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Ofinter S.A., the embattled money exchange business, Thursday issued a seven-point rebuttal to what it said were allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering.
The firm took half-page advertisements in the major Spanish-language daily newspapers and used the paid space to say that the press and some public functionaries have unjustly said in their reporting or statements that the money exchange house is linked to illicit activities. The ad said the firm roundly rejects these insinuations and that it never consciously participated in such crimes.
The firm also said that it has been working as a money exchange house for five years under the supervision of the Banco Central de Costa Rica and the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras. During that time it never was admonished or suspended for any of its activities, it said.
The firm also said that it does not form part of any web of drug traffickers or money launderers, and it is sure that is can show this in court.
But the firm also said it will not be more specific or say anything else because of the current investigation and that "we await with faith in God, the just and favorable decision of the courts constantly analyzing all the actions that we will take to defend our honor and the truth of the facts that have been attributed to us."
The ad was signed by someone identified as Alvaro Segura Carvajal, general manager, and placed by Mauricio Fonseca Alvarez, whose role was not further clarified.
The ad was more interesting for what it did not say. For one thing it never mentioned the personal loan part of the business where many millions of dollars have been accepted as investments, mostly from North Americans.
The company’s Mall San Pedro office and one in downtown San José were raided July 4 by Costa Rican officials executing a search warrant issued at the request of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Investigators here also raided the house of one of the owners and the house of the firm’s accountant.
At the same time Canadian police were arresting six persons, including several with links to Costa Rica. Some of them had invested money with Ofinter. They face money laundering charges in Canada.
At the time of the arrests, the Judicial Investigating Organization said that at least $300,000, the product of narcotics trafficking, had been deposited with Ofinter. Police also confiscated about 300 kilos of cocaine and 1,000 kilos of marijuana oil, but not in Costa Rica.
Despite the claims in the advertisement Thursday, no official or reporter has specifically charged Ofinter with drug trafficking. This and other
|newspapers have reported that investigators
have frozen upwards of 50 bank accounts maintained by the firm.
Diario Extra did report Saturday that Guillermo Hernández, of the Centro de Inteligencia Conjunta Antidrogas, the drug police, said that the two brothers who own the firm were under investigation for receiving money from drug dealers and intermediaries. But he stopped short of calling this money laundering and he did not say whether any such money was accepted by people who knew the source.
Newspapers also have reported the company’s stated goal of continuing to pay monthly interest to its investors. The firm is one of the high-interest operations in San José, and it pays 3 to 3.5 percent a month, in cash, to investors who do not want to roll over the money as a new investment. The firm is believed to have many thousands of investors, both here and in North America. Many retired North Americans depend on the monthly interest to live.
Ofinter is owned by Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and brother Osvaldo. And this raises another point that the advertisement Thursday did not clarify.
Villalobos accepts investment money — $10,000 minimum — from persons referred to him by current customers. He conducts this operation in separate offices adjacent to the Ofinter S.A. facility, which is simply a place to change money from colons to dollars and back.
The advertisement did not clarify if it was talking just about the money exchange business or also about the investment opportunities business run by Villalobos.
The money exchange is licensed and under government supervision. But neither Villalobos nor Ofinter is licensed to make loans, and he does so, he says, simply on an interpersonal basis among friends. However, the back office has all the attributes of a lending operation, including application forms for new clients and two small, three-sided booths where customers can count in private the money they just received.
When an A.M. Costa Rica reporter visited the office Monday, a man who introduced himself as "David," said he was the manager. He would not identify himself further, and he did not say of what he was the manager.
He declined any comment, although he did promise to deliver a business card to Enrique Villalobos. A.M. Costa Rica would have published their statement without charge had the firm made contact.
Those investors who visited the office in the last few days report business as usual. Several said they had been paid interest that was due. The bulk of the firm’s assets are believed to be in other countries. The next scheduled interest payment for investors is due at the end of the month.
|This reader says that rules of investments are clear|
|We received a number
of letters on the topic of Ofinter S.A. during the last week. Most who
sent letters do not want their name used, and we feel uncomfortable just
publishing them without checking. We are happy to publish letters on this
topic. The following author specifically agreed that we could publish his
letter. If you wish to comment on the situation, please send your letters
Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
I read with interest your article re: 'The Brothers" and how people are blaming the government and amcostarica.com.
When I arrived in Costa Rica over three years ago, it took less than two weeks for me to hear about 'The Brothers'. Since amcostarica.com did not even exist, I find the concept that you have any responsibility for current actions ludicrous.
The money in the banks will be frozen for weeks if not months. In another case like this, the money was frozen for well over a year. You can bet that local and North American government agencies will be very interested in Ofinter's client lists and will do everything they can to ensure no money is distributed without people coming forward and clearly identifying themselves and the amount of their investment. Despite what the company says, it will not be business as usual. Tax collectors must be licking their lips in anticipation of being fed hidden information about their citizens.
I do look to the government and wonder why they did not intervene in a company that was clearly involved in unusual financial transactions with uninformed investors. It is not as if officials did not know what was going on.
Lets look at some facts:
• You are going to give your money to people who are not regulated;
• They will not tell you how they will invest your money;
• They do not provide any corporate information;
• They pay returns several times more than banks or traditional investments;
• If they are paying you 36 percent-plus they must be making more;
• How many investment worthy businesses would pay these high interest rates? (Since most of the money was in U.S. dollars, there was no foreign exchange risk).
Does it seem like something wrong here? Does this really sound like an acceptable investment fund?
When banks are paying out between 3 percent to 8.5 percent per year for a one-year term deposit, how can anyone receiving 3 percent-plus per month be surprised when there are problems.
Some very basic common sense investment rules:
Rule # 1. The higher the return, the higher the risk.
Rule # 2. If something looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.
Rule # 3. Diversify your investments.
Rule # 4. Unless a company will provide complete disclosure as to how they will invest your money, DON'T GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY.
The ONLY people investors can be angry with is themselves. In the real world, it is BUYER BEWARE.
It is about time North American's take responsibility for their own
actions and stop blaming and looking to others.
|Inspections to start
with possible protests
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Monday could be an interesting day. National car inspections start that day, and foes of the program vow to block access to inspection stations.
Fuerza Pública is mobilizing officers to counter any protests.
The inspections by Riteve SyC are the object of protest because many motorists and taxi drivers believe that their vehicles will never get through the inspection.
The company has been advertising to win the public opinion battle, but it suffered a setback this week when telephones to its appointment center went unanswered. The company quickly doubled the number of people working there.
The appointed telephone number is one of those pay exchanges: (905) 788-0000. Stations will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
One complaint against the firm was that it is Spanish. Actually it is a joint venture between a Spanish corporation and a Costa Rican company. But that does not stop taxi drivers from placing signs on their cars saying "No to Spanish inspections."
Several requests for aid have been filed with the Sala IV constitutional court. Several actions cite the monopolistic nature of the tests, something that might not be permitted by the Costa Rican Constitution.
Riteve has invested upwards of $22 million for 11 inspection stations and several mobile units. Automobile inspections cost 8, 805 colons, a little less than $25. Vehicles with license plates that end in 1 or 2 have from Monday to mid-August to get an inspection.
Important vehicle inspection points would seem to be ownership papers, brakes, tire tread wear, windshields, wipers, break, turning and running lights, shocks and suspension.
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Technical teams from three different countries are taking advantage of Costa Rica to film top tourist spots and residents in their daily lives.
The companies are from the United States, Austria and France, according to a spokesman at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, which issued the invitations to the film organizations.
The firms are International Video Corp. of the United States, Universum ORS of Austria and the French Television Arts Network.
Thursday the French film crew, which included Francois de Roubaix and Pascal Lorent, arrived in the country. They will film "Imágenes de Costa Rica" that will feature these volcanoes: Poás, Rincón de la Vieja, Turrialba and Irazú.
They also are interested in visiting the cataracts of Sarapiquí to film segments of "Paz Waterfall Gardens," and a coffee-growing area that will provide the setting for "Ruta de Cafe,’ a project being done jointly with the Instituto Costarricense de Tourism and the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica
The French team will remain here until July 23.
The Austrian team will be in the country until July 29, and members will be working on a documentary "The Rescue of the Mountain Almond Trees" that will be transmitted by Europe Television, ORS Universum and the European State Network.
The Almond trees mostly are located north of San Carlos and in the frontier zone along the San Juan River near Nicaragua. The trees have been the victim of heavy logging activities
American Travel, a popular U.S. show that is seen on 120 stations visited Costa Rica earlier this month. The on-air team includes Bruce Ritzschke, John Bartell and John Goerner. The team also filmed for a program called Geoquest for students.
The team filmed the Plaza de la Democracia, Teatro Nacional and other
downtown sites as well as in Parque Nacional, Corcovado, Drake Bay, the
demand that he quit
By A.M. Costa Rica wire services
CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in Venezuela Thursday to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez. The event passed off peacefully, but the city's military air base was later the scene of a breakaway demonstration.
Thursday's demonstration marked three months to the day since eighteen demonstrators were shot dead during a similar march. That incident led to a two-day removal from power of President Hugo Chavez, after the armed forces withdrew their support.
On this occasion, there was no violence, despite the marchers' frustration at not being allowed to follow their planned route, past the presidential palace of Miraflores.
The intention had been to hand in letters demanding the resignation of President Chavez, who, for many in the opposition, is a dictator who wants to follow in the footsteps of Cuba's President Fidel Castro.
Chavez spent the day in the city of Maracay, one of his political and military strongholds. Later, as dusk fell, thousands lined the fence around the La Carlota air base in the capital hoping to meet with military leaders, while National Guard troops in riot gear reinforced the perimeter.
Opposition leaders addressed the apparently spontaneous breakaway demonstration,
declaring a policy of civil disobedience.
By A.M. Costa Rica wire services
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A number of "daunting challenges" face the Organization of American States in the year ahead, says Roger Noriega, new chairman of the Organization of American States Permanent Council.
Noriega said that in addition to deepening democracy in Latin America, strengthening hemispheric security and supporting the Committee Against Terrorism should be priorities for the OAS member states.
He added that the council should also enhance its efforts to encourage
development, maximize the benefits of free trade, and support the Summit
of the Americas process.
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
WASHINGTON, D.C — While the U.S. State Department is willing to transfer the authority for issuing visas to a proposed Department of Homeland Security, Colin Powell, secretary of state, says the actual issuance of visas should remain within the department and its worldwide embassies and consular posts.
"We have the experience, the training, the language skills and the dedicated people to perform this mission," Powell testified Thursday before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Homeland Security.
The Select Committee is conducting hearings on President Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security, made up of elements taken from existing federal agencies, to safeguard the United States against a continuing threat from terrorism and other dangers.
Bush sent the measure to Congress June 18. His proposal would draw approximately 170,000 federal workers from scores of federal agencies with an estimated first year budget of $37.4 billion.
One of the measures contained in the sweeping legislation is that the Department of Homeland Security assumes responsibility for policy guidance on, and regulation of, visa issuance.
Powell said the new secretary of homeland security would have all of the intelligence and law enforcement information as well as authority of federal law to make policy judgments as to who should be authorized to receive a visa to enter the United States.
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