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(506) 2223-1327        Published Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008,  in Vol. 8, No. 251       E-mail us
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Two incidents provide glimpse into world of drugs
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Despite the pretensions of peace and tranquility, a hidden war rages in and around Costa Rica. Only infrequently do signs of this battle come to light. Wednesday two separate incidents illustrated the situation. In the Golfo Dulce a presumed drug fastboat turned up adrift with 25 bullet holes in the hull.

Meanwhile, at the downtown court building the chief prosecutor, Francisco Dall´Anese Ruiz, and the head of the nation's drug institute announced the discovery here of some $2.6 million that belongs to a world-recognized drug figure. The money was in two accounts in private banks and belonged to  Edgar Guillermo Vallejo Guarín.

Spanish police detained Vallejo, a Colombian drug cartel leader, in Madrid Sept. 4 at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

At the same press conference Dall'Anese said that there are at least 14 Colombians in the country now coordinating the flow of cartel drug money.

Costa Rica has long been known as a transit point for illegal drugs headed north from Colombia. What is less clear is the scope of the business dealings by the cartels here.

Fernando Berrocal Soto lost his job as security minister March 30 after he said he had evidence that certain Costa Rican politicians had been secretly involved with narcoterrorists in Colombia.

“We are worried that the country's simple and delicate security relations could be politicized,” said a statement from Casa Presidencial announcing Berrocal's dismissal. “The security ministry and any legislative initiative will, in the desire to be transparent, investigate the penetration of narcotraffickers and the possible interference of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia in Costa Rica,” the statement added.

Earlier, Berrocal and Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the brother of the president and the minister of the Presidencia, were reported to be targets of Colombia assassins sent by the cartels to exact vengeance because Costa Rica was confiscating so many illicit drug shipments. When unmasked, the alleged assassins appeared far from threatening, and they got a free trip back to Colombia and no charges here.

Now Costa Ricans know that the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional may have been penetrated, at least by common criminals. The deputy director of the agency, which has been called the Costa Rican F.B.I., faces a charge of being involving with a check fraud ring and using the agency's resources to further the scheme.

The agency's director quit Dec. 2 because of the scandal, and some lawmakers are calling for the intelligence agency to be dissolved. Presumably the intelligence duties would be assigned to other law enforcement units.

A lot of the drug intelligence information here comes from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and northbound drug boats frequently are herded into shore by the U.S. Navy.

In the case of the abandoned drug launch found by the crews of Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas patrol boats Wednesday morning near Punta Tigrito, what really happened is a mystery.

The 40-foot craft had no cargo, just some empty and half-filled fuel containers. The craft is a so-called cigarette boat with 200 horsepower motors.

A fishing boat located nearby was taken under tow and its crew detained, the coast guard said. But there was no clear clues as to what happened. One theory is that a rival drug gang or others intercepted the craft, killed the crew and hijacked the merchandise.

Officials have known for years that the Costa Rican fishing fleet has been infiltrated by drug smugglers. Sometimes when business transactions turn to murder investigators get a glimpse of the operations. As long ago as Jan. 30, 2007, the Judicial Investigating Organization said that three Colombians had been detained in Puntarenas as the leaders and recruiters of a gang that transported drugs and provided fuel service for other drug boats.

The man who is believed to have done the initial organizing of Pacific coast fishermen is Héctor Orlando Martínez Quinto. He was detained Aug. 10, 2006, and sent back to Colombia after living an apparent uneventful life in Puntarenas. He left the country periodically, and the Colombian government said he led after one exit an armed attack against a village in the Chocó section of Colombia near the Panamá border where 85 persons, including 46 children, died and about 100 persons suffered injuries. He turned mortars on a church where village residents huddled for safety, they said.

Also suspected here are significant financial investments in legitimate businesses and real estate by Colombian cartels. There have been no major revelations on these topics by law enforcement officers.

In fact, the money reported Wednesday by Dall'Anese is only the second discovery of cash related to Colombian narcotraffickers and terrorists. The chief prosecutor said that agents expect to find about $500,000 more. The money was in accounts bearing the name of a female friend of Vallejo and her boyfriend, the prosecutor said.

The banks involved have frozen the accounts, and officials might get more leads from the summary of movements of funds in and out of the accounts. No arrests have been made.

Vallejo was the subject of a $5 million reward. Officials did not say how they learned about the money. The tip may have come from U.S. investigators. They did say that the banks are cooperating.

Also talking about the case was Mauricio Boraschi Hernández, the head of the drug institute.

The initial significant haul of Colombian money was in a home in Santa Bárbara de Heredia. After the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias leader known as Raúl Reyes died in a cross-border raid by the Colombian soldiers in Ecuador March 1, Costa Rican officials learned that $480,000 had been placed in the small safe here.

The 48-year-old Vallejo has been indicted in the Southern District of Florida as a major Colombian drug source from 1990 to 1999. He was responsible for many multi-ton cocaine shipments by sea mainly to the west coast of Florida and to Miami, according to the U.S. State Department. Vallejo has an extensive history of violence, money laundering and the corruption of high-level government officials, the department said.

There is no record that the man ever came to Costa Rica. Vallejo has not been reported to be particularly political. That is not the case with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. That group is fighting a decades-long war with the Colombian central government and has turned to extensive drug trafficking to support its cause.

Consequently, the Fuerzas Armadas finds ideological friends among the Costa Rican left who support its political aims. This may cause the Fuerzas Armadas supporters to appear to have an association with drug smuggling when they do not.

The drug and terrorist connections may become more frequent topics of conversation over the next year because Berrocal is running for president on a law-and-order platform.

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Support for state banks
gets first approval

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Asamblea Legislativa approved on first reading Wednesday a $117.5 million infusion of capital to three state banks. The money is designed to free up credit for smaller companies.

The lawmakers approved the bill unanimously, although two expressed concern that the measure does not state exactly how the funds will be distributed.

Banco de Costa Rica and Banco Nacional de Costa Rica will each get $50 million.  Banco Crédito Agrícola de Cartago will get $17.5, according to Casa Presidencial, which praised the legislative action.

Also praising the vote was the Unión Costarricense de Cámaras y Asociaciones del Sector Empresarial Privado, which has as members many firms that rely on credit for daily operations.

The chamber association also said that the Banco Central should reactivate its line of credit in foreign currencies to help exporting companies.

In the legislature, Leda Zamora of the Partido Acción Ciudadana expressed a concern that the bill could not be passed a second time and published in the La Gaceta official newspaper so that the funds are available before Jan. 1.

Bank teller held in thefts
from customers' accounts

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial agents detained a 32-year-old bank teller in Siquirres for investigation in the theft of some 23 million colons (about $42,000) and $9,000 from customer accounts. Investigators said they expected more complaints over and above the seven they already have.

Agents said the person who took the money targeted accounts that had little movement. Many of the victims were retired individuals receiving a pension.

Daily vehicle restrictions
lifted for holiday period

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Drivers of vehicles regardless of final license plate number can travel through the restricted area of the San José starting Monday and until Jan. 5. The Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes has suspended the restrictions that were designed to decrease congestion and save fuel. The restriction that kept 20 percent of the vehicles out of the area at peak hours has been in force since June.

The ministry said, however, that restrictions on heavy trucks and the hours they may travel into the city will continue.

New Jersey family of  7
picked as 2 millionth tourist

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Seven members of a New Jersey family were designated the country's 2 millionth arriving tourist in a ceremony at Juan Santamaría airport Wednesday. The family name is Biedron.

The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo said it validated its selection with the Escuela de Estadísticas of the Universidad de Costa Rica.

The parents Mark and Gretchen Biedron operate the environmentally sound Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey. They have been written up in newspapers and magazines there for the way the school was constructed.

Carlos Ricardo Benavides, tourism minister, said the family represented the type of tourist the country was looking for, a person interested in the environment and seeking an authentic experience in Costa Rica. That was a way of rejecting the booming sex tourism business without really mentioning it.

The institute said that 29 percent of the tourists come to Costa Rica with their families.

Because the institute does not have access to recent arrival data, hosting 2 million tourists this year is not a sure thing. The number was extrapolated from the first 10 months of the year and did not take into account the impact of the financial crisis in the United States.

Man going dancing murdered

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A 33-year-old La Uruca resident going to a dance ran into two juvenile robbers late Tuesday near his home. The pair stabbed him fatally in the leg. He died a short time later at Hospital México, according to the Judicial Investigating Organization. He was identified by the last name of Rodríguez. Agents said they had identified the two juveniles involved.

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New traffic fines approved but put on ice until mid-January
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those caught driving drunk New Year's morning will not face the stiffer penalties of the new traffic law. The law was signed by President Óscar Arias Sánchez Wednesday, but it will not take effect until 10 working days after it is published in the La Gaceta official newspaper.

The current fine for drunk driving is 20,000 colons or about $36.50. The fine under the new law is 11 times as much, and there are provisions for jailing drivers who injure others.

The government is providing funds for 400 new Tránsito officers to enforce the law.

There was no explanation from Casa Presidencial on why Arias stalled on signing the measure.

Officials unveiled the proposal Oct. 31, 2006, at Casa Presidencial. Officials then said they hoped to get the measure to the Asamblea Legislativa in a week. Arias said then that the goal was to reduce the rate of traffic deaths from 14 to 11 per each 100,000 inhabitants by 2010.
The cost of caring for those injured in motor vehicle mishaps in 2005 alone was 3.4 billion colons or about $7 million, said Karla González, the transport minister, at the presentation.

Wednesday she explained that the La Gaceta would not be publishing over the Christmas holidays and that the law itself says it does not go into effect until 10 days after it is published. Those days are based on a five-day work week.
The bill won first approval from the Asamblea Legislativa Nov. 24, but Arias was on a round-the-world trip.

When signing the measure Arias said that the law was severe and necessary to end the war that is seen daily on the highways. He added that the law is not directed at responsible drivers.

Because of the high fines and other penalties, some have seen the new law as a license for Tránsito officers to seek bribes, but the law also creates an anti-bribery squad to investigate such matters.

The law probably will go into effect sometime in mid-January.

New information minister to do double duty to hold seat
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration does not want to turn over a legislative seat to a disgraced former consul in Nicaragua. So Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, the minister of the Presidencia,  said Wednesday that his brother, the president, would name Mayi Antillón as his minister of Información at the beginning of January but she would keep her legislative position, too.

Ms. Antillón was elected on the Partido Liberación Nacional slate from the Provincia de San José. If she quits, the next person on the election ticket gets the Asamblea Legislativa seat. That person happens to be Victor  Láscarez, the former consul.

Láscarez had to leave his consular post when he was discovered assisting two Middle Eastern men to enter the county on diplomatic passports, in a situation that was highly irregular.

Óscar Arias is creating the post of information minister so his office can better handle his public image. A former
television anchorwoman was in the job but she did not have ministerial rank.

Arias pointed out that the Costa Rican Constitution prohibits a legislator from holding any position in the executive branch except that of government minister. Other lawmakers have accepted ministerial posts but they surrendered their legislative seat, at least temporarily. When Ricardo Toledo resigned as minister of the Presidencia for Abel Pacheco, he returned to the legislature and resumed his duties as a deputy.

The Láscarez case was presented to the governmental Comisión de Ética, which found that he had jeopardized the national security.

The constitution clause cited by Rodrigo Arias also seems to say that the legislator has to vacate the seat temporarily while serving in the executive branch, but the Arias administration appears to want Ms. Antillón to serve in both positions simultaneously to block the former consul.
Arias has taken a hit in public opinion polls, and though he cannot be reelected, he keeps track of his approval rating.

Rejected telecom candidate finds rejection at the constitutional court, too
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court has rejected without detailed comment an appeal by Vanessa de Paul Castro Mora, who was rejected Friday as a member of the board of directors of the new Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones.

She appealed the rejection on grounds that were not immediately available. But the manner in which the
legislature met in special session was an issue because there  had been no formal vote to do so.

Ms. Castro is a former legislator. She was one of two nominations rejected. Two persons were named and the legislature now is studying two more nominations provided by the Authoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos

The Poder Judicial released a brief summary of the decision Wednesday afternoon. The vote was reported unanimous.

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Comprehensive study supports rain forests over palm oil fuel
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Keeping tropical rain forests intact is a better way to combat climate change than replacing them with biofuel plantations, a study in the journal Conservation Biology finds.

The study reveals that it would take at least 75 years for the carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion. And if the original habitat was carbon-rich peatland, the carbon balance would take more than 600 years.  On the other hand, planting biofuels on degraded grasslands instead of tropical rain forests would lead to a net removal of carbon in 10 years, the authors found.

“Biofuels are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace tropical rain forests,” said co-author Neil Burgess of World Wildlife Fund. “In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of the world’s most efficient carbon storage tools — intact tropical rain forests.”

The study is the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of oil palm plantations in tropical forests on climate and biodiversity. It was undertaken by an international research team of botanists, ecologists and engineers from seven countries.

“Our analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical forestlands,” said lead author Finn Danielsen of Denmark’s Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology. “Until then, we will be releasing carbon into the atmosphere by cutting tropical rain forests, in addition to losing valuable plant and animal species," he said. "It’s even worse on peatlands, which contain so much carbon that it would be 600 years before we see any benefits whatsoever.” 

Biofuels have been touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, one of the major contributors to global warming. One such biofuel, palm oil, covers millions of acres in Southeast Asia, where it has directly or indirectly replaced tropical rain forests, resulting in loss of habitats for species such as rhinos and orangutans and the loss of carbon stored in trees and peatlands. There are extensive palm oil plantations on both Costa Rican coasts.

The authors call for the development of common global standards for sustainable production of biofuels.
“Subsidies to purchase tropical biofuels are given by countries in Europe and North America supposedly to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from transport” said Danielsen.  “While these countries strive to meet their obligations under one international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, they encourage others to increase their emissions as well as breach their obligations under another agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

"Comparing the flora of the rain forest with that of oil palm plantations shows the devastating effect of forest conversion on biodiversity. Major plant groups that thrive in natural rain forest, such as trees, lianas, orchids and native palms, are completely absent.  The plants that do grow abundantly in plantations are mostly common fern species that like sunshine. Forest plants need shady and undisturbed habitat to survive" said botanist Hendrien Beukema of University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

For fauna, only one in six forest species can survive in plantations, the study finds. Most are common species.

“Conserving the existing forests is not only good for the climate as the emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced but also generates additional benefits, such as biodiversity protection” said Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso of the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry. Tropical forests contain more than half of the Earth’s terrestrial species and Southeast Asia’s forests are among the richest in species. They also store around 46 percent of the world’s living terrestrial carbon and 25 percent of total net global carbon emissions may stem from deforestation.

“It’s a huge contradiction to clear tropical rain forests to grow crops for so-called ‘environmentally friendly’ fuels,” said co-author Faizal Parish of the Global Environment Center, Malaysia. “This is not only an issue in South East Asia. In Latin America forests are being cleared for soy production which is even less efficient at biofuel production compared to oil palm. Reducing deforestation is a much more effective way for countries to reduce climate change while also meeting their obligations to protect biodiversity.”

“Any biofuel plantations in tropical forest regions should be considered only in former forest land which has already been severely degraded to support only grassy vegetation,” Parish added. “Care is further needed to prevent such plantations from stimulating further forest degradation in adjacent areas.”

New bird flu outbreaks are reported in Cambodia and in an Indian state
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Authorities in several Asian countries are working to contain new outbreaks of bird flu.

Cambodia has begun slaughtering poultry in a district south of the capital, Phnom Penh, where a 19-year-old man last week tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus. The agriculture ministry also ordered a 30-day ban on selling or transporting poultry in Kandal province.

The man is the eighth confirmed human case of bird flu in Cambodia, and the first person diagnosed with the disease there this year.

In India, authorities in the eastern state of West Bengal are
meeting resistance from villagers in their efforts to cull poultry after a new outbreak of bird flu was confirmed there earlier this week. Local officials and residents say many villagers do not want to hand over their birds without immediate compensation.

Some say they have never been paid for birds they lost during two other rounds of bird-culling at the beginning of this year. The government says it has increased the amount of compensation paid to bird-owners this time around.

Hundreds of thousands of poultry are already being culled in the northeastern state of Assam, where bird flu was detected late last month. Health workers in Assam are monitoring at least a hundred people who have shown signs of the virus, but officials have not confirmed a human case.

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Morales wants U.S. envoys
ousted as Cuba protest

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Bolivian President Evo Morales says Latin American nations should expel their U.S. ambassadors until the United States lifts its long-standing embargo against Cuba.

Morales made the comment Wednesday in Brazil on the final day of a summit of 33 Latin American and Caribbean leaders, who included Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Morales ordered the U.S. ambassador out of Bolivia in September, accusing him of fomenting unrest. The U.S. denied the accusation and expelled Bolivia's envoy.

Morales and his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, have expressed hope that U.S. president-elect Barack Obama might end the embargo. And, Raúl Castro has discussed his willingness to hold talks with Obama over the issue.

Obama has said he would be willing to speak with Cuba's leaders but that he would maintain the nearly 50-year-old embargo as leverage to push for democratic change on the Communist-led island.

Several nations in the Western Hemisphere have called for the U.S. to lift its embargo against Cuba. The U.S. and Canada were excluded from this week's summit in Brazil, which was aimed at deepening economic and political ties in the region.

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