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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2002, Vol. 2, No. 236
Jo Stuart
About us
Another bad day
for investors
We wish our U.S. readers
a happy Thanksgiving
Gag! A weekend
without alcohol
A.M. Costa Rica photos by Saray Ramírez Vindas
Transit Inspector Juan José Cascante is enveloped in a black cloud of exhaust.
Belching buses face
computerized test

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Buses that spew out choking smoke have irritated citizens downtown for years, and it seems that no inspection laws have an effect.

But transit officials set up a test site Wednesday on the south side of the Plaza de la Democracía on Avendia 2. The buses to San Pedro and beyond pass by this point. 

Two inspectors, Mario Lara and Juan José Cascante, had a generator, table and a computerized device to measure vehicle emissions. Not all buses passed the test.

A San Pedro-bound converted school bus didn’t, and after some effort to help the driver, the officials took the license plates. The driver gave the bad news to passengers. They quickly were picked up by another bus on the popular route.

Inspector Mario Lara pulls license plate.
Tree business branching out to artificials
By Christian Burnham
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

"No artificial ingredients" may be this country’s tourism slogan, but when it comes to the Christmas trees, it’s artificial all the way.

Thanksgiving Day marks the official start of the holiday season in the United States. The Friday that follows always is the biggest shopping day of the year. It’s also the time when families pack into the car and head over to the local lot to hunt for the perfect Christmas tree.

Holiday tradition differs greatly here. Without a Turkey Day to look forward to, Christmas here makes a much earlier appearance. Also, Costa Ricans taste in trees lean toward the inorganic sort.

And for good reason: Fresh-cut trees here just don’t cut it. The country’s tropical climate isn’t well suited for the growing of evergreens that thrive in cold weather.

Cyprus trees grown locally at tree farms located in Alejuelita, Cartago, and Heredia are available at low costs ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 colons, some $11 to $16. Compared to the firs, spruces and pines indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, the trees here are sickly looking little buggers.

A nursery in Escazú Wednesday had four pathetic, limp withered specimens.

Artificial trees are commonly found here in supermarkets and decoration shops. Sergio Moras, a Mas X Menos employee, says his store has a hard time keeping artificial trees in stock, especially during December.

A.M. Costa Rica/Christian Burnham
Youngsters seek the perfect present in the shadow of an artificial tree.

There are many advantages of opting for inorganic vegetation. For one, fake trees are much less of a hassle to put up. Anyone who has spent hours making a tree stand up straight knows this to be true.

Trimming an artificial tree is also a breeze since once you decorate it once, you’re set for life. Of course, no watering is necessary and an artificial tree leaves no messy needles to vacuum.

Arguably the best part of having a real tree is that it fills your house with a fresh pine scent. You won’t get that with a fake tree unless you use those pine-scented air fresheners hung on car rear-view windows as ornaments.

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Things just keep getting worse for investors
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Just when it seemed the situation could not become worse, it did.

Monday many foreign residents here learned that their investments in Savings Unlimited had evaporated when the firm’s managers left the country.

Then Tuesday, as they rallied in front of the Tribunales de Justicia, they learned a judicial freeze had been extended six months more on bank accounts held by businessman Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. That meant they would not get interest payments from their money held by him anytime soon.

But then Wednesday, had they been paying attention to the Internet, they learned Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho had been taken into custody to face a fraud charge and a charge of illegally being a financial intermediary.

The estimated $1 billion of investor money held by Enrique Villalobos seems to become mired deeper and deeper into a legal morass.  He has about 6,300 investors, mainly North American. Savings Unlimited’s 2,600 investors are many of the same individuals.

The man arrested, Oswaldo Villalobos, is the most visible owner of Ofinter S.A., a money exchange house with several locations around San José. He had been summoned to court at 8 a.m. Wednesday and arrived with a lawyer. He was promptly taken into custody and placed in a holding cell in the basement of the Tribunales building.

All day he waited there while a judge considered his case and a prosecutor request for one year of preventative detention. By 4:30 p.m., the judge had not yet made a decision, so Villalobos, wearing handcuffs, went with detention workers to a taxi 

on the north side of the court building and traveled to the detention facilities in Guadalupe where he was to spend the night.

Oswaldo Villalobos was due back in court this morning as his lawyers argued for little or no detention time. The session between the prosecutor, the judge and the defense lawyers is a private matter, and there is no public hearing. So reporters could not find out the details of the charges.

Making matters even cloudier, Prosecutor Walter Espinoza Espinoza was on leave to attend a local training class, and no one could say who was representing the interests of the government in the proceeding.

Even more ominous was the report from a spokesperson for the court system that investigators are seeking Enrique Villalobos to face charges. Whether the charges are similar to those his brother is facing is not known.

A court employee Wednesday said that Enrique has an appointment in the courts in two days, and officials expect to have access to him at that time.

The court system has been less then responsive for requests for information. When Espinoza met with some investors last Thursday, he was quoted as telling them he would go forward with a case of illegal lending and a charge of fraud because investor money has been hidden.

But the full evidence, if any, behind those charges still is not known to the public.

Investigators raided the Villalobos operations July 4, and both the money exchange houses and Enrique’s private loan business were suspended Oct. 14, leaving investors in the lurch. Enrique is three months behind in paying the 2.8 to 3 p.m. interest he has agreed to provide.

The mood is somber and there is little comment in public
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The mood among the expat community downtown Wednesday was one of somber contemplation. 

Investors digested the news that Oswaldo Villalobos, brother of Enrique Villalobos, owner of the suspended high-yield investment firm, "The Brothers," was arrested on charges of fraud and illegal operation of a financial institution. Investors and non-investors alike expressed their worry and sorrow.

Around the many bars and hotels of central San José where expats congregate, people spoke of their dismay at their own and friends’ plight.

The most striking aspect of peoples’ reactions was their unwillingness to give their names. Most individuals contacted wanted to remain anonymous. 

One investor, who was socializing within a small group of friends, refused to comment at all. He said simply that he had nothing to say. The group was discussing finances.

Others within the same group elected to air their views. One said that "people are disheartened" at the news. Only one day previously, Tuesday, an optimistic group of investors descended on the downtown court complex for a demonstration against the freezing of the Villalobos accounts.

A former investor, who withdrew his money in June, said: "I feel sorry, a lot of my friends were invested. And I think it’ll affect the economy greatly."

These sentiments echoed the general consensus among non-investors contacted. 

Alan Hornick, another non-investor, said: "The money’s gone. . . a lot of our friends have gone back to the States because of this."

About Oswaldo, Hornick said that in the courts here, Napoleonic law prevails. "It’s over for these guys. It’s sad, they’ve hurt a lot of dear friends." He was asked if the arrest makes things worse. He said: "Of course it makes things worse."

Hornick’s friend, who preferred to remain anonymous, and who when asked if he was an investor, replied: "I was an investor!"

Greg Ruzicka, a Hotel Del Rey owner, who isn’t an investor, extended sympathy to his investor friends. "A lot of my friends have their money invested there and I hope they get it back because that money is very important to them." 

Ruzicka said he thinks the reason Oswaldo was arrested is because officials wanted him to stay in the country, and not leave like others have.

He also commented on how it will affect business. He said that his business, being a hotel, is mostly tourist centered, so might not be affected too badly. But, he said, the hotel does have local customers. 

Moreover, he said that all Costa Rican business would be affected. 

Nick Gullo, director general for the Europa, Royal Dutch and Tropical casinos, said in a recent interview that he has noticed a marked difference in trading since the Villalobos closure Oct. 14.

Similarly, many of the people contacted were critical of the government because of the way the economy could be affected.

Enrique Villalobos remains free, and there has been no confirmed sightings or communication from him for weeks. However, an elderly investor stood by the man he gave his money to. "[Enrique] is the nicest man I’ve been involved with," he said. 

Of Oswaldo’s arrest, he said: "He’s guilty of what?"

When they say this is the dry season . . . gag! gag!
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A nationwide alcohol ban this weekend due to Sunday’s mayoral elections have many making a mad dash to area liquor stores.

On Sunday, Costa Rica citizens will elect mayors to represent the country’s 81 municipalities for the first time. Prior to this year’s change in the political structure, mayors were appointed by municipal officials.

For most, the mayoral elections will merely impede drinking habits this weekend. The community restriction on alcohol consumption is an attempt to quell tensions that usually run high during election time.

There’s an appeal before the Sala IV filed by liquor distributors to end the ban. The booze advocates claim that the measure only covers presidential elections. So far, the constitutional court has not acted.

The alcohol ban begins Friday at midnight and ends midnight on Monday. Bars and liquor stores will close their doors for the most of the weekend. Restaurants won’t be serving alcohol either. Those who weren’t planning a dry weekend should stock up on spirits now.

Store displays will be wrapped in plastic and sealed by police. Of course, most Ticos will find ways around the ban, as will many tourists who generally get a wink from police inspectors.

Canada is backing
Venezuelan efforts

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Bill Graham, foreign affairs minister for Canada, has expressed strong support for the efforts currently being made by César Gaviria, the Organization of American States secretary general, to facilitate negotiation between the government of Venezuela and its opposition.

"[Organization] Secretary General Gaviria has made extraordinary efforts toward achieving a peaceful, democratic and constitutional resolution of the ongoing political difficulties between the Venezuelan government and opposition groups," said Graham. 

"I urge the Venezuelan government and its opposition to make every effort to peacefully resolve their differences and to avoid all threats to the constitutional order," he said.

The Government of Canada believes that the organization’s mission to foster dialogue and negotiation is the best channel through which a peaceful, democratic solution can be reached. The organization has undertaken a number of missions to encourage its member states to commit to strengthening and safeguarding democracy.

Canada will continue to work with Venezuela, through the organization and the mechanisms at its disposal, including the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to strengthen its democratic institutions.

French play in Spanish
is multimedia experience

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The adapted Philippe Minyana play "Inventarios" is heading into its last weekend of performances at the Teatro Fanal.

Jodi Steiger, co-director of the play and lighting specialist, is pleased with the outcome of the play. She said the production is a multimedia theatrical experience. 

Mrs. Steiger and Eugenia Chaverri, co-director, combined their artistic talents and conceived a play that uses robotic lighting, movie projection and still photos. The players on stage interact with the images produced on screen behind them.

The directors had to rewrite the play in order to make it work better with the art that they introduced into the final product. They received permission from the playwright to alter the original story.

The story is about three women and how they are affected by 20th century warfare.

Minyana is a contemporary French playwright, and the play was translated into Spanish for this production.

The play is performed by the Grupo Tangente and co-sponsored by the French Embassy. "Inventarios" can only be seen for four more nights, tonight to Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are 2,500 colons (about $6.70), but student tickets are around 1,000 colons cheaper.

The Teatro Fanal is in the Ministerio de Cultura complex just east of Parque España and southwest of the Instituto de Nacional de Seguros building in Barrio Amon. 


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