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Jo Stuart
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These stories were published Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001

A.M. Costa Rica photo
The Christmas soldiers are lined up for duty

Attitudes on alcohol
provide contradictions

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The National Insurance Institute ads may decry the use of alcohol, but such drinking is integral to the holidays here.

And marketers are not taking any chances. Young ladies are in the aisles of supermarkets offering samples more frequently now. It is a contradiction that alcohol is responsible for so many accidents and anti-social acts, yet bottles are easily available every day in stores.

At a sample table Tuesday in the downtown a young lady was handing out small samples of a Spanish sangria, and one mother was seen sharing her shot with a youngster. Later an obviously intoxicated man dropped by to get his free sample, perhaps more than the first for the day.

The legal drinking age is 18, but violations of that law may seem unimportant when 8-year-olds are smoking crack cocaine on the street. 

The price is the first thing that a tourist notices. The price system does not differentiate between rich foreigners and locals, but the choice of alcohol does. A liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Red costs 6,980 colons ($20.50). 

And the more elegant coffee liquors, Cafe Rica and Britt Licor de Cafe, can be found for about $9. A cheaper bottle of Chilean wine runs about 2,050 colons ($6). and in the tourist bars a bottle of local beer goes for 600 colons, or a little less than $2.

That’s why locals drink guaro, the vodka-like cane liquor that’s 60 proof. A liter costs about 1,500 colons ($4.70) but the substance marketed under the brand name of Cacique is sold in tiny plastic 365 milliliter bottles. 

A stronger black label version also exists. And beer goes for two bottles for 400 colons ($1.17) at a workingman’s bar.

But when they choose to go harder, they find that even a liter bottle of Nicaraguan rum costs a little more than $7 (2,410 colons).

The holiday drinking carries over to the 15-day Zapote festival that opens tomrrow where visitors to the event in a San José district will consume enormous quantities of the local beer. And as the horses parade in the Tope Dec. 26 or the carnival takes to the streets Dec. 27, you can bet the bars will be open to accommodate thirsty spectators.

So the Insurance Institute has an advertising campaign in newspapers and on billboards urging motorists not to kill themselves. But some people will not listen, and Costa Rica will continue to rack up the death toll over the holidays.

The police are responding with roadblocks to catch those with even the slightest amounts of alcohol in their system. Tim Rogers, a reporter for The Tico Times, recounted his arrest in a penetrating article in the Dec. 14 newspaper. 

He said he quickly discovered that the transit police wanted money, instead of clearing the streets of drunk drivers. Rogers said he had only three beers over three hours but still blew better than .5 percent alcohol on a police device. Inexplicably, the article did not make the newspaper’s Web site.

The police characterized this amount of alcohol as illegal "pre-drunkenness,"  Rogers said. He ended up getting an expensive ticket, and the car he was driving was impounded when his passenger complained to a police supervisor that the officers were trying to extort 5,000 colons (nearly $15).

Would you believe
three weeks off?

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A lot of countries have Christmas vacations, but not many enjoy a whole week off. And in even fewer (perhaps just this one) some public workers will be off from Friday until Jan. 14.

The holiday slowdown has begun as thoughts turn from work to presents, religious observances and beaches. A number of smaller stores are going on reduced hours today. Many will be closed Monday, Christmas Eve.

Virtually everything except the churches will be closed Tuesday, Christmas Day. And many stores and businesses will not reopen until Wednesday, Jan. 2. An exception is the supermarkets that will be on reduced hours Christmas Day. Some close as early at 2 p.m. Pali and Yaohan, two markets frequented by foreigners, will be closed both Christmas and New Year’s.

The theaters in the city, such as Teatro Nacional, will not take advantage of the holiday crowds. They will close, too, either Thursday or Friday to reopen in the middle of January. The bigger museums will be on a normal schedule, except that they will be closed Dec. 24, 25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. The Museo Nacional will be closed Friday, Monday (as always) and Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. In all cases, a telephone call is in order before visiting.

A number of art galleries will just close down until the middle of January. But the hotels will be gearing up for their New Year’s parties Dec. 31.

Workers in tourism businesses, particularly at the beaches and other prime locations, will have little rest because the holidays attract loads of tourists. Airline employees and those in the transportation industry will be working overtime.

But presumably criminals will be going on vacation because the court system and the Judicial Investigation Organization will be functioning with a skeleton staff to save money starting Friday. Most workers there will not return until Jan. 14.

Euro makes its debut
despite some misgivings

By the A.M. Costs Rica wire services

Freshly-minted euro coins are making their debut across Europe. So-called "starter kits" of euro coins are now available in the 12 European Union countries which are converting to the Euro Jan. 1. 

Reaction to the new single currency has been mixed. The starter kits are said to be going like "pretzels" in Austria and the Netherlands, while many Germans say they have bittersweet feelings about saying goodbye to the mark, a symbol of postwar stability and prosperity. Polls show that only 53 percent of Germans welcome the euro, compared to 83 percent of Italians. 

The euro has been traded on currency markets for nearly three years, but has not been used by the general public at stores or restaurants. For most consumers, the euro will become a reality when they start spending it Jan. 1.

Check scheme netted
thieves 500 million

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three Banco Nacional employees, an employee of the telephone company and a former police investigator are among 12 persons arrested Tuesday as agents said they busted up a gang that stole as much as 500 million colons ($1.6 million) from state and private banks and companies.

The gang spent a year infiltrating some of their members into the firm that prints checks for Banco Nacional. There the men learned private information and were able to duplicate checks printed for account holders.

The bank employees, two from the Escazú branch,  are alleged to have provided additional information and also verified incorrectly the validity of the bad checks when other gang members passed them and obtained goods and money. The employee of the Costa Rican electrical Institute which also is the telephone company, allegedly misdirected calls to gang members from persons seeking to verify the validity of checks.

IMF is pessimistic on quick global recovery
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON — The global slowdown will be more prolonged than previously projected with growth at only 2.4 percent per year in 2001 and 2002, reports the International Monetary Fund.

Global growth is now expected to rebound in 2003, the fund said in its December edition of World Economic Outlook. The interim Outlook provides preliminary assessment of global economic performance following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Growth in the United States in 2002 projected at 0.7 percent will be behind that of France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada, the report said. Developing Asia will experience the best growth at 5.6 percent. World growth was 4.7 percent in 2000.

The report said the economic situation was worse in the United States, Europe and Japan before Sept. 11 than previously reported, making the effects of the terrorist events even worse.

There has been a marked decline in trade growth, significantly lower commodity prices and deteriorating financing conditions in emerging markets since 2000 in nearly all parts of the world, the report said.

"A particularly disturbing feature of the current slowdown is its synchronicity across nearly all regions," it said.

It said that U.S. recovery will be hampered by a slow pick-up of confidence but that quick implementation of additional fiscal stimulus "while demand is still weak" could improve the outcome. That stimulus plan is still stuck in Congress. The report said that "structural reforms" in Europe and Japan are needed to improve growth and boost confidence there.

Developing countries should implement even deeper reforms to strengthen or restore their economies and ensure future access to finance, the report said. It called on industrialized countries and international financial institutions to support these efforts through providing additional concessional financing as necessary and by increasing their foreign aid to the United Nations target of 0.7 percent of gross national product.

The report said the costs of increased security following the terrorist attacks are not "large enough or long-lasting to have significant impact on medium- and long-term growth trends." The report also said:

• The strengthening of financial markets between the end of September and early December may reflect overreaction and "should not be seen as indicating that a recovery is in sight."

• The pronounced economic slowdown has adversely affected many emerging markets' trade and confidence, constraining capital flows including foreign investment.

• The poorest countries — and especially rural areas — are being particularly hurt by weaker external demand and falling commodity prices. Oil exporters are also affected by lower prices.

Despite the uncertainties, recovery could occur because policymakers generally moved quickly, the report said. It also noted that weakened oil prices have stimulated global activity.

The report said that completions of corrections to inventories will support future demand. It noted that lower inflation and improved fiscal positions in many countries and a shift to more flexible exchange rates has led to increased resilience to external shocks.

Child sex report says levels are increasing here
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

A report released today shows increased levels of child prostitution and sex tourism in Central America and Mexico, including Costa Rica.

The regional report, the first, was released today during the Second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Yokohama, Japan. 

The report documents production of child pornography using poverty stricken children and street children throughout Central America and Mexico.

 The six-country report covers Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. It was investigated and produced by Casa Alianza, ECPAT and the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund, with additional funding from The Canada Fund and the Fund for Non Violence. The report took more than nine months to investigate, often under dangerous conditions when trying to infiltrate criminal networks of child abusers and exploiters, Casa Alianza said. 

The child welfare agency authors also show the growing trafficking of desperate children. According to the investigation, Central American girls, mostly from Honduras, are being trafficked then sold to brothels in Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The going rate for the purchase of a 12-15 year old girl by the brothels is US$ 100-200. The girls leave their post Hurricane Mitch devastated country thinking they are going to be given jobs waiting tables. When invited to participate in the investigation of the plight of the exploited girls, the Honduran Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated they "have no budget," said a release by Casa Alianza.

The newly released report highlights the lack of governmental programs to both support and treat the child victims of sexual exploitation as well as helping them achieve alternative means to survive. the authors said.

"If another adult tells me that children sell their bodies on the streets and in brothels because they like it, I will punch their lights out!"  exclaimed the Casa Alianza regional director for Latin American programs. He is Bruce Harris, and the view he said people express reflects the common position of governments and the often cynical public opinion towards exploited child victims, he said.

"When children beg and no one gives. When there are insufficient programs for them to turn to and when they are hungry with nothing to eat, society gives these children no alternative but to steal or to exchange their bodies for a hot meal or somewhere to sleep," Harris said.

"The commercial sexual exploitation of children constitutes a form of coercion and violence against children, and amounts to forced labor and a contemporary form of slavery," states the declaration from the Stockholm congress five years ago. 

While many countries have drawn up national plans of action against this modern day child slavery — especially well known "sex tourism" destinations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka amongst others — insufficient economic resources are being applied by governments to help the child victims and to prevent further child sexual exploitation, the authors said. 

The regional study presented shows how the Internet has been a tool used to exploit children through child pornography. After a seven month Internet investigation by Casa Alianza, where the organization was able to infiltrate several pedophile networks, five Costa Rican professionals were arrested for producing and distributing child pornography. 

One of the detained worked in the audio visual department of the state-run University of Costa Rica where he would take boys and sexually abuse them in front of video cameras. Thousands of pornographic images were confiscated and more than 60 boys are known to have fallen victim to the ring. Amazingly, the possession of child pornography is not typified as a crime in Costa Rica, said Casa Alianza. 

The Central America and Mexico investigation has also tracked pedophile groups in Chile yet the Chilean penal code is so out of date that even though the producers and distributors of child pornography have been clearly identified, the local police cannot arrest them as there are no adequate laws to charge them with any crime, the authors said. The situation is similar in Guatemala where thieves face a longer jail term for stealing a car than for stealing or trafficking a child, they added. 

"In general, with the exception of a few countries, Latin America's laws are so antiquated that they do not take into consideration the exploitation of children through pornography or it's distribution over Internet," commented Harris. Ironically, up until a recent change in the country's laws, an estimated 60 percent of the Internet servers hosting child porn were located in Japan, the host of this year's Congress. A further 20 percent are located in Russia, and the remaining servers are scattered around the globe, he said.

An estimated one million new children a year around the globe fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation, said Casa Alianza. The Congress will conclude Thursday.

Colombian boy with cancer
dies without seeing dad

By the A.M. Costs Rica wire services

A cancer-stricken Colombian boy who had pleaded for leftist rebels to let him see his kidnapped father has died without getting his final wish. The plight of 12-year-old Andres Felipe Perez touched many fellow Colombians, some of whom offered to trade places with his father, police Cpl. Jose Norberto Perez. 

The Vatican and world leaders also called on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to let the boy see his father, who was kidnapped in March of last year. 

The FARC, as the rebel group is known, refused to grant the dying boy's wish unless one of its own fighters, currently jailed and in poor health, was freed in exchange. The FARC is Colombia's largest guerrilla group. 

Andres Felipe Perez died in the southwestern city of Buga on Tuesday. News reports say that as a baby, the boy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that slowly took over his vital organs. Since his father was abducted, his condition worsened. 

Colombia is in the midst of a 37-year civil war that pits leftist rebels against the government and right-wing paramilitary forces. At least 40,000 people have died in the past decade. 

Fire in cathedral
contained in NYC

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Fire fighters have contained a fire that broke out in the largest U.S. cathedral one week before Christmas. 

Officials say fire fighters brought the fire at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City under control Tuesday within about two-and-one-half hours. They reported no injuries, but say part of the roof of an adjoining three-story gift shop in the rear of the church caved-in. Officials say they expect widespread smoke and water damage. 

Investigators are trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which appears to have started in the gift shop. The church's first corner stone was laid in 1892. St. John the Divine is the main church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the seat of its bishop. 

Argentina slashes budget
to prevent loan default

By the A.M. Costs Rica wire services

The Argentine government has revealed its new budget with deep cuts aimed at saving the country from defaulting on its international loans. 

The budget proposal sent to Congress Monday by Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo cuts more than $9 billion from spending. The cuts would reduce Argentina's spending from $48 billion to $39 billion. 

The budget could face opposition from some leaders in Congress already wary of unpopular austerity measures. 

Central to Cavallo's increased demand for frugality is a plan to save $5 billion lowering debt costs through a debt exchange with international investors. The remaining $4 billion will come as unspecified spending reductions that could include cuts in public worker salaries. 

Argentina is presenting a more austere budget to meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund for the release of much-need loans. Analysts say without the IMF payment, the country may not be able to meet financial obligations on its $132 billion foreign debt. 

Wrong mixture causes gas
that hospitalizes five

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Five persons suffered respiratory problems and had to be treated Tuesday after someone mixed the wrong chemicals together at a plant in Barrio Cuba on the southwest side of San José.

The plant was that of Inversiones Jiqui, a manufacturer of chemical products. Police and emergency workers closed off an area around the plant. The mixture produced a cholorine gas from the reduction of hypocholoride by an acid.

Bus station robbery target

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men with guns overpowered a guard and robbed an office at the Pacifico bus terminal Monday afternoon about 4:30 p.m. They got away with 150,000 colons ( $440).

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