Murder of Activist Threatens Turtle Projects in Costa Rica

PHOTO: Leatherback turtles nest on Costa Ricas Caribbean and Pacific coasts. These giant turtles are an endangered
species, and in Costa Rica, their survival is threatened by humans who poach their eggs.

Last Friday just before midnight, Jairo Mora, a dark-skinned biology student with disheveled black hair and an anchor beard, stepped out of an old truck on a desolate Costa Rican road. Mora, 26, was traveling with four other volunteer environmentalists, all women, to Nueve Millas, a remote beach off the Caribbean coast near the town of Mohín.

Leatherback sea turtles, a critically endangered species, nest on the surrounding beaches during this time of the year to lay their eggs. Mora, a Costa Rican native, and his companions were planning to measure the large soft-shelled specimens that painfully made their way up the dunes. They also planned to patrol several miles of sand to protect the nests from poachers, who were stealing eggs every night.

But it was the environmentalists who needed protection that night. By morning, the four women would be tied up alone in a nearby abandoned house, and Mora’s naked body would be found on the beach. How and why they were attacked is unclear, but the murder has consequences that ripple far beyond the waves that lap on Nueve Millas.

The volunteers had stopped that night to remove an obstacle in their path. Not far from the beach, a tree trunk blocked the road. When Mora walked over to move it, four masked men with guns surrounded him. They locked him in the back of the car and then led the four women -- three Americans and a Spaniard -- to the empty house. There, they tied them up and drove off.

Once the masked men left, the women struggled to loosen their bindings. They managed to break free, walk to town, and alert the police at dawn. The authorities found Mora’s corpse next to the empty truck around 6 a.m. that morning. He had been struck with a blunt object of his head. He had no clothes on and his mouth was full of sand.

The event has triggered an internal crisis in Costa Rica, a country that proudly touts its conservationist credentials. For environmentalists, there is fear that Mora’s death could signal a turning point for tourism, which makes up nearly 5 percent of Costa Rica’s GDP. Fear of future attacks could also thwart conservation activities in certain parts of the country, further endangering species like the leatherback turtles.

“Working on turtle conservation has always been difficult,” Aimee Leslie, a Costa Rican who oversees the World Wildlife Foundation’s marine turtle efforts, told ABC Univision. “And now everyone is surely going to be scared of trying to help. [Mora’s] death is a critical point for conservation in the country. Now it has become a national security issue.”

The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Widecast), the organization that Mora was working for when he was killed, announced Saturday that it would close its program in Mohín out of security concerns.

“Our understanding is that [Mora] was getting in someone’s way,” said Didiher Chacón, Widecast’s director in Latin America. “Jairo spoke out against the criminal elements there. And the fact that they left sand in his throat sends a clear message to our organization. They wanted to silence him.” Turtle-egg poachers have always existed in Mohín, Chacón said. But they had never done anything beyond cursing volunteers. “People got upset sometimes, but it was nothing like it is now,” he said.

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