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Poachers and Drug Traffickers Are Creating a Deadly Environment in Costa Rica

Two years ago activist Jairo Mora Sandoval was murdered on the beach while trying to protect the eggs of endangered sea turtles; his alleged murderers were acquitted but a new trial may be in the offing

by Lindsay Fendt
Jun 19 2015, 1:45pm

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Hot wax puddles near the shores of Moín Beach on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Two years earlier, the same sands were soaked with the blood of 26-year-old conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval. Accompanied by a police patrol, several Mora supporters have gathered for a candlelight vigil on the Caribbean beach to commemorate the anniversary of his death.

An important nesting ground for endangered leatherback sea turtles, Moín Beach is known for the legions of egg poachers that arrive on its shores each year. As a rumored aphrodisiac, turtle eggs can be sold at bars and on street corners for a hefty profit. 

Mora sought to protect these eggs, and he paid for his efforts with his life. During a night beach patrol on May 30, 2013, to gather turtle eggs for reburial in a secure location, he was captured by alleged poachers, brutally beaten, and dragged behind a car before being left to suffocate in the sand.

Mora's not alone. Since 2002, at least 1,000 environmentalists have been killed in Latin America. As of last year, only six of these murders ended in convictions. The first trial for Mora's murder ended in an acquittal, and prosecutors are arguing for a retrial.

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Broad Front Party lawmakers carry a coffin in front of the Supreme Court in San José, Costa Rica. The coffin contains photos of dead environmentalists. Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Working in some of the most remote and un-policed parts of the country, Costa Rica's environmental protectors face increasing pressure from illegal poachers, loggers, miners, and drug traffickers. Costa Rica is right in the middle of the northward routes for cocaine headed to the US from Latin America, and the combination of poachers and drug traffickers has raised the level of violence. Since 1989, 10 Costa Rican environmental activists have been killed. Though arrests have been made in some of these cases, not one has resulted in a conviction.

Two months after Mora's murder, seven alleged poachers were arrested and charged with the slaying. By that time the young activist's story had been widely covered in the local and international media, and the country watched carefully as prosecutors strung their case together.

At the start of the trial in October of 2014, the case seemed open and shut. Cell tower geo-location placed the suspects on the beach during the crime and transcripts of text messages showed the suspects exchanging details about the murder: "We dragged him on the beach behind Felipe's car.... and you know it."

But the court's three-judge panel found that both prosecutors and police investigators had mishandled evidence and the judges ruled the most significant pieces of the case inadmissible, acquitting all seven defendants.

"It is the job of the investigators and the prosecution to properly manage a case to eliminate doubt, not create it," Judge Yolanda Alvarado said after reading the verdict to a crowded courtroom on January 26. "Unfortunately, the chain of proof was broken in this case."

Alvarado was not the only one to place the blame on the prosecution. Lawmakers called a special hearing with the country's chief prosecutor to investigate what went wrong in the case and Costa Rica's environmental minister marched in a public protest decrying the prosecution office's bungled investigation. While many of these officials have written off the Mora case as a one-off example of incompetent legal work, others in Costa Rica say the case's result points to larger issues that foster impunity in cases involving environmentalists.

"The Prosecutor's Office is Corrupt" says the sign. Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

"During the investigation of these cases [the investigators] don't often look at the victim's activism as a cause for the crime," said Mauricio Álvarez, president of Costa Rica's Federation for the Conservation of the Environment (FECON). "But the result is still that people become afraid to be activists."

Though the initial verdict in the Mora case has outraged the environmental community, the fight isn't over. In Costa Rica defendants can be tried a total of three times for the same crime, and on June 2 prosecutors presented their case at a hearing for a new trial.

If a new trial is granted, the seven defendants will be tried before a new panel of judges and evidence excluded in the previous trial could again be presented.

"We firmly believe that they will annul the previous verdict and grant a new trial," said Rodrigo Araya, the lawyer representing Mora's family in the civil case, which is tried together with the criminal case. "If we are given a new trial, I believe that we will win."

In the year after Mora's murder, no conservationists would work on Moín Beach for fear of meeting a similar end. But this nesting season, the Tropical Science Center has hired three full-time employees to collect eggs from the beach and move them to safety.

Funding comes APM Terminals, a container terminal operating company building a port up the coast.

"They have more than 113 nests safely in a hatchery," said Vanessa Lizano, who had worked side-by-side with Mora before his murder. "Things are changing, and I just hope that it stays this way."