By Lindsay Fendt
3 September 2013
(Tico Times) – Hours before his murder, sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora came upon poachers digging up turtle eggs at the notoriously dangerous Moín Beach, near Limón on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast. Mora reasoned with the poachers, perhaps explaining that leatherbacks – enormous, prehistoric-looking turtles – are endangered. He convinced the men to give up half of their eggs, which he planned to rebury in a safer location.
Negotiations like this happen all over Costa Rica – where six species of sea turtles nest each year – and are part of a tradition that can be traced to the late 1950s and Archie Carr, a U.S. zoology professor who co-founded the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and helped establish the Tortuguero National Park.
On Moín Beach, negotiations have been especially common. Sold for up to $1 apiece, turtle eggs have been a lucrative side business for the poor and underemployed residents of coastal communities for decades – despite the illegality of the trade.
“We’re not law enforcement,” said Vanessa Lizano, who heads the Costa Rican Wildlife Sanctuary and frequently walked the beach with Mora. “All we can do is negotiate. We used to have a very friendly relationship with some of the poachers and then they started to change. They got aggressive.”
Later that night, May 30, Mora encountered a different group of poachers who kidnapped him and four women, then beat him, stripped him and tied his body to the back of a car. The poachers dragged him through the sand and left him to suffocate on the beach he had vowed to protect. A passerby discovered his motionless, naked body early the next day. Mora was 26.
The brutal attack and the investigation that followed dominated headlines for months, generating international attention and concern among the conservationist community, both in Costa Rica and abroad. Celebrity conservationists like Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson blasted the Costa Rican government and maintained intense pressure on cops to make an arrest.
On July 31 – exactly two months after the murder – Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided several locations in Moín and further inland, sweeping up eight suspects following a detailed and lengthy investigation. The Tico Times has obtained documents from the murder probe that show the OIJ ’s investigation was both serious and, with exceptions, thorough.
Yet for environmentalists, many questions linger. One of the most important is this: How did the relationship between conservationists and poachers on Moín Beach escalate from forced coexistence to violent retribution?
The documents obtained by The Tico Times, as well as interviews with people close to the case, provide answers to that question, along with an inside look into the poaching business in Limón, the lives of Mora’s suspected killers and the methods police used to build a case against them. [more]