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These stories were published Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 235
Jo Stuart
About us
Osvaldo Villalobos in custody
By Saray Ramírez Vindas 
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Posted at 2 p.m.
Osvaldo Villalobos Camacho has been arrested in San José and jailed.

He is the brother of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. Both are businessmen who have been involved in paying 2.8 to 3 percent interest to a primarily foreign and North American clientele.

Osvaldo Villalobos was taken into custody at 8 a.m. when he showed up for a court hearing. The prosecutor has asked for a year of pre-trial detention, and Osvaldo Villalobos was jailed until a judge makes a decision later today on the request.

A spokesperson for the Poder Judicial said the charges were fraud and acting illegally as a financial intermediary.

Investigators are believed to be seeking Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, but he had not been located today.

The action was requested by Walter Espinoza Espinoza, the fiscal in charge of prosecuting narcotrafficking cases, said the spokesperson.

Osvaldo has been operating Ofinter S.A., a money exchange house with a principal office in Mall San Pedro. Luis Enrique Villalobos ran his personal loan business nearby. Both closed their doors Oct. 14. Investigators raided both offices and even Osvaldo’s home July 4.

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Michael J. Nystrom-Schut talks to a Teletica reporter amid assembled investors.
Freeze on Villalobos accounts likely extended
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

About 200 mostly foreign residents rallied Tuesday morning in the San José court complex.

They were successful in getting attention from the Spanish language press and television.

But it appears they failed to accomplish their main goal: to encourage a judge to unfreeze investment money held by Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. One investor, called "highly credible" by demonstration organizers, said he had been told by a judge that the freeze on bank accounts had been continued on Nov. 7 for six months more. Despite the rally, a continuation of the freeze was expected, but not for six months.

The apparent absconding of the owner of yet another high-yield investment company, Savings Unlimited, also was a topic for the crowd because a number of Villalobos investors also had accounts there.

Savings Unlimited story 

Security guards permitted a smaller group of about nine investors to go to the third floor of the Tribunales de Justicia building where Prosecutor Walter Espinoza Espinoza is investigating the case. But Espinoza was not there, and investors talked with a receptionist.

Later the crowd cheered when organizer Michael J. Nystrom-Schut read an e-mail message purportedly sent by Villalobos to a long-time investor. The message contained many of the same phrases Villalobos used in a similar e-mail a month ago to A.M. Costa Rica.

"I have not failed the investors" . . . "and I do have people working on the issues," read the message. "Have a little patience and everything will be alright," the businessman was quoted as saying. 

Nystrom-Schut said the message came encoded in the Pretty Good Privacy encryption program, but there was no way to verify independently the source of the message. A reporter’s query to a known Villalobos e-mail address went unanswered Tuesday night. 

Nystrom-Schut said he was confident that the Villalobos message was genuine because of certain unpublished contents shared by Villalobos and the man named Hal who produced the message. 

Even loyal investors have been critical of the way Villalobos has kept a low profile since he abruptly closed up his operation Oct. 14.

Earlier in the day, about 10 a.m., Nystrom-Schut was a bit more aggressive. At first he said the rally would be non-violent, but he also challenged officials: 

"Let them throw 200 Gringos in jail." "Are you willing to go to jail," he asked the crowd.

But no confrontation resulted, and the mood mellowed considerably under the eye of a handful of Fuerza Pública officers and workers in the courts.

Villalobos has been under investigation since July 4, and he has blamed officials and the freeze on his 50 or more bank accounts here as the reasons he could no longer do business. He use to pay from 2.8 percent to 3 percent interest on an estimated $1 billion, but  he has not paid interest since September.

Both investor lists are making the rounds
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investor lists for both Savings Unlimited and Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho have become public.

The Savings Unlimited list shows that the high-yield firm had 2,980 accounts totaling about $160 million and in the names of about 2,600 persons, according to a source who contacted a reporter Tuesday.

The Villalobos list is on 129 computer printout pages that each contain about 57 names for a total of 6,283 investors, according to Charles Zeller, a moving company operator who said he had obtained the list. Zeller said he wanted to show that investigators had such a list even though some have said they did not. Although not an investor himself, Zeller has been active in trying to protect people he characterized as his customers and good friends.

No financial information was on the Villalobos list. A.M. Costa Rica declined copies of both 

lists because no apparent benefit would be served in publishing the names. However, Zeller established the credibility of the list by correctly answering reporters questions about certain individuals who had accounts with Villalobos and some who did not.

The Savings Unlimited list was believed to have been obtained from disgruntled employees who lost their jobs when the operator, Louis Milanes, closed his Edificio Colón office and left town over the weekend.

Zeller would not say how he got his list, but did say that some dates next to the names suggested it had been printed and placed in a binder sometime in May.

The public availability of the lists are sure to cause concern among some investors, but investigators probably have their copies. 

The Savings Unlimited list, if genuine, triples the estimated amount of money handled by Milanes’ firm. Previous estimates were around the $50 million level.

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Director says Milanes casino ownership is complex
By Bryan Kay
and the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Nick Gullo, director general of the Europa, Royal Dutch and Tropical casinos, said Tuesday that he suspects his former boss, Luis Milanes, has left Costa Rica. Milanes’ high-yield investment firm, Savings Unlimited, has been closed since Friday, leaving a large number of investors guessing what has happened to their money.

He said that he now has instructions to report to Milanes’ brother, José, on casino matters. The brother is the owner of Ascia, a toy warehouse in Tibas, near Milanes’ Europa Casino at the Raddison Hotel.

There has been considerable confusion regarding Milanes interests, particularly with the casinos.

Gullo said that three separate corporations operate the three casinos. However, it is not clear who the owner or owners of the corporations are. 

Gullo said he reported to Milanes before that man left. He said he knew nothing else about ownership.

The Tropical Casino and the Morazan Hotel are operated by the same corporation, he said.  The Royal Dutch Casino is operated by another firm, and the Europa Casino is operated by yet another, said Gullo. The Raddison Hotel, which houses the Europa on its premises, is a separate entity. Gullo said the hotel leases the space to the casino.

In fact, there is no ownership of any of the premises, said Gullo. Each one is leased.

Investors with Savings Unlimited continued to search for answers Tuesday. Most accepted the idea that Milanes has left with their money.

Joe Hall, an investor from Texas, came to Costa Rica specifically to collect his interest payment. He found a closed office and no forwarding information. He said that this is the first time he has even been in Costa Rica, having been advised of Savings Unlimited by a friend. Before, he received his payments by mail. 

The reason he came to the country, he said, was because his interest payments had stopped in October. He was then told by telephone that he could collect his payment Monday at the office.

He later said: "Why should I ever come back to Costa Rica?"

At the former Savings Unlimited office in Edificio Colón somone posted a sign Tuesday morning. The sign was addressed to "victims of closure of Savings Unlimited." It instructed interested parties to contact two telephone numbers because there was important information to share. A call to one number determined that the mailbox was full. A machine at the second number instructed a caller to leave a message.

Another casino employee told a reporter that investors in Savings Unlimited were led to believe they would have an equity stake in the casino corporation if they gave money to Milanes or manager Michael Gonzales. For the last 18 months, some investors came by and told casiino workers they were there to check up on their investment. However, this source maintained that none of the investments at Saving Unlimited were backed by any interest in any Casino here.

This same source said that Milanes used poker tournaments at the Europa casino to recruit potential out-of-town investors for Savings Unlimited by means of signs posted at the event and by personal invitation.

Big marijuana ring busted up, agents report
By Christian Burnham
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators broke up a large-scale drug trafficking network believed to be the primary source of this country’s marijuana. The raid of a pot farm and the arrest of four suspects — three in Heredia and one in Sarchí — occurred near 6 a.m.

Drug agents discovered a large quantity of marijuana at a farm in San Vito de Coto Brus, known as Fila de Cal. From the pot plant, the marijuana was transported by truck in 10-pound bricks to a farm in Sarchí Sur, a key distribution hub, said police officials.

The bust was a result of an eight-month investigation involving the participation of over 100 officials of the Judicial Investigative Organization.

The organization was initially tipped off to the 
farm’s location by the arrest of a man transporting 700 kilos (1,540 pounds) of marijuana from the farm in April. The arrest led to the man, believed to be the leader of the operation, based at the farm.

The search of the premises by drug agents and the canine unit Monday included underground hideaways. That’s where an AK-47 and other arms turned up Monday. Around the same time Monday morning, the police detained four suspects believed connected to the drug operation.

One man in Birris de Heredia, believed to be "the right hand man" of the network, was arrested in his Barrio Jesús home. A search of the man’s residence yielded scales, baggies, and 630,000 colons ($16,900) in cash, according to the police report.

Plentiful turkeys can anchor big dinner here
By Garett Sloane
Of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Thanksgiving. Restaurants and hotels around town are offering turkey meal-deals. But what is turkey day if it is spent on a buffet line. 

Americans living in Costa Rica have the option of going it alone, and prepare a feast at home in true holiday fashion.

In Costa Rica there may be a shortage of a few Thanksgiving essentials, like pumpkin pie. And if a person finds some supplies lacking, he or she can improvise. Instead of pumpkin pie, make it pineapple.

As for the real essentials like turkey, a person can find plenty. Mas X Menos in Escazú had at least 20 turkeys in stock Tuesday afternoon, and the store manager said he can get more on demand. 

After a person gets the turkey, the rest is all in the trimmings. Fresh bread is easy to find, and salads are simple to prepare. Cranberry sauce slides right out of the can on to a serving dish.

What spread is complete without squash? This seasonal vegetable is part of every purist’s Thanksgiving.

Beer is a necessity for the annual NFL football games, which are best watched comfortably at home. Wine is also part of the holiday fare in many homes.

At Mas X Menos there is no stuffing, gravy or yams, but improvisation is the key. Stuffing can be prepared at home, and so can gravy. 

The yams may be a bit difficult to find, but here is a solution: Dye some yucca orange. 

When all is said and done an entire group of family and friends will be stuffed,. 

Turkey is selling for $4.16 a kilo, and Oceanspray Cranberry sauce is $1.74 a can.

A Sarah Lee apple pie (some 1.4 kilos) is $6.35. The real essentials are a little higher. A 1.5 liter bottle of Chilean wine is about $8.90. and a 12-pack of Budweiser is $15.45. But you can get by with a 12-pack of Imperial or Pilsen for $8.20. 

Cruz Roja to mark 
World AIDS Day

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Cruz Roja, or Red Cross, is preparing to host commemorative activities starting Saturday for World AIDS Day, which is the following day, Sunday.

An estimated 2,000 of the young Red Cross members here will take part in the events, which will cover the seven provinces of the country.

The actual world day for AIDS, Dec. 1,  falls on the same day as the mayoral elections here. That day on the Plaza de la Cultura, the nine regional headquarters of the Red Cross will erect information stands, where it is hoped the location will maximise exposure.

Red Cross officials hope to reach out with their message to around seven thousand people over the course of the activities.

About 3.7 percent of the people in the world suffering from AIDS are in Latin America. In 2000, the World Health Organization says that Costa Rica had 3,711 AIDS sufferers, up 1.7 percent. The worst afflicted region, though, remains Subsahran Africa.

World AIDS Day inaugurated Dec. 1, 1988. It is seen as a day that brings compassion, hope, solidarity and understanding about AIDS to the world, according to AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity.

Two Ticos awarded
Spanish decorations

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two Costa Rican political officials have been awarded Spanish orders of merit by the king of Spain. 

Javier Sancho, the Costa Rican ambassador there, won the order of Isabel la Católica, and Miguel Herrera of the Ministero de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, won the order of civil merit.

The men received the awards at a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy in San José Monday evening. "This is a symbol of the friendship between Costa Ricans and Spaniards," said Ambassador Sancho.

Coast Guard saves boy
en route from Cuba

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MIAMI, Fla. — U.S. immigration authorities are holding a 13-year old Cuban boy rescued from a boat off the Florida coast after an apparent failed attempt to smuggle him into the United States. 

At least five others on the boat, including the alleged smuggler and the boy's father, jumped overboard and swam to shore, leaving him behind. All were arrested. 

The U.S. Coast Guard turned the boy over to the immigration service Tuesday, which brought him to Miami, where he is expected to appear as a witness against the alleged smuggler. 

Bringing the boy onto land makes him eligible to stay in the country under U.S. law.  But it is unclear if the boy's mother, who is in Cuba, will claim custody of her son. 

The Coast Guard says it found the Cubans on Monday in a small boat that had run out of gas and floundering in rough seas off Key West. 

It was while the officers towing the boat were checking the identities of those on board that at least five Cuban men jumped into the water and swam to shore, leaving the 13-year old boy behind. 

U.S. officials announced the case on the third anniversary of the arrival of Cuban emigrant Elian Gonzales to the United States. 

Five-year old Elian was rescued at sea with other Cubans and turned over to relatives in Miami. Cuban President Fidel Castro demanded he be returned to his father in Cuba sparking a bitter custody battle with the Miami relatives. 

U.S. agents raided the relatives' home in April, 2000 and returned the boy to Cuba.

Fox eager to settle
immigration concerns

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — Secretary of State Colin Powell says resolving immigration issues with Mexico is a U.S. priority, but says the war on terrorism has complicated the issue. 

Powell spoke at a news conference here Tuesday after the closing session of the U.S.-Mexico binational commission. 

The meeting included talks between Mexican cabinet officials and their U.S. counterparts, including Secretary Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Powell told the Mexicans not to expect a resumption of talks on the status of undocumented Mexican workers in the United States for at least six months.

Noting Mexican Preisdent Vicente Fox's impatience in resolving the matter, Powell said officials have to be realistic about the changes that have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001. 

But he stressed that the United States is committed to moving forward. 
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Investors' letters
Reader: ‘Where’s the good news?’

Dear A.M. Costa Rica: 

Boyeros, the term ‘American,’ a local Triathlon and some world news were the subjects of A.M. Costa Rica's Nov. 26, 2001 issue: informative, interesting and appealing.  Back then I couldn't wait each morning to learn a little about what was going on in Costa Rica. A.M. Costa Rica was a refreshing change from the crime, crap and focus on ‘bad news’ of the U.S. media. 

I still drop in now and then, but it seems that one year later each issue is the same as the next: the Brothers, robberies in the gulch, and political corruption. A.M. Costa Rica has begun to sound like the negative grumbling of an ex-pat bar (or coffee shop). I'm not looking for ICT propaganda, but until some positive balance returns, I have better things to do. 

Martin Lively
Winchester, VA
The glass didn’t 
break itself

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I was told this morning that last night on Channel 7 news a government official stated that our money troubles weren't THEIR problem!! YES, all too apparent in the structure of their language. . . like ‘se quebroel vaso!!’ (the glass broke itself!!). 

There is NEVER an admission of guilt and it is built into their language. . . NOT THEIR PROBLEM??? I TOTALLY disagree. They and their behavior and procedures have created this problem! It did NOT happen on its own and . . . Whether they choose to accept their culpability in this fiasco. It is their fault and their duty to do something about it!! . . . I have lived here for years and in the beginning the ONLY way one could do legal ‘tramitos’ was to look for a ‘gavilan’!! Built into their system and why???

INCOMPETENCE and down right laziness: I can't tell you how many times and in how many places where I had to do legal processes I was greeted by an ‘employee’ reading a newspaper while the line grew and grew. For example, wrapping presents for a tea later in the day or week, on the phone with personal phone calls, while clients waited with as much patience as they could endure and beyond!! 

They overextended their rights to freeze, so now it's their turn to unravel the mess they have created, as the mess did NOT do itself!! THEY DID IT, SO THEY MUST UNDO IT!! 

And another thought: I am sick to death of all those folks out there talking about the greedy gringos!! PLEASE!! For years I have used my interest wisely: overpaid employees for the work they do for me, have done charity work on a constant basis to help those in need . . . GREEDY??? I think NOT!! 

And I'm sick to death to hearing their groaning. What greed?? . . . Is the Costa Rican government prepared to pay our aguinaldos? . . . And our phone, electric, gas and water bills — the water bills that are going to rise 30 percent!!!! 

So I don't want to hear ANYMORE ABOUT GREEDY GRINGOS!!  Is this government ready to buy our homes and belongings for a fair market price? Pay our medical insurance (speaking of greed!!). Are they prepared to reimburse us for all the enganos, estafas, and robos that we have endured while still loving this country?? Return to us ALL the money that WE have been OVERCHARGED just for BEING GRINGOS?  IT IS THEIR PROBLEM!! And they had better stand up to it. And though you say there have been no suicides reported yet. . . just wait!! 

How does this government expect us to carry on? So that we can be used and abused by them now that all our hard earned small meager savings that we invested with the Brothers is gone? . . . This cannot stand like se quebroel vaso, who broke the glass is the government, now it's UP TO THEM TO STRAIGHTEN OUT THE MESS THEY'VE made!  AND SOON!   Also, are they willing to pay ME the damages that doctors here did to ME?? They overdosed me with cortisone and I am NOW bedridden and cannot work or travel!!

Pat Sanders
In the sunset years
without a means

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am a 61-year-old woman and my husband is 70. We have worked with enthusiasm and creativity for all of our lives. We have worked hard and continuously, trying to bring beauty into our life and into others lives. We have been honorable, conscientious and caring in all of our endeavors. 

We have paid taxes to the U.S.A, to California, to Costa Rica. We have PAID, only to find ourselves in the ‘SUNSET' years with not enough to live on to finish our lives on this earth. 

What a terrible thing that we discovered Villalobos. Why would we lend him money when he only had a 20 or more year record of good business?  I am not talking about greed. When there is not enough to personally live on, when there is not enough to assist your elderly parents, when there is not enough to assist your children when they are truly in need. . . HOW TERRIBLE IT IS TO LOAN VILLALOBOS MONEY AND RECEIVE INTEREST THAT ALLOWS YOU TO DO THESE THINGS WITH A FEELING OF PRIDE! 

We are not greedy or stingy or any of those terms. We are just trying to survive in a very complex and often crazy society that has lost many of its monetary values and has a very unfair pay scale. What is it about others suffering that seems to pull out of the darkness those who feed on that pain?  What makes someone like to see another human being suffer? These judgmental letters anger me, but even more I am saddened by their lack of humanity. 

Compassion is the only major source I see for the successful survival of our universe. I am an ordained minister. My life is devoted to trying to comfort others. I work on a very small scale. I can't imagine anyone feeling good or just about the pain that is ricocheting down from this seemingly unnecessary situation because the Costa Rican government decided to do what? Confiscate a lot of money?  Put Villalobos out of business?  Why? Certainly it is not really about protecting us as investors or about retrieving our funds — no one had a problem until the government intervention July 4. May truth prevail. 

I have no choice but to hold my faith that Villalobos is an honorable man, and I also hope that the judge and all of the officials in this case are equally as honorable. If so, I have no doubt that a solution for the good of all will prevail.

Karen Haskin
Nosara, Guanacaste
Don’t blame Costa Rica,
blame yourselves

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:


Those Costa Ricans who have learned of the problem of the foreign investors with the Villalobos Brothers and now the demise of Savings Unlimited sympathize with them, but they are surprised that these people who are intelligent would put monies in organizations without substantial guarantees. 

We are sorry for their loss. Thousands of Costa Ricans of the upper, middle, and lower classes lost millions of dollars several years ago with the Sotela Brothers, a local Iranian family who owned a bank and several other loan operations and organizations that went bankrupt or went out of business overnight. 

Many people sold their properties and put the monies with these organizations and lost their life savings and became poor. Many died of heart attacks, others committed suicide while others are in the poorhouse today. 

The motive for putting monies into these organizations was greed because they offered extravagant interests in colons. The government could not do anything because these were private transactions, not government banking transactions. This is the reason why most Costa Ricans look for solid investments to put their monies in today. 

If many of these moneylenders (because we cannot call them investors) had opened small businesses and created jobs for the local people, they would have had their investments grow with wise management and still have their money today. Those that have done so have no problems. 

Someone wrote that the economy of Costa Rica will falter because of this. Remember that the jobs created from the interests received by most of the moneylenders were for maids, gardeners, overseers of properties and not injected directly into the community in most of the cases. 

Maybe some restaurants and clubs may suffer some inconveniences due to the decline in attendance but life is going on as usual. This is a country that is not dependant only on greedy gringos or greedy foreigners. 

Maybe some landlords will not get their high rents because the tenants cannot pay anymore, but people all over the world are the same and they go to different countries because of different reasons. 

Costa Rica wants people with income produced out of the country to come and spend it here. If these moneylenders loaned monies to the Villalobos Brothers and Luis Milanés at Savings Unlimited, then this is a private transaction and the people of Costa Rica and the government have nothing to do with this. 

If the government froze the $6,000,000, this is due to agreements between governments and international organizations in the world of global policing that is prevalent today. We will have to wait to see the results of the investigations. 

This will not be the first time that people who have made unwise investments in Costa Rica and have lost their investment here try to tarnish the image of Costa Rica, and it will not be the last time either. Costa Rica will still attract people who want to live in peace.

Another thing that we have observed here is that some of these newcomers to Costa Rica (not all of them of course), look down on the local people because they were getting $5,000 to $40,000 monthly on their private loans and could afford the casinos, high price restaurants, golf clubs, maids, 2 cars, etc.  They were arrogant in treating the local people as if they were in a colony in India. 

We wonder how they are going to afford those amenities that they could not afford back home and were enjoying here in Costa Rica on their interests now. We are sorry for them. This is a lesson taught in the industrialized nations: if something looks too good to be true, then it must be. They just gave their monies to a stranger without contesting the investment. This was a stupid procedure. Was it greed?

I wonder how much money each investor will receive percentage-wise according to their loans when and if the laws permit the $6,000,000 frozen in the Villalobos accounts to become unfrozen. This is simple mathematics. Where is the gross part of the loans invested? And how?

I wonder if any of these moneylenders would put their money with some company back home offering extravagant interests without investigating where the money would be placed? 

Would they risk losing their hard earned money with only a post-dated check receipt?  What can you use it for today? Others want the Villalobos to continue to operate as usual. He will be regulated and scrutinized if he is permitted to operate again. Would they continue to put their monies there if they ever get it back? 

Costa Rica has laws that welcome pensionados, investors, and people who want to live in peace and enjoy the country and people who spend money in Costa Rica from incomes coming legally through the banking system. 

For many, this is paradise lost but it is due to their lack of research and investigation in their business endeavor. But Costa Rica is still the nice place to live and enjoy. Lots of foreigners are living here in peace and enjoying Costa Rica and their incomes are either invested in the country legally or come from abroad through the banking system. Did you do that? 

We are sorry for the people who sold it all and loaned it to these organizations without first investigating them in hope of a secure living lifestyle, but a loss like this is a terrible price to pay.

Don’t blame Costa Rica, blame yourselves.

C. Thomas
San José