Baby seas turtles crawl across a beach in Costa Rica. Jairo Mora Sandoval was a conservationist who protected baby turtles on Playa Moín. In the early morning of 31 May 2013, he was kidnapped and beaten to death. Photo: Lindsay Fendt

By Lindsay Fendt
9 July 2013

(Tico Times) – The murder of 26-year-old Jairo Mora in late May exposed cracks in the country's international environmental image, and proved that protecting nature sometimes has a terrible cost.

Costa Rican park rangers switched out their muck boots for loafers and converged on San José two weeks ago for the National Congress of Conservation. After the auditorium slowly filled with rangers in brown uniforms – the standard gear for employees of the Costa Rican National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) – Roberto Molina, secretary general of the Environment Ministry’s labor union, asked them to stand. He called for a moment of silence in honor of Jairo Mora.

It had been nearly a month since Mora, a 26-year-old turtle conservationist working for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST), was killed while on patrol. A group of armed masked men kidnapped, beat, tortured and left him to suffocate to death facedown in the sand at Moín Beach, on the Caribbean coast. So far, no arrests have been made in the case. On Wednesday, however, Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría told a local TV news station that investigators had identified two suspects in the case, and police "action" could happen next week, an apparent allusion to upcoming arrests. 

In the weeks following the murder, Molina attended every government meeting regarding Mora, and he joined several distraught environmental leaders at Mora’s San José vigil. At each gathering, he voiced concerns about the deteriorating conditions in Costa Rica's national parks, including mounting threats from drug traffickers and other illegal activities.

Speaking at the conservation congress on Friday, Molina pointed to a cartoon skull painted on a banner – the skull wore a SINAC ranger hat, and the banner carried the warning “species in extinction.” This will become the fate of park rangers if SINAC fails to make administrative changes, he said.

Mora’s murder could be only the beginning, he added.

In death, Mora has become a national symbol for the danger that lurks in Costa Rica’s protected areas. His name is emblazoned on billboards and in street graffiti, and it will be painted on Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson’s new ship, the S.S. Jairo Mora Sandoval. Now that he’s the poster child for environmental sacrifice, conservationists across the country are invoking his name to call attention to a wide array of misbehaviors within parks, including illegal mining, poaching and drug trafficking. Left unchecked, they say these activities will bring about more tragedy.

Though authorities have revealed little about the circumstances surrounding Mora’s death, conservationists involved with the Moín project are pointing fingers at drug traffickers and poachers.

“The same people who want to sell and use drugs are the same people who come to the beach and kill turtles,” said Didiher Chacón, WIDECAST's Costa Rican director.

One week after Mora’s murder, police seized 1,200 kilograms of marijuana near the beach where he was killed, and earlier this year, more than 1,700 kilograms of cocaine were found in the same area. The danger in the region has driven several volunteer programs away from the Caribbean, despite the coast’s importance for nesting leatherback turtles, an endangered species.

“When we first were getting started, we tried to work on the Caribbean coast and decided not to work there,” said Randall Arauz, president of Costa Rica’s Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) and a leading sea turtle expert. “We were getting threats, and we decided it was too dangerous.” [more]

Endangered protectors: Turtle conservationist's death highlights perils of protecting Costa Rica's environmental wealth

By Lindsay Fendt
31 May 2013

(Tico Times) – At around 6 a.m. on Friday, the body of 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval, a young Costa Rican conservationist who monitored and protected turtle nests, was found on Moín Beach, on the northern Caribbean coast.

In a statement by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) on May 31, Mora had been badly beaten and shot in the head, and his hands were tied behind his back. In an updated statement on June 3 the OIJ said an autopsy revealed that Mora was found naked outside of the car he used for patrols and that he died from a hard blow to the head and affixiation from sand. It was unclear whether or not Mora had been shot.

Mora had worked as a beach monitor for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) at Moín, said WIDECAST’s Costa Rica Coordinator Didiher Chacón. The program has seen an increase in poachers, Chacón said, and a recent story in a national daily quoted Mora linking the poaching to drug traffickers.

“With everything we know about what happened, it seems like it was an act of revenge,” Chacón said. “Jairo didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He wasn’t involved in those kinds of things. We think it must have had to do with his work.”

On April 23, Mora posted a call for help to authorities on his Facebook page after a night of poaching raids.

“Send messages to the police so they come to Moín beach.. tell them not to be afraid but to come armed… 60 turtles lost and there wasn’t even a single nest… we need help and fast,” Mora wrote.

According to a press release from the OIJ, Mora was on patrol Thursday night along with four foreign volunteers – three women from the U.S. and one from Spain. At approximately 11:30 p.m., Mora stepped out of the car to move a tree trunk from the road and was grabbed by at least five masked men with guns.

The men then drove the car to a nearby abandoned house where they left the four women guarded by two of the assailants, while Mora and the three other men drove off in the car. Once the women realized that their guards had left, they walked to a butterfly farm where Mora had worked and called the police.

Mora’s body was found less than a kilometer away from the abandoned house, and an autopsy is pending. The OIJ and local police say that they have not yet determined a motive for the case or a possible link to drug trafficking.

Limón police and the Coast Guard began patrolling Moín Beach on May 6 after a number of nests were sacked by poachers. According to Erick Calderón, the Limón chief of police, there were five police officers on duty that night, and they had been in radio contact with Mora an hour before the incident.

“The goal of the police patrols was less about protecting volunteers and more about increasing the number of eyes and ears on the beach,” Calderón said. “It’s a large area of 18 km and it’s completely dark. There is no way to monitor every part of it at all times.”

The U.S. Embassy in San José called the killing "senseless" in a Facebook posting shortly after the murder Friday.

WIDECAST has closed the program following the incident, and has said that they will no longer send staff or volunteers to monitor the beach.

“We can’t risk human lives for this project,” Chacón said. “But this is probably the exact result that the killers were hoping for.”

Turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval found murdered on Playa Moín in Costa Rica



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