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These stories were published Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 244
Jo Stuart
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Isla Tortuga, the popular tourist destination located off the Central Pacific coast, boasts one of the country’s most spectacular nature reserves. The area is also a hotbed for tropical adventures from kayaking to canopy rides.

Calypso Tours sails daily for kayaking, snorkelling and other adventures.

To read our reporters’ account of their catamaran ride to the island click 

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Government getting yanked into digital age
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Pacheco administration put into operation its much heralded :digital government Monday with a ceremony announcing the Web site www.go.cr.

The report from Casa Presidencial said that with just one click a citizen will be able to file a complaint against corruption or question any action of the executive branch or the institutions. President Abel Pacheco said he hoped the new service will result in more participation by citizens and transparency and efficiency in government institutions.

Pacheco did not make mention of it, but the new digital government Web site also has a section for news. Only two bits of information were available Monday. Both were about the start of the new digital Web site. However, Pacheco has in the past been highly critical of La Nación and other news outlets, so the Web page gives him the power to speak directly to the people in detail without the news media as intermediaries.

The Web site also contains links to existing government Web sites, such as the Instituto Nacional de Seguros for online payment of the annual automobile registration and a link to the Registro Público. There Web browsers can find ownership information on corporations, automobiles and real estate. 

The Web page also contains a spot to check the daily rate of exchange between colons and dollars, but that connection was not working Monday night.

Absent is a spot to report criminal activities. The form for complains seems geared to actions of government and not a place to report a burglary. However, links exist to most ministries.

Citizens also can participate in electronic chats with officials. Ignacio Sánchez, the director general of Tránsito is scheduled for Thursday, although no time was given. He will be discussing yearend operations by his police force.

A week later, Dec. 19, Walter Navarro, head of the Fuerza Pública, will discuss methods of crime prevention for the Christmas season.

At the session Monday were Rogelio Pardo, minister of Ciencia y Tecnología; Astrid Fischel, minister of Educación; and Luis Adrián Salazar, director of the digital government program.

Pacheco said that the inauguration of the Web site represented some of the actions the government was taking to open itself up to globalization, "but with intelligence and a sense of national identity and patriotic responsibility."

Not more than 15 percent of Costa Ricans have computer access from their homes, but the number is growing each day. Most have some access either through workplace computers, school and university computer centers and Internet cafes.

However, about 50 percent of foreign residents have computers in their homes.

José Milanes taken into custody: BELOW!

Biker sprays group with bullets and kills one
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man on a motorcycle sprayed six persons with bullets Sunday night in Alejuelita, and one victim died Monday morning.

Police quickly captured a suspect.

Officials from the Judicial Investigation Organization said the shooting occurred at 9:10 p.m. Sunday in Alejuelita when attendees of a dance club, salón Los Maderos, were standing on the sidewalk. The five men and two women were transferred to San Juan de Dios and Calderón Guardia hospitals.

The dead man was identified as José 

Baltodano Méndez, 24. He died at San Juan de Dios.

Investigators said the bullets were from a .22-caliber weapon. but they did not fine a weapon, only shell casings.

The man who was detained, identified as Mario Alberto Solís Zúñiga, 19, also suffered bullet wounds, but he was identified by the others as the man who fired the shots, said investigators.

Fuerza Pública officers said they arrested him when he was a short distance away in a pickup truck. There was no explanation about the whereabouts of the motorcycle.

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One reporter’s account of Guantanamo camps
By Michael Bowman
of the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — For months, news reporters have been banned from entering Camp Delta at the U.S. Naval Station here, which houses more than 600 suspected Taliban and Al Qaida detainees.

Last week, however, a select group of reporters was invited to Guanatanamo for a tour of the facility, which until now has been shrouded in secrecy.

No sooner has the gate to Camp Delta opened, when what looks like a heavy-duty golf car goes by ferrying a shackled detainee from an interrogation session.

I lock eyes with the captive, who sports a full beard indicative of Muslim fundamentalism. His expression is blank, his eyes distant; — they seem to look right through me.

I am accompanied by the commander of Camp Delta, Col. John Perrone. He takes me to a row of empty cells in a roofed, open-air structure where new guards are trained. The air is warm but not stifling, as a breeze billows from the coastline.

"Here is the typical unit. And this unit is the exact same as what you will find throughout the camp. There is no difference," he said.

The cell, measuring two by 2.5 meters, features metal mesh walls painted light green. An orange jumpsuit and shower slippers are displayed on a bunk bed with a thin mattress. In a corner one finds a wash basin and, next to it, a floor-style toilet with two footrests.

Meters away, on the other side of a screened fence, detainees chatter at a brisk yet melodious clip. Col. Perrone says the banter is normal.

"To expect them to be in these units in this kind of environment and not speak all day would probably be very, very difficult. Conversation between detainees is pretty common," he said.

One guard who prefers to remain anonymous says the captives vocalize in other ways, as well. "They sing. Some of them really have nice voices. During (the Muslim fasting period of) Ramadan when they prayed all day long, I would see them warming up (their voices). And I sing at home, myself, and think, 'Wow! They really take it seriously.'," she said.

But another guard says not all detainee actions are benign. "They will do exactly what children do. When children are upset and do not want something, they throw it to the ground and see what your reaction is," he said. "When they want 
someone to pay attention to them, they yell and 
scream and see who comes (answers their call).

Photo by Michael Bowman
Camp Delta is within the U.S. naval Station in Guantanamo

They are in a cell, so they need something to do."

Col. Perrone takes me to a row of eight by ten meter enclosures where, twice a week, detainees are allowed 20-minute recreational periods. The paved courts are barren, lacking exercise equipment of any kind. In one court, a detainee strolls in a small circle. His gait is unhurried — like that of a man with nowhere to go.

"When they are in the recreation area, they are not shackled or handcuffed. They are free to move around as much as they like. Some of them run, some do push-ups," he said. "When they are done with their recreation time, we have showers for them here. They are allowed to take a shower, and we will issue them clean clothing before they go back (to their cells)."

The captives are served three, so-called "culturally-appropriate" meals daily. Until recently, that schedule had been modified to accommodate Ramadan, when Muslims are forbidden to eat by day. Late Friday, the detainees were treated to cake and other treats to mark the end of the month-long period.

Col. Perrone says, after tending to the detainees for a prolonged period of time, some guards may begin to empathize with the captives. He says it is a tendency the military can ill-afford.

"Complacency is an enemy here. There are some very dangerous people here, and we have to be on our toes at all times. We talk about it; we train to avoid complacency," he said. "And guards are not encouraged at all to engage in conversation (with the detainees). It is strictly a business-like relationship."

Officials at Guantanamo say they would like to think that some detainees' impressions of Americans might improve as a result of their contact with U.S. servicemen. Whether or not that occurs, however, officials say they have been charged with treating the captives humanely and that it is a mission they intend to fulfill.

Puerto Jiménez has
new library for kids

By Christian Burnham
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Children of Puerto Jiménez de Golfito will soon have a new library, thanks to a communal effort by local businesses and volunteers. The Osa Children’s Library, located across from the soccer field downtown, is scheduled to open its door Saturday.

The idea for the library was hatched only three months ago. Soon a committee consisting of Lauren Cleaver of Iguana Lodge, Isabel Esquivel of Osa Tropical, Hector Gonzáles of Fundacion Cecropia, and Beleb Momeñe of El Remanso. And soon the plans were transformed into reality.

A lease for the building, formerly occupied by squatters, was granted by the Public Work Ministry. Editorial Santillana, a Costa Rica publishing company, made a donation of some 600 children's textbooks.  Local construction crews also pitched in.

The library will fill a dire need for educational resources in the area, according to organizer Hector Gonzales. He also envisions the library as more of a community builder. Promise of the library has already spawned a civic center and other community entities.

Saturday’s library opening will coincide with a Christmas Art Festival. The two-day festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Included in the festival’s events are an art exhibition, live music, a raffle and a visit from Santa Claus.

Part of the proceeds from the festival will go towards the library’s book fund. The organizers intend on expanding the children’s library into one that adults can utilize as well sometime in the near future.

Central American
presidents meet here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The presidents and one prime minister of the Central American states will be in San José this week to focus on tourism, culture and the proposed free trade treaty with the United States.

In addition, President Abel Pacheco will turn over the rotating presidency of the group to Mireya Moscoso, the president of Panamá.

Other topics on the agenda include children and adolecents and the changes in food production caused by climate changes in Central America, according to Casa Amarilla, the foreign ministry.

This is the 22nd such meeting, and it will be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Said Musa, prime minsiter of Belize, will be the only leader without the title of president. From Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo will attend. Enrique Bolaños will come from neighboring Nicaragua. Ricardo Maduro will come from Honduas, and Francisco Flores will come from El Salvador.

Panic in Venezuela:
OAS calls for a truce

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — A week-long general strike is causing shortages of gasoline and panic buying here in the few stores that remain open. There is no sign that President Hugo Chavez and his opponents will resolve the crisis anytime soon.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the headquarters of Venezuela's state-owned oil company Monday in support of the strike that has shut down the industry. 

Opposition leaders are calling on President Chavez to step down. Even the president's estranged wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, has joined the chorus of voices calling on him to resign. But President Chavez says he will not.

He says the strike leaders are trying to create chaos through the petroleum company strike so as to justify a military coup d’etat. 

Chavez survived a coup in April and since that time the division between his opponents and supporters has deepened. The Organization of American States is trying to bring the two sides together for negotiations, but so far there has been no progress in that effort.

Cesar Gaviria, Organization of American States chief, said the government has expressed willingness to work on an electoral timetable with the opposition. 

Gaviria has been mediating peace talks between the two sides. The comments came in Caracas Monday — the eighth day of a nationwide general strike aimed at ousting President Hugo Chavez. 

U.S. and Canada form
military planning group 

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States and Canada have signed an agreement to establish a new bi-national military planning group at the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The committee will prepare contingency plans to respond to attacks and other major emergencies in either nation, according to a State Department release.

The agreement, signed by Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday, will enhance bi-national military planning and support to civil authorities.

The State Department noted that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the overall threat to North America from the air, sea, and land has greatly increased, "including the potential for the use of weapons of mass destruction delivered by unconventional means, by terrorists or others."

One more humbug

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In response to high demand, the Little Theater Group has added an additional performance of "A Christmas Carol." The extra show is scheduled for tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Blanche Brown Theatre in Bello Horizonte. Those interested should call 289-3910 for tickets.

Bankrupt United Airlines
will still provide service

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CHICAGO, Illin. — The world's second-largest airline has filed for bankruptcy protection under United States law.

Chicago-based United Airlines said it will keep flying its regular schedule while it reorganizes its finances, but United could become a smaller airline. 

Just four-years ago, United Airlines was considered an industry leader. Its stock was worth about $100 a share and it flew more passengers than any other U.S. carrier.

Today, its stock is worth less than one dollar a share, it is ranked second in passengers carried behind American Airlines, and it is seeking protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws. It is the largest airline bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

Glen Tilton, United chief executive officer, said passengers will not notice any immediate changes. "Service can only get better now that we are in Chapter 11. We have absolute, unequivocal focus on the customer, because as everybody with United at O'Hare [Airport] knows, it is the customer, the customer, the customer, so service will be fine," Mr. Tilton said. 

Many analysts have said United will likely have to operate fewer flights and raise fares if it hopes to become financially solvent again. Just days ago, the federal government refused to guarantee two billion dollars in private loans to keep United out of bankruptcy court.

The carrier's unions had agreed to about five billion dollars in wage cuts and other concessions. Deeper wage cuts are a possibility as United reorganizes under bankruptcy laws. 

Two of United's airliners were hijacked in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Since then, the carrier's already declining passenger load dropped sharply. The company has cut about 25 percent of its flights in the past 15 months, and laid off about 20,000 workers.

United employs about 83,000 people worldwide. It operates one out of every five flights in the United States and has one of the most extensive route systems of any world airline. 
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Milanes' brother taken into custody at warehouse
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Giving new meaning to the term "the brothers," investigators Monday took into custody José Milanes, the brother of the fugitive businessman. He joins behind bars the brother of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, another fugitive businessman.

The detention of José Milanes came about 4:30 p.m. during a search of his place of business, a toy and alcohol warehouse in Calle Blancos. The detention was on charges yet to be specified.

However, the arrest was not unexpected as the fleeing Milanes left the family business in the hands of José. Louis Milanes fled the weekend of Nov. 22 as his Savings Unlimited high-interest investment operation shut down. Operators of casinos linked to Milanes said they were told they now were reporting to José.

José Milanes becomes the fourth person associated with Saving Unlimited and/or Louis Milanes to be put in detention. Arrested last week was Mercedes López Blandón. She was believed to manage the Toby Brown hair salons owned by Louis Milanes. She also appears to hold a number of offices in corporations set up by Milanes. The third person is

believed to be her husband, identified as Edgar Ramírez. They are being held for investigation along with Michael Gonzalez, the firm’s manager.

A fifth person also was detained Monday. He was identified as Enrique Pereira. But his role in the company was unknown last night.

By contrast, only Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho has been jailed among the handful of people in management positions with Ofinter S.A. and the Luis Enrique Villalobos investment operation. Several key individuals are believed to have fled, some to the United States.

Costa Rican investigators seem to be pressing the investigation of Milanes, in part because he left little doubt when he vanished that he was not coming back. Estimates of the money still owed to his investors range from $160 to $260 million. The firm had offices in Edificio Colón.

All the persons in jail are there for pre-trial detention, and no conclusions should be made about their guilt or innocence. A big question is why investigators would seek to jail individuals who already have shown they are not flight risks by staying in the country when others fled.

Prudent investors will check all the paperwork
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

A new wave of high-interest companies seems to have risen like mushrooms in the wake of defaults by Savings Unlimited and the Villalobos operation.

Some are now offering as much a 6 percent per month. No enterprise can sustain such payments for long, but there are serious investors who play these operations, which may be ponzi schemes. The technique is to get in early, get your money and then get out before the operation folds.
An A.M. Costa Rica

In a ponzi scheme earlier investors are paid with money put in by later arrivals. This generates lots of customers. The operator siphons off cash, and the house of cards falls when there no longer is new money to pay as interest.

Savings Unlimited showed clear signs of being a ponzi operation when operator Louis Milanes made a special offer of 4 percent monthly return for investors who put in NEW money. They could not roll over their existing accounts. He claimed he was buying 12,000 slot machines for placement in undefined Latin lands. A.M. Costa Rica reported this. 

Unfortunately for investors, Savings Unlimited also froze withdrawals (another bad sign) and investors could not recover their money even if they had suspicions.

Savings Unlimited was a big winner when Villalobos suspended operations Oct. 14. Those who would have put their money with Villalobos were seen lining up at the firm’s Edificio Colón office to press money on manager Michael Gonzalez. Of course, all that money is now either lost or so carefully hidden that no investor will ever see a return.

But with this new wave of investment opportunities, a resident here is likely to forget that Costa Rica has hosted any number of investment schemes that went belly up because of their basic impracticality.

And sometimes the problem was greed of the main partners that destroyed an otherwise sensible operation.

There are two pieces of paper that every investor should look for now. The first is an annual report. Villalobos and Savings Unlimited never issued an audited report. And it would be nice to see a balance sheet, a financial snapshot of a company reflecting assets and liabilities.

Such documents are not guarantees. Large U.S. corporations with prestigious accounting firms backing their reports have sunk like stones. Yet such documents are important information.

Villalobos might have violated U.S. laws when he accepted investments from U.S. citizens at U.S. banks without providing the proper paperwork as an investment operation. He now calls those who gave him money "creditors" instead of "investors," but everyone knows that he was selling a security. Everyone, that is, except the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, which is supposed to protect the public from unlicensed security sales.

And there is no substitute for looking over the investment. Milanes told his investors they were putting money in casinos. He even had an exhibit at Expotour promoting his hotels and casinos. Now the casino operators claim they have no idea who owns the business. So there is no defense against lies, except perhaps a check of the Registro Nacional where ownership and company offices may be found.

A little legwork would not hurt either. If someone says they own a farm, a trip there would be an appropriate way to determine the accuracy of the statement. If someone says that they are purchasing government securities, a quick look at the original bonds would be appropriate.

Another good idea would be to check out the pages of a good financial newspaper, such as The Wall Street Journal. That would provide information on interest rates worldwide.

And, finally, every business should have a board of directors that is supposed to protect the firm even from greedy managers. A list containing the background of board members would be nice.

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