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(506) 2223-1327        Published Friday, Nov. 21, 2008,  in Vol. 8, No. 232       E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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High-level fraud link puts intelligence unit on spot
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional is not a well-known agency. Sometimes expats with police experience refer to it as the Costa Rica F.B.I.

The agency's green office building across the street from the Gimnasio Nacional in La Sabana has no sign, just a guard house and a Costa Rican flag.

Unlike other police agencies that belong to the security ministry or the Poder Judicial, the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad, known as DIS, reports directly to the minister of the Presidencia. Like the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, it is an arm of the chief executive.

When expats cheated in the Villalobos ponzi scheme started to blame the government and then-president Abel Pacheco in 2002, the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad agents were called on to check out carefully the more vocal investors as possible threats. Eventually they concluded they were dealing with people who were more talk than action.

The agency also serves as the local representative of the International Police Agency, INTERPOL. Its agents also are supposed to keep an eye on would-be terrorists, assassins, drug traffickers, Asian tongs, international spies, and Colombian revolutionaries.

For these reasons high government officials and police supervisors are dumbfounded that the No. 2 man in the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad is accused of using his position and inside knowledge to advance a long-running check fraud scheme.

Even lawmakers addressed the issue Thursday, saying the situation puts a cloud over all police agencies. Some want to hear from the minister of the Presidencia himself, Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the president's brother.

Rodrigo Arias Sánchez moved Thursday to deflect some of the concerns. He suspended the agency's acting director, Roberto Guillen Solano, and named José Torres, a vice minister of the Presidencia to be acting director.

Guillen, the man facing the criminal investigation, was in charge of the entire agency while the permanent director was in the United States on vacation.

Prosecutors, police and other law enforcement  
officials raided the La Sabana office Wednesday. They also searched an office in Casa Presidencial itself. They executed 11 other search warrants and detained eight persons, including Guillen.

Specifically investigators allege that Guillen, in his capacity as a security and intelligence official used his access to certain data bases to find out which Costa Ricans had substantial amounts of money in their bank accounts.

The thrust of the investigation is to find those responsible for a string of fake checks that have been plaguing local banks for two years.

A judge has ordered two persons, identified by the last names of Ruiz Bermúdez and Sanchez Rojas, to be jailed for six months while the investigation unfolds. Guillen and five others were not jailed but told to sign in with prosecutors every 15 days. The other five were identified by the last names of Segura Segura, Herrera Arias, Artavia Granados, Calvo Artavia and Artavia Barrantes, said the Poder Judicial.

The allegations include fraud, use of false documents, making false documents and conspiracy, although not every suspect is facing every charge.

"This should not be allowed to disappear," said  Lorena Vázquez Badilla, leader in the legislature of the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, on the floor of the assembly.

Francisco Javier Marín Monge of the Partido Liberación Nacional said that the situation should not be politicized because this would contribute to what would amount to a blow to democracy.

In a prepared statement Rodrigo Arias said that he was asking Torres to make a full investigation of his own of the agency and bring the information to the executive branch officials. He also said he had asked Torres to cooperate fully with investigators.

The situation represents a major embarrassment for the Arias administration in that high government officials work closely with the  Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad agents.

And this comes at a time when one president, Rafael Ángel Caderón Fournier, is on trial for fraud and corruption, and a second former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez is awaiting trial.

Legislature gives final OK to $15 tourist head tax
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Legislators passed for the second and final time Thursday a $15 tax on every air ticket to Costa Rica purchased outside the national borders.

The same vote also results in eliminating a 3 percent tourism tax on hotels and other temporary housing vendors.

The money is supposed to be used for promotion, marketing, planning and sustainable development, although such terms are not clearly defined.

The money collected will go to the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo and will not be allocated in the budget nor will it be subject to attachment by the central government.

All of the 43 legislators present voted for the measure, which now goes to President Óscar Arias Sánchez, who almost certainly will sign it.

The tourism institute, in a prepared statement, said that the annual income anticipated from the new tax would be about $25 million. The hotel tax now brings in about $10 million.
The minister of Turismo, Carlos Ricardo  Benavides, had complained that not every tourist was staying in a hotel. Some were staying in unregistered locations. He also suggested that hotel owners were not turning over all the money collected to his institute. Of course, some visitors stay in their own homes or condos.

Under the new tax, not just tourists will pay. The $15 will be levied on every air ticket that is not sold in Costa Rica regardless of the motive for travel. Costa Rica now has a 5 percent tax on air tickets sold domestically. Officials also complained that residents were buying tickets in other Central American countries to avoid the tax.

Benavides was quoted as saying that the nation still will remain competitive because other Central American countries also levied taxes used for promotion. Tourists also pay a $26 exit tax.

The tourism institute is embarking on a major promotional drive. Some of its spending has been lavish, like the $4.5 million invested to show off Costa Rica at the last World Cup matches. This also is the agency that paid $833,000 for a web page.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 232

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Constitutional court finds
for trees in beach zones

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Score it trees 1, developers 0.

After a three-year delay, the Sala IV constitutional court threw out a controversial decree that allowed developers in the maritime zone to cut some trees in order to install their project.

A constitutional court case was filed shortly after the decree was issued, so beach development has been effectively stalled since.

The decree, issued by former president Abel Pacheco permitted developers to cut down trees for ecotourism development, some 15 percent of primary forest and 25 percent of secondary forest that happened to be in the maritime zone. The goal was to advance ecotourism projects.

The decree and the court case affect the maritime zone, that strip up to 200 meters above mean high tide line. The first 50 meters is for public use except in some special cases. The remaining 150 meters may be developed if those doing so obtain a concession, usually from the municipality and the Instituto de Turismo.

The court said that its decision would be retroactive but those who acted in good faith will be protected, according to the Poder Judicial.

A.M. Costa Rica wrote about the legal controversy extensively. News stories may be found HERE, HERE and HERE.

Two cases were filed with the Sala IV on this issue.  One in May of 2004, shortly after the decree, was filed by an environmental group. The other was filed in June 2004 by the workers union of the environmental ministry, called the Asociación Sindical de Trabajadores del Ministerio del Ambiente y Energía y Afines de Conservación. Both cases were combined into one.

Promotional office opens
for country in Big Apple

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez has inaugurated a new promotional office for the country in New York City. It is the fourth to be located in the United States.

The office was set up by the country's commercial promotion arm, the Promotora de Comercio Exterior de Costa Rica.

The goal of the office is to promote the transition of Costa Rica toward an economy of service and to promote investments in strategic sectors, as well as to take advantage of marketing niches for exporters, officials said.

Same sex union in fact
sought before committee

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A legislative commission Thursday heard an argument for legal status between persons of the same sex.

Appearing before the Comisión Especial de Derechos Humanos was Yashin Castrillo Fernández. He is legal adviser to the Red Nacional de Gays, Lesbianas, Bisexuales y Transexuales.

He was there because the committee is studying a proposed piece of legislation on the topic.  Castrillo said that what was involved was a human rights issue. He explained that what he was seeking was not marriage but the same kind of legal recognition that a couple of opposite sexes have under the law if they live together, a union in fact.

Even phone company
not immune to robberies

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Stickup operators made a haul this weekend when they intercepted a delivery driver taking BlackBerry cell phones to various outlets of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

The institute said that the driver was confronted on the public street in La Sabana and that the crooks made off with 75 of the devices.

The company is maintaining a list of series numbers in case would-be buyers want to consult them before completing a transaction. The phone company said that the devices had been disabled because the series numbers were given to the distributor.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 232

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It is easy to see what was on this prisoner's mind while creating this little man. The sign says 'Before being dangerous, a person was vulnerable.'
penal system art
A.M. Costa Rica/Elyssa Pachico

Busy hands in the prison system turn out marketable crafts
By Elyssa Pachico
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Painting tiny butterflies on shot glasses or carving cartoon characters on wooden cutting boards is a great way to make a living – especially for someone who just got out of prison, that is.

According to Miriam Calderón, an art and culture director at the Zurquí penal center in Heredia, inmates can't expect much more than a career in artesanías after completing their prison sentence. Arts and crafts classes are held in the detention center not just as a way of alleviating stress for inmates, she said, but also as a form of career training.

“This gives them a way to be independent once they complete their prison sentence,” she said. She admitted that it may be challenging to earn a living, making and selling arts and crafts.

“They'll make enough to survive,” she said. “It's really not that necessary to make that much money. And it's a challenge for them to find other kinds of work once they have a criminal record.”

Inmates created arts and crafts for the seventh annual penal art exhibition in the Centro Nacional de la Cultura, a three-day display intended to promote the human side of Costa Rica's penal system. 123 inmates from at least 16 penal centers displayed crafts such as bulky race cars made of straws and newspaper strips, or paintings of wide open spaces, such as a sun setting over the ocean.

While each penal center takes a different approach to its art classes, said Paula Picado, a psychologist at the Centro Adulto Joven in San Rafael, in most cases the inmates pay part of the cost of the materials themselves.

“Usually, they pay a certain quota, and then their family buys the materials for them and sends it to them,” said Ms. Picado, who counsels the 68 inmates at the San Rafael center. “But we also receive a lot of materials through donations, and for really cheap things like newspaper, we try to gather it together in the center.”

Ms. Picado said she could not say how much the inmates at San Rafael paid per month for their art classes. Ms. Calderón said that the Zurquí penal center, which holds 40 inmates, estimates that materials for art classes totaled about 50,000 colons per month, a fee paid both by outside donations and by inmates. That's about $90.

Costa Rican prisons are home to 8,070 persons, according to a September 2008 report issued by the Ministerio de Justicia y Gracia. One inmate from the Zurquí juvenile detention center, who attended the penal art exhibition, said that he did not spend a lot of time thinking about whether
he would develop a career in artesanías after finishing his sentence.

“I like painting on glass, and I'm good at it,” said the inmate, who asked that his name be withheld out of respect for his privacy. “It's a distraction from the fact that you're in jail, and you like to keep busy.”

Arts and crafts classes are not the only rehabilitation programs in Costa Rica's penal system.  In other penal centers, inmates are trained in industries that include baking, cement-mixing, carpentry and even farming.

In the female branch of the Zurquí penal center, women bake up to 14,000 buns a day, said Jorge Barrantes, who manages agro-industrial projects in Costa Rica's prison system. That's about 8 million buns a year – all of which are distributed only to other penal centers across the country.

Male inmates at Zurquí who are trained in carpentry end up producing 50,000 school desks a year, which are sold to the Ministerio de Educación Pública.

Similarly, inmates grow platano, yuca, papaya, and raise cows on any of the 11 farms across the country which also serve as detention centers. The largest farm involves 60 inmates on 213 hectares (about 526 ascres) at the Pococí penal center in Limón. Every week, inmates sell 10,000 platanos to the penal centers in San José, said Barrantes.

In the many industries that run out of Costa Rica's penal centers, said Barrantes, none of them is profitable for any outside businesses or contractors. He said he estimated that the industries run through the penal system brought in about $2 million a year.

“None of the money produced here is spent on anything else that isn't related to the penal system,” he said. “It is all self-sufficient, in terms of using money produced to meet production costs.”

Inmates are not paid a salary for their work, said Barrantes, although in some industries in some centers, they may earn up to 1,500 colons ($2.70) a day, said Barrantes. In addition, for every two days of work, one day is eliminated from an inmate's prison sentence, he said.

Profits from such industries are used for maintaining penal centers, he said, and for developing other agro-industrial projects.  Profits from the penal art exhibition, meanwhile, go directly to the inmates if their arts and crafts are sold, said Ms. Picado.

“Some of them save the money, some of them send it home to their families,” she said. “I think a lot of them are saving something special for the holidays.”

On bouncing back from being ill and too much Wolf Blitzer
I’ve barely peeped out from under my covers for the past week, but did manage to check my mail enough to read one from Nicole about the three drinks I tasted at La Flor.  Nicole’s field of study and teaching is Mesoamerica.  So she knows more about their culture and customs than anyone I know.

Pinolillo, she said, is a national drink of Nicaragua. They call them pinoleros. Pinole is toasted corn with cacao. The word comes from the Náhuatl language of the Aztec [pinolli]. Cebada is barley. The word mozote refers to a plant whose seeds stick to your clothing. The fruit is spiny. It is used medicinally and in sugar cane presses for clarifying the juice. 

To be more specific about where La Flor is: It is just around the corner from 7th Street Book Store on Avenida 1 heading west.

Meanwhile, back in bed, life is pretty boring, but fortunately, when one is sick enough, boring is good.  Tuesday, for the first time I looked out the window with some interest in what was happening in the world outside.  Otherwise my life has been centered on the TV and my books.  With a sporadic attention span in search of something that is both consuming and will take me away from my present situation, I have tried a mystery, a police story, a novel reminiscent of "The Great Gatsby" – all discarded.  Wolf Blitzer continues to repeat the news as if it were just breaking, and Neil Cavuto’s voice gets more and more gravelly.

So I have retreated to my music and the English comedy series, "Fawlty Towers" with John Cleese.  Music and laughter are noninvasive aids to healing.  Finally, as a solid escape, I am re-reading "Howard’s End," by E.M. Forster.  Certainly the lives of the wealthy middle class of Georgian society of early 20th century England is a far
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

remove from a bedroom in the 21st century Costa Rica.

As unpleasant as the cold weather and wind has been lately, it can’t match the gloom of foggy, coal dust filled air of the London of those days.
But finally, I pulled myself together in order to attend a luncheon meeting of the Canadian Club.  I was scheduled to speak, and I didn’t want to cancel at the last minute.  Also, I knew that Robin was catering the lunch, which was in the patio of a lovely home in Cariari.  The Canadians, being very tolerant, have accepted me as a member, even though I am from south of the border. 

From time to time I recommend to newcomers that they join a club or two soon after arriving, It makes the transition to this new culture so much easier.  The Canadian Club is high on my recommended list for those who want to meet other friendly and interesting expats and get involved in some very solid, creative, and effective philanthropic works.  If you want more information about the Club and its activities, you can call Noreen Liptak at 2232-5056. 

The Canadians are so friendly, they have their Thanksgiving a month before ours in the United States so that those of us who love turkey and can’t wait, get to enjoy it in Costa Rica in October and November.  Or is it that we have ours in November so that Canadians can enjoy it twice?  

You need to see Costa Rican tourism information HERE!

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 232

Coverup alleged in CIA downing of small missionary plane
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A senior Republican lawmaker says an internal CIA report raises serious questions about a possible agency coverup in the 2001 downing of a civilian plane carrying American missionaries in Peru.

In the 2001 incident, a surveillance aircraft operated by a CIA contractor working on an agency-run drug interdiction program mis-identified a small Cessna plane carrying American missionaries as one transporting illegal narcotics.

According to a 2001 State Department report, the surveillance team had doubts about its identification, but its attempt to rescind the order to shoot came too late.

A Peruvian fighter aircraft fired on the small plane, killing 35-year-old missionary Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter. Bowers' husband and 8-year-old son and the pilot survived the resulting crash.

Republican lawmaker Peter Hoekstra, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, has released unclassified portions of the CIA inspector general's report that he says, show the agency misled the Justice Department and Congress, and that CIA officers knew of and condoned violations of procedure:

"Parts of the intelligence community, parts of the CIA, were acting outside of the law with the drug interdiction program at the time that the Bowers' plane was shot down [and] that there was an active cover-up in the community and it was enabled by a culture that failed to recognize either internal or external accountability," he said.

In a letter he made public, Hoekstra asks CIA Inspector General John Helgerson to declassify portions the lawmaker
asserts detail actions by CIA personnel to avoid and possibly obstruct criminal and civil liability stemming from the incident.

He wants the Justice Department to review the CIA report, and the department's previous finding in 2005 that criminal charges stemming from the incident were not appropriate.

When the Justice Department ended its investigation in 2005, Hoekstra said he agreed with the decision not to prosecute. But he told reporters on Thursday that the department now must examine whether the CIA was being truthful. "The most disappointing thing is rather than the individuals standing up and being held accountable for this, they covered it up. It is a blot, a dark stain, this is a sad day for the CIA, a sad episode, and this is why there needs to be a change of culture within the CIA of accountability and rule of law."

As summarized by Hoekstra, the report also finds that violations of procedure also occurred in at least 10 other shoot downs under the CIA program, which he did not detail, contradicting the agency position that the Peru incident was an isolated error.

Hoekstra says he asked CIA Director Michael Hayden in October, before Congress recessed for the U.S. presidential election, to take steps to ensure that the appropriate people are held accountable. Hoekstra says there was a significant delay before the CIA inspector general's report, apparently completed in August, reached the House Intelligence Committee.

While any hearings on the matter should include testimony from former senior CIA officials, Hoekstra says it is not possible to say at this point who may have been specifically involved in what he calls "the agency's cover-up."

Escazú restaurateur ready for another long run at Bistango
By Elyssa Pachico
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Even restaurant connoisseur Mike Badalian will admit that the loyal crew of expat customers who used to frequent Chango, his former restaurant, are still peeved with his decision to shut the place down.

“They still complain to me about it,” he said. “There was no reason for closing it. It was becoming very routine – you know, why do you change your house, why do you change your clothes? You change when you need the energy.”

Badalian hopes to be channelling some of that energy with his new business, Bistango, a restaurant-bar in the Centro Comercial Paco in Escazú. The restaurant, which opened five months ago, mixes Californian, Peruvian and Mediterranean dishes on a menu Badalian helped design.

While Chango cultivated a more casual, American-lounge vibe during its 10-year run, said Badalian, his new restaurant is all about giving customers the same personalized attention they received there with a more serious emphasis on cuisine.

“Chango's was more about the bar than dining, and this place is more about dining than the bar,” he said. “But we still like to get to know you here. We sell service. We don't just sell food.” 

Especially enticing on the menu is the Mediterranean chicken special for 7,250 colons. The secret behind the dish, said Badalian, is that the tangy lemon marinade is actually influenced more by his native Armenia than by the Mediterranean.

While business has been far from blockbuster so far, something that Badalian attributes to a dragging economy,
bistango bartender
A.M. Costa Rica/Elyssa Pachico
Olga Efimenko, bartender at Bistango

he said that he has no doubt that Bistango's mix of tasty dishes with personalized service will soon be leading to a packed house every weekend.

Special services include wine-tastings, house parties up to two times a week, and a king-sized Thanksgiving dinner planned for Thursday.

“It's gonna have all the trimmings,” said Badalian. “Family style.”

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 232

A.M. Costa Rica
users guide

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

Old pages

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

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

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


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


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


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

Advertising information

A summary of advertising rates and sizes are available for display and classifieds.


A.M. Costa Rica makes its monthly statistics available to advertisers and readers. It is HERE! 

Contacting us

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

Visiting us

Directions to our office and other data, like bank account numbers are on the about us page.

Nativity scene contest
launched in San Ramón

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If there is an announcement of a contest for portales, can Christmas be far behind?

The Centro Cultural José Figueres Ferrer made such an announcement Thursday and invited residents in selected communities to participate in three categories.

Eligible are those living in the central districts of San Ramón de Alajuela, said the center: San Juan, San Pedro, Volio, Concepción, San Isidro, La Unión, San Rafael, Los Ángeles and Santiago.

A portal is a nativity scene. Nearly every home, office or school has one during Christmastime. This is the center's 11th annual contest.

One category is the traditional portal that contains costumes and items relating to Costa Rica. The second category is the Biblical portal, using figures and structures current at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. The third category is being called the artistic portal which allows artists to express themselves.

The deadline for enrolling is Dec. 6. Awards will be handed out Dec. 13 at the center in San Ramón.

Ecuador seeks loopholes
in paying off foreign debt

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire service

A commission auditing Ecuador's foreign debt says it has found what it describes as illegality in the obligations. The finding may prompt President Rafael Correa to suspend Ecuador's bond payments.

The audit commission says in a new report that Ecuador's debt has grown to the benefit of financial sectors and transnational companies and gone against the country's interests.

It is reportedly recommending that the government suspend payments on three bonds amounting to nearly $4 billion worth of debt.

Last week Correa withheld a $30 million interest payment on a 2012 bond, saying he will use a month-long grace period to consider the legitimacy of the external debt.

Standard and Poor's has also downgraded Ecuador's debt rating by three notches (from B- to CCC-) over concerns the country will default and find ways to avoid repaying its foreign debt.

 It is not clear whether Ecuador will seek to restructure its obligations.

Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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