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(506) 2223-1327              Published Friday, Oct. 23, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 210        E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Highly predictable bridge mishap takes five lives
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Television commentators are calling it the "Crónica de una muerte anunciada." But in this case there are five deaths.

The allusion is to the 1981 Gabriel García Marquéz book, but the reference could also be to the "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

There was no fiction Thursday morning when a dilapidated bridge collapsed and a bus load of Turrubares residents were dumped into the Río Grande de Tárcoles. An heroic response by victims, the Cruz Roja, firemen and other officials managed to bring most of the passengers ashore alive.

But this is not just any bridge. This is a span that starred a year ago in a Channel 7 in a "60 Minutes"-like presentation of terrible bridges. Even the bus involved in the crash was the feature of a television news sequence when a tire fell through the aging deck of the bridge and mechanics had to use hydraulic jacks to extricate it.

At that time, the driver was the same man.

This is the same bridge that has been the topic of two pleas from the local government of adjacent Orotina to the transport ministry. The latest was two weeks ago. And the span has been featured prominently in several reports about dangerous bridges.

The García Marquéz book is called in English the "Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In this video age nothing could be more foretelling than tapes of vehicles crossing the bouncing suspension bridge from a year ago. But for the less electronically minded, there were the signs that said "Puente en mal estado," meaning bad bridge ahead.

All that is coming to bear on the Óscar Arias Sánchez administration in the fallout of the 6:23 a.m. accident that rolled the former U.S. school bus into the river. Those who died ranged from a 75-year-old man on his way to a medical appointment to a 30-year-old wife and mother. The opposition Partido Acción Ciudadana already has issued a call for the resignation of Karla González, the minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes. She was on television news shows Thursday night defending her department and basically saying that the terrible state of the nation's bridges could not have been fixed in the three and a half years of the Arias administration. She has deplored the bridge situation previously.

Ms. González also reported that a large piece of machinery had moved across the bridge an back again the previous day. The bridge has a four-ton load limit. The empty bus weights slightly more than that.

The prosecutor in Atenas said Thursday afternoon that this office has opened an investigation of the bus driver's conduct, the conduct of the company that holds the contract for the route and of any public officials who might have responsibility for the bridge collapse.

The span originally was erected from 1920 to 1924. Engineers said that one of the two main suspension cables parted to cause the accident. There may have been structural damage to one of the anchor points of the cables.

The wooden plank bridge deck was about 10 meters above the river. The bus appears to have rolled off the bridge deck when the cable parted and rolled over at least once when it hit the water. The vehicle ended up on its wheels in the middle of the river with water up to a point slightly below the passenger windows. Those who died
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likely suffered injury in the fall and perhaps drowned inside the bus. There are several stories of husbands successfully saving their wives or children in the bus.

Most if not all of the passengers came from Turrubares, and most probably knew each other. Turrubares is the smallest cantón of the Provincia de San José, and the population is only about 6,000 persons. Orotina northwest across the river is in the Provincia de Alajuela.

The Cruz Roja said it had 50 emergency workers at the scene and 25 ambulances. A later count said that some 50 ambulances responded. Rescue workers took 33 survivors and the driver from the wrecked bus, many by small boat. Some 21 persons ended up in Hospital Monseñor Sanabria in Puntarenas. Three, the most seriously hurt, were in Hospital México in San José. They were airlifted there. All the injured were treated at the Clinica de Orotina first, and some were released.

Experts from the  Laboratorio Nacional de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales of the Universidad de Costa Rica were on the scene doing an inspection. That agency has been vocal about the state of the nation's bridges.

The Colegio Federado de Ingeneros y Arquitectos warned last month that so many bridges have deteriorated that only a massive effort could turn the tide. The president of the nation's emergency commission, Vanessa Rosales, said that the condition of the bridges did not fit the legal definition of a national emergency. She cited a law that basically says that an emergency has to be the result of a natural or human cause.

The architects and engineers were speaking broadly, but the emergency commission head was not. She said that the board of directors of her organization, the Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias, shares the concern over the bridges. However, she said that a declaration by the executive branch of an emergency had a limited definition. But now there is talk of an emergency declaration.

The transport ministry has been talking about fixing bridges for years. Some 10 major spans are considered in critical need of repair. They are bridges on the Grecia-Peñas Blancas stretch of Route 1, on the San José-Paso Canoas Route 2, over the Rio Chirripó in Sarapiquí on Route 4, over the rios Chirripó and Sucio on the San José-Limón Route 32 and over the Río Torres in the metropolitan area.

Ms. González has said that of the 1,300 bridges in the country, most are 30 years or more old. The Japanese Agency for International Cooperation has sponsored a study of bridge conditions but there has been no coordinated repair efforts.

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey," the 1927 Pulitzer winner by Thornton Wilder, was about the 18th century collapse of a Peruvian bridge where five persons died. The book raised theological questions about God's will. That is likely a topic in Turrubares today.

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Bandstand will glow pink
as reminder to women

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The bandstand in Parque Morazán will be getting a rosy glow tonight as a reminder to women to conduct self-examinations for breast cancer.

The structure, formally known as the Templo de la Musica, will be bathed in pink lights, as part of the current Campaña de Prevención contra el Cáncer de Mama: Aprendo por mi Vida.

The display is a joint project of the Municipalidad de San José, the AVON company and the Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz.

Fiestas spots at auction
Saturday in San José

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Have plans to make a few extra colons by maintaining a booth at the Fiestas de San José at Zapote over the Christmas vacation?

If so, bring your checkbook to an auction of available spots. The auction will be Saturday in the municipal building on Avenida 10.

The Comisión de Fiestas de San José said that the starting bid for the four places reserved for a restaurant and bar is 6.6 million colons each. That's $11,400.

The carnival area, some 6,040 square meters, about 1.5 acres, starts at 71 million colons. some $122,500.

There also are spots for fast food vendors at a lower starting bid as well as some 18 spots for sales of various other articles and traditional toys.

Also up for grabs is the right to install portable toilets at the fiestas and one megabar, that is supposed to be a two story structure. The starting bid is 52 million colons or about $90,000. The megabar operator has the right to charge admission to the facility.

Flat rate taxi charge
gets frown from regulator

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The price regulating agency is miffed that some taxi drivers are using a printed sheet with fixed rates. For example, the rate from San José to Santa Ana is listed as 7,000 colons on one sheet.

The agency, the Authoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos said that the fixed rate causes passengers to pay more than they should. The agency insisted that the only legal way for taxi drivers to charge for their services is to use the approved taxi meter, even if the trip is to Playas del Coco.

The price of a rate is not affected by the time of day, the conditions of the road, the origin of the trip or whether the day is a holiday, said the agency. Taxi drivers usually charge more for making pickups at hotels and some say the hotels take a cut.

The agency said it welcomes complaints from citizens. However, charging by the trip is a frequent method used by taxi drivers when they leave the immediate metro area.

Robbery conviction means
sentence of 15 years

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man convicted of eight violent robberies of truckers and pedestrians got 15 years in prison in the Tribunal de Juicio de Heredia Wednesday.

He was identified by the last names of Aburto Hernández. He also was convicted of illegal possession of a weapon.
All the crimes were in the Provincia de Heredia, said the Poder Judicial. The crimes began July 5, 2008.

Among other crimes the man was accused of robbing youngsters who were skating in Parque El Carmen in Heredia.

Copenhagen negotiations
hinge on early agreements

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

With less than 50 days until the Copenhagen Climate Conference, officials have been meeting in London to work out the details of an agreement. While there is universal consensus that there needs to be a deal at Copenhagen, there are still many challenges to hammering out an agreement.

Britain hosted a meeting of officials from the 17 major economies this week, focusing on narrowing differences about how to tackle climate change ahead of December's Copenhagen Conference. British Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Miliband says there's one area that's not in doubt.

"The universal view that we need to get an agreement in Copenhagen, not an agreement at any price, but that we have come a long way and we need to convert the distance that we have traveled into an agreement in December of this year," he said.

Miliband said he was encouraged by this week's meeting and the general agreement among the participants that hard decisions have to be made at Copenhagen in December.

"There is a spirit of engagement, a spirit of willingness and actually a spirit of determination that having come so far, now is not the time to falter. Now there is significantly further to go, this is absolutely not a done deal. It remains in the balance in my view," Miliband said.

It will be a complex deal. Developing nations are worried about the cost of making changes, and whether reducing carbon emissions might hinder their growth, developed nations don't want to slow their economies or change the lifestyles of their citizens. Miliband says everyone's concerns need to be addressed.

"We are trying to do something very tough, we are trying to turn around the inexorable rise in global carbon emissions and that's never been done before and it certainly wasn't done at Kyoto. So the difficulty stems from the fact that in every country there are compelling constraints and difficulties that need to be overcome," Miliband said.

Denmark's foreign minister was also in London this week. The minister, Per Stig Moeller, says the European Union will have to take the lead on financing. One of the bigger challenges is finding the funds that will help developing nations make the changes they need to reduce carbon emissions.

"Without funds for transfer of technology and money for adaptation, the developing world will not strike a deal in Copenhagen, you can forget it," Moeller said.

He says it's not just the developing world that faces changes, the United States does too.

"It's obvious that the United States is in a difficult position. We know that while the United States recognizes the need, and the president not the least, for swift action, the domestic political situation complicates matters. But I think that the United States will demonstrate the necessary leadership once the show gets going," Moeller said.

The U. S. Senate still has to pass legislation that would cut emissions by 20 percent in just over a decade. If the Congress doesn't approve the bill before December, that could send a message that the U.S. is not committed to change. Washington's climate envoy, Todd Stearn, says the substance of the bill shows America's commitment.

"The kind of number that's in the Senate bill, frankly the kind of number that's in the House bill, those are strong numbers for the United States, that would involve a shift, really a seismic shift in the U.S. economy," Stearn said.

Developing countries such as China and India have not clearly laid out plans to cut their emissions. Both have indicated they intend to make cuts. Stearn says nations may do different things, but actions will be important.

"The view of the United States on this point is that there is differentiation in what countries need to do. But in terms of the willingness of countries to stand behind whatever it is that they're doing, there can't be differentiation there. It can't be that the developed countries say we'll stand behind what we're doing and the developing countries say we'll tell you what we're doing but we won't stand behind it. So on that point, we've still got work to do," Stearn said..

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 210

La Extra does not pull punches in story about competitor
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The fact is not always obvious to casual newspaper readers, but reporters and editors love to zap their competition.

A.M. Costa Rica doesn't take cheap shots because it really has no competition. But the Spanish-language newspapers seek a vulnerability, editors and reporters go for it.

This happened this week after the woman who heads the newsroom at the La Nación daily newspaper returned home with an account of being roughed up by police Oct. 9 at a U2 concert in Florida.

The woman, Gianina Segnini, was jailed after she failed to follow the instructions of an officer. She was at the concert with a boyfriend and her 10-year-old son.

An article in La Nación earlier in the week pretty much supported the woman's story, that she was unjustly set upon by policemen and taken off to jail.

Thursday La Nación had a response from the Hillborough County Sheriff's Office headlined "U.S. police defend the arrest of a Costa Rican."
The woman's newspaper quoted Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the sheriff's office saying that Ms. Segnini was blocking an exit and declined to move. He also said the editor hit a policeman in the chest. It was the he-said version of the she-said story that had appeared earlier.

The popular daily newspaper El Diario Extra was less kind. Calling the woman the beloved and intrepid journalist, the competing newspaper headlined the story with the phrase "She was drunk." The newspaper, frequently known for excesses, cited information from Cristal Bermúdez of what was identified as the community affairs office.

The topic of alcohol never came up in the La Nación story. "She smelled of liquor," the newspaper quoted Ms. Bermúdez as saying. The newspaper also published an unflattering booking photo of the woman they also called "our colleague."

Readers of both newspapers can be sure that La Extra reporters have been instructed to stay out of trouble for the next couple of weeks, or La Nación will have its chance to exact vengeance. Meanwhile, the country got a taste of an episode that could have come out of Ben Hecht's 1928 play about Chicago's newspaper wars,  "The Front Page."

Now what goes great with key lime pie and pickled beets?
Even though my appetite has not improved, the kitchen is still my favorite place.  After looking at the little yellow limes in the fruit drawer of my refrigerator for a couple of weeks, I made that key lime pie I had been thinking about.  I also pickled that last little beet.  I gave myself a B on both endeavors.  Next time I will add lime zest to increase the flavor of the pie and will beat the meringue longer.  As for the beets, they really needed the parsley, which I didn’t have.

On the top of the stove sits one of my favorite pans – actually a pot – a stainless steel cylindrical pot five inches tall with a heavy bottom.  It is perfect for cooking pasta for one or two, but it is missing a handle.  It broke off a couple of years ago.  I can assure you there is no store in San José that sells a pot like mine anymore.

This week I decided to find someone to repair it.  By now I had lost the handle, which I had saved for years but it disappeared during one of my recent moves. 

Not quite ready to tackle the bus, I asked my friend Doug to call a taxi.  Doug’s favorite taxista is Eric.  Not only does Eric remember every place he has been, he is ready with useful information.  In this case, he recommended we try the Gallito Comercio. 

The Gallito Comercio is a sort of downtown mall on Avenida 2 between Calles 4 and 6.  Most of the stores in the mall sell or repair electrodomésticos.  My pot is not electric, but after asking at several stores, we found one where they said they could fix it.  What they didn’t say is that we would have to wait an hour while the repairman, invisible behind the half wall, worked on his present problem.  While waiting, I roamed the mall.  It is a good place to go to if you are in the market for a kitchen appliance.  Two hours later my pot had a handsome handle.  Fittingly it is a sturdy 5 1/2-inch long one – a pretty impressive handle.

Speaking of pots, I see that the Obama administration has decided not to arrest and prosecute people who grow, sell or use medical marijuana in states that have decriminalized it for that purpose This was good news to me. 

Marijuana helped me survive chemotherapy and radiation back in the 70s.  I was still able to work at three part-time jobs. The Puritanical idea of trying to isolate the
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

ingredient that relieves nausea so that the patient doesn’t “get high” is shortsighted.  It was not just having my nausea under control, it was also the “side effect” that gave me a balanced perspective and objectivity about what I was going through. This eased the ordeal.  I have read that there are no reported deaths due to the use of marijuana alone.  In my opinion, alcohol lowers your inhibitions and cannabis lowers your defenses. This very much affects behavior.

It is difficult to get accurate data on the subject, but a number of South American countries have or are seriously considering decriminalizing marijuana, and across the Atlantic, Portugal has already decriminalized just about every type of formerly illegal drug.

Mexico has decriminalized small amounts (what would be for personal use only) of a couple of drugs.  It makes me wonder what will happen if more and more countries in this hemisphere decriminalize marijuana.  Will it be more difficult for the U.S. to get cooperation in their “drug war”?  It is reported that 70 percent of the income illegal drug dealers make comes from the sale of marijuana.   How will they be affected? 

So far I have not heard what Costa Rica is considering, but it is a generally forward-looking country.  And there is the temptation facing all countries that are strapped financially to find another product to tax. 

What I do know is that had I been smoking pot when I tested my key lime pie and pickled beets, I would have given myself an A+ on both and relished every bite of them.  Not to mention that I would have revived my appetite in the first place.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Individual policemen have mixed views on drugs. But expats should be wary because they are easy targets.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 210

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Consejo de Seguridad hears upbeat report on Limón crime

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nation's Consejo de Seguridad met in San José Thursday to receive a report on improvements in police efforts in the Provincia de Limón. They met in San José because they were concerned that striking dock workers might cause problems if they showed up at the original location planned in that Caribbean city.

Despite the irony, law enforcement and central government officials were upbeat.

The prosecutor from the area reported a remarkable change: "Two and a half months ago when I walked in the streets of Limón the people insulted me, a man spit on my shoes. However, now the people stop me on the street and congratulate me for the work that the police are doing in the zone."

The prosecutor is Celso Gamboa Sánchez, and she told the Consejo that "the people are going to the park with their children to enjoy themselves. This has never been seen before in Limón . . . ."

Janina del Vecchio, the security minister, credited several police sweeps including one called Operativo Limón 100 días, with reducing the criminality in the region. She said there has not been a single murder in the central section of Limón since July and that an Oct. 15 murder in Barrio Limoncito was believed to be caused by drugs.
The minister reported a 3.6 per cent drop in crimes against property compared to 2008 figures. That's 36 fewer cases, she said. Domestic violence cases were reported down 8.5 percent, she said.

She said that her Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública continues to assign new policemen to the region. She also said that soon some 50 security cameras will be installed. Limón benefits from a tax on banana exports that raised 1.4 billion colons in the last year. That is about $2.4 million. From this fund the ministry has purchased 34 new patrol cars, 87 motorcycles, two buses and two boats, Ms. del Vecchio said.

She also said that the central government and the Poder Judicial may soon announce the creation of another Tribunal de Flagrancia for Limón. This is the court where those caught in the act get speedy sentences. There is one in San José now.

Despite the rosy report, Limón has seen major problems over the last year. Medical professionals were being threatened and faced with extortion. An arrest has been made in that case. The several police sweeps seemed to collar more turtle hunters and other minor criminals than robbers and murderers.

The police continue to make arrests at various checkpoints mainly concentrating on travelers from Panamá.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 210

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Another blow to La Familia
results in 300+ arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

U.S. law enforcement officials say they have launched the largest single strike ever at a notorious Mexican drug cartel operating inside the United States. The crackdown resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people in 19 states.

The target of the combined federal, state and local law enforcement effort is the notorious Mexican cartel known as La Familia, a major supplier of cocaine and methamphetamine to drug dealers in the U.S.

The crackdown was announced at a news conference in Washington by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

"We are taking the fight to our adversaries and in so doing, we are making our communities safer and more secure," he said.

Holder said 303 people have been arrested, and law enforcement has seized money and drugs as part of a sweep that reached into 19 U.S. states.

"In the last two days alone, we have seized $3.4 million in U.S. currency and nearly 730 pounds of methamphetamine as well as other narcotics," he said.

U.S. officials describe La Familia as the newest and most violent of Mexico's five major cartels. La Familia is based in southwestern Mexico and has steadily spread into the United States.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the drug cartel has transformed itself into what he called a sophisticated criminal organization.

Michele Leonhart is the acting administrator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which played a major role in the latest crackdown.

"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by so-called divine justice. Accordingly, La Familia's narco banner declared that they do not kill for money and they do not kill innocent people," he said. "However, their delivery of that message was accompanied by five severed heads rolled onto a dance floor in Uruapan Mexico."

Leonhart says La Familia is philosophically opposed to selling methamphetamine to Mexicans, but eagerly exports the drug to the United States for consumption.

U.S. officials say the heavily armed cartel often carries out murders, kidnappings and assaults to further its reach.

Attorney General Holder said U.S. officials are closely cooperating with Mexico in the battle against La Familia and other drug cartels, a battle he compared with the one waged by law enforcement agencies against organized crime.

"I think we have to keep hitting them," he said. "To the extent that they do grow back, I think we have to work with our Mexican counterparts to really cut off the heads of these snakes and get at the heads of the cartels."

"Indict them, try them either in Mexico or extradite them to the United States. I think we have to use the same techniques that we used effectively against the Mafia here in the United States where you attack these organizations at all levels," he added.

U.S. officials have been targeting La Familia for nearly four years in an investigation known as Project Coronado, and in that time have arrested nearly 1,200 people on drug charges and seized more than 11 tons of narcotics.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 210

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Chávez says U.S. planning
to give him nuclear aims

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has accused the U.S. of trying to create what he called the opinion that his country wants nuclear weapons.

Chávez made the comment during a televised cabinet meeting late Wednesday, days after federal agents raided the home of a former U.S. government nuclear scientist who had contacts with an alleged Venezuelan government representative.

Monday FBI agents seized papers, computers and other items from the home of former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist P. Leonardo Mascheroni, who says the agents led him to believe he was being investigated for espionage.

Mascheroni said that in 2008 a man claiming to represent the Venezuelan government agreed to pay him several hundred thousand dollars for technical information. Mascheroni says he provided unclassified information but was never paid.

In his speech Wednesday, Chávez read aloud a newspaper report of the incident and called the probe a plan against his government.

Venezuela has been strengthening ties with Russia as well as Iran — a country the U.S. and its Western allies have accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Chávez recently reiterated his commitment to developing a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes with help from Russia.

Mascheroni was laid off from Los Alamos in 1988 and had been advocating a type of laser fusion that involves using the sun as an energy source. 

He is a native of Argentina but is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He told news organizations that if he were a spy, he would have left the U.S. a long time ago.

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