Costa Rica: eight arrested in turtle defender’s killing

In six raids in the early morning of July 31, agents from Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) arrested six men and two women in the eastern province of LimĂłn in connection with the murder of environmental worker Jairo Mora Sandoval the night of May 30-31. The authorities were planning to charge the men—four Costa Ricans and two Nicaraguans—with participating in the murder; the women, the wives of two of the men, reportedly would be charged with the possession of stolen property and with stealing eggs of the leatherback turtle, an endangered species. The raids came amid growing pressure for action in the two-month-old case, including a protest in San JosĂ© and statements by a United Nations human rights official, John Knox, and a US Congress member, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA).

Mora worked for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) trying to keep poachers from stealing eggs from the turtles’ nests. A group of men seized Mora and four volunteers—three from the US and one from Spain—as they were patrolling the beach. The volunteers managed to escape and call the police, but Mora was killed. OIJ officials theorized that the men were a gang of common criminals that had kidnapped a tourist couple on May 18, raping the woman and beating the man. But the authorities also suggested that WIDECAST had been brought the attack on itself by attempting to buy off the poachers, who became angry when the organization ran out of money to pay them.

Vanessa Lizano, a longtime friend of Mora’s who patrolled the beach with him, and Didiher ChacĂłn, WIDECAST’s Costa Rica director, both disputed the official theories. “Poaching in LimĂłn is a big organization,” Lizano told the English-language online newspaper Tico Times. “I think [the murder] does have to do with poaching, and it wasn’t just a criminal gang.” According Lizano, she and Mora had employed 10 former poachers in 2012 to help with the patrols but couldn’t afford to continue the program. She denied that they were trying to buy the poachers off. “This was our way of giving these guys a second chance. Police told us they think the particular poachers that we hired in 2012 are not involved with this group.” Lizano noted the connection between poaching and the level of poverty in the area: “These poachers are living in huts, they have no electricity, they have no water.” (Tico Times, July 31; New York Times Dot Earth blog, Aug. 2)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 4.