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These stories were published Thursday, Dec. 5, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 241
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Victims' advocate Arias urges a waiting game
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Jeannette Arias is the woman in the eye of the financial hurricane. She is the fiscal or prosecutor in charge of the Oficina de Atención a la Victima, the victim’s advocate.

On her desk is a binder that contains information from about 500 investors with Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. 



The victim’s advocate may be reached at
fcubero@poder-judicial.go.cr


In all, there are more than 2,600 investors, but most have not accepted the advice of investigators and have not contacted the victim’s advocate office, which is part of the Ministerio Público.

Fortunately for the predominantly North American Villalobos clientele, Mrs. Arias and two other persons in her small office speak English.

But so far she is not involved with investors who had money with the now-closed Savings Unlimited and its operator Louis Milanes. There really is not much for those investors to do, Mrs. Arias said Wednesday. She said Saving Unlimited investors should press charges against the firm and its management, file a second claim for civil damages and 
"just wait." She said investigators will be looking for assets of the company and also for Milanes, who fled the country the weekend of Nov. 23.

Investors of either company who wish to press charges will find an expedited system. They will not have to present themselves to the general complaint intake department at the Judicial Investigating Organization. Instead, they will be directed to the office of the appropriate fiscal.

Although Mrs. Arias is a fiscal, a post reserved for graduate lawyers, she is not prosecuting the cases. Others are doing that. Her staff includes a social worker and a psychologist, and the bulk of the work historically has been with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

However, she is not shy about outlining the government’s case against Villalobos: The operation was illegal because it did not have permission to run a loan business and the type of guarantee Villalobos gave, an undated check, was no guarantee at all.  She said that some investors never even received a check as evidence that Villalobos had borrowed their money. They got photocopies of checks instead. Al this constitutes fraud, she said.

The loan business was associated with Ofinter 

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Fiscal Arias and Villalobos claims

S.A., a money exchange house that was duly licensed to perform that kind of work. But Villalobos has said he no longer had an interest in the money exchange house.

Mrs. Arias said that prosecutors also have learned that Villalobos deviated from usual practices for about two months before he closed his office Oct. 14, She said the general office policy was to accept money from investors one week of the month. But during the last two months, employees accepted money every day.

Of course, any refunds to investors depend on investigators locating assets or cash, but "there is so little money found," she said. Less than $10 million of the estimated $1 billion held by Villalobos has been located in Costa Rican banks.

Mrs. Arias admits that in situations where investigators raided a business that paid investors up to 3 percent a month, the government becomes the villain in the eyes of the victims. Some of the e-mails she gets are far from nice.

The fiscal speaks perfect English, honed by six years of Catholic elementary school in Manhattan. She even retains a slight New York accent. Her counsel for investors: "Basically, people will have to go on with their lives." That is, after filing charges, she hopes.

Couple has business of buying investor goods
By Garett Sloane
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some out-of-money foreigners in Costa Rica are resorting to the sale of all of their possessions, even their wardrobe.

The 6-week-old buy-and-sell business of Albert and Rosemary Nobert is seeing a rise in interested sellers. The couple has bought three entire households worth of goods at bargain prices and are reselling the items in their store in San Antonio de Belen.

Nobert has been an on-and-off member of the foreign Costa Rica community for 17 years, and many of his friends are affected by the recent collapse of two high-interest investment firms. He said the success of his business irks him because of how many people are looking to sell all they own. At least 10 more persons have contacted him about possibly making a deal.

The businessman, however saddened, is providing a service. He liquidated one woman’s belongings for around $6,000. He said the woman received a much-needed infusion of money. He said the goods, including furniture, were of high quality. 

Nobert said that his business is not a pawnshop. He will sell items on consignment, but only ones that he does not consider valuable. For instance he will not buy a wardrobe, but he will sell the clothes and keep 50 percent of the income.

One of Nobert’s concerns is store space for the influx of goods he is purchasing. He said he is buying furniture, luggage, office supplies, cameras, pots and pans and just about anything of value.

Compra Y Venta Belen is located 250 meters east of the Pedregal Cement Co. in San Antonio de Belen. 

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Furloughed attacker
gets 15 years

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man tried for the May 26 attack of a U.S. citizen and Scottish woman has been sentenced to 15 years in jail. The charges included attempted homicide and deprivation of liberty.

Oscar Miranda Miranda, then 23, was detained last May when he returned to his prison cell from a weekend furlough from the San Augustine prison facility in Santo Domingo de Heredia. 

Miranda was an inmate involved in a sentencing program that allowed him to leave the prison during days and weekends.

During his leave, the prisoner preyed upon David Bryan Sawyer and Lizeth Streger, then 25 and 22 respectively. Miranda shot Sawyer three times and tried to strangle Streger, the court heard. Neither was fatally injured.

The pair left the Taberna Chalet at Cruce del Paradero, in the road to Monte de la Cruz near Heredia, about 3 a.m. with the intention of walking back to their living quarters in San Rafael de Heredia. 

Either in the tavern or shortly after they left they met their assailant who at first was friendly, agents said. 

He suggested that they take a shortcut, a path, and the two foreigners became separated as Sawyer paused to admire a nearby stream. That’s when the assailant grabbed the woman, who began to scream, thereby alerting Sawyer.

As Sawyer came on the scene, the assailant shot him three times with what probably was a .22 caliber revolver, said agents. The assailant managed to steal about 5,000 colons (about $14) and some personal items from the woman, said investigators. 

New tourism program highlights regional roots
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica has embarked on a program to promote cultural differences as a way of attracting tourists.

The program was kicked off Wednesday in Esparza by Leila Rodríguez de Pacheco, the first lady of the republic. 

The idea is to strengthen community identity to stimulate art and customs specific to a region and also to promote the values that characterize the area. The communities may then be able to take advantage of this new identity as a way of attracting tourism. 

President Abel Pacheco was at the ceremony, as were Rubén Pacheco, minister of Turismo and Guido Sáenz, minister of Cultura.

 “There are many treasures in our communities that we don’t know about,” said the first lady.

Esparza, not generally considered a tourism town, was picked for the inauguration of the program, in part, because it is the second oldest city in the country, now celebrating 428 years of existence.

The name of the program in Spanish is “Asi Somos,” loosely translated as “We are like this.” The program anticipated local study of community roots in an attempt to find something of tourist quality. This will be followed with the creation of an organization and the instruction of community members and then the diffusion of the artistic or cultural traditions so created.

The result would be an increase in local festivals that might attract tourists and result in the sale of locally produced goods.

A park being constructed in Mata de Limón, Caldera, is being considered part of the development of the tourist program for the canton. This is in the area where cruise ships dock.

Seeking out local routes to develop a tourism industry is not a new thought. Venezuela developed Colonial Tovar as a German town transported to the tropics. Residents there had German roots.

A number of U.S. towns draw on their traditions to attract tourists, such as Salem, Mass., where witches were burned in the 17th century.


 
Brazil president wants
economic cooperation

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

SANTIAGO, Chile — Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian president-elect, is rallying support to help South America end its financial crisis.

Da Silva traveled to Chile Tuesday and reiterated calls for greater cooperation within Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay are members. Chile and Bolivia are associate members. His stop in Chile followed a 24-hour visit to neighboring Argentina.

Paul O'Neill, U.S. treasury secretary, said in an interview with a French news agency's financial wire the Brazilian presidential transition team is taking all the necessary steps to help Brazil stabilize its economy. 

Da Silva meets with President George W. Bush in Washington next week. The former labor leader will become Brazil's president on Jan. 1.

Marchers for food
flood the streets

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services 

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Thousands of Argentines have marched through the streets here for what organizers called a day against hunger.

In a peaceful demonstration Wednesday, marchers stopped in shops to ask for food donations. March organizers say they are seeking 1.1 million pounds of food to donate to the needy.

Some shops were shuttered over fears the demonstrations could turn violent.

Last year, nearly 30 people were killed during street riots and looting that led to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. Argentina has been mired in an economic crisis for more than four years.
 

Strike extended to
pressure government

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan opposition has announced it is extending its three-day general strike against President Hugo Chavez into a fourth day. The aim is to intensify street protests in an attempt to force the president to bring forward elections.

Yet another massive opposition march snaked its way through the streets Wednesday: this one on its way to the Gran Melia hotel, where Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States is staying. Gaviria has been trying for weeks to forge an agreement between government and opposition that would allow the two sides to settle their differences via the ballot box.

His efforts, and a three-day strike, have so far not persuaded government negotiators or Chavez himself to offer an early election or referendum. So opposition leaders today took their supporters to the secretary-general's hotel and handed him a document in which they asked for the organization to use its so-called Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan leader. The Charter, which dates from last year and has yet to be used, provides for the isolation of undemocratic governments.

There is little indication, however, that the organization's member nations are prepared to take such a step. And meanwhile, the opposition has decided, to the surprise of many observers, to continue extending its strike day-by-day.

Assuming there is no move from the armed forces, which cannot entirely be ruled out, the only way of forcing the president to concede an election is by paralyzing the state-owned oil industry, which accounts for around half of government revenues. So far, the strike's impact on the oil industry has been limited, despite opposition attempts to create an impression of impending doom. 

However, by late Wednesday there were indications that the situation could be worsening. The crewmembers of an oil tanker carrying almost 300,000 liters of gasoline announced they were joining the strike. They anchored across the access channel to Lake Maracaibo, heart of the oil industry, partially blocking the sea-lane.

If the oil situation continues to deteriorate, the government has a number of options, none of them appealing. Any form of repression, observers say, might merely exacerbate the situation, putting to the test the president's control of the armed forces.

Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, during a Tuesday press briefing on a plane en route to Colombia commented on the Venezuela crisis.
 

Two suspected burglars
arrested in Alajuela

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators arrested two men about 6 a.m. Wednesday to face charges that they burglarized at least six homes in the Alajuela area.

The men were arrested in simultaneous raids in Hatillo 8 and Aserrí. Held were Geovanny Jaemstchk, 30, and Kenneth Rojas, 18, agents said.

The arrests were the result of a wave of afternoon burglaries that took place while homeowners were away. Thieves broke in and took appliances, computers and other valuable merchandise, said agents. In each case more than 1 million colons ($2,600) of goods was taken.
 

Workman dies in wreck

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A workman for the electric company died Tuesday near Peréz Zeledón when his vehicle overturned. He was identified by the last name of Hidalgo. It was uncertain if he had been working at his job with the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad when the mishap took place.
 

Man killed during fight

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A 30-year-old man died as the result of a fight in Santiago del Monte in Tres Ríos Tuesday night. The man was identified by the last name of Zúñiga, and he died as a result of a knife wound in the chest, said investigators.

Oil drilling in north
may be imminent

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tensions are mounting between protectors of the environment and oil companies eager to exploit Costa Rica’s national resources.

Both parties anxiously await a decision by the National Technical Environmental Secretariat (SETENA), the branch of the Ministro Ambiente y Energía responsible for environmental impact assessment. The question is whether or not a U.S. oil company will be permitted to drill in the Zona Norte.

At the heart of the conflict is Mallon Resources Corp., an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Denver, Colorado. An environment impact study submitted by the company was approved in the summer of 2000.

Months later the environmental ministry put the project on hold indefinitely on the basis that the project didn’t meet the criteria of an environmental study.

The long-awaited decision from SETENA's regarding Mallon’s proposal is expected by the end of December, said Ruth Solano, an environmental lawyer. SETENA has come under attack by both sides for wavering on this decision.

Despite strong opposition from environmental groups and an eco-friendly Pacheco administration, pressure from politicians to accept the oil companies’ money may ultimately prevail. Oil exploration could be a boost to the economy.

British exports escalate
here, says official

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

British exports to Costa Rica have risen dramatically this year, according to Astrid Gómez, commercial assistant in the Commercial Department of the British Embassy.

The department reported exports of $67.5 million in the year 2001. That is up 35 percent this year so far to $91 million, said Ms. Gómez. The top British exports to Costa Rica are chemicals and vehicles.

British trade to Costa Rica is much lower than that of the United States and Canada but it is showing signs of promise, said Maurice McPhail, Commercial Department head, in a recent telephone interview.

The British Chamber of Commerce here was forced to close due to “insufficient human and financial resources to run [the] chamber,” said Ms. Gómez.

Ms. Gómez says that Costa Rican exports to the U.K. are “traditionally higher” than imports. In 2000, Costa Rica’s exports to the U.K. was worth $853 million. The main exports were electrical components and fruit and vegetables.

Annual exports to the whole of Latin America are an estimated $3.9 billion. No direct trade agreements exist between the U.K. and Costa Rica. However, Costa Rica recently put into effect a two-way agreement with Canada.
 
 
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Water purification system runs into opposition
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A pioneer in an alternative form of water purification for swimming pools and drinking water is having a difficult time and blames resistance from vendors or more traditional products.

He is Steve Verdon, president and CEO of ChlorFree. The path to establishing a foothold for the system in public swimming pools isn’t without obstacles, he reports.

ChlorFree is Verdon’s brainchild or, rather, the adopted child. The system maintains water purity without the heavy use of chemicals. He said he re-discovered it 23 years ago after becoming concerned for his children’s health while they were in swimming pools.

The concept behind ChlorFree is nothing new. Water bottling plants, for example, use it. But for reasons beyond grasp, it is used infrequently in public drinking water systems and public swimming pools around the world, said Verdon.

The concept was conceived around 400 years ago, 

Steve Verdon
said Verdon. He holds a doctorate in neuropsychology.

ChlorFree uses ionization to purify water. This involves the use of an encased battery to electrify the water, thereby eradicating algae and bacteria and sustaining the water’s cleanliness, said Verdon.

Ionization, basically, involves the use of a safe, low voltage DC 

current generated internally by metal electrodes. As the ions of metal attempt to move from one electrode to the other, some become suspended in the water. Hence, ionization occurs.

The ions attack the outer coat of bacteria and disrupt their balance, attack DNA production and speeds up their death.

The ChlorFree system requires two weeks in a pool before the water is purified.. Such ionic batteries last for about a year before replacements are needed. Cost depends on the size of the battery and the size of the swimming pool.

Chlorine is a naturally occurring element found in compounds in the environment. In the lab it occurs as a yellowish-green gas but can be liquid. As a disinfectant, chlorine bonds with and destroys the outer surfaces of bacteria and viruses — similar to ionization.

As well as chlorine, various providers now stock what they calol organic chlorine. Verdon, nevertheless, says that it is simply chlorine. "Chlorine is chlorine," he said. " It can’t be any other way. This is just a way of appealing to the heath-conscious market."

Verdon has been working in Costa Rica on the ChlorFree project for three years. He said that around 23 years ago he was working on the same concept but in Miami, Fla. There large checmical companies hounded him and his employees, he said.

Now, Verdon says that he has been receiving resistance from chlorine vendors in Costa Rica. He said sometimes unknown persons put strange chemicalsin the pools he services in order to induce contamination. The pool water can turn a nasty green when this happens.
 
Verdon said that he has tests results showing that outside chemicals were the cause of contamination and that problems in some pools did not come from the failure of his system to do its job.
 
This happened at a hotel in Guanacaste. The hotel’s manager has since removed the ChlorFree system from the pool. The hotel asked not to be named.

The manager said that the owner of the hotel wanted the system taken out of the pool to avoid further problems. "It all started with a lot of sabotage," he said. Tests showed problems came from chemical contamination, there was no biological contamination, said the manager.

Asked about ChlorFree’s effectiveness, the manager responded: "It worked fine, it done a great job. The system has its own merits."

Debate exists as to the safety and health risks of chlorine. Verdon said chlorine poses a major health hazard. He said its use is the cause of some cancers. 

Paradoxically, Walter Murillo, importation manager at Piscinas Acuarium, said that chlorine products work just as well as non-chlorine products. Piscinas Acuarium is a provider of both chlorine and non-chlorine chemical and mechanical products for swimming pools and spas. 

Piscinas Acuarium in San Rafael de Escazú helped the Ministerio de Salud write the regulations covering the use of chlorine in swimming pools. However, Piscinas Acuarium does not enforce the recommendations. Murillo did say, though, that the company is willing to assist the ministry "whenever they ask us to."

Verdon does not say that Piscinas Acuarium has even had any role in spiking one of the pools heis firm services, but he did say that Piscinas did not easily accept the new technology and caused him problems with officialdom.

The Best Western Hotel in the downtown experienced problems, according to Carmen Verdon, Steve’s wife. She said that representatives of a chemical company threatened to close the hotel’s pool because it didn’t have enough chlorine. Mrs. Verdon said the hotel then showed the representatives a copy of ChlorFree’s ministry approval.

José Joaquin Ramírez of the hotel’s pool maintenance, said that ChlorFree is "crystal clear." Joaquin added: "Chlorine is a big problem for people." 

ChlorFree received approval from the ministry in May 2001 for its use in public-access swimming pools.

Numerous scientific studies have been conducted into the safety of chlorine. Dr. Zoltan Rona, a consultant on nutritional medicine to the Motherisk Program of the Department of Pharmacology of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, says that chlorinated water contains carcinogens. He says that several studies link chlorine to instances in bladder, breast and bowel cancers, according to an analysis of studies published on the Internet.

Further, Rona says that studies have linked chlorinated swimming pools to an aggravation of asthma in children.

In the United States 2,068 people’s health was 


Employee shows one of the small batteries that produces an ionic charge to purify water.

affected by drinking water problems during 
1999-2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. And in 1999-2000, nearly 2,093 people encountered health problems after "exposure" to recreational water, including swimming pools, also in the United States, the report said.

The World Chlorine Council and Euro Chlor, an affiliate of the European Chemical Industry Council, claim that chlorine is responsible for safe drinking water and the elimination of copious bacteria.

An independent laboratory report carried out by Dr. Ana Hernández on a ChlorFree-provided pool found the pool safe for use and concluded the water was good enough to drink. Dr. Hernández is based at the Laboratorio Clinico in Liberia, Guanacaste.

Despite Verdon’s claims that ChlorFree works 100 percent independently, the ministry’s swimming pool regulations say that a small amount of chlorine stillmust be added to a pool in order to maintain purity. The level is 0.1 parts per million. For chlorinated pools, the level required is greater: 1.5 — 3 parts per million.

Verdon believes this isn’t required. So, the company is working on a proposal that will prove this, said Mrs.Verdon, who also is company vice president.

Pool users contacted at locations supplied by ChlorFree reported varying opinions on the difference between swimming in a chlorinated pool and a ChlorFree one.

Swimmers at the Barcelo San José, of Palacio Hotels, which uses ChlorFree in its pool, said that they could feel the difference.

Wilbert Barquero, who has been a gym member at the hotel for just over three months, said: "It’s different: there’s a smaller amount of chlorine?" He knew nothing of the pool’s cleansing system. He said he uses chlorine in his own pool.

Olman Viquez, another gym member at the hotel, but for three years, said that the pool felt "more easy."  "[There is] not the same feeling in [the] eyes than with chlorine," said Viquez.

In the Barcelo’s jacuzzi, Luis Escalanté, a gym member also, said that he remembers that the Jacuzzi had a bad odor in the past. 

But Nuria Pérez, a receptionist at the hotel’s gym, said that she liked the chlorine because of the smell. "I associate the smell with cleanliness," she said.

Also, the manager at the Guanacaste hotel that had ChlorFree removed because of suspected sabotage, said that his customers didn’t notice a difference between the time when the pool was chlorinated and when it was cleansed with ChlorFree. He did say he would not allow his own child to swim in the chlorinated pool now.

A study at the University of Arizona showed ionization with chlorine residue to be 1,000 times more effective at eliminating algae than chlorine.

In addition to swimming pools, Verdon wants to have ChlorFree installed into the public drinking water systems here, too.

The University of Costa Rica’s Microbiology Department in June of this year concluded after a water examination experiment that ChlorFree water is drinkable. This fuels the product’s suitability for use in Costa Rican aqueducts for drinking water.

In the U.S. virtually all drinking water systems rely on chlorine and chlorine-based products for purification, according to the World Chlorine Council. Likewise, here in Costa Rica chlorine dominates in drinking water purification.

But Verdon is warming people to his idea, he says. At the time of going to print, ChlorFree had 138 clients in total, up 400 percent in the last year, says Verdon. In that count is the Flamingo Water Department. The whole town of Flamingo, including hotels, is connected to the ChlorFree-utilizing aqueduct.

The University of Costa Rica uses ChlorFree in its Guanacaste swimming pool. Marvin Espinoza, who is in charge of pool maintenance, commended the pool for its cleanliness. He said students and the public in general said that it did not hurt skin or eyes.

Chlorine is worth millions to the world economy. For individual nations, the same is true. 

As long ago as 1990 in the United States, chlorine was worth $2.9 billion to the economy. In Costa Rica, most pool owners use chlorine for purification. This includes both public and private pools. 

Verdon says that this is the reason he has incurred so much resistance. He says there is an 80 percent net saving when using ChlorFree over chlorine products.

Espinoza, too, said that the University of Costa Rica found ChlorFree to be cheaper, citing an 80 percent reduction in chlorine consumption. Murillo at Piscinas Acuarium says that non-chlorine products are more expensive.

Nonetheless, chlorine remains the market leader for swimming pool and drinking water purification. Verdon sees this as a result of the need to dispose of chlorine, which is a by-product of other chemical processing with little other potential usage or means of safe disposal. So, it is used for water cleansing purposes, he says.

Verdon wants this to change. He says water supplies and pools need to be purified without the use of chemicals.

"If Costa Rica portrays itself as a healthy country to live in," he says, "imagine how it would be if Costa Rica could present to the world a system that is so healthy."
 

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