings in Mexico last year. 

The employers’ group is also calling for a more concerted effort to stop official corruption, programs to encourage citizen informants and programs to help crime victims and their families. The organization is also condemning bureaucratic tangles that have discouraged many victims from even seeking the help of authorities. 

World Bank pays 
Argentine bondholders

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The World Bank says it has paid $250 million to holders of Argentine bonds and given the government in Buenos Aires three years before it starts to repay the money. 

World Bank officials here told international news sources that this is the first time the bank has made a payment on one of its guaranteed bonds. The officials also say that Argentina must pay back the money in four installments beginning on Oct. 15, 2005. 

The move comes as Argentina struggles with a deepening economic crisis. The country has been in recession for the past four years and is in default to the tune of $140 billion in public debt. 

The government has been in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a new aid package. The fund withheld crucial aid in December, saying the government failed to control spending. It has conditioned future assistance on Argentina's development of a viable economic plan.

North Korea admits 
to nuclear activity

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senior U.S. officials say North Korea has admitted operating a secret nuclear weapons program for years in violation of a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration. 

News of the disclosure was released here late Wednesday. It was made by North Korea last week during a trip to Pyongyang — the North Korean capital — by James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state. 

Bush administration officials say the White House is consulting with Congress and its allies, including Japan and South Korea, on how to proceed. 

During his visit to North Korea, Kelly presented U.S. intelligence evidence of a North Korean nuclear program and demanded that Pyongyang address international concerns. 

During his visit, Kelly presented evidence North Korea was conducting a uranium enrichment program needed to develop material to build a nuclear bomb. 

The revelation comes amid steps by North Korea to improve its relations with Japan, South Korea and other nations. 

Under the agreement with the United States, North Korea promised to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang also promised to allow inspections to verify it had not stockpiled materials needed to construct nuclear weapons. 

No inspections have yet been allowed. Early this year, President George Bush called North Korea part of an axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.

Police grab men
who carried gun

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police nabbed two men about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday about a block north of Paso Colón when they reponded to reports of a robbery.

Police could not find a victim of a robbery, but when they searched the area they found a man named Ortega who was carrying a .38-caliber pistol and cartriges. They also detained a man named Rojas.

The area along Calle 28 is heavily populated during the business day due to nearby fast-food restaurants and Edificio Colón five blocks west and is traveled by many pedestrians.

Houses are a hit
with early drivers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Early Tuesday morning was a bad time for houses.

In Guápiles in Calle Blacos about 4:40 a.m. a microbus that belongs to the musical group Calle 8 and driven by Carlos Cruz Almonte crashed into a house because the driver fell asleep, said police. 

Five minutes later in Cinco Esquinas of Tibás a car driven by a man identified as Campos Huertas smashed into another house. Policía de
Tránsito reported that the driver failed an alcohol test.

Robbery suspect nabbed

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man with a gun held up the popular Rincón del Habano cigar store about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in San José’s downtown. A few minutes later police said they grabbed a suspect with the last name Arce Gutiérrez about six blocks away. They said they confiscated 33,000 colons (about $90) and a .22 caliber pistol.

Dutch government 
resigns after 3 months

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

AMSTERDAM, Holland — Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has handed in his government's resignation to Queen Beatrix, marking the collapse of the center-right coalition after just three months in office. 

Balkenende told parliament Wednesday there was no way to repair the differences plaguing one of the coalition's parties, known as Pim Fortuyn's List.

The resignation follows a new opinion poll that says the List would lose all but a handful of its 26 parliament seats if a new election were held today. The coalition's dissolution paves the way for fresh elections as early as December. 

Earlier Wednesday, Eduard Bomhoff, health minister, and Herman Heinsbroek, economics minister, resigned. The rival members of the List, a far-right political party, cited personal and political differences. 

They were at odds about the future direction of their party, which won a place in government in May, just nine days after its founder, Pim Fortuyn, was gunned down in Amsterdam. 

Other parties in the coalition are the conservative Christian Democrats and the VVD Liberals. VVD leader Gerrit Zalm has called for elections as quickly as possible, saying the Pim Fortuyn List was no longer a trustworthy partner. 

Observers fear the collapse could harm plans to ratify European Union enlargement at a key European Union meeting in Brussels next week.

Treasury says Latin economy will stagnate

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — John Taylor, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, told a panel of the Senate Banking Committee that economic growth in Latin America is likely to grow by zero percent “at best”.

Although in early 2002 the U.S. Treasury saw signs of improved economic and financial conditions in most of Latin America, Taylor said the situation throughout the region became more difficult as the year progressed.

He said that economic growth in the region this year is likely to be zero and drew a comparison with other developing and emerging market regions — Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa — which are positioned to experience positive economic growth in 2002.

"Clearly, raising economic growth in the [Latin American] region must remain a high priority," Taylor said.

He noted that productivity growth in Latin America was 0.7 percent per year in the 1990s, and expressed optimism that such growth could improve "by a much greater amount" in coming years.

Taylor stressed, however, that raising productivity requires action on the part of governments, including steps to foster a stable macroeconomic environment, boost the skills of individual workers, and introduce market forces to help channel resources most effectively.

"In promoting these policies, however, we must remind ourselves that there is no shortcut to sustained economic growth and that good results require a patient commitment over a long period of time," Taylor said.

U.S. trade rep to Bolivia
to discuss agriculture

Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Robert B. Zoellick, U.S. trade representative, will travel to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for meetings Oct. 18 and 19 with ministers from the Cairns Group of agriculture-exporting countries to discuss liberalizing trade in agriculture within ongoing World Trade Organization trade negotiations.

In late July, the United States became the first organization member to put forward a comprehensive agricultural trade reform proposal, calling for elimination of export subsidies, cuts of $100 billion in annual allowed global trade-distorting domestic subsidies, and lowering average allowed global tariffs from 62 percent to 15 percent. 

In addition to the Cairns Group meeting, Zoellick will meet with Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, president of Bolivia, as well as officials from other countries to discuss bilateral trade issues and the upcoming Free Trade Area of the Americas Ministerial in Quito, Ecuador, on Nov. 1.

"The United States and the Cairns Group have both presented ambitious and comprehensive proposals within global trade negotiations to eliminate export subsidies, cut global trade-distorting subsidies, and reduce agricultural trade barriers," said Zoellick. “I look forward to discussing with the Cairns Group and other guests opportunities to liberalize agricultural trade and hearing their views on how to move forward on farm trade reforms."

Agricultural trade reforms in the organization’s negotiations are also considered critical to the progress of other trade negotiations, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, because effective liberalization in agriculture requires a global approach that includes other major agriculture economies, like the European Union and Japan. Ten members of the Cairns Group are also participants in the Americas trade negotiations.

"Liberalizing trade in agriculture holds particular promise for the developing world, most of which have a large share of their productive resources dedicated to agriculture. A more market-oriented trading system will help unleash their economic potential, resulting in not only increased agricultural exports but also ways to feed their growing populations," Zoellick said. 

"Unfortunately, some of the biggest agriculture producers, like Japan and Europe, have not stepped up to the plate and offered their own proposals on how to lower subsides and tariffs. The United States, the members of the Cairns Group, and other WTO members will continue to press for specificaction on global talks to reform agriculture trade reform."
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Med student calls Villalobos allegations ignorant
Dear A.M. Costa Rica: 

As a medical student and head of a household here in Costa Rica, the events that have surrounded Ofinter, S.A., have been one of the most ignorant ever seen at any level of government. To actually fathom that, after around 30 years and who knows how many millions of dollars later, Villalobos would dirty his hands over $300,000 is darn absurd . . . 

If the money was sent by bank wire/transfer, the real question is why did the Canadian bank and or the Canadian police not stop the transaction at its origin? Or even freeze it here in San José? 

The government as I understand it, has as of this writing (Oct. 16) not even filed any formal charges against anyone? In the end would it not be the Canadian Government the one that should head its investigation from Canada since in the end allegedly it was a Canadian doing illegal things in Canada, not Costa Rica? 

You would have to place an electronic gadget on every bill in print to know exactly where and from whom it comes from. I have heard rumors from supposed reliable sources that the government is going to charge Ofinter, S.A. with a ponzi scheme. 

Wow, this will really take the cake: a ponzi scheme that lasts for thirty years? Come on, get real, if that is what the government intends to do in the end. It is common knowledge that here in Costa Rica typical loans range from 3 to 5 percent per month. Don’t believe me?

Go to Puriscal and there are people that sit in the park that will loan you on the spot $500,000 without batting an eye with 5 percent up front and 5 percent per month.

In fact, one is famous for walking around without any shoes. What I am trying to say is that if in a small town like Puriscal you see people who have made small fortunes and live super well, why is it so hard to think that in a city like San José, and with the time Villalobos has in business it would be hard to sustain 2.8 to 3.0 percent per month? Could you get a bank loan for less than that? 36 percent. Not likely. 

So, everyday the banks loan out cash at sky-high rates — that is not suspicious? Look at the take on credit cards here — it’s crazy. Now I am left without the possibility to continue my studies because some D.A. takes his time and does not even come up with any charges so at least Villalobos can go before a judge to at least have his say. I think the D.A. is speaking loud and clear . . . 

He does not care about the suffering of God knows how many people who depend on this. He wants his name in the paper. If they have proof come forth. Give everyone a chance in court to prove or disprove. But stop this "Oh, we are investigating" nonsense. Everyone here knows that the police have limited investigative skills. They have a hard time investigating a purse-snatcher, much less a business of this magnitude. 

For that one alleged Canadian (whom I have not yet seen tried in a court of law) who supposedly sent money. I bet there are thousands of others that have invested legal funds and proved it. That money is not Villalobos’ money, it’s the investors’ money who made a personal loan to him because of the friendship involved. Let the D.A. know that loud and clear.

J. Duke M.
Editor's Note: We have no knowledge of any anticipated charges of running a ponzi scheme.
Investor questions logic of seeking legal advice
Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am a long time investor with Villalobos and was served very well all the time. I have known Mr. Luis Enrique Villalobos for quite a while, and in my judgment he is one of a few honest businessmen I ever met in my life.

I am wondering what an investor hopes to achieve when they seek legal advice in reaction to the current situation? Are they not aware that this will hamper the whole situation much more and that not only is the future of the business in danger, but also our principal?

Consider that Luis Enrique must defend himself with money that will be thrown at lawyers — maybe your money?

The same investors must also throw money at lawyers, and what is the real result? You probably will win the case after years in court but there will be no money left to receive. After all, the money is frozen, not stolen.

Do these people not understand that they are not cheated out of their money? The money is frozen and can't be distributed. Once in a while you should use common sense, not lawyers!

Everybody who was able to get for years the high yield interest should not sue, but stand behind Luis Enrique and write letters to the editors describing what impact this situation will have on the Costa Rican economy.

Donations; taxi drivers; hotel owners; landlords; real estate; restaurant owners; nightclubs; bar owners; car dealers; malls, gas stations; garages, 

maid services; supermarkets; and tourism: investors have a lot of friends and families abroad and they tend to visit this beautiful country.

This list can go on for a while. Not to forget the unemployment that a situation like this will bring with it. To start with, there are already 300 unemployed and they are not receiving monthly checks anymore. Therefore the buying power will be about 40,000 colons less every month, about $108,000. This will go on and on and on. Guess what? This isn't helping the economy, or the system.

Finally, there will be people that have to leave the country now that their monthly check is not coming anymore and their principal is tied up. Maybe I will be one of them. It will result in a heavy economic slowdown. 

The taxes paid for the roughly $6,000,000 (2,220,000,000 colons) spent every month as a result of the monies Villalobos has generated for many people will not produce any sales tax, nor will there be buying power to support the business people that have been selling their products and services to us. The economy will miss out on about $60,000,000 (22,200,000,000 colons) to $100 million a year through this chain reaction and the government will be short of funds again. 

Please don't push the envelope by feeding the lawyers and hampering the outcome of this case. Be faithful and give Luis Enrique a fair chance!
The situation is already bad enough and you only will worsen it.

Reinhold Eiterer
Reader extends his sympathy to investors
Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Our hearts go out to all the people who have invested money with the Brothers and we hope that some commonsense will prevail and that the freeze on the Villalobos accounts will be lifted shortly so that things can get back to normal.

There is no doubt in my mind (and that of many others) that this is a political matter. The Costa Rican government is being pressured by the Canadian government (and other parties behind the scenes) because many if not all of the investors with the Brothers are not declaring their interest income and paying taxes on it. 

They also don't know how the Brothers can afford to pay such high interest when their own banks barely pay any.

Unfortunately, what the Costa Rican government is failing to take into account is that in acceding to pressure, they are about to totally and irrevocably destroy their own economy. 

With many thousands of North Americans having suddenly been cut off, not only from their interest payments but also their capital, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and all other places that rely on 'foreign' money to survive will go out of business. They will have insufficient customers to keep the doors open.

This, in turn, will put many thousands of Costa Ricans out of work, which will in turn affect 

businesses that rely on the local economy to survive. More closures, more job losses, and the cycle will go on and on until there is nothing left. 

Many foreign residents will be forced to leave and there will be an increase in vacant rental properties. Many owners of which will simply not be able to afford to keep them, but there will be nobody to buy them. 

Tourists will stop coming down as there will be fewer and fewer places for them to spend their money and better places for them to do it. The effects are already being seen and felt and it is early days.

The truth of the matter is that no bank has totally clean money nor is it ever possible for banking institutions to know what money has been earned legitimately or not. Villalobos is no exception: he takes money in good faith and has operated in good faith for many years. 

For all of his accounts to be frozen because of one 'dodgy' investment is akin to the freezing of all accounts in a bank because one customer has deposited some money that may be suspect.
I do not know the Villalobos brothers but everybody I know who does, or does business with them, has the utmost respect for their integrity and honesty. They are being persecuted for being successful, and that's all there is to it.

Michael Rochard

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