After 30 years of working as a journalist in Costa Rica, Gilberto Lopes, born in Brazil, decided to apply for citizenship.
He was initially rejected, however, allegedly based on secret information held by the Department of Intelligence and National Security (DIS), an agency likened by its own deputy director to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Though he admits he can’t prove it, Lopes says he believes the DIS was keeping tabs on him because of his vocal opposition to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), the debate over which polarized the country and which was finally approved in a national referendum in 2007.
“It’s evident,” he said this week. “If you ask me for proof, the only proof I have is that file.”
Lopes, who has since won his citizenship though appeal, has yet to see his file, however.
In its original rejection letter, the Civil Registry told Lopes he had been denied citizenship because he “had not conducted himself well.” According to Lopes’ attorney, the Civil Registry apparently drew this conclusion after consulting the DIS, which said Lopes’ name appeared “annotated” in its files, but provided the registry with no further details. Based on that alone, the Civil Registry rejected the application, though Lopes and his lawyer both say he has never been convicted of any crime.
When, during the appeals process, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), which oversees the Civil Registry, asked what the DIS files said about Lopes, the security agency refused to reveal its information. Instead, it cited articles of the law which created the agency that allow it to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or “state secrets.”
Now, it appears the file 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 DIS deputy director Jorge Torres in an interview this week inside his woodpaneled office in the unmarked, nondescript DIS headquarters off a busy intersection in San José.
“The department’s doors are totally open if anyone wants to see if there is a file on them,” Torres insisted.
This new position comes on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling Feb. 4 that ordered the DIS to give a Colombian lawyer named Carlos Meneses – whose citizenship request was also denied because his name appeared annotated on secret DIS files – access to those files.
Arturo Fournier, Lopes’ attorney, said he is not convinced.
“First, they tell the tribunal that they cannot give them the file because it is a state secret, and now they say it doesn’t exist,” Fournier said. “It shows that this was an act of bad faith.”
Torres, however, defended the agency and 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 freedom of expression,” Torres insisted. “I believe that no one was arrested, the leaders (of the anti-CAFTA movement) were in no way pressured to change their way of thinking.”
Members of the movement have long denounced the DIS for alleged political persecution, and these latest allegations come at a time when the agency is already deluged with criticism, and many are questioning why Costa Rica, a nation with no military and an international reputation for peace and human rights, has a secret police.
Francisco Dall’Anese, the nation’s chief prosecutor, has called for nothing less than the total dissolution of the DIS.
“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,” Dall’Anese wrote in an op-ed published Dec. 16, 2008 in the daily La Nación.
Late last year, Torres’ predecessor, former deputy director Roberto Guillén, was forced to step down after the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided his offices in November and accused him of defrauding at least 14 businesses and individuals of property and money by accessing their personal information (TT, Nov. 28, 2008).
Shortly after, DIS director Roberto Solórzano also resigned, saying the revelations had left him “deeply mortified.”
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, who oversees the DIS, has steadfastly supported the agency, saying it is necessary to investigate “matters of state security” that are beyond the scope of the OIJ, which carries out investigations for prosecutors and the judicial branch.
But following the resignations and criticism, the Arias administration agreed to a series of changes laid out in a bill currently in the Legislative Assembly. Torres insists the agency is “in a moment of transition,” and making improvements according to new instructions handed down from minister Arias.
But Lopes questioned not just the agency, but the orders it carries out.
“People talk as if the DIS were an independent agency. The DIS is the government. It is an agency of the Ministry of the Presidency,” Lopes said. “There is the concern for many sectors of the country, because of the political character of DIS’ actions.”