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These stories were published Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 246
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Alexander Chinchilla, an employee at the Tribunales de Justicia in San José, places another statue for the court system’s portal or nativity scene. Not only is church and state not separate here, branches of the government compete each year for the best portal.
A.M. Costa Rica photo
Parade of Light readied for Saturday debut
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Don’t drive your car into San José Saturday unless you can disguise it as a Festival of Light float. The streets will be closed officially at 3 p.m. for the parade, but some obstructions to vehicles were being set up Wednesday night. Transit officials will begin hauling off parked cars along the route starting at 1 p.m.

Viewing stands for invited guests and also vantage points for television cameras were being erected along the parade route. Special police operations go into effect midnight Friday as the parade floats begin to gather in the vicinity of Parque La Sabana and the Gimnacio Nacional.

The Festival de la Luz is a Christmas staple promoted by the Municipalidad of San José. The route once again will be from La Sabana east along Paseo Colón to Avenida 2 and continuing east until the Plaza de la Democracía.

All along the route, extra shifts of police and 

first aid workers will be available. Fuerza Pública alone will have 1,200 officers in the streets.

Public buses will change their pickup points starting at midday Saturday until midnight, as will taxi pickup points on Avenida 2.

The parade starts off with fireworks from several points in downtown San José about 6 p.m. Floats, bands and cheerleading squads will be the main units in the parade. most will be decked out in tiny lights in keeping with the theme.

The atmosphere of the parade is strictly family with a heavy concentration of youngsters in the crowd. Police will be stopping the flow of alcohol in the general vicinity of the parade by late afternoon, so the kind of beer parties that are typical for the post Christmas tope and carnival will not be present Saturday night.

For those who still want to avoid the crowds, both Teletica Channel 7 and Channel 13 will broadcast live.

Chile's trade pact a model for Central America
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

Chile and the United States reached accord on a comprehensive free trade agreement, officials in Washington announced this week, and the document is being touted as a model for U.S.-Central American free trade talks.

The negotiations with Central America could begin as early as January, said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

The leaders of the Central American nations are meeting in San José this week, and the context of a free trade agreement is one of the main agenda points.

The 800-page document must be approved by the Chilean congress, but that governmental entity is strongly free trade. The agreement is the first comprehensive trade pact between the United States and a South or Central American nation.

One key element of the Chilean agreement is that all tariffs and quotas on all goods will be eliminated immediately or after transition periods with no exceptions.

More than 85 percent of two-way trade in consumer and industrial products becomes duty-free when the agreement enters into force with most remaining tariffs eliminated within four years.


Key U.S. export sectors gain immediate duty-free access to Chile, such as agricultural and construction equipment, autos and auto parts, computers and other information technology products, medical equipment, and paper products.

Chile's luxury tax on automobiles will be phased out over four years. In the meantime, the number of vehicles to which this tax applies will be sharply reduced as soon as the agreement takes effect.

The pact sets up new opportunities for U.S. banks, insurance companies, securities firms and related services

U.S. phone companies obtain rights to interconnect with networks in Chile and to lease elements of Chilean telecom networks on non-discriminatory terms and to re-sell telecom services of Chilean suppliers to build a customer base.

Insurance and telephone services in Costa Rica are government monopolies, so these areas might be sticking points for a Central American trade pact. Rice producers here also are hostile to foreign competition.

A Free Trade Area of the Americas is supposed to be set up by 2005, and these national and regional pacts are part of this effort.

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New York arrests reveal Mafia betting ties here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police in New York have arrested 27 alleged mobsters, and in the investigation have turned up a gambling link to Costa Rica.

The New York allegations are extensive and based on court-ordered telephone intercepts, according to a statement from the office of the U.S. attorney in New York.

The key figure as far as Costa Rica is concerned is Joseph Caridi, 54, identified as the consigliere of the Luchese organized crime family. He and two associates had a nationwide sports betting operation in the United States that provided bettors with access to a betting office in Costa Rica through a toll-free number, said the release.

Caridi also is charged with defrauding the Internal Revenue Service. Despite a lavish lifestyle, Caridi, the indictment alleges, failed to file personal income tax returns from 1997 to 2001.

Not a lot about the Costa Rican operation was given by U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf, but the release from her office said that Caridi ran the gambling operation from his residence in East Northport, Suffolk County, from at least April 2002 through August 2002 and brought in thousands of dollars. 

Also involved in the betting operation were two 

associates of Caridi, John Cerrella, 62, also known 
as "Johnny Sideburns" of Brooklyn, New York, and Ralph Lento, 64, also of Brooklyn. Cerrella is identified as a Luchese family "captain." 

Internet betting is a gray legal area in the U.S., but using the telephone to place a bet is a crime. Costa Rica is home to many betting operations, run primarily via the Internet. 

Last May the personal bookmaker of Gambino family crime boss John Gotti was arrested here, and he was believed to have maintained some kind of betting operation in the La Sabana Oficentro where he was arrested. However, the Luchese family and the Gambino family are frequent rivals, and this probably was not the operation in which Caridi was involved. That man is Dominick Curra, who was a convicted fugitive when he arrived here a year ago.

"We and our partners in law enforcement have successfully uncovered and uprooted organized criminal activity in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Kings, Richmond and Bronx counties and have dismantled a violent and enterprising crew operated by the  Luchese family consigliere Joseph Caridi," said Ms. Mauskopf. She has been waging a campaign against the Mafia over the last two years.

A consigliere is a trusted adviser in a Mafia family. However, in such loose-knit operations each Mafia leader generally runs his own criminal operations.


 
What should have been the role of the media?
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

Now that two high-interest investment operations collapsed, the complaint is why didn’t anyone step in and protect the investors.

Those who had money with Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and/or Savings Unlimited are looking for someone to blame. There is plenty of blame to go around: Regulator agencies that didn’t regulate. Banks that might have been a bit slow to report strange transactions. Happy investors who sucked in their friends.


Analysis on the news

But special consideration should be given to the news media, the element of society that is supposed to sound the alarm. Most of the Spanish-language media were totally unaware of what was happening right under their noses. And the only publication that came close to blowing the whistle quickly became an object of hate and scorn.

When The Tico Times published stories nearly two years ago on Keith Nash, the Canadian who could not withdraw his money, Villalobos investors rushed to his defense. The newspaper and reporter Christine Pratt were vilified.

Yet in the final analysis, The Tico Times could be accused of not printing enough. This reluctance was generated by a major slander suit filed by Villalobos that had the effect of tying the newspaper’s hands. Recent events would seem to have taken the newspaper off the hook.

Any investor who read the news stories about Keith Nash could have concluded that they should get their money out of the Villalobos operation right away. Villalobos went to court to get Nash declared incompetent. He disregarded paperwork that designated someone to act on Nash’s behalf if the investor became unable to act on his own behalf.

Then Villalobos unleashed a public relations campaign to suggest that Nash’s son or other person were trying to steal the elderly investor’s money. Then Villalobos said he was paying the Nash medical bills. Nash’s only crime seemed to have been in letting his $189,000 investment compound to about $1.5 million.

Investors probably should have paid more attention to this case and the newspaper accounts that are still there to see. They perhaps should have been a bit more skeptical of the greedy son scenario.

The big problem for newspapers in Costa Rica is that the law is stacked against investigative reporting. Defamation is a criminal as well as a civil allegation, and the courts have high respect for reputation.

In retrospect, one wonders how much a curious reporter could have found out about Villalobos and Savings Unlimited. Each seems to have protected itself with layers of shell corporations and, in the case of Savings Unlimited, misstatements about who actually owned the firm’s casino properties.

Newspapers also are economic enterprises and face the economic reality of accepting commercial announcements from anyone except proven scamps. In the interest of free expression, they must maintain an open door for anyone with the money to buy space and a decent track record.

Ofinter S.A., the Villalobos money exchange house, was featured in Tico Times advertising right up to the time the Nash stories appeared. Good newspapers have a tradition of ignoring advertising contracts when following a good story.

The action of the Spanish press and television in the Villalobos case is curious. Although both Teletica and La Nación reported the July 4 raids on the Villalobos enterprises, little appeared in print or on the air until an investor’s committee actively started courting the media.

When investors rallied Nov. 25 at the court complex, television was there for the visual images. Financial stories are too complex for most television reporting, and Villalobos stories even today are accompanied by unrelated stock footage of someone stacking blocks of money.

Yet once print reporters got ahold of the story and Savings Unlimited folded to the tune of about $250 million, the local media became very interested. Al Dia with bilingual reporters seems to have done the best job to date.

Yet even Al Dia did not follow up when Minister of Seguridad Rogelio Ramos reported that other high-interest operations were under investigation. The newspapers would be opening themselves up to legal action to do more than report the minister’s statement.

José Milanes gets
two months in jail

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A  judge has approved two months pretrial detention for José Milanes and Enrique Pereira.

Prosecutors in the Sección de delitos economicos y financieros  sought the detention as part of the investigation into the collapse of Savings Unlimited and the disappearance of operator Louis Milanes, the brother of José.

Investigators arrested both José Milanes and Pereria Monday afternoon and held them 24 hours for investigation. The detention ruling made late Tuesday means that they will be around to answer prosecutors’ questions.

No word has been heard on the whereabouts of Louis Milanes or Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, operator of another high-interest investment firm that closed owing investors up to $1 billion. Louis Milanes vanished the weekend of Nov. 23.

Villalobos has been gone since Oct. 14 when he closed up his operation because, he said, he feared another police raid.

Both firms catered to North Americans, who found they had no security for their massive investments except the word of the operator.


 
Caribbean 
aid effort
Xinia Vargas, an aide to national deputies from the Limón area, keeps watch on food collected for the relief effort there as part of a food and fund drive near the National Assembly Wednesday. The Caribbean coast was hard hit by heavy rains and flooding the last few days in November with perhaps 1,200 people still out of their homes.
A.M. Costa Rica photo
Lima conference targets
economic problems 

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

LIMA, Peru — A conference sponsored by the United Nations International Labor Organization is seeking solutions to the economic problems afflicting Latin America and the Caribbean.

The conference, in which several officials from the U.S. State and Labor Departments are participating, is being held in the midst of "the new and serious economic crisis that is affecting the region," said the UN organization.

The agency said that urban unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean rose in the third quarter of 2002 to 17 million people, with an average unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, the highest that has been registered in the region in the past 22 years.

According to the labor group, the total urban unemployment rate will rise to 9.8 percent, the worst in the region in the last 30 years. That figure represents about 18 million people.

The delegates at the conference are considering issues such as the effect of globalization on the region, gender discrimination, the social and labor dimension of regional integration, and "decent work deficits," which include deficits in employment and incomes, social protection, and social dialogue.

A report released at the meeting, entitled "Globalization and Decent Work in the Americas," calls attention to the "serious crisis affecting a number of countries in the region" that "requires the immediate application of emergency social policies to prevent an explosion of poverty, hunger and despair among millions of unemployed and those displaced by violence."
 

Colombian president avoids plot by rebels

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Security forces rushed President Alvaro Uribe Velez to a military base early Wednesday after learning of a possible assassination plot by leftist rebels. The security alert coincided with a rash of foiled car bombings.

President Uribe was scheduled to appear at an awards ceremony at a hotel in Medellin, about 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) northwest of Bogota. But he abruptly changed his plans and took a helicopter to a nearby military base after learning of a possible assassination plot.

Meanwhile, in the nation's capital, Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez revealed that police had de-fused five remote-control car bombs.

Security forces say some of the cars were packed with at least 250 kilograms of explosives and rigged with remote control systems capable of steering the vehicles to their intended targets. 

Defense Minister Ramirez said the bombs could have caused unimaginable damage.  Authorities blamed the foiled bombings on the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and arrested six people.

The FARC have been protesting what they consider a corrupt political oligarchy for 38 years, but until recently they fought their battles in the countryside. Now, they are vowing to bring the violence to city streets. 

The guerrillas known as the FARC also are suspected of planting a smaller car bomb that exploded Monday in the parking lot of a Bogota supermarket. Nearly 60 people were hurt. 

Colombia has been mired in a 38-year civil war involving the FARC and a smaller rebel group, rightist paramilitaries and the government. The conflict has left at least 40,000 people dead in the past decade alone.

Dead man discovered
on docked boat

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Agents from the Judicial Investigation Organization are looking into the death of a man, believed to be an elderly American, in Puerto Jimenez.

The body of the unidentified man was found Monday on a boat docked at Kakataymka harbor. The privately owned boat is estimated to be about 30 feet long.

According to a source in the area, the man’s death may have resulted from a severe head blow. The man is believed to have fallen from a boat ladder.
 
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Isthmus cracks down on stolen, transported cars
By Christian Burnham
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Seguridad Pública officials returned Wednesday five cars stolen from México and Guatemala.

The recent recovery is a result of an alliance by Central American countries to crack down on international car theft rings. The project, "Central American Recuperation of Stolen Cars," involves the sharing of information between police departments within the region.

During the past several months, the Fuerza Pública’s center of information has compiled intelligence about car robberies in countries of the region.

According to Policía and Seguridad Pública reports, the car thefts were committed by an international organized network with outfits in 

Canada, the United States, México and Guatemala. The operation is believed to involve coordination between high-status government officials in México and the Guatemalan police force.

The majority of the stolen cars were found abandoned in public places, according to police reports. Officials determined that one of the stolen vehicles was taken in México and entered Costa Rica with false Guatemalan papers.

Since the agreement was established in 2000, Costa Rica has returned 30 stolen vehicles. The majority came from Panamá (21). Four were from Nicaragua, two from Honduras, while Guatemala, México, and the United States each recovered one car. 

Costa Rican authorities also recovered 12 stolen cars. Nine were recovered in Panamá and three were in Nicaragua.


 
Who says
no army?

The Tactical Squad of the Judicial Investigating Organization looks a lot like its members are ready for anything.

The unit was involved in practice and simulations near the court complex in the downtown Tuesday. They used teargas as part of one scenario in which they rescued a kidnap victim.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

 
U.S. supports mediation efforts in Venezuela
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WAHINGTON, D.C. — The Bush administration, monitoring political unrest in Venezuela, is again appealing for support for Organization of American States’ mediation efforts and for a resolution involving an electoral process.

It is also condemning attacks on the news media attributed to both supporters and opponents of embattled president Hugo Chavez. 

U.S. concern about the situation in Venezuela was underscored late Tuesday by the State Department, which authorized a voluntary departure of non-essential U.S. diplomatic personnel and embassy dependents from the country and warned private Americans to defer all travel to Venezuela for the time being.

The U.S. travel warning the second issued since last Friday, cited a deteriorating political and security situation in the country and severe shortages of food and fuel stemming from the general strike begun early last week.

Though it's been a critic of Chavez's populist policies, the Bush administration has sought to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the latest turmoil, which has slashed oil shipments by Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and roiled the already nervous markets.

Briefing reporters, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer again underlined U.S. support for the mission of the organization's Secretary General César Gaviria, who has been in Caracas for several days trying to mediate political settlement between the president and his opponents. 

"We reiterate complete support for the Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria's efforts to mediate a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis," said Fleischer.

The State Department meanwhile said it was troubled over what it said were efforts by both opponents and supporters of President Chavez to intimidate the news media. And it fully agreed with the statement by the OAS chief Monday night condemning what he termed clear violations of the freedom of expression. 

Chavez supporters have staged rallies outside the offices of private TV channels seen as opposing the president, while Chavez's opponents were accused of firing shots late Monday at the building occupied by the state-run TV. Labor, business and opposition groups called the general strike to demand an early referendum on the Chavez presidency. Voters are not due to go to the polls until next August when a recall election is to be held at the mid-term of Chavez's current six-year term.


 
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