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These stories were published Friday, Oct. 18, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 207
Jo Stuart
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Isthmus gears to keep track of sex offenders
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Immigration officials of the seven Central American nations have approved a proposal to try to curb the sexual exploitation of minors.

The proposal, put forth by Costa Rica, will mean the creation of a data base with which immigration officials all over Central Americas will be able to check on those who are linked to promoting such activities. The proposal targets foreigners because these are the people who cross borders and come in contact with immigration officials.

The approval took place at the Comisión Centroamericana de Directores de Migración that finished meeting Wednesday in Nicaragua. Marco Badilla, director general of Migración y Extranjería represented Costa Rica.

The proposal will require some form of registration process of persons who are connected with this type of crime. These may be persons caught with underage persons or persons who arrange the contacts..

The Central American project comes just a

week before some 500 delegates from Interpol's worldwide membership of 179 countries meets next week in Cameroon for the Organization's 71st general assembly session. Trafficking in human beings is on the agenda there, too. The session starts Monday.

The Costa Rican proposal also called for training of immigration officials to recognize the rights of children and the situations that may lead to child prostitution and exploitation.

Those who attended the Nicaraguan meeting deplored the arrival of foreigners in the region for sexual purposes. The group heard that a strong network of international criminals promotes sex tourism with organized tours and the distribution of pornographic materials via the Internet.

A release distributed after the session deplored the patriarchal society that legitimizes domination of juveniles. 

In addition to Costa Rica, where adult prostitution is legal, countries represented at the session were Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Belize and Panamá

Big water shutoff
scheduled Saturday

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you like water, you better go to the beach Saturday because the utility company is going to shut down service to much of central San José and points east.

The shutdown is to connect lines to fill a 5,000 cubic meter, about 6,500 cubic yards, tank located in Cipreses north and east of San Pedro.

The Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados said the water would go off at 7 a.m. and work would continue until about 8 p.m. However, the flow of water may not return to normal until some four hours later, particularly in parts of the affected area that are at higher elevations. The company said time would be needed to refill the pipes.

The water company also will do work at the same time to connect a line between Tres Ríos southeast of San José with a tank in Bello Horizonte in Escazú.

According to the water company, service will be out in these areas:

• La Yenny, La Eulalia and Santiago del Monte in Tres Ríos;

• All of Desamparados;

• Nearly all the neighborhoods on the north side, east and central part of San José, including Barrio Lujan, Víquez, Bella Vista, San Bosco, San Francisco de Dos Ríos and Trejos Montealegre.

• A large part of Zapote, including Casa Presidential.

Residents’ association
elects new officers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Association of Residents of Costa Rica has elected four new officers, including a president and vice-president.

Polo La Coste is the new president. Hailing from Louisiana, La Coste has been in Costa Rica for around one year. He replaces the outgoing Robert Miller. 

Meanwhile, Miller is now the new vice-president. He is originally from British Columbia, Canada. Miller lives in San Antonio de Escazú. 

Helen Marek and Dee Vaughan are the two new vocals. Ms. Marek lived in Houston, Texas, before coming to Costa Rica. She now lives in San José and has been here for 10 years. Ms. Vaughan, the other new vocal, came to Costa Rica from North Carolina. She lives in San José de la Montaña,

The leadership totals eight two-year posts. Only four positions become available at each election. The other four posts become available at an alternate year. According to Ryan Piercy, executive director of the association, this is to develop continuity and to ease the new committee members into their roles. 

At the moment, the association membership is comprised of mostly North Americans. They make up around 90 percent of the membership. The other 10 percent is a combination of people from various countries around the world, including Costa Rica.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

The Confusion of A Topsy Turvy World

The world has gone topsy turvy.  A Republican voted against the resolution to give President Bush a free hand to preemptively attack Iraq. Many of the so-called liberal (liberal seems to mean war is not a solution) Democratic senators voted FOR the resolution.  The CIA and the Russian president agree that Iraq is not an imminent threat. The Bush administration knows differently.  The U.S. fears that Iraq is a threat to peace. The rest of the world seems to fear that the greatest threat to peace is the United States. 

Officials on the East Coast are looking for ways to communicate with the serial sniper, who has become a terrorist, but the administration dismisses out of hand any desire on the part of Saddam to communicate.  (My friend Ron points out that one of the first things police try to do with kidnappers and hostage takers, etc. is to negotiate, but when the stakes are even higher, we refuse to negotiate with terrorists.) 

Time and again the president has said that this is a different kind of war, and he is right, yet we are planning to engage in a traditional war of bombing and invasion. In the administration’s attempt to find the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, they are minimizing the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in other Arab countries.

Meanwhile, the peaceful, tourist mecca of Bali is the latest target of the Al Qaeda terrorists.  I have thought all along that no terrorists would ever attack Costa Rica.  Now, for the first time, I am beginning to think even Costa Rica is not safe.  The terrorists seem to have developed a blood lust, an addiction, if you will.

We keep being asked to hold two conflicting ideas in mind: We are asked to believe simultaneously that the main desire of Saddam Hussein is to stay alive and in power, but that he wouldn’t hesitate to bomb us if and when he gets a nuclear bomb, knowing that we would pulverize him and his country. 

We know that Saddam’s secular Islam is anathema to Bin Laden, but we are asked to believe they wouldn’t hesitate to become allies. The administration seems to most fear weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. So far the terrorists have managed to cause incredible damage, both emotionally and financially, with very low-cost, low technology, low risk methods, I wonder why they would spend the time and money necessary to develop other methods.

And whatever happened to Osama Bin Laden, the guy we were going to get "dead or alive"?  Our focus on Iraq reminds me of that story of the guy searching under a streetlight.  A passerby asked him what was the matter and he said he had lost his watch.  The passerby started to help him and asked, "Did you lose it around here?"  The first fellow said, "No, but the light is better here."

However, I could be totally wrong.  (And not for the first time.)  There are so many people jumping on the war wagon who do believe that we must act now, they must know something I don’t know.  I just wish they’d tell me so I could stop thinking about all of this and go back to enjoying my retirement.

Meanwhile, I wish Dr. Oscar Arias would visit Saddam and convince him that being without a military is not such a bad idea. 

More Jo Stuart: Here!

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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Lawyers, investor and a chiropractor offering help
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The suspension of The Brothers investment operation promises to provide full employment for lawyers, both here and in the United States.

Several groups of investors met with lawyers Thursday in an effort to protect their capital that presumably is within the bank accounts frozen by the Costa Rican government. 

In at least one case, some of the would-be clients were lawyers themselves. 

The situation also has proved to be full employment for the Internet, too. Not only are most investors learning about the day-to-day events via A.M. Costa Rica, but some local Costa Rica-centered listservs are carrying a heavy dose of discussion about the collapse of an investment operation that had endured for nearly 30 years.

Some residents are using the Internet as a way to rally support for Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, who is the target of at least two Costa Rican investigations. One man, John Manners, said he was trying to generate interest in a rally of investors in front of the Teatro Nacional Sunday at 10 a.m. to show the Costa Rican government the number of people who have an interest in the case.

Manners proposes weekly meetings until the case is resolved.

On another front, Dr. Shahin Ravery of the Clinica Quropractica Delta on Paseo Colón said he wants to help investors who have pain. An undetermined number of the 6,000 or so investors had the bulk of their cash assets invested with Villalobos. They counted on the 3 percent per month interest which now has been cut off.

Ravery said he was prepared to try to help investors, but not with money. He correctly pointed out that some investors had only $10,000 or so invested and lived marginally with $300 in interest each month. He said he was talking about back pain and not financial pain and would treat 

How to update yourself

The Villalobos saga was first reported July 5. And a number of stories followed.

A story last Friday  said that investors were getting restless and might consider legal action against Villalobos.

Monday  Villalobos announced he had suspended his business and discharged his 300 employees.
Stories followed Tuesday  and each day thereafter.

The best way to access the most recent stories is by clicking on the boxes at the bottom of each A.M. Costa Rica page. Links are there for each weekday the newspaper is published.

The earlier page contains a text search engine that will retrieve every story ever written about Villalobos or any other topic of interest.

aching investors for free. His offer originally was misinterpreted by reporters who thought he was prepared to give money.

Other investors bear tales of other financial disasters caused by the end of the monthly interest payments and the possible confiscation of the principal by the Costa Rican government and others. Some North American residents mortgaged their houses in order to invest with Villalobos, according to one closely connected investor.

Meanwhile, on the judicial front there was no action reported Thursday. A fiscal or public prosecutor still is in charge of unraveling the many documents seized when agents raided Villalobos’ offices July 4 and the offices of the adjacent Ofinter S.A. money exchange house. The police and judicial officials were acting on a request from Canadian authorities who had arrested six drug smuggling and money laundering suspects who are believed to have used the money exchange house to transfer funds.

Villalobos letters
EDITOR’S NOTE: This newspaper believes strongly in the people’s right to express themselves. The more important the issue, the more we must protect that right. Therefore, we are publishing letters on the Villalobos issue separate and with more prominence than we do with letters on other subjects that may be found HERE!

Investor suggests a few possible measures

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I guess that many of your readers are involved with the Villalobos Brothers. I am losing 3/4 of my income and wonder how I will feed my family of six in the coming months, keep my rental house, my car and pay my housekeeper.

I would appreciate if you could find out and post for everyone the addresses of the people responsible for this most unjust and stupid freeze, I would like to write to all involved, starting with a letter to our president here, who does not seem to be aware that his economy will be losing some $10 million each month, thus creating irreparable damage not only to us, the investors, but to all of Costa Rica.

It is most frustrating to sit by and not be able to do something about it. Possibly you could announce a meeting of all those involved, where we could decide on some common action to fight this stupid freeze of our badly needed money.

I would suggest a meeting in front of the Gran Hotel Costa Rica or Plaza de la Cultura, Sunday morning Oct. 27 at 10 a.m., and there after, every Sunday morning at 10 a.m., until this matter can be resolved.

I would also appreciate if you could contact Luis Enrique Villalobos and ask him what we can do to help, since I would not know how to get in touch with him and he must have more urgent matters to attend than answering individual phone calls.

Thank you for your help and thank you for the service you provide, more power to you.

John Manners
Reader: Deaths a potential consequence?

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Hope the idiots running this investigation have considered the suicides or even murders that they may be responsible for.

John A. Bisceglio
Money may end up in government, says reader

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

With the "plum" of many millions of dollars hanging there for the world to see, it's a good bet that someone's government will do as they do in the U.S.: just grab it and run. 

You can read many accounts of this type of forfeiture during the Clinton administration. "They" don't have to prove anything. They take all your funds. PERIOD 

I feel it's a tragedy for too many investors who are, in essence, business partners with much of their money invested with Villalobos, who has proven to be an honest businessman for many years. 

The other side of the issue is that if the lawyers are allowed to enter into this they will take a major share and will not be successful in suing any government. 

B. Gustin

Reader purports U.S. oil blackmail as cause

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

One has to wonder what is the true motive for freezing the Brothers accounts are?  Perhaps it has something to do with Costa Rica's rejection of oil drilling off the coast? 

Perhaps this is some sort of economic blackmail to force CR to let the oil companies drill? 

After all Bush is the political pipeline for the oil companies, and it's obvious that the Bush regime is behind this shut down. 

I don't believe this was done to bail out the Costa Rican debt because the government understands the economic damage that will result from this freeze. 

I believe this has something to do with placing pressure on the Costa Rican government to perhaps allow oil drilling or something of that nature. 

This may sound off the wall, but anything goes these days. At a time when tourism, one of the industries that Costa Rica relies on the most, is down, it would be shooting oneself in the foot to threaten this large source of income. 

Varda Burns

Former hotel owner
reports he is safe in Bali

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A member of the North American Costa Rican community reported back from Bali, Indonesia, that he was not harmed by the terrorist attack there, but saw the aftermath of the devastation.

Richard Lemire, former owner of the Hotel California in Quepos, sent an e-mail to friends saying that he was in the vicinity of the nightclub blast that killed at least 180 people, many tourists, and injured more than 300.

Lemire said he was in a restaurant and heard sirens and later learned of the news.

The e-mail to friends read: “Before we realize, you think you are in paradise, and you find out the extremity [a] human being can exercise . . . The way that the local foreigns, local Balinese, tourists, and everyone came and help[ed] in anyway they could was very positive, and is a sign that the right positive energy will always survive. The evil will be sent away.”

Lemire, in the e-mail sent to friends, said that he looks forward to going back to Quepos where the outlook on life is positive and the Costa Rican motto is “pura vida.”

Stephen Webster, a prior surfer-tourist in Costa Rica, from Huntington, Calif. was reported killed in the bombing by The New York Times. Bali, like Costa Rica, is a major destination for surfer enthusiasts. Webster reportedly died while celebrating his 41st birthday with friends. The blast took place Saturday.

Meanwhile, friends in Costa Rica are concerned about Joe Milligan, 22, of Orlando, Fla., a recent visitor to Costa Rica and a surfer. He, too, was in Bali and has not been heard from since Satruday, friends said.

Residents' eco-adventure scheduled for weekend

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Association of Residents of Costa Rica has an adventure outing planned for Saturday.

The group will visit INBioparque, a location that gives an introduction to the various ecosystems that exist in Costa Rica. It is in Santo Domingo de Heredia.

The El Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad says that the park contains examples of the Central Valley forest, the humid forest, the tropical dry
forest, and the wetland. 

There also are 51 types of birds and 583 native plants, as well as mammals and reptiles, according to the institute’s Web site.

Within the park association members can explore in group or individually, according to a release from the association. The group will meet for lunch at the park’s restaurant. The price will be 2,250 colons (about $6).

The fee to enter the park is less for those who are residents. They pay 1,500, about $4. Non-residents pay $12. Children pay less.

For those without transportation the park offers a shuttle service for $10 from all major hotels, according to the association. Phone 244-4730 for reservations. Also buses leave frequently from San Jose at Calle 1 & Avenida 7-9, bound for Heredia via Tibas and Santo Domingo, a release said.

Woman sustains acid burns after dispute

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A woman went to Hospital México about 3 p.m Thursday with acid burns all over her body. She was identified by investigators as Patricia Cascante Ramírez. They said she was burned in a dispute with someone who was being questioned. They described her as a young woman. Hospital attendants said she was 33.

Water crisis just around the corner, says report

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Much of the world is facing severe water scarcity, but an impending water crisis can be averted, according to a new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The report released Wednesday urges countries to invest now in infrastructure that would increase the supply of water for irrigation, and domestic and industrial purposes. Wednesday was World Food Day, observed by approximately 150 countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Current trends in global water use threaten future breakdowns in domestic water service, serious reductions in food production, increases in food prices and environmental damage, the Institute report says. The institute is an independent research institute.

The report says the situation is the most critical in developing countries.

The report adds that if current trends continue or worsen by 2025 the world will experience annual losses of at least 130 million metric tons of food production — twice the current annual wheat crop. It predicts that by 2025 water demand will be 50 percent greater than in 1995.

The report says "excessive diversions" of water flows and overdraft of groundwater have already caused environmental damage in many regions of the world and competition for the resource among households, industry and agriculture.

It says that because of accelerated pumping, after 2010 key aquifers in northern China, northern and northwestern India, West Asia and North Africa will begin to fail. It adds that excessive extraction has already reduced the water supply for human use in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin.

Gov. Bush suggests
Miami for FTAA 2003

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

MIAMI, Fla. — Jeb Bush, Florida governor, is lobbying hard for the selection of this city as the site of Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations in 2003.

Addressing the sixth annual Americas Conference Tuesday, Bush echoed Robert Zoellick's, a U.S. trade representative, statement the day before that a 2003 free trade ministerial should be held in the south Florida city. 

Quito, Ecuador, will host the upcoming Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 trade ministers' negotiations, which will be immediately preceded by an Americas Business Forum of the region's private-sector business leaders.

Calling Miami the "Gateway to the Americas" that serves as a cultural, economic, and political hub for the region, Bush said the trade area of the Americas would encompass an area of 800 million customers and a combined gross domestic product of $14 trillion, making it the largest trading bloc in the world. 

Bush also has called for Miami to be the site of the permanent secretariat, or headquarters, of the organization. Selection of the permanent secretariat is scheduled for 2005, the deadline for completion of the free trade negotiations.

Bush said he has made international trade a top priority of his state's economy. According to the governor, imports and exports moving through Florida amount to more than $71 billion, a total expected to increase as emerging markets in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere around the world gain importance.

U.S. forces to take part
in exercise in Chile

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Defense Department says 300 members of its special operations forces are in Santiago, Chile for a two-week multinational peacekeeping exercise dubbed Cabanas 2002.

Defense officials say the U.S. personnel represent the seventh Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Special Operations Command-South, based in Puerto Rico. 

The U.S. contingent is joining soldiers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. 

The Pentagon says Cabanas 2002 began Wednesday and is the largest exercise of its kind in the region. The exercise will focus on a variety of U.N. peacekeeping tasks. 

They include tactical troop movements, food distribution, identification and marking of mines, civil-military affairs and security and police operations. 

The multinational peacekeeping exercise is set to end on Oct. 29.

Diplomat denies he tried to pressure Bolivia

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The top U.S. diplomat for Latin America has held talks in Bolivia with President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada on trade and the war on drugs. 

Speaking after their meeting Wednesday Otto Reich, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, denied reports the purpose of his visit was to pressure the Bolivian government to continue its policy of eradication of illegal coca plants, the raw material from which cocaine is derived.

But Reich said the elimination of the coca plants is extremely important and that the United States would continue helping Bolivia destroy the crop. 

The United States has provided economic and military assistance to Bolivia in exchange for the eradication program and the nation's coca production has been greatly reduced.

But reports say Washington is concerned that the Bolivian government is moving toward a softer stand against coca growers.

Jamaican P.M. 
apparently re-elected

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Prime Minister P.J. Patterson has apparently won re-election amid calls by his main rival for a recount in certain constituencies. 

Unofficial results from Wednesday's balloting indicate that Patterson's ruling People's National Party won 35 seats in the 60-seat parliament. 

The opposition Jamaica Labor Party, led by Edward Seaga, won the remaining 25 seats. 

Seaga has not conceded defeat and asked for a ballot recounted in areas where the vote was close. The Electoral Office of Jamaica says the final, official tally will not be ready before Friday. 

If the current results hold, Patterson will become the first prime minister elected to three straight terms. 

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and a team of nearly 60 international observers monitored the balloting.

Gunmen hold-up Pizza Hut

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three gunmen stuck up the popular Pizza Hut restaurant on Paseo Colón last night and took some 500,000 colons, about $1,350. They fled in a vehicle.

Ecuador’s leader praises adoption of dollar

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

MIAMI, Fla. — Gustavo Noboa, Ecuador's president, speaking at the sixth annual Americas Conference Tuesday, said that ever since his country adopted the U.S. dollar, almost three years ago, as the legal currency in Ecuador, the country's economy is "convalescing satisfactorily and showing indicators totally different" from the dismal figures of January 2000. 

Noboa pointed to the drop in inflation from a high of 108 percent in 2000 to 11.3 percent by September 2002. Ecuador's growth rate in 2001 was 5.6 percent, which he said was the highest in Latin America that year. The unemployment rate fell from 16 percent in 1999 to eight percent in July 2002, while underemployment dropped from 47 percent to 30 percent in the same period.

Noboa said he is convinced that economic stability reached in Chile  "has started to extend and reproduce" in other Latin American countries. He said, for example, that Ecuador and El Salvador have taken key steps in the search for stability. With the firm support of international credit agencies and with fair trade treatment, "they could very soon become two new stars in the continental economy," he added.

Meanwhile, a new poll was released at the conference, in which 420 opinion leaders from six Latin American countries said that the region can one day become a major global economic "power bloc."

The survey, conducted by the Zogby International polling firm, found that except for Chile, a majority of respondents rate current economic conditions in their nations as poor. But nearly three in four respondents expect the economy in their countries to improve either partially or greatly. Two in three respondents also said more political integration throughout Latin American would help the continent's overall economy.

Lawmakers want sanctions on N. Korea

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. lawmakers are urging President George Bush to impose sanctions against North Korea after Pyongyang admitted Thursday it is developing nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 agreement. 

In a letter to the president, the congressmen said the United States should immediately halt all nuclear cooperation with North Korea, including work on two light water reactors. The letter calls on U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan, to do the same. The letter also says all non-humanitarian aid to North Korea should be stopped, including the delivery of fuel oil. 

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. secretary of defense, says he believes North Korea already has a small number of nuclear devices. Another U.S. intelligence official says North Korea has enough plutonium to make at least two nuclear bombs. 

The State Department says it is considering its next step in dealing with Pyongyang. 

Earlier, Bush called North Korea's admission "troubling and sobering." He says he still wants a diplomatic solution to end North Korea's nuclear program. 

The president is expected to discuss the issue next week with Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he visits the United States. 

South Korea, meanwhile, said the North's admission may be a sign it wants to settle the issue through dialogue. North Korea has taken several recent steps to improve ties with South Korea and Japan. 

The White House says North Korea told U.S. envoy James Kelly in Pyongyang two weeks ago that it had not scrapped its nuclear weapons program, as required under the1994 accord it signed with the United States. Officials say the admission was made after Mr. Kelly confronted his hosts with evidence of the weapons program. 

On Thursday, North Korea lashed out at the United States in a commentary on state-controlled radio. It accused Washington of distorting the truth about North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs.

IRA insurgents’ court
date set in Bogota

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — A judge in Colombia has set Dec. 2 as start date for the trial of three suspected Irish Republican Army (IRA) members charged with training anti-government rebels. 

The announcement came at a pre-trial hearing here, Wednesday. The suspects: Irish nationals Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley, refused to leave their cells to attend the hearing. They proclaimed their innocence and said the trial is politically motivated. 

The defendants were arrested at the international airport here in August 2001. They are accused of spending five weeks in a former stronghold of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and providing weapons training to the insurgents. They also face charges of using false documents. 

If convicted, they face up to 20 years in a Colombian prison. Lawyers for the accused say the prosecution's case is based on flimsy evidence. 
Colombia is mired in a 38-year civil war involving the FARC and a smaller rebel group, right-wing paramilitaries and the government. The conflict has left at least 40,000 people dead in the past decade alone. 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in London, Tony Blair, British prime minister, has called on the IRA to disband in order to save the peace process in Northern Ireland. He made the call in a speech in Belfast Thursday. 

The speech to Northern Irish civic leaders was billed as Blair's most important statement on the peace process there since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

WHO members meet to
discuss tobacco controls

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

GENEVA, Switzerland — Many of the 192 member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) are taking part in negotiations in Geneva to finalize the text of an international convention to control tobacco. One of the major goals of the convention is to halt tobacco smuggling. 

WHO officials say cigarettes are the world's most widely smuggled product. They add that, according to the World Bank, smuggled cigarettes account for at least six percent of all cigarettes consumed around the world.

Nearly a fifth of all cigarettes are exported and almost a third of those exports, about 355 billion cigarettes a year, end up on the contraband market. 

Officials at the WHO blame the major tobacco companies for much of the smuggling. They say the companies benefit in two ways: It enables them to increase their market share and to evade billions of dollars in taxes that governments impose on cigarettes.

Luc Joossens, the chief adviser to the health agency on the smuggling issue, remarked Thursday in Geneva that U.S. tobacco companies must be aware that billions of their cigarettes are smuggled.

"How could you imagine that cigarettes are exported and that industry doesn't know where they are going, and that each month cigarettes arrive in a specific market," he asked. "The final decision whether the industry is complicit or no, it's not up to us to say that. But there are indications that they know what's going on. But the final decision on whether they are complicit is up to the courts to decide."

As an example of the way cigarette smuggling works, Joossens laid out how a shipment of smuggled cigarettes made its way to Iraq.

"Cigarettes came from Puerto Rico to Spain, from Spain they went to Cyprus, from Cyprus they were declared to be going to Russia, then in fact they didn't go to Russia, they went to Turkey and Lebanon, and crossed the border into Iraq," he said. 

Joossens said he obtained this information from documents that the European Union filed earlier this year in a lawsuit against three multinational companies.

Joossens also disputed claims that cigarette smuggling is a problem affecting only countries with high tobacco taxes. He pointed out that smuggling is a major problem in Africa, despite the fact that prices are generally lower there than in many other parts of the world.

The WHO is proposing several measures to fight cigarette smuggling. It wants, among other things, stricter licensing of all tobacco products and greater oversight of how cigarettes are distributed.
The organization says if countries around the world cooperate in implementing these measures they will save millions of lives and gain billions of dollars in tax revenues.
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