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(506) 223-1327             Published Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 220                  E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Aguinaldos give employers little to ho, ho ho about
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The private sector will pay its employees an estimated ¢363.4 billion colons by Dec. 20 as the
traditional aguinaldo. That is nearly $700 million.

The computation was made by the Unión Costarricense de Cámaras y Asociaciones del Sector Empresarial Privado. The chamber, used government figures and estimated that there are
Santa and money
some 1.7 million  employees in Costa Rica.

Under terms of the labor laws, each employee is
 entitled to an extra payment of a month's salary at Christmastime. This is the so-called 13th month's pay.

The central government said it would be paying its aguinaldos by Dec. 5, but the law lets employers wait until Dec. 20.

The chamber said that the amount being paid is about 19 percent greater than last year because there are more employees in the country and the average salary is about 12 percent greater.

The payment of the aguinaldo brings great joy to merchants because Costa Ricans go on a buying spree for Christmas. Crooks like the period, too, because there is more money on the street. Officials routinely issue warnings about street robberies and pickpockets and beef up the police presence for Christmas.

Getting a straight story about Tamarino's pollution woes is not easy
By Helen Thompson and Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tourists are unlikely to get a straight answer about the dangers of pollution in Tamarindo's waters  because workers at different hotels spin one of several contradictory stories to potential vacationers.

Many hotel workers still are advising that it is all right to swim and surf at Tamarindo beach, despite the recent findings that parts of the bay harbor are over 300 times the count of coliform bacteria that is considered the safe limit for humans.

Hotels have been left fighting to counter the bad publicity threatening their businesses after a report showed concentrations of up to 79,000 cloriform bacteria per 100 milliliters, indicating fecal pollution and the possible presence of other disease-causing bacteria. The limit considered safe for swimming is 240 per 100 milliliters.

The Ministerio de Salud has so far blamed the problem on resorts, hotels and restaurants in the Guanacaste beachfront town for failing to treat sewage properly, but these establishments cannot agree about the severity of the situation.

Seven hotels contacted Monday advised callers that swimming was still a common practice and that visitors should not worry too much about the reports.

While some hotel employees qualified their approval with cautions about the safety of the water, others issued blanket denials that anything has been found amiss.

A staff member at Hotel El Milagro flatly denied the truth of the report issued by the laboratory of the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados in October.

El Milagro, whose Web site encourages tourists to enjoy the "green to turquoise blue" sea on their doorstep, is situated near to a site where readings showed a concentration of 49,000 coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters.

Staff members at Hotel Tamarindo Diria appeared to be even more confused about the situation, with two different employees contradicting each other about the safety of the water.

While a lady on the tour desk sided with El Milagro in disclaiming the report, her colleague on the reservations desk was the only person to advise that tourists should avoid the ocean.

Although unwilling to go into details that would
 put clients off, the man said that he would tell the clients to restrict swimming to the hotel's pool and avoid watersports in the ocean.

Other hotels acknowledged that there is a problem in Tamarindo, but assured clients that it will be dealt with by the end of the rainy season. Some were under the impression that the contamination is only present in Tamarindo's waters because of the excessive rain over the last few weeks that washed polluted water downstream into the ocean, resulting in a much higher concentration of bacteria than usual.

This idea is unconfirmed, and the health ministry has ordered that further tests be taken after the rainy season has finished.

A staff member at another hotel, Pasatiempo, said that she still swims frequently during any season. "Occasionally you hear of someone getting an ear infection," she said, "but nothing much worse than that. It's not like you won't be able to get up in the morning," she said.

A member of staff at Hotel Lago Cocodrilo was happy to agree that the problem is caused by older buildings whose drains empty into the ocean, but was pessimistic about the situation improving. He said "Pollution is more and more of a problem all over Costa Rica. People buy property to make money and don't care about the environment. The government does not enforce the laws, and it is that mindset that needs to change."

A staffer at Tamarindo Village said "I'll tell you the truth — there's pollution everywhere. They close down beaches in California because of pollution as well." 

The staffer was, however, eager to point the finger: "In a way the locals don't mind the bad publicity because we want the government to shame the places that are causing the problems, in order for the problems to be cured," she added.

One hostel has been shut down by the ministry of health for failing to comply with a sanitary order, and two other large hotels will be ordered to correct problems with waste water.

Tamarindo risks losing the Blue Flag certification that recognizes its beaches are environmentally sound if it does not clean itself up over the next couple of months.

At this time, no signs warning of the possible dangers of swimming have been erected, as it is considered that this would damage tourism, and that the reports are not yet certain enough to take such a step.

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U.S. couple say ministry
misstated facts over theft

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two U.S. expats have a theft story considerably less glowing than the account released officially over the weekend by the security ministry.

The ministry report, published in A.M. Costa Rica Monday, said that quick action by the Policía Turística resulted in the arrest of three theft suspects and the recovery of $10,300.

But the couple, Philip Hemion, a Heredia English teacher, and Melissa Grace, a yoga instructor in Jacó, said they would not carry that amount of cash in their vehicle when they went to the beach. Instead, they saw three persons break into their vehicle at Playa Hermosa and take clothes, other items and, at best, $400 in rent money.

The Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública said that officers responded to the pair's emergency call and apprehended the three suspects in Jacó. Hemion said that police were on the lookout for the vehicle and the trio anyway due to previous theft reports.

Hemion said that the thieves leveled death threats at him when they drove away after being released the following day, Sunday. The ministry said that the two men involved were Colombians with the status of refugees. The woman suspect was a 21-year-old Costa Rican. A ministry press release Sunday gave the impression that the suspects were being held.

Ms. Grace said she suspected that the police grossly inflated the amount involved to make themselves look good. Hemion said that police probably added up the value of stolen items and added a zero.

He also was angry that Judicial Investigating Organization agents would not let him search the suspect's car more fully Sunday. He said that some clothes and a woman's bag were taken. Stolen were an I-pod, a wallet, the money, a cell phone, identification, keys and other personal cosmetic items.

That all happened at Playa Hermosa Saturday. Police found the clothes and the bag in the suspects' vehicle, but they failed to locate the jewelry, money, and a chip for the cell phone. So no money was returned to the couple, despite what the press release reported, Hemion said.

Ms. Grace said that the vehicle was parked at the Fuerza Pública delegación overnight in Jacó and that it appeared someone had entered the vehicle because the windows were down. Hemion said he wanted to do more than conduct a cursory search of the vehicle, a red Geo Tracker.

Hemion also said he was unhappy that he and Ms. Grace had to sit in the police station for five hours while the case was sorted out. Both speak Spanish, and both made the allegation that Fuerza Pública officers made sexually harassing comments and touched Ms. Grace while she waited at the station.

Hemion also said that the Judicial Investigating Organization agent took no action when the death threats were leveled and the suspects drove away.

The official ministry account also was published by Spanish-language newspapers. It was sent via e-mail and FAX to newspapers Sunday.

Ms. Grace said that if the pair were tourists and not residents they would have been unaware of the glowing but incorrect ministry press release.

This is not the first time in the last month that the ministry overstated a case. Two weeks ago the ministry reported the arrest of a U.S. tourist and characterized him as a pedophile who was involved with a 16-year-old girl.

After the man spent a night in jail, and was threatened with five years in prison, investigators realized that the woman was 22 and apparently involved in a domestic dispute with the man. The U.S. citizen was let go quietly without any notice via a press release.

Our reader's opinion
Institute is not the same
as School of the Americas

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Your article today about Minister Berrocal and the delegation to the U.S. had a couple of minor errors in fact about the institute, so I thought I would offer a correction of those.

First, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation was created by a U.S. law (signed by President Clinton in 2000), and replaced the Army's School of the Americas.  WHINSEC is a successor institution, but not 'formerly.'  (Minor point I know, and the institute is similar, but legally a different organization.)

Also, Director Navarro is here not as a student but as part of our faculty.  At any given time, one-third to two-fifths of our faculty is made up of individuals from allied nations in the Organization of American States.  These are not only Latin American, but also Caribbean, and include military, police and civilian personnel.
Lee A. Rials
public affairs officer
Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation
Fort Benning, Georgia

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 220

Rock adn Roll Thanksgiving dinner
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An A.M. Costa Rica guest editorial
A former banker comments on the banks in Costa Rica

By Simon Shaw*
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

After reading the letter from Mr. Phillip Christian, I came to the conclusion that Banco National should be avoided at all costs because it is not a safe place to put your money. 

In fact, I and many of my business contacts have doubts about many of the banks in Costa Rica.  Getting back to Banco National, if there was only one reported incident of theft it could be ignored. However, there are just too many reported cases showing up in the press, and I expect there are many more that are never published. 

In addition to reported cases, I know of three others where amounts up to US$22,000 have disappeared from accounts at Banco National, and the thefts are not restricted to non-Costa Ricans. 

As an ex-banker, I find it very disturbing and suspicious that money is being stolen from inside the country's National Bank.  At best, the bank’s policies and procedures must be faulty or, as I expect, not adhered to.  However, it appears that either hackers have breached the online security system or, as I expect, this is an inside job which would have to involve more then one person. 

It is all too convenient for the bank to blame their customers for being so stupid to give up their login name and password. Mr. Christian and the people I know are too smart, computer and business savvy to go around publishing their access information. 

Even if one used their debit card and the number was stolen, it would only allow for purchases and cash withdrawals and not provide sufficient information to transfer funds to other accounts, as has been the case in many of the thefts. 

It is also interesting that amounts that should trigger ‘red flags’, as they are in excess of the bank’s daily limit, are not stopped or at least confirmed with the customer.  I also do not understand why the bank’s insurance does not repay the customers within a few weeks and why it takes a minimum of 30 days and usually considerably longer to correct issues such as bank errors, bank machine problems and credit card issues, which take most banks in other countries a week or two to remedy. 

I used to pay my utility bills online, however as it turned out, my bank, Cuscatlan, was not making/reporting my payments to AyA.  When I found out, I documented the problem and provided all the information to the bank.  For
the first 10 minutes their response was to blame me — Surprise!  But when I pointed to the paper audit trail which confirmed it was a bank error, they started an investigation.  Three months later and I am still waiting for a refund.

Globally is seems that a bank is only as good as its people, so if you are lucky to work with a good banker, you should be a happy customer.  A good banker is hard to find!  Poor banking is not restricted to just Costa Rican banks.  Since the world’s banks were forced into becoming money police by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Government, chasing its citizens for taxes, the level of service has plummeted. The reason I do not address terrorism is that the process started years before 9/11. 

Talking of terrorism, I was recently in Canada and wanted to change US$150 into Canadian funds, so I walked into the Bank of Montreal and made my request.  I was told that the bank’s rules would not allow me, a non-bank client, to exchange more then US100 because of money laundering concerns. So I walked next door to the CIBC to change my remaining US$50 and, yes, the CIBC also had the same regulation.  In this day and age, it is astounding that exchanging a paltry amount such as US$150 into Canadian dollars would trigger money laundering issues.  BIG BROTHER’S GRIP IS BECOMING VERY TIGHT!

In my experience, the banks in Panama like those in Costa Rica have no idea of customer’s service and getting them to do simple tasks such as answering a phone call or a wire transfer carries a 50 percent chance of not happening.  It seems to me that since leaving the banking world 27 years ago, that knowledge and service has evaporated.  In Costa Rica and Panama, employees are very poorly trained, and I often find that I have to tell them how to do their job.

Good banks in Costa Rica used to be Bantec, Interfin and Cuscatlan.  However, Bantec closed and Interfin and Cuscatlan have been taken over with disastrous outcomes for the customer.  It seems to me the only banks in Costa Rica that provide good service are, in order of preference, Banco Improsa and Banco de Costa Rica. 

Since I receive services from companies in the U.S.A. which will not accept non U.S. credit cards, I maintain a bank account in the U.S., and I am surprised to report that their customer services are outstanding. 

In fact, they phoned me last week to ask what I thought of their service and to thank me for being a customer — I am still in shock!

*Simon Shaw is from Escazú.

Dall'Anese gets four more years as nation's chief prosecutor
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Francisco Dall'Anese won re-election Monday as the nation's chief prosecutor.  A 15-7 vote of the magistrates of the Corte Suprema gave him four more years on the job.

As fiscal general or chief prosecutor, Dall'Anese is responsible for the prosecution of crimes by his subordinantes.  And he is responsible for setting policy.

There were no other announced candidates for the job, and Dall'Anese answered questions from the assembled magistrates for nearly two hours before the secret vote.
Dall'Anese has been quick to blame judges for the slow-moving justice system in Costa Rica, and he appears to have the support of most of the fiscals or lower-level prosecutors. Many of them were serving temporary terms when Dall'Anese took over, and he gave them permanent positions.

Magistrates could not fail to take notice that several major trials are either in progress or soon to reach the courtroom. One case in progress is that of the murder of radio commentary Parmenio Medina Pérez. Two former presidents are expected to stand trial on bribery allegations in the coming year.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 220

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Chávez constitutional reforms include six-hour work day
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has accused anti-government demonstrators of using violence to oppose his efforts to change the constitution. Opponents say the president is using the reforms to further his hold on power.

President Chávez led pro-government marches through Caracas Sunday to rally support for the planned constitutional changes that include ending term limits on the presidency. Chávez told supporters that the changes will give more power to the people, and help expand what he calls his 21st century socialist revolution.

The rallies are seen as a response to several days of protests by university students and government critics, who accuse the president of seeking a stronger hold on power. At least one person was killed in clashes between protesters and police in western Zulia state.

In the rally Sunday, Chávez accused protest organizers of trying to provoke violence and political upheaval, and he said officials may ban student marches planned in coming days and weeks. He also issued a message to the nation's upper class and to the leaders of an alleged plot against him.

Chávez said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, whom he quoted as saying "in a true revolution, you either win or you die."
Venezuela's national assembly agreed to the president's nearly 70-point reform plan last week, which now will be sent for a referendum in December. If approved, the measures would shorten the official work day to six hours, allow the government to seize private property without court approval and grant new powers to authorities during a state of emergency.

Some critics say the reform plan is too complex to be put to a single vote. Political science professor Anibal Romero of Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, says recent polls show that a fraction of Venezuelan voters understand the changes. And, he says, the government is using populist initiatives, such as the six-hour work day, to generate support for the entire reform package.

Romero says it may be true that most people want to work only six hours a day, and that is what the government is promoting. But he says the real goal of the reform is to allow President Chávez to serve indefinitely.

The president's former defense minister, Raul Baduel, spoke out against the reform bid Monday, saying it amounted to a coup d'etat that would violate the constitution. Human rights groups and the Catholic Church in Venezuela also reject the reform plan.

Since taking office in 1999, Chávez has won a series of ballot initiatives, mainly thanks to strong support among the nation's poor communities.

Citigroup fires top management over gigantic loan losses
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Shares of Citigroup, the biggest U.S .bank, dropped 5 percent Monday after the company dismissed its top management and revealed much bigger than expected losses from bad mortgage loans. Citigroup has a presence in Costa Rica.

New York-based Citigroup revealed that its losses stemming from sub-prime mortgage loans may be as large as $11 billion. Third quarter earnings were also reduced and there are fears that the bank could incur more losses in the current fourth quarter. Al Goldman, an analyst at St. Louis-based AG Edwards brokerage, says Citigroup's problems are a big drag on the U.S. stock market.

"It's almost as if the bad news reached a crescendo today when it finally gets around to a capitulation in management at Citi and the announcement of another major, major write off. So, we'll see," said Goldman.

Citigroup's board of directors met over the weekend and
 accepted the resignation of company chief executive officer Charles Prince. Last month another major financial services company, Merrill Lynch, fired its chief executive because of previously undisclosed losses associated with sub-prime loans.

The two institutions had been major purchasers of sub-prime loans, which were then packaged together and traded as derivative products (called collateralized debt obligations).

The sub-prime problems surfaced in August when many poor credit risk American families were failing to make their monthly payments on mortgage loans. Tens of thousands of prospective homebuyers were encouraged by low interest rates and lenders to buy homes that they couldn't afford.

Citigroup was the first foreign bank to establish operations in Costa Rica in 1968, according to the company. In 2006 Citigroup announced the acquisition of Banco Uno and its credit card operations.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 220

Bike racers will face the La Ruta challenge next week
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica will play host next week to the 15th annual La Ruta de los Conquistadores. Organizers call it on their Web site the toughest mountain bike race on the planet.  An estimated 40 percent of the more than 550 racers who start in the Pacific Coast at Jacó will not cross the finish line in the Caribbean's Playa Bonita, 225 miles away.

The race gets its name and concept from the original route that the Spainard Juan de Caballón took during his bicoastal trip in 1560.  Roman Urbina founded the race 14 years ago with the idea to recreate the route as “an ecological expedition across the most biodiverse country in the world.”  The competitors traverse mountains, rainforests, volcanoes and rivers during the four-day, three-stage mountain biking race.

The Ruta begins and ends in beach towns, but it is the middle that is most challenging.  The riders will mount their attacks on the volcanic mountain chain that lies down the middle of the country, proving the race physically challenging from both the steep inclines and the dramatic climate changes that occur within tiny Costa Rica.  The highest point of the race occurs at Irazú volcano, towering at 3,432 meters (11,260 feet).  If a competitor manages to cross the finish line, he will have completed 12,000 meters (nearly 40,000 feet) of climbing, and experienced eight different micro-climates while crossing rivers, cold mountain passes and tropical jungles.
Columbian Leonardo Paez, last year's champion, will not be competing next week due to injuries suffered elsewhere.  He is only the second foreigner to have won the Ruta.  Swiss Thomas Frischknecht won in 2005, breaking the streak of 13 Tico winners since the race was founded.

This year's Ruta favorite is World Cup champion Thomas Dietsch of France.  Andreas Hestler, Max Plaxton and Kris Sneddon, all from Canada, are also strong contenders.  However, the Costa Rican competitors are anxious to recover the title that was theirs for the first 13 years of the Ruta's existence.  Ticos Federico Ramírez, Deiber Esquivel, Paolo Montoya and Manuel Prado are counting on their familiarity with the country to help win the title, according to a summary provided by organizers.

In the women's division, American Susan Haywood is the favorite.  Hillary Harrison and Louise Kobin, also Americans, are also strong competitors. 

Defending Champion Marg Fedyna will not be competing, said the summary.

Nearly 2,000 cyclists from all over the world have attempted La Ruta over its 14-year span.  A cash prize of $14,500 will be split among the winners in all five categories: Open, female, master A 30-39, master B 40-49 and veterans 50 & up. The minimum age for participation is 18 years old or 16 years old with adult permission.

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