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Oversight needed for new wiretap program

March 31, 2011

A new, cutting-edge wiretap center is designed to help Costa Rican authorities track organized criminal networks. But critics of the program say there isn’t enough oversight to protect the public’s right to privacy.

The new facility will consolidate wiretapping already carried out by the various police agencies into one central location. Judges with warrants will monitor private calls in drug trafficking, homicide and kidnapping cases. The new center, scheduled to be functioning by November, will be located in San Joaquín de Heredia.

Bringing the center online will require the collaboration of several government agencies. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) will provide engineering and the fiber optic technology to link voice and data systems, and the Costa Rican Drug Institute will fund it. The project’s total cost remains confidential. 

The United States government, via its embassy here, is supporting the surveillance program with donated furniture and specialized equipment. U.S. Ambassador Anne Andrew said the wiretap center would play a vital role in helping Costa Rican authorities dismantle organized criminal networks.

“With drug trafficking rates increasing in Costa Rica, we consider this project to be an urgent matter,” Andrew said.

However, some politicians are concerned about a lack of oversight of the program and are calling for more transparency and internal auditing to prevent potential abuse and invasion of privacy, a problem that has happened in the past.

On Nov. 19, 2008, Roberto Guillén, chief operations manager for the Department of Intelligence and Security (DIS), was arrested for allegedly passing citizens’ personal data to a criminal enterprise, whose members are accused of defrauding victims’ bank accounts and passing phony checks.

After a two-year suspension, Guillén returned to DIS on Jan. 9 to perform “closely monitored duties,” according to Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica’s drug czar. But Guillén’s is not the only scandal involving Costa Rica’s intelligence services. 

In September 2010, Social Christian Unity Party lawmaker Luis Fishman revealed the existence of an espionage and intelligence unit inside ICE. The secretive unit used ICE equipment to spy on Jorge Arguedas, president of the National Association of Telecommunications Technicians, an ICE union, in December 2009.

In June 2010, ICE Executive President Eduardo Doryan asked the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office to determine if wiretaps carried out by his agency were lawfully performed, so that citizens could have “peace of mind.”

“The new wiretap center will fall under the jurisdiction of the judicial system. I don’t know how things are handled in the executive branch, but our judges are law-abiding,” said Alfredo Jones, executive director of the judicial system. “We have performed telephone tapping for many years now.”

Arguedas remains skeptical. “I don’t trust the court system. We all know that cartels have placed their people inside, so personal information could be used for bad things, and what happened with ICE’s spy unit could happen again,” he said.

“Abuses happened in the past, but we shouldn’t forget that phone taps are a powerful tool to track criminal activity,” Fishman said. “No doubt strict auditing and transparency should be in place to guarantee that people are protected.”

José María Villalta, legislator for the Broad Front Party, exhorted authorities to keep foreign influence out of the program.

“I’m concerned that the U.S. Embassy is getting involved. No foreign government should interfere in such sensitive matters. Local authorities must provide ways to encourage public participation in auditing wiretaps to ensure that we are not victims of the political police known as DIS,” said Villalta.

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