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.”