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These stories were published Friday, May 6, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 89
Jo Stuart
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A.M. Costa Rica photos/Susan Reines 
Why tourists come to Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula
A paradise for drug use on the Pacific coast
By Susan Reines
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The drug trade in the growing Pacific coast community of Tamarindo is intensifying, yet there are no plans to bolster police presence to combat the problem, officials said this week.

Saturday night in Playa Tamarindo, the Mambobar was packed inside and out, music blasting from the beachside bar's speakers. In the street out front, groups of Ticos lounged around pick-up trucks, drinking beers from coolers, and on the beach behind the bar clusters of youths — Ticos and tourists alike — perched on the edges of overturned boats and took turns puffing from marijuana joints. 

From midnight to nearly 4 a.m. smoke billowed off the beach, yet there was no trace of the police, even though officers profess to be fully aware of the town's burgeoning drug problem.

"Tamarindo is like a paradise for buying drugs," said Oscar Rodríguez, one of the officers who works in the small hut that serves as the Tamarindo Fuerza Pública delegación, in an interview Monday morning. 

Rodríguez said the kids smoking joints outside of Mambobar are the least of the problem.

"There is a lot of variety, and drugs are cheaper here than elsewhere," he said, ticking off the names of some of the drugs that flow through Tamarindo on his fingers. "Marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, crack."

Rodríguez responded with an immediate "Si, claro" when asked if the town's drug problem is growing, yet he shook his head when asked if there were plans to bolster police presence.

He said it would be difficult to obtain extra officers to patrol Tamarindo because the populations of the beach towns along Nicoya Peninsula are continuing to mushroom, leaving the police force scrambling to grow at the same rate.

The drug situation here is in the news because an Australian student from a Florida university vanished here March 4. The man, Brian Dobbins, 25, vanished after being last seen strolling down the beach at 7 a.m. Rumors and theories about his fate frequently cite the growing drug culture here and some of the unsavory characters involved in it.

Tamarindo has developed quickly over the past decade. One 1995 census reported that there were more construction workers than permanent residents living in the town. 

Barry Lawson of the Tamarindo Chamber of Commerce said tourism has been flourishing.

"We're all booked for Christmas," Lawson said. "If we had 200 rooms they'd all be booked, and it's the same for Easter. This year everybody in Tamarindo had a banner year. It's growing geometrically."

Despite its continually increasing popularity, Tamarindo is at the mercy of the city of Santa 

The center of youthful nightlife

Cruz when it comes to public services because the town lacks the requisite soccer field and church that could make it an independent municipality, said Elijah McCarthy, head of the C.R. Paradise Tourist Information and Booking Center in Tamarindo.

The officers stationed in Tamarindo are trying to stem the flow of drugs by patrolling "popular hotspots" such as the Mambobar, Rodríguez said, adding that he believed the problem was growing along with the number of tourists.

"It's sad, but I think that the tourists consume them. People come here to look for drugs," he said. He noted that some locals, too, use drugs. 

Rodríguez referred a request for statistics, such as the number of drug-related arrests and the incidence of drug-related crime, to the Ministry of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública. A worker in the press office there said the statistics were available from an office in Santa Cruz, where there was no answer to multiple telephone calls.

Nevertheless, tourists on the streets of Tamarindo said they did not need statistics to tell them the town's drug trade was flourishing.

Of 10 young tourists queried about drugs, every one reported having been offered some form of illicit substance in Tamarindo. Two females in their 20s, on vacation from the United States, said a dealer offered them cocaine while they were walking up Camino Langostina, one of the main roads in town. 

"Sure, people offer marijuana on the street," one of them said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But cocaine?"

A local business owner, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said hard drugs like cocaine and crack had infiltrated Tamarindo, a change from a few years ago, when there was only marijuana.

"There's crack here now," she said, eyes widening. "There never was before. Everyone . . is using drugs. There are lots of drugs everywhere."

Rodríguez said he believed there might be some credence to popular speculation that there were more drugs in Central America in general since Sept. 11, 2001, after which the United States tightened its borders.

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Government will try to bar older vehicle imports soon
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Pacheco administration will issue a decree in June to prohibit the importation of motor vehicles older than seven years.

That was the word Thursday from Federico Carrillo, minister of Hacienda. He said that his ministry was preparing the document in conjunction with the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía.

The idea is to cut down on vehicle emissions.

The plan has been tossed about, but generally the age limit has been specified as 10 years.

The country levies a stiff tax on vehicle imports. So by reducing the age of imported vehicles, the government also will increase the amount of taxes it will collect on every vehicle.

Carrillo was speaking at a meeting called to summarize the operation of the Dirección General de Aduanas. Carrillo promised a frontal attack on tax evaders, even though such tax evasion is the national sport. Hacienda is the ministry that manages the national budget.

Luis Gómez Sánchez, director of Aduanas or customs, said that irregularities had been found in the importation of vehicles and that five cases have been found of using false documents.

A raid took place to obtain documents of the importation company, which is in Palmares.

As a result of these discoveries, Gómez said, a review was made of 123 customs declarations made in 2004. Some 40 were found to report values for newly imported vehicles that were lower than the true value, he said.

In addition, an Aduana employee faces action because of a simulated robbery that was set up in order to hide documents, said Gómez.

Hacienda officials were trying to show that the Policía de Control Fiscal and other collection mechanisms were combating fraud and evasion. One argument against the proposed tax plan now in the Asamblea Legislativa is that the government fails to collect a lot of taxes now.

Carrillo also was asked how his ministry will respond to a Sala IV constitutional court decision this week that said tax money collected on motor fuels must be spent as the law specifies, on roads and highways. Road building companies filed the suit.

The minister said that the money is being spent elsewhere by the Pacheco administration and that salary cuts and cuts in pensions would be necessary if the court decision is enforced.

As a quick lesson in Costa Rican government finance, Carrillo said that for every colon that enters the ministry, officials have to spend two. The difference is covered by increasing amounts of national debt.
Some 26 percent of all money collected goes to pay debt service, he said.

E-mail virus blitz hits
Internet provider here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

E-mail service by the state Internet monopoly has been flooded with virus messages and is faltering.

A quick check by reporters suggest that two out of every 10 e-mails do not make it to the destination.

The monopoly, Radiográfica Costarricense S.A., known as RACSA, took notice of the virus situation briefly Thursday when it warned some were carrying its name in the return addresses, a common virus trick.

Mario José Zaragoza Borrasé, who handles press relations for RACSA, advised Internet users not to open e-mail attachments that can carry a virus.

A new wave of virus messages hit this week. Some tell e-mail users that their message has failed to be delivered and promises more details in an attachment.

One says "Your email was blocked" and offers more explanation in a zip attachment. That’s where the virus resides waiting to be set free.

The proliferation of virus messages suggests that the virus reads from address books, replicates itself and then distributes itself.

Other subject lines are "Your password," "Re:," "mailing error" and "Registration Confirmation."

Zaragoza notes that RACSA provides certain virus protections on its Web site. However, the company’s e-mail service has been behaving strangely for a week. The service has been slow. Some messages arrive five to six hours after they have been e-mailed. Typically e-mail should take a second or two.

The entire mail delivery system was out of service for a period early Thursday.

A.M. Costa Rica has received complaints from advertisers who have sent classifieds or display ads that never have reached the destination.

Presumably other businesses in Costa Rica are suffering the same loss of client contact, whether they are aware of it or not.

RACSA performance was measured by comparing the messages that arrive on the A.M. Costa Rica mail server in the United States against the number of messages that arrive at a RACSA e-mail account after being forwarded automatically from the server.

RACSA frequently filters against attachments and the company also maintains a list of 40 or more poison pill words that will doom a message if placed in the subject line.

"Sale" is one of those words.

San José employee faces
allegation of extortion

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A San José employee faces a charge that she used her official position to try to extort money from a hotel owner.

The employee was identified by the last name of Garcia, and a spokesperson for the Poder Judicial said she must sign in every 15 days with officials and be suspended from her job for three months.

The Judicial Investigating Organization and its Sección de Fraudes arrested the woman after what appears to be a sting carried out at a San José restaurant.

Officials said the woman participated in an inspection of the hotel, which is located between calles 2 and 4 on Avenida 8. The woman is accused of approaching the person she thought was the hotel administrator and offering to provide protection from problems with the firm’s business license in return for money.

Officials said the amount specified was 60,000 colons initially ($128) and 40,000 colons ($85) every week thereafter.

Agents and prosecutors marked 10,000-colon notes and supervised the delivery to the suspect at the restaurant, they said. Then they made the arrest.

Comet leftovers visible
as shooting stars here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Bits of Haley’s Comet, left in orbit around the sun, are providing a show of shooting stars this weekend, according to the Centro Nacional de la Ciencia y la Tecnología.

The earth passes through the trail of trash twice a year: May and October. The sky shows are named after the star constellations from which the tiny meteorites seem to come: Aquarius in May and Orion in October.

The meteorite rain runs from April 19 to May 28 with the greatest intensity, about two a minute, being this week. The Constellation Aquarius appears about 2:30 a.m. each day, and shooting stars are visible until daybreak if the moon does not shine too brightly.

More information is available at the center’s Web site which contains a sky map.

We have a few probemls

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Wednesday was not a good day for accuracy.

First, we said Oswaldo Villalobos was under house arrest. That is not true. The fraud and money laundering suspect is obliged to sign in with officials every 15 days, but he is not under house arrest.

Then we said that Verizon Information Services-Costa Rica had won a Sala IV Constitutional court case against the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad. The case involved Verizon publishing regional telephone books that do not contain all the listings for the entire country.

That, too, was incorrect. Verizon lost the case, and the telecommunications institute won.

We have thought long and hard to come up with a seemingly plausible excuse for both errors. We can’t.

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The annual ritual is over with help from INTERPOL
I am back to being a resident in good standing — not that I wasn’t, but now I don’t have to worry about it for another year.  As a pensionada, each year I have to take proof that I have exchanged an agreed upon amount of dollars into colons.

One does that by exchanging the dollars at a state-owned bank (i.e. like the Banco de Costa Rica), saving the receipt properly stamped by a cashier. Getting money from an ATM machine won’t do it. 

Every two years, it is a bit more complicated and costly.  I had to make a deposit of $100 in Banco de Credito de Cartago. Now it seems one can do that at the Banco de Costa Rica.  Then I bought a stamp for 1,013 colons, that, too, at the Banco de Costa Rica. I also needed two new pictures for my carnet. 

This time I had to wait a month between visits to Immigration because they did an INTERPOL check on me, something that was not done when I first became a resident.  Somehow an INTERPOL check makes me truly feel like a member of the world.  The same pleasant woman who gave me my first carnet is still there.  She has been working with Immigration for 29 years. 

As a resident, I can be a member of the Caja, Costa Rica’s social security system, which for me means my health insurance. Citizens and those who work legally here, also pay into a pension plan.  The cost of my health insurance here for a year is less than what I would pay in the States for a month’s coverage. 

Being covered by the national health insurance means I must go to the state clinics and hospitals and the doctors who work there.  There are doctors who have both a private practice and work for the Caja.  So you can make an appointment privately (and pay his going fee) and he or she can prescribe tests and prescriptions that you can get at no cost at a nearby state clinic or hospital.

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

As a resident over 65, I am also eligible for a Ciudadano de Oro — a gold card. I recommend them.  For me it means free bus tickets, discounts at various medical labs, stores, including most pharmacies (if you pay cash), and some sizeable discounts at parks, museums and movies. When I visited the Museo de Oro, it was free.  Without the card I would have paid 1,800 colons.  ($3.83)

Costa Rica rates among the most generous countries in health and pension benefits — even among the industrialized countries where the United States ranks 25th out of 26 of the richest countries (the United Kingdom is only country that ranks lower.)

A friend of mine has worked as a college professor in both the U.S. and Costa Rica — 19 years in the U.S. and 10 years here.  Her pension here is almost twice as much as her social security from the States.  It goes up each year to keep up with inflation.  The interesting aspect here is that she continues to pay into the health and pension plan. 

In other words, it is not just the younger working people who are "supporting" those who have retired, the oldsters are paying into the insurance plan to help those who will retire.  I doubt that that is part of the solution for the Social Security situation in the States since this government, too, is having financial problems.  Come to think of it, who isn’t?

Sushi pioneers make the best of the nearby supply
By Susan Reines
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

One might think sushi would be its own food group in a fishing town like Playa Tamarindo. But Japanese-trained chef Federico Crespo said he and his wife, Mariela, opened the first sushi house in the Guanacaste region when they arrived from their native Buenos Aires three years ago.

The Crespos serve up whatever the local fishermen catch each day. Federico takes some of the fish into the kitchen and cooks them into crunchy filets or Asian-inspired peanut and curry dishes. Meanwhile, sushi chef Matias stands behind the bar and wraps fresh slabs of salmon around balls of sticky rice, stuffs mahi mahi into seaweed sheaths and rolls tuna up with red chili peppers.

Even though the sushi rolls aren't the fattest, quality steps in where quantity leaves off. The fish don't have time to lose any flavor on the two-block trip from the beach, the vegetables are crunchy, and the rice is sweet and warm.

Fish & Meat's menu is different every day. Federico waits to see what's fresh from the ocean and then decides how to infuse the catches with Asian flare. 

Although another sushi joint has opened in the area, the Crespos pride themselves on having been the pioneers. Mariela says the sushi is "the most important" component of the menu. However, the self-described Asian fusion restaurant offers a variety of hot dishes every night as well.

Last Tuesday, for example, the restaurant was serving Thai ceviche, crusted pepper tuna, crunchy mahi mahi and marlin with Thai sauce, along with other curries, soups and salads.

There were also steaks, imported from the United States. When asked how an Argentine chef could get his red meat from anywhere but his native land, Federico smiled and promised the New York strips could hold their own against any other beef in the world. 

The restuarant was pleasantly quiet, with only one other couple sitting in the open-air dining area, though the Crespos say the place gets packed during the high winter tourism season. There is a comfortable bar with 

A.M. Costa Rica/Susan Reines
Federico and Mariela Crespo at Fish & Meat

a flat-screen television where the bartender mixes a mean Cuba libre. 

Fish & Meat's prices are fairly standard for nice dining in Tamarindo. Sushi costs from US$4.50 for a hand roll to $11 for a specialty 8-piece roll. Appetizers run from $6 to $9, and entrees cost an average of $14. 

The restaurant is spotless, nicely lit and situated on a fairly quiet stretch of Camino Langonstina. The inside decor is somewhat piecemeal, however. Island-inspired thatched eaves and colored lanterns look a little out of place next to Asian-style design elements like the broad, flat bar stools — but then, the Chilean sushi chef looks a little out of place rolling spicy tuna rolls, and the Argentine owners are a little out of place running a business in Costa Rica. 

The Crespos may have chosen the apellation Fish & Meat because it was the only name vague enough to cover all the elements that make up the operation. 
But in the end, none of this matters when the food arrives.

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Tony Blair leads Labour Party to historic third victory
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

British Prime Minister Tony Blair carried his Labour party to a historic third term as the leading force in the Parliament. But the number of seats held by Labour was diminished.

The BBC reported early Friday that with 602 of 646 seats decided, Labour had 346 seats, Conservatives 188 and the Liberal Democrats 56.

Commentators generally claimed that the reduction in the Labour majority, a margin of some 166 seats in the current Parliament, was because of his support for the war in Iraq.

The Liberal Democrats, which opposed the war, scored gains.

An exit poll of British voters correctly predicted the Labour Party win. The poll conducted for the British 

Broadcasting Corporation said Blair would win a historic third consecutive term in office, but with a loss of nearly 100 seats from his previous majority. 

The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, says such a result would be acceptable. "We always want a good result and I always want to see a Labour government, and there's going to be a Labour government there's no doubt about that," said Prescott. 

But political commentators say such a massive drop in support could trigger a lot of contemplation among Laborites about the future of their party and Blair's role in it. 

Exit polls are frequently wrong in Britain where the results actually hinge on 646 local races.

Labour has never before won three elections straight. Margaret Thatcher engineered three consecutive victories for the Conservative Party. Blair already has said this will be his last term.

Police raid nets suspect in Tuesday's shooting of agent near Pococí
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man suspected of shooting an investigator Tuesday fell into the hands of law enforcement early Thursday when agents and the Fuerza Pública conducted a raid in a small settlement near Pococí.

The man is identified by his last names of Galeano Espinoza, and he is known to police. He is a Nicaraguan who has been naturalized as a Costa Rican.

The assailant was wounded in the same fire fight in which the investigator was shot five times. He was seen being aided by a comrade to leave the area. 

Galeano, 44, had three bullet wounds when police 

found him in the settlement of La Teresa de La Rita. They had been tipped by neighbors. The suspect has wounds in the chest, buttocks and left leg, said officials.

The wounded investigator, identified by the last name of Reyes, serves in the Judicial Investigating Organization. He is 32 and reported still in grave condition. The shootout happened near Nájera, Cariari de Pococí.

Reyes and another agent were seeking three men who had just stuck up a delivery truck.

More than 70 policemen and agents participated in the search for the gunmen in the wooded area near the scene of the shootout.

Colombia surrenders U.S. soldiers caught in raid against militia
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — U.S. officials have taken custody of two American soldiers arrested here on suspicion of smuggling ammunition to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups.

Colombian officials handed over the soldiers Thursday, two days after they were detained during a raid on a home near Bogota.  The raid turned up some 31,000 rounds of ammunition.

Colombian officials have asked the U.S. military to delay transferring the men out of the country so they can determine if a 1974 treaty gives the soldiers immunity.

A Pentagon spokesman says he believes the U.S. ambassador in Bogota intends to allow Colombian officials to question the men. U.S. officials say they also 

are investigating the allegations. Hundreds of U.S. troops are in Colombia to provide support to local authorities battling insurgents and drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is warning Americans that travel to Colombia remains dangerous despite a decrease in violence around most urban centers.

In an updated travel warning released in Washington, D.C., the U.S. State Department says violence by narco-terrorist groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country.

It says violence has dropped markedly in many cities, specifically mentioning Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, and Cartagena. But it says Cali and much of rural Colombia remain extremely dangerous because of the drug trade and fighting between insurgents, drug traffickers and government forces.

Jo Stuart
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