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Jo Stuart
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These stories were published Thursday, Dec. 27, 2001


A.M. Costa Rica photos
Cantering past one of the spectator stands
A cell phone call . . .
. . . A quick dance with a lady . . .
. . . and then rain
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The traditional post-Christmas "tope" or horse parade attracted more than 4,000 four-legged participants in San José Wednesday.

A bright, blue-sky day gradually gave way to a welcoming sprinkle by 3:30 p.m., and the only downside was the creation of slippery, well-fertilized roadway for the animals. Some horses slipped, particularly on a slight downhill at Calle 5,  but there was no obvious damage.

The parade was slow in starting, as is normal. A patient crowd waited along Avenida 2 for nearly two hours in the hot sun, and vendors had a field 

day. The lead ox cart contingent didnít show until nearly 1:30 p.m., and the horses arrived about a half hour later. The parade started at La Sabana Park a mile and a half (2.5 kms.) to the west and the assembly area.

Local bars offered take-out service, and more than one rider late in the day was seen to rein up at a watering hole, dismount and return to the saddle with a can. 

Cleanup crews were hard at work minutes after the parade ended about 5 p.m.. They were preparing for the Christmas carnival parade that steps off today at noon along Avenida 2 to Calle 11 and then south to Plaza González Víquez.

There was much stopping and waiting as contingents in the parade reached strategic points on the route. The lead elements were few and far between, and the bulk of the horsemen and women seemed to be clustered at the rear in a group of perhaps 2,000 riders.
Election tribunal orders Teletica to halt debate
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the fourth branch of Costa Ricaís government, told Channel 7 Wednesday that it could not stage a presidential debate unless all candidates were invited.

The decision quickly brought an on-air editorial from Channel 7, Teletica, that the tribunal was acting arbitrarily and unjustly.  Whatís next, the station asked, causing it to interview a candidate each week and ask them the same questions?

The tribunal had been asked to intervene by eight minor party candidates. Teletica had invited the four leading candidates to a debate Jan. 7, but it rejected requests from the other candidates that they participate.

Teletica said that the tribunal has no right to 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Miss Tica Linda and two runnersup were at the 
Tope Wednesday. She was picked to reign over San José festivals. She is Wendy Corrales, 24, of San 
Mateo de Alajuela. To her left is first lady Ana 
Daisey Morales, 21, of Heredia and to her right is 
Marcela Reyes, 18 of Tibás, second runnerup.
interfere with a medium of communication and tell it how to cover the news. The station editorial, was read by Lica. Pilar Cisneros, an executive of the news program, twice, once at 6 p.m. and also during the 10 p.m. news show. The editorial  also suggested that the electoral tribunal members might be cowards because they left their offices and vanished shortly before the decision was announced.

The tribunalís decisions have the force of law during the election season. Presidential elections are Feb. 3.

The television station said allowing all candidates to speak would be physically impossible and, if this were done, the debate would go on until 5 a.m.

Teletica had invited Rolando Araya of the Partido Liberación Nacional, Otto Guevara of the Movimiento Libertario, Abel Pacheco of the Unidad Social Cristiana and  Ottón Solís, of the Partido Acción Ciudadana. The four candidates have more than 90 percent of the support expressed by respondents in surveys taken of the electorate.

Teletica did not say if it would air the debate anyway, despite the tribunalís ruling, and it was considered unlikely that all of the major candidates would attend if the station management decided to confront the tribunal.

Walter Muñoz of Partido Intergración Nacional said that having only four candidates at the debate would violate the principles of equality and the right to elect and be elected. He was one of those who appealed to the tribunal. 

The Costa Rica Supreme Court ordered a debate canceled four years ago because it was going to be held three days before elections and would involve just the two leading candidates. So there is precedent for such action here.

Rebels now hit Colombian oil line with urgency
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA ó Left-wing guerrillas are turning to new targets, including oil to squeeze the government. The country's second-largest oil field, operated by the U.S. company Occidental Oil, has long been a target for sabotage. 

But this year, guerrilla attacks on the pipeline have become ferocious, choking off the local economy, poisoning the environment, and causing a huge drain on the military. 

The morning begins with helicopters, bringing a handful of Occidental Oil executives and visitors to the company's base camp on Colombia's eastern plains. 

After a baggage search by Colombian soldiers, a heavy metal turnstile allows you into Occidental's spacious compound. Overhead, a phantom jet, equipped with infrared surveillance, cruises the blue sky - part of the Occidental security team. 

Larry Meriage is spokesman for Occidental. He admits pumping oil in Colombia is a serious security challenge. "We really are an island surrounded by a sea of guerrillas," he said. "The guerrillas control the highways. It would be very dangerous for our people to be moving around on the roads, particularly, if you have senior staff coming in from Bogota. So, we use helicopters." 

The main threat to production at the Cano Limon oil field this year is really down the pipeline that carries the oil from the plains to the Caribbean coast. 

Forty kilometers from the Occidental camp, potholes of petroleum are still sizzling, two days after rebels blew a hole in the pipeline. This was pipeline attack number 162, this year. 

A swath of land the size of three football fields has been scorched to a deep fried black. At the center, a huge bonfire spews black billows of smoke into the air. 

Two dozen soldiers walk cautiously around the burn site, alert to a possible follow-up ambush or hidden land mines left behind by the rebels. The guerrillas have attacked the pipeline so frequently this year, the Cano-Limon oil field has been paralyzed more than half the year. 

Capt. Carlos Castro, leader of the mobile army unit guarding the site, explains that the day before, in the nearby town of Saravena, it rained oil. 

People looked at their clothes and realized it was raining black drops, said Castro. The smoke from a pipeline attack had gathered in the clouds and 

came down in the rain. More than 300,000 barrels of oil have spilled this year, most of it into lush wetlands ó the habitat of hundreds of species of birds and reptiles. 

But the rebel attacks are so frequent, the state oil company Ecopetrol has stopped trying to clean it up. Meriage explains: "Because of the more aggressive tactics of the guerillas now," he said, "it is not safe for the crews to remain in the areas, so basically there has been a policy decision made by Ecopetrol under those circumstances. They simply allow nature to take its course." 

In past years, the rebels behind the attacks were usually members of the ELN ó the smaller of Colombia's two left-wing guerrilla groups. They blew up the pipeline as a statement, rebel leaders said, against what they considered greedy profiteering by Occidental. But more than anything, the attacks gave the ELN publicity. 

And they usually spaced out their attacks, so they rarely affected production or oil royalties. In the towns around here, everyone lives off oil royalties, including the ELN. 

According to Colombian oil consultant Robert Stewart, the ELN demand a cut from every business. He said, "Even from the distribution of beer to Coca-Cola. Bus contractors, boat operators, virtually everybody is extorted." 

But this year, the dynamite changed hands. Now, the country's larger, most aggressive rebel group, the FARC, has taken over the attacks with such ferocity, production and royalties have petered out. The region is gasping. Some believe the FARC's trying to starve out the ELN and take over the area. 

But Meriage believes their main target is the Colombian government. After all, oil is Colombia's number one export. He said, "The loss to Colombia this year if you look at royalty payments, the share of production is approaching half a billion dollars. So if you're the guerrillas, and one of your objectives is to undermine the authority of the government and weaken it economically, by attacking the oil infrastructure, you do that." 

The attacks are now drawing the wrath of the U.S. government. The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, recently announced the U.S. will offer Colombia's public forces training to protect the pipeline. Since Sept. 11, Mrs. Patterson has taken a harder line with the Colombian rebels, comparing them to al-Qaida terrorists. 

Officials at Occidental are hopeful it may be a sign that Washington may step in to give more direct support to the Colombian army, especially where economic interests are at stake. 

2 taxi drivers are rapists,
police officials warn

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officials are warning residents to be careful in accepting rides from so-called pirate taxi drivers because at least two such drivers actually are rapists.

Agents for the Judicial Investigating Organization said that these drivers have been active in the Zapote and San Francisco areas and in the center of San José.

Pirate drivers do not have the usual electronic meter in their cabs. In the case of the rapists, police said it appeared that more than one person is in the cab when the unsuspecting woman is picked up. The two men also rob the victim.

Bandits hit twice
for the holidays

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Gunmen struck twice in and around Desamparados.

Christmas Eve a group of masked men ripped off a portion of the bars at the College of Private Accountants on Calle Fallas in Desamparados. They surprised the guards who live there, immobilized them and their wives and stole shotguns, radios, three television sets and other valuables.

On Christmas Day about 11 p.m. a group of four men pulled guns and entered a Chinese restaurant on the road to Desamparados some 300 meters north of the Río Tiribí bridge. They held the employees and diners at gunpoint and took jewels, credit cards, money and gold chains, according to the Judicial Investigating Organization.

Neighbors save house
torched by visitors

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Neighbors put out a fire that was believed started by several men at a house in San Juan de Dios of Desamparados in the Itaipu area. Police said the men started a fire about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday shortly after they drove up to the building.

Police said the neighbors were attracted by enormous flames, but were able to put the fire out without serious damage to the structure. The arson squad of the Judicial Investigating Organization was called in.

Woman faces charge
of murdering husband

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police arrested a woman, 19, from Heredia in Alajuela about 7 a.m. Wednesday to face charges of killing her husband.

He was Jorge Jimémez Salas, 21. When he died Dec.16. police said the woman, who was not further identified, told police that two men invaded the home, attacked her and then killed her husband with a knife when he tried to help her.

Agents for the Judicial Investigating Organization said that the story the woman told just did not match the clues that were found in the coupleís home, which is in Santa Barbara de Heredia.

Bullfights begin in Zapote
with youths risking lives

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The time has come to risk your life at the Zapote Festival. Itís what they call "impromptu bullfighters."  Now appearing on a televisions station near you.

The bullfights, involving Costa Rican young men and women facing a 1,200- pound bull, started Tuesday night. One young man from Cartago was thrown 10 feet in the air by the flick of the bullís horn. Another barely missed being speared as the bull ripped his T-shirt in half.

The local stations are taking turns showing this unique form of machismo. The idea is that a hundred or so young people are inside the bull ring when a fighting bull is released. 

Tuesday another man suffered severe bruises when a bull caught him between the legs with his horn and launched him skyward.

Embassy stresses contacts
in probe of visa fraud

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

U.S. Embassy officials said Wednesday they are relying on their ongoing relationships with Costa Rican officials to prevent people from obtaining visas to enter the United States by fraud.

Fraud prevention is a continual effort, said a spokesperson for the embassy, and officials are aware of the work of the police.

The embassy response was prompted by revelations that Costa Rican police officials are investigating a group of persons who were fabricating documents so that non-U.S. citizens could show that they are eligible for visas into the United States.

The documents included false deeds showing property ownership in Costa Rica and documents allegedly from banks showing substantial accounts. The U.S. Embassy generally wants persons who seek tourist visas to show that they have a reason for returning to Costa Rica.

The embassy spokesperson did not say if anyone actually obtained visas fraudulently on the strength of false documents or if anyone had used the visa as a way to gain illegal entry. Any investigation would be in the hands of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service based in Honduras, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also said that the fraud investigation has no relationship with new rules by the U.S. State Department for photographs that accompany visa applications. The Embassy announced these new rules Thursday. Basically, a visa applicant must provide photographs that show him or her looking directly at the camera and the amount of area covered by the face should be at least 50 percent of the image area of the photograph, said the embassy announcement.

New Argentine leader
meets with workers

By the A.M. Costa Rica wires services

BUENOS AIRES ó Argentina's new interim president has met with labor union leaders in Buenos Aires to propose measures he says will help pull the country back from the brink of economic collapse.

President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa told the union leaders Wednesday that he will reverse the 13 percent salary cut for federal workers ordered by the previous administration to cut government spending.

The workers will be paid with a new currency called the "argentino" announced earlier by Rodriguez Saa. He says it will go into circulation next month to pay government obligations, including civil servant salaries and pensions.

The argentino will operate alongside the peso and dollar, which are pegged one-to-one. Unlike the peso, however, the argentino will not be backed up with hard-currency reserves and could be vulnerable to devaluation. Some economists and analysts fear the third currency will quickly lose value and produce more inflation.

Cash has become scarce in Argentina since a Dec. 1 decree limited bank withdrawals to $250 per week. Argentine banks also have been functioning in a limited capacity since Dec. 21, when the Central Bank declared a bank holiday in response to widespread rioting and looting over unpopular austerity measures.

The financial institutions are expected to resume normal operations today, although certain restrictions are to remain in place to prevent a run on the banks.

The Argentine economy has been in recession nearly four years. Argentina also is coping with an 18 percent unemployment rate.

The interim government recently suspended payment on the country's $132 billion public debt. Officials say economic recession and lack of access to international markets damaged public finances and brought hardship on the Argentine population.

In a related development, White House officials say President Bush has spoken with his Mexican, Chilean and Uruguayan counterparts (Vicente Fox, Ricardo Lagos and Jorge Batlle) to discuss the situation in Argentina.

The White House says Bush called the Latin American leaders from Air Force One, as he was traveling from Washington to Crawford, Texas, for a short vacation. Officials also say the president is monitoring events in Argentina closely.

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