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These stories were published Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 253
Jo Stuart
About us
Some tips for Ticos from an expert on windy and chilly
Based on our long experience living in the frigid north, we have some tips for Ticos who are facing a bone-chilling cold wave in the Central Valley.

1. Give up drinking ice with your beer. Ice is good when the sun beats down, and the nearest refrigerator is a block away. With 25 mph winds whipping through the city, you do not need ice. Honest.

2. Old lottery tickets make good kindling. Everyone has piles of worthless lottery tickets. Make a little campfire but watch the smoke.

3. This is especially for the young ladies. Look, if you are running around in the arctic wind with low-cut jeans, a bare midriff and sandals, do not be surprised that you are cold. It may be the national uniform, but a big, oversized soccer football jersey might save you from pneumonia or worse.

4. This is especially for the macho guys: Get out of the rain when it sprinkles. Even if you refuse to carry an umbrella, the brief storms every half hour are bound to soak your clothes if you do not get out of the drizzle. See above about pneumonia.

5. Fix that window that was broken in 1998 or 1999. 

6. Have you heard about hats?

7. Fresquito is nice when it means a little breeze on a humid day. Fresquito does not mean a frigid gust that will rip the paint off the walls.

8. It is not God’s will that you freeze. God wants you to wear layers of clothes, stay warm and drink hot tea. You cannot do His bidding when you are sneezing your head off.

—Jay Brodell

Alajuela man sanctioned by SEC over stock scheme in U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A U.S. administrative law judge has ordered that a man now living in Alajuela be barred from participating in any offering of penny stock.

The man is Donald L. Knight, 62, formerly of Edmund, Okla. 

The judge is James T. Kelly, who works in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the investment regulator.

Kelly said that he found that a number of allegations investigators had raised against Knight were true. One allegation is that Knight used false press releases and false reports to pump up the price of stock shares in 

Broadband Wireless International Corp., a telecommunication company, from 12 cents to $12 by February 2000.

Knight sold millions of shares of company stock, realizing at least $5 million from the sales, said the allegations.

The judge said he held a telephone conference with the Securities and Exchange commission and Knight Thursday and "Knight stated that he was willing to accept a default, and would not oppose the imposition of a penny stock bar, which is the only sanction at issue in the proceeding."

The judge said that his decision was made in the public interest and for the protection of investors.

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Rainfall diminishes
on Caribbean slope

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Heavy rain caused landslides and drove 256 persons from their homes in the Province of Limón, but officials said Tuesday night that conditions have improved and the rain has lessened.

The Braulio Carrillo highway, Route 32, was blocked Tuesday by a landslide at Kilometer 18. This is the main San José-Limón highway. Another blockage was reported in the Province of Heredia at Vara Blanca on Route 126. The road from Turrialba to Siquirres was slowed because of a landslide there.

The Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias continued to maintain an alert on the Caribbean slope where much of the flooding took place. A cold front was responsible for the rains over the weekend.

Siquirres, Batán and Matina had the most refugees from flooding, although the numbers are declining as relatives take in family members from public shelters.

Problems ranged as far south as Talamanca.

The Río Colorado continues to flow out of its banks even though rain has diminished.

The emergency commission urged residents to keep up their guard because the ground is saturated. The period may be called the dry season elsewhere in Costa Rica, but now is the time for the greatest precipitation in the Province of Limón, the commission said.

Judge awards Calderón
more time in prison

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Former president Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier probably will not make it home for Christmas. A criminal judge gave him six more months of preventative detention Tuesday.

Unless his lawyers are successful in an appeal, the former president will remain in jail at least to June 22, according to a spokesperson for the judiciary.

Calderón is being investigated for financial crimes involving allegations of kickbacks on government contracts. He was jailed two months ago. That term also was for six months, but an appeal judge reduced the term to two months.

The prosecutor in charge of financial crimes sought additional time Friday. The decision was made known Tuesday.

Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverria, another ex-president, also is in prison while an investigation takes place. His wife just returned from the United States and has been visiting him.

Calderón served from 1990 to 1994 but continued in a political power role. Rodríguez served from 1998 to 2002.

Missing Italian girl
sought in Costa Rica

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Italian Embassy in Costa Rica has released a photograph of a child who has been missing from her 

Denise Pipitone
home in Italy since Sept. 1. They said there is evidence the child may be in Costa Rica. 

The girl, Denise Pipitone, is now 4 years old. Her birthday was Oct. 26. 

She disappeared from the front of her home in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. Denise was being looked after by her grandmother while she played. Italian police said that they

believe that the child is still alive. Anyone with information about the disappearance may contact the Italian Embassy at 225-8200/224-9342. 

Anti-drug police make
10 arrests in nine raids

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-drug police raided nine locations early Tuesday.  Colombians, Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans were arrested in sections of Heredia, Alajuela and San José. Agents said 10 suspects were arrested in the 6:30 a.m. simultaneous raids.

Rogelio Ramos Martínez, minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, said that the raids were on groups that had an organized distribution.  Large quantities of marihuana and cocaine were confiscated as well as equipment used to package drugs. 

The arrests that have been made are in connection with the selling of marihuana and crack in areas such as El Infernillo, la Trinidad, in Calle Sanchez de Villa Bonita, La Brasilia, Montecillos, Las Cañas, and El Erizo de Alajuela.  The gangs are also believed to have controlled the sale of drugs in areas of Heredia such as Santa Barbara, agents said.

Drug dealers used pirate taxi drivers to carry out express deliveries of cocaine, crack and marihuana, agents said. Furthermore investigators discovered that there was a diverse web of distributors which allowed the gangs to cover large areas of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. 

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Banco Elca creditors try to stave off bankruptcy
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Banco Elca creditor group is trying to recapitalize the failing institution before bankruptcy becomes a fact.

The group calls itself the Asociación de Inversionistas y Acreedores Banco Elca. At a meeting last week, the lead members outlined a plan for creditors to allocate part of what they are owed so the bank can again function independently.

The Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras took over the bank June 29 because the institution had less cash available than the law mandates. The creditor group consists of persons who had deposits in the bank that have not yet been redeemed.

A number of expats used the bank, and some had on deposit there the $60,000 they need to qualify as a rentista resident. Many persons who had deposits of $10,000 or less have been paid off by an emergency fund maintained by the Asociación Bancaria Costarricense, the organization of private banks.

Depositors have been told by officials that, based on prior experience, that if the bank falls into bankruptcy each can expect about from 50 to 60 percent of the deposits to be returned within the next 3 to 4 years.

The meeting last week at a Moravia school was an effort to avoid the bankruptcy option. The proposal is for depositors to turn over to the bank 35 percent of what they are owed. In return, they will receive a proportional amount of stock.

Carlos Alberto Alvarado Moya, the bank’s jailed president, has agreed to place his stock holdings, some 52 percent, into a trust, proponents of the plan said.

Depositors would then be able to sell their shares after the bank resumed normal business.

Earlier plans that the bank would be purchased by U.S. or South American investors seem to have fallen through. About 20 persons attended the Moravia meeting, according to one creditor who did.

Creditors expect the superintendencia to move ahead with bankruptcy plans Jan. 17 when the nation’s courts reopen after Christmas vacation. The agency had sought bankruptcy for months but has been slowed by constitutional court actions brought by creditors. The constitutional issued are not fully resolved.

The recapitalization plan faces skepticism among some depositors. They wonder who would run the bank since none of the depositors has bank management experience.

One also wondered if the 35 percent rebate to the bank would be based on the book value of the depositor’s accounts or the actual amount the bank now holds. Estimates suggest that the bank and all its assets would cover about 80 percent of what depositors are owed, although paying back the smaller depositors reduced this number somewhat.

A depositor not involved in the bailout plan also wondered if the real goal of the plan is to allow Alvarado to regain the presidency.

Depositors also wonder how much the superintendencia has been spending in keeping the bank operating. The agency says that it has cut monthly expenses from 145 million colons ($322,000) to 104 million ($229,000) and has laid off 73 of the bank’s 158 employees. It also has reduced its own staff from 22 to 12.

International agencies cite Latin economic growth 
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Latin America and the Caribbean enjoyed a banner year in 2004 in terms of economic growth, say the United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank.

In separate statements, the two organizations reported that the economies of the region grew 5.5 percent in 2004 — more than a full percentage point higher than was expected at the start of the year.

Hailing the "exceptionally good year" in economic performance, development bank  President Enrique Iglesias said that the region's debt ratios are falling, inflation remains low, and currencies are competitive.

In his statement Monday, Iglesias praised leaders in the region for "demonstrating maturity, pragmatism, and skillful macroeconomic management."

However, Iglesias cautioned that the region must continue its reforms, promote greater investment, and reduce unemployment to sustain the good performance.

In welcoming the positive news, the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said last week that every country in the region except Haiti showed economic growth in 2004.

According to figures from the commission’s "Preliminary Overview of the Economies of Latin 

America and the Caribbean 2004," Venezuela and Uruguay are experiencing "intense" economic recoveries, after facing "profound" crises in previous years. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Panama also made significant gains.

The commission said the region's "solid performance" is closely tied to the international economy, which the agency said, "picked up" in 2004. The commission added that the United States and China have driven this growth, pushing commodity prices higher and benefiting several countries, especially in South America.

Regional trade also performed very well in 2004, the commission said. Exports rose 22.4 percent and imports grew 19.8 percent. For the third year running, the region's balance of goods posted a surplus.

In addition, more demand for labor led to a significant rise in job creation in the region. The overall unemployment rate fell from 10.7 percent in 2003 to 10 percent in 2004.

The commission said it believes the slight decline in unemployment, combined with a recovery in wages, contributed to a small drop in the region's poverty levels, from 44.4 percent of the population in 2003 to 42.9 percent estimated for 2004. Inflation continued to drop, with the regional average reaching 7.7 percent, down from 8.5 percent in 2003 and 21.4 percent in 2002.

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Consular chief praises state of U.S. visa system 
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. government has created a visa system that is better, faster and more efficient than ever before, according to an official in the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Significant scrutiny was applied to the U.S. visa system after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when investigations revealed that some hijackers had entered the country legally. 

"We want to have the most efficient, transparent and predictable system that we can," said Janice Jacobs, deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs, in an interview.

Jacobs remembers the difficult days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the visa function carried out by the State Department underwent review and revision to deal with the new security realities. Over time, U.S. agencies involved in border security developed improved measures for a new era, Jacobs said. 

New clearances for visa approval were introduced, new information technologies were built into the system, more personnel were applied to the tasks, and new efforts were made to improve the cooperation and communication between the various government agencies involved in a policy that Secretary of State Colin Powell has summed up with the words, "secure borders, open doors."

The new procedures require that more applicants undergo personal interviews before receiving a visa to enter the United States than before Sept. 11, 2001. The driving force behind this change was a congressional requirement that visas issued by the State Department include biometric identifiers no later than Oct. 26. 

By Oct. 7, all 207 posts handling visa matters were collecting two fingerscans and a digital photo from each applicant, Jacobs said, a process that adds seconds to the visa interview. Once the interview takes place, 97 percent of applicants will learn within a day or two whether the visa is approved, Jacobs said. 

There might be some differences in how rapidly an applicant can receive an appointment for a visa interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate compared to before Sept. 11, 2001, Jacobs said, but the Bureau of Consular Affairs is attempting to make that part of the process transparent by posting predicted waiting times 

for each embassy. The Consular Affairs Web site  has become more user-friendly, she said, and provides applicants with information they need to know about applying for a visa. This includes "what to expect in the interview, what documents you need to bring in, what you need to qualify," she said. 

Fewer than 3 percent of visa applicants encounter a lengthier process with additional security reviews that must be conducted in Washington, Jacobs said. Such applicants might include those engaged in certain scientific fields who use technologies with dual uses or of national-security concern.

Revamping the Washington-based security review clearance system after the terrorist attacks was a difficult process, Jacobs said, resulting in months-long delays for some applicants. That problem led to significant complaints from the U.S. research and academic communities in 2002 and 2003, Jacobs said, but government agencies responded by making significant improvements to the process.

"Last year at this time, it was taking 75 days on average to process the cases; we're down to 20 days today," Jacobs said. "So we've made considerable progress."

During that period of long delays, Jacobs heard the call for predictability in the visa system, and that has been restored, she said. "That's what we've been able to do in the last few months is to get that predictability back," she said. "People know that within 30 days or less they are going to get an answer one way or the other."

All U.S. embassies and consulates have been directed to give priority processing to students or other travelers involved in academic and professional exchanges in order to ensure that they will be able to arrive in the United States in adequate time to begin their scheduled programs. 

The State Department has increased the number of personnel working on visa-processing functions, and Jacobs said recruits are being trained to recognize the importance of the task and to treat every applicant with dignity and fairness. She also reminds employees in this work that they are the "public face" of their government and their country.

"The impression that you give," Jacobs tells recruits, "will be the impression that someone has of the country, the government, the State Department and [other] Americans."

Jo Stuart
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