Murder of Activist Threatens Turtle Projects in Costa Rica

Things began to change a few years ago. Locals started spotting outsiders who wandered the beaches at night, armed with pistols and, on rare occasions, AK-47 assault rifles. They stole eggs, which could be sold for about $1 in the black market. More recently, the poachers have traded their eggs for drugs with local traffickers. (Buying or selling turtle eggs is only legal on two beaches in Costa Rica, on the Pacific coast.) “The socioeconomic situation in the region has led people to believe in illegal businesses,” Chacón said. “And on a public beach, a place without any protection, they can do whatever they want. There is no law there.”

Last year, there were 1,474 leatherback turtle nests in the area, the highest number in Costa Rica, according to Chacón. If all of the eggs had been stolen and sold in the black market, the thieves would have raked in roughly $120,000. It’s a considerable sum, but most observers think that the true culprits behind Mora’s death were not simple poachers trying to make a profit.

“This is an area where there is a high incidence of drug trafficking,” Leslie said. “That was what Mora denounced.”

A month before he was killed, Mora had decried the presence of drug dealers and turtle-egg traders in the Costa Rican province of Limón and he’d done it in La Nación,, Costa Rica’s most important newspaper. Mora recounted anonymous threats he’d received, telling the paper that he’d pled for help for weeks. On April 23, he wrote on his Facebook page: “They could send policemen to the beach in Mohín. They shouldn’t be afraid, they should just come armed, that’s all.” But authorities rarely showed up, he said; conservationists couldn’t count on police support.

“It’s like a chronicle of a death foretold in its greatest splendor,” Leslie said. “He had warned authorities, and a year earlier, volunteers at Mohín had already been assaulted.”

Costa Rica’s vice president, Alfio Piva, downplayed the incident Monday. He told CNN that a considerable amount of Colombian cocaine passed through the area where More died, but stressed that the attack was an isolated incident, and it shouldn’t be interpreted as a symptom of a larger problem. “It’s a very regrettable accident,” Piva said, “but an accident nonetheless.”

There haven’t been similar murders in past years, the government says -- but the growing insecurity on beaches like Nueve Millas is not a new development, according to conservationists.

“This was an issue that was known, that has been known for a while,” Leslie said, “and the government hasn’t done anything about it. It’s their responsibility. They should have done something to protect the turtles, and to protect the people that are trying to protect the turtles.”

Security in Mohín has been ramped up since Friday. Police captured three poachers and are looking into several leads on Mora’s death. The investigation is still ongoing.

In the meantime, a group of eight environmental NGOs headed by Widecast has offered a $10,000 reward for any information that can help solve Mora’s murder.

“It’s a tragedy,” Didiher Chacón told ABC Univision. “Jairo was a jovial and energetic young man. He grew up in a small town next to a natural preserve and he had learned to love turtles and conservation since he was a kid.”

“I’m a father and I don’t want the responsibility of sending someone else there,” he added. “I don’t think anybody with a level head should want to go to those beaches.”

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