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These stories were published Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 252
Jo Stuart
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Savings Unlimited high-interest operation
Milanes took time to prepare exit, report shows
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Savings Unlimited and fugitive financier Luis A. Milanes took in more than $7.4 million during the six months before the firm closed in 2002 from those who now accuse him.

That was one of the findings by judicial investigators who are seeking to put together an accurate summary of the finances of the high-interest firm. A scant 187 persons have filed claims against Milanes, so the amount of money collected is much higher.

Savings Unlimited employees or Milanes himself destroyed much of the company records around Nov. 22, 2002. That was the date Milanes left Costa Rica for Venezuela, according to immigration records. Milanes generally was called "the Cuban" by expats, and his firm was called "the Cubans." 

The Sección Delitos Economicos y Financieros put together the financial report that was delivered to Amelia Robinson, the lead prosecutor in the case, last month. At the same time Manuel Roldán Alvarez asked that a judicial order be sought to study a Banco Nacional transaction.

Roldán is head of the money laundering investigative unit of the financial section. He said that just weeks before Milanes left, Savings Unlimited purchased a bank check for nearly $500,000, and investigators need more information to find out where the money went.

The report was prefaced with the warning that a lot of the information sought by investigators, mainly from offshore banks, had not been delivered.

In addition to many local banks, Milanes and Savings Unlimited appear to have used banks in Panamá, the Bahamas, the United States and other locations. Savings Unlimited was in Edificio Colón and distinguished itself with an atmosphere that was more like a bank.

Depositors received computerized statements and did business at teller-like windows. The company paid 3 percent a month or more on deposits of $5,000 or more.

The records compiled by investigators show that in the six months prior to the flight by Milanes some creditors who are now complainants gave the firm as much as $2 million. Other documents show that only about one in every 10 creditors have filed a formal complaint.

The report by the Judicial Investigating Organization unit goes back to the year 2000 and appears to have been compiled using mostly bank records. Milanes had an interest in a number of casinos in the Central Valley as well as the high-interest firm. The list of corporations and bank accounts are extensive.

In addition to Milanes some 11 other people associated with the defunct Saving Unlimited are being investigated, the report said.

Another problem for investigators is that Milanes did much of his business in cash. In fact, an employee said in a deposition that the 

INTERPOL file photo

company maintained a "cash room" where money was easily available.

In discussing several bank accounts, investigators wrote that money from creditors simply was placed in the account and no investments were made with it. This lack of economic activity probably will be used against Milanes in court if he ever is located. He is the object of an international arrest warrant.

Investigators also noted that Savings Unlimited offered a special high-interest rate of 4 percent in the month before Milanes fled. The reason was the companyâs "10th anniversary," according to written testimony even though the company was just 4 years old, said the report.

Milanes and his associates told would-be investors that the money would be used to finance his casino holdings. But the report cites a statement from a casino manager who said that, except for small short-term loans, he was unaware of any major investments by Savings Unlimited in casinos.

The report also suggests that the departure by Milanes was planned at least several months in advance. In one case, someone made repeated withdrawals at an automatic teller in the United States to reduce the balance in one bank account here. One day six withdrawals were made at about $500 each, said the report.

The Banco Nacional transaction investigators are studying took place Oct. 15, 2002, about five weeks before Milanes fled.

Expats consistently called Savings Unlimited "the Cubans" because the Villalobos high-interest operation was called "the Brothers." Luis Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho ran their business out of Mall San Pedro. Although there were other high-interest operations, Milanes and the Villalobos were considered competitors for expat money. 

The Villalobos closed down Oct. 14, 2002, and Luis Enrique, too, is an international fugitive. His brother has been charged with fraud and money laundering, among other allegations.

There are no indications from the investigative financial report that there was any exchange of money between the two firms. Some expats have claimed the Milanes operation was just another part of the Villalobos enterprise. The report does not show this.

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A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Citizens trying to renew their driverâs license were shut out of the Ministerio de Obras Pública y Transporte office Friday when it closed unexpectedly at 2 p.m. The rain-drenched angry crowd finally forced officials to reopen the office. Afterwards, officials began their two-week vacation.

Button up your overcoat
for a few more days

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

"Baby, itâs cold outside," said the 1949 love song. But the statement could apply to Costa Rica today.

For some in the northern zone, the prolonged cold front means more heavy rain, and some 60 persons have been driven from their homes already.

The Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias issued a warning Monday for six cantons of the Province of Limón. The evacuations were in the Siquirres area, although rivers were continuing to rise all over.

In the Central Valley, rainfall was negligible Monday, but the temperature dipped to an overnight low of 16.6 Celsius at the weather station in northeast San José. Thatâs about 62 degrees Fahrenheit, but a strong wind makes the temperature feel about 15 degrees lower.

The top wind speed was 38.4 kph Monday. Thatâs 24 mph.

The Instituto Meteorológico Nacional predicts more of the same through Wednesday.

Predictions are for rain in the Caribbean and northern zone with temperatures as low as 20 Celsius (68 F.) in Limón and 17 Celsius (62.6 F.) in Ciudad Quesada (San Carlos).

Golfito, Quepos and Puntarenas will have it warmer,  a high of 30 Celsius (86 F.) and a low of 23 Celsius (73.4 F.)

Traffic death toll
includes two children

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff. 

For some families in Costa Rica this Christmas will be a year that they will never forget, but not for positive reasons.  In the past two days six people, including two children, have died on the roads.

At 10:15 p.m. Sunday a 38-year-old man died in Calle Blancos. Investigators said that witnesses to the accident saw a vehicle veer towards the motorbike the victim was driving. 

Sunday about 7 p.m. a 49-year-old woman identified by the last name of Mora died near Zent close to Limón when the vehicle in which she was a passenger swerved off the road.

In San José, Fernando Coronado, 31, a taxi driver died when his car was hit by a Range Rover in Calle 20 Avenida 1 about 3 a.m.

Officials in Alajuela are investigating the death of a 5-year-old boy who was run over by a car about 11 a.m. Monday morning in the Urbanization of Teresita in Villa Bonilla, Alajuela. Initial reports from officials have suggested that the boy was riding his bike and crossed in front of the path of a mini-bus. The driver did not see him and was unable to stop in time. The boy died on the way to the hospital. 

Also in Alajuela a girl, 3, was killed as she waited up with her mother to buy groceries.  The incident occurred at 11:31 a.m. in Sabanilla of Alajuela.  Initial reports suggest that a meat van without brakes crashed against the stall and a freezer then fell on top of the girl. 

In Tarbaca at 6:30 a.m. Monday a 35-year-old man by the name of Fallas was riding his motorcycle and attempted to overtake a parked car. Officials said that he drove straight into a car that was coming the other way and died instantly. 

Death of couple
blamed on exhaust

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff 

The Pathology department of the Organization of Judicial Investigation has concluded that the deaths of a young couple in a motel room were accidental. 

The man, Carlos Chinchilla Valverde, 21, and the woman, Stefani Vargas, 25, were found in the Motel el Retiro. The motel is located in San Rafael Abajo, Desamparados. 

Dr. Luis del Valle Carazo said that the couple died of carbon monoxide poisoning from their own car which was left running below where they were staying. The fumes the couple inhaled made them feel drowsy. Del Valle said that in these instances the victims do not feel any pain. 

An employee from el Retiro said that the motel features rooms that have their own private parking area below. "We always leave the entrance to each of the rooms open. Its up to those who arrive if they want to shut it," he said. The employee also said that this is the first case of its kind at the motel. 

Youth found dead in trunk

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Officials are investigating the death of a teenager who was found dead in the trunk of a taxi. 

Investigators said that Dagoberto Mayo Murillo, 17, had taken the taxi without the driverâs consent. His body was found in the trunk of the taxi at 1:35 a.m. in Cuidadela La Leon XIII.  Officials said that he had suffered an injury to the left side of his body and died inside the taxi. 
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Banana leaf production line
A.M. Costa Rica photos/Saray Ramírez Vindas 
It takes many hands to do the prep work

The top Christmas treat requires a production line
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

No Christmas is complete in Costa Rica without tamales, and the tradition includes small home factories that turn out the delicious banana-wrapped parcels.

In Aserrí, in the mountains south of San José, the Valverde family and the Tamalera Val-verde has been producing tamales for 52 years.

Librado Valverde Morales, the current owner, actually was born amid the tamales.

The operation produces 3,000 to 4,000 tamales a day, and the family members and helpers work seven days a week as Christmas approaches. The dough must be prepared and the dough is filled with chicken, pork, rice and other vegetables. Then the soon-to-be tamale is wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked and steamed in a wood-fired stove.

Ana Valverde fills chicken tamales 

 To eat, the tamale is reheated, and Costa Ricans prefer to use boiling water. 

They let Gringos use the microwave because many feel the modern appliance dries out the tamales. Be careful not to let the water penetrate the banana leaves and ruin the tamale, they warn.

The tamale marks a special moment when the whole family from youngsters to grandparents participate together in the traditional food.

About 1,000 tamales can be cooked at 
one time in this wood-fired custom steamer.

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Anti-terrorism legislation targets travel regulations
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. ÷ A newly enacted law overhauling the U.S. intelligence system includes provisions to strengthen border security, track and curtail terrorist travel, and increase criminal penalties for terrorist crimes.

The law ÷ the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 ÷ authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to increase the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents by at least 2,000 each year beginning in 2006 and continuing through 2010. It also requires that 20 percent of the agents be assigned along the U.S.-Canada border.

Most of the additional immigration and border security provisions in the law President George Bush signed Dec. 17 are pertinent to the Department of Homeland Security. The department was created in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

The law also authorizes the department to increase the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents by at least 800 each year over five years, beginning in 2006.

The Department of Homeland Security is also authorized to increase by 8,000, in each of the years 2006 through 2010, the number of beds available for immigration detention and deportation operations. Priority will be given to those facing deportation for national security reasons.

The department will begin testing a pilot border-security program along the U.S.-Canadian border, and another along the southwestern U.S. border. The law permits testing of advanced technologies, such as sensors, video, and unmanned aerial vehicles, along the northern border between ports of entry.

Along the southwestern border, Homeland Security must provide the president with a plan for the systematic surveillance of the border region using unmanned aircraft.

Two provisions were included specifically to target terrorist travel. One provision requires the new director of the National Counterterrorism Center to send Congress a strategy that combines intelligence collected 

on known terrorist travel activity with operations and law enforcement into a cohesive effort to intercept terrorists, find those who help terrorists with travel arrangements, and disrupt terrorist travel domestically and internationally.

The second provision directs the president to lead efforts to develop international agreements to curb terrorist travel with the use of lost, stolen or falsified documents. It calls on countries to share information on lost, stolen, or fraudulent official travel documents, impose criminal penalties on the use or production of such documents, prevent the issuance of passports for bribes, and permit immigration and border control agents to seize fake documents at ports of entry.

The law also includes provisions to:

-- Accelerate the implementation of the automated biometric entry-exit program;

-- Establish a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center to counter terrorist travel and to advise Congress annually of vulnerabilities in the United States and foreign travel systems that may be exploited by terrorists, human smugglers and traffickers;

-- Increase the number of consular officers in the State Department by 150 annually from 2006 through 2009;

-- Direct the departments of State and Homeland Security to develop by 2008 standardized requirements for travelers coming into or returning to the United States, including U.S. citizens and citizens from Canada and other Western Hemisphere countries, to present a passport or other documentation to establish citizenship and identity;

-- Require the Department of Homeland Security to establish minimum standards of identification for passengers on domestic commercial airlines; and

-- Deport any alien who has received military-type training from a designated terrorist organization and bar the admission of any alien who has ordered, or participated in, an act of genocide, torture or killing.

The law does not include a provision that would have made it harder for refugees to gain asylum and would have required expedited deportation of illegal aliens without review by the federal courts.

Jo Stuart
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