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.STR/AFP/Getty Images
Leatherback turtles nest on Costa Rica's 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.

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.”