Monthly Archives: February 2009

Costa Rica’s secret police?

What is a country with no military and an international reputation for peace and human rights doing with a secret police that is authorized to spy on its own citizens and answers only to the President?

The question, which has been asked before, has taken on renewed importance since it became public that Costa Rica’s Dirección de Intelligencia y Seguridad Nacional (Department of Intelligence and National Security), or DIS, was apparently keeping a file on a journalist who vocally opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, known as CAFTA. President Oscar Arias campaigned on  a promise to approve CAFTA, at one point nearly staking his presidency on its passage.

Gilberto Lopes, who was born in Brazil but has spent the past 30 years working as a journalist in Costa Rica, was denied his request for citizenship last year because, as the Civil Registry put it in the rejection letter it sent him, Lopes “had not conducted himself well” in Costa Rica. The Civil Registry drew this conclusion after checking with the DIS and being told that Lopes’ name was “annotated” in their files.

Though he has never been convicted of a crime, Lopes did publish a booklet critical of the free trade agreement and spoke out on panels and round-table discussions against CAFTA, which polarized the country and was barely approved in a national referendum in 2007. Lopes also has long worked at Semanario Universidad, a left-leaning weekly published by the left-leaning University of Costa Rica. Semanario Universidad was first to publish a leaked, now-infamous memorandum written by a legislator and administration minister advising the president use fear tactics and other unsavory strategies in order to win the referendum.

When asked if he believed that the DIS was monitoring him because of his political activities, the 66-year-old writer, literary critic and BBC-collaborator said, “It’s evident.”

“But if you ask me for proof, the only proof I have is that file,” Lopes said.

Lopes has not seen the file, because the DIS refused to give even the Supreme Elections Tribunal, which oversees the Civil Registry, access to it during the appeals. The DIS is authorized to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or deemed “state secrets,” but it did not specify where the info on Lopes fell.

Now, it appears that the whatever it was, the information has disappeared, or never existed at all.

“I have investigated and there is no file on him here. We are completely sure about this,” said the sub-director of DIS, Jorge Torres, in an interview this week inside his wood-paneled office in the unmarked, nondescript DIS headquarters off a busy intersection in San José.

Torres also denied that the DIS ever investigated opponents of CAFTA.

“That’s totally false. We are not a police force that has been created for that. In Costa Rica, we have the freedom of expression,” Torres insisted.

This defense is unlikely to go far with critics, however. The DIS was rocked last year when Torres’ predecessor, former sub-director Roberto Guillén, was forced to step down after being accused of robbing property and money from at least 14 businesses and individuals by accessing their personal information.

The nation’s chief prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese has called for nothing less than the total dissolution of the DIS.

In an op-ed for the daily La Nación, he wrote: “It is worrying that in a nation of laws there exists an entity such as the DIS, which, contradictory to Article 11 of the Constitution, is not called to account, does not file reports nor assumes responsibility for what it does.”

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The little court that could

Arguably the single most effective government agency protecting Costa Rica’s environment is an underfunded, short-staffed, three-judge administrative court called the Environmental Tribunal.

While Costa Rica has won praise internationally for high environmental standards, with the oft-quoted statistic that 25% of the country is under some type of protection (national park, wildlife refuge, etc.), a closer look reveals some serious contradictions.

One of the biggest threats in recent years has been an onslaught of tourism and real estate development. Real estate agents and baby boomers discovered cheap land, sunny living and breathtaking views and descended on some of the most pristine regions in this hemisphere, where building and environmental regulations are often flimsy or not enforced (especially in exchange for a bribe).

A study in 2007 found that 1 in 5 projects along the central Pacific coast and in the northwestern province of Guanacaste — the fastest growing regions in the country, per new construction — lacked basic construction and environmental permits.

Enter José Lino Chaves, who in January 2008 was sworn in as the lead judge on the Environmental Tribunal, a court that before then held little name recognition, let alone fame.

In his first 12 months on the job, Chaves led a series of regional inspections he termed barridas ambientales, or environmental sweeps. With little to no notice, he and a squad of geologists, hydrologists, engineers and other specialists and local officials would visit construction sites checking paperwork and looking for environmental violations.

The total number of cases opened by the tribunal in 2008 increased by 50% from the year before to 461. Nearly 60 of those were allegedly illegal construction projects along either the Pacific or Caribbean coast, uncovered during the sweeps. Among the projects either suspended or put under investigation were the $300 million Hotel Hyatt Azulera, on Guanacaste’s Brasilito beach, and the Ritz-Carlton’s $250 million Guacamaya project in Guanacaste.

It is of little surprise that the newly invigorated court would have stepped on some toes. Politicial pressure, a break-in at the court’s offices and death threats to the judges and Chaves’ wife however failed to slow their actions.

But with a total staff of 12 employees — five of whom are on loan from other institutions and whose availability depends on their workload at their other offices — the cases have piled up. Construction projects have had to fire workers as they waited for investigations to begin, riling local unrest.

Chaves estimates that cases currently average about two years in the court before being resolved,  but the tribunal has agreed to prioritize the development projects caught up in last year’s raids, and a new budget will add nine new full-time positions to the staff. Chaves, who was inspecting projects in Guanacaste this week, said he will continue full-force this year.

“One alternative was to slow our pace this year to give us a chance to catch up. But what is lost? A delay in the cases because of a lack of personnel, or continued environmental damage in this country,” Chaves told me in a recent interview. “Obviously the answer is that we cannot allow continued environmental damage. We have to be inflexible, and we have to go back out in the field.”

The tribunal has announced six more sweeps for this year, with an emphasis on chemical and waste pollution in the country’s waterways. Those inspections will target construction and industry on the Nicoya Peninsula, the San José greater metropolitan area, Guanacaste, the Caribbean province of Limón and the Osa Peninsula, and look at the heavily criticized pineapple plantations in the northern plains.

How to cross the street in Costa Rica

This comes from my good friend Peter Krupa:

Crossing the street in Costa Rica from Peter Krupa on Vimeo.

Calle 13 shows heart in Fraijanes

Latin hip hop/reggaetón megastars Calle 13 went straight from their closing performance at Costa Rica’s drink-a-thon fiesta Palmares today (Sunday) to the mountain hamlet Fraijanes, where families displaced by the Jan 8 earthquake are being sheltered.

According to a video and account by Cristian Cambronero, over at fusildechispas, Residente and Visitante, the two principal members of the group, toured the shelter and town unnanounced, shaking hands and talking with people there but avoiding the media.

Calle 13 has proved itself to be irreverent and original in a musical genre dominated, at least in the mainstream, by shallow derivitives of whatever was hot last month. It’s nice to see that they appear to be compassionate human beings as well.