San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Miedo y asco en San José (Fear and loathing in San José)


(In a previous version of this opinion column, Paul Watson referred to a conversation he said he had with René Castro. The actual conversation, he says, took place with Enrique Castillo. We have corrected that section and added Mr. Watson’s clarification at the end. Read the Environment Ministry’s response to this column here.)

At the request of the Japanese government, the Costa Rican government seemingly spared no expense in tracking me down and having me detained in Germany in May of 2012. They have spared no expense in making sure their prosecutors and courts continue to pursue me to bring me to “justice” for intervening against an illegal shark-finning operation in Guatemalan waters at the request of the Guatemalan government. They have even changed the nature of their charges three times.

Not able to pursue their original charge of attempted murder in 2002, they changed the charge to assault a few days later, and when that was dismissed, they changed the charge to “interference with navigation” in 2012, a decade later.

All of this expense and politically motivated effort for a charge of “interference with navigation.” No one gets extradited through Interpol for “interference with navigation.”

The question is why? The answer is the influence that the shark-finners have on the government of Costa Rica. Killing sharks for their fins brings in a great deal of money, and that money buys influence.

When celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay was doused with gasoline and his life was threatened when he tried to expose shark finning in Costa Rica, the police did nothing except to advise him to leave the country. When Jairo Mora Sandoval requested protection from the police and the government because his life had been threatened by narco-poachers, the police and the government did nothing. When he was murdered a few weeks after his request for protection, a Costa Rican government minister at first called it an accident, and then made the insensitive statement that Jairo had placed himself in a dangerous situation by continuing to guard turtle nests on a dangerous beach.

It has been a month and a half since Jairo’s body was found on the beach he loved and protected, and still the police have not made any progress in apprehending his killers. The government is seemingly hoping that time will make the controversy disappear.

If the Costa Rican government and police cannot solve this crime, maybe they should put in a request to the FBI in the United States for assistance. Surely there are people involved in the narcotics and poaching underworld who know what has happened.

Are the Costa Rican police so incompetent that they do not have any informers? Have these criminal organizations not been infiltrated and if not, why not?

One thing for certain is that conservation and environmental groups in Costa Rica have been infiltrated. As long as this despicable and cowardly murder remains unsolved, the suspicion will grow that this investigation is not being taken seriously, or worse, that there is complicity involving special interests.

If drug traffickers are landing on Costa Rican beaches, then why did the government remove the Coast Guard patrols of these beaches? If Colombian and Panamanian drug runners are running drugs onto these beaches, why are there not police there to intercept them? If turtle eggs are being served in restaurants on the Caribbean coast, why has the government not stepped in to stop this trade? If a tourist can see turtle eggs on a menu, why can’t the police see the same thing?

President Laura Chinchilla was quick to denounce me for saving sharks, but I have not heard a word from her about the importance of bringing these murderers to justice. How much influence do the narco-poachers have over the government and the police?

Or perhaps it is simply incompetence. Either way, it does not look good for Costa Rica’s reputation.

I believe that the government of Costa Rica is corrupt. There are reports in the Costa Rican media of President Chinchilla being flown without charge on private planes connected to drug traffickers.

In June of 2012, I met with Minister for Costa Rican Foreign Affairs Enrique Castillo. This is the conversation:

Captain Watson: In 2002, we simply intervened against an illegal shark finning operation on Guatemalan waters and we did so at the request of the Guatemalan government.

Minister Castillo: There is no evidence that the boat was in Guatemalan waters or that it was doing anything illegal.

Captain Watson: We filmed it. The film has been aired in the documentary “Sharkwater.” We filmed the GPS coordinates of our vessel in the same frame as the Varadero I. The film clearly shows them finnng sharks in Guatemalan waters.

Minster Castillo: We disagree. These were just Costa Rican fishermen fishing legally in international waters. They were not criminals.

Captain Watson: The Varadero I was arrested and prosecuted, found guilty and fined for poaching in the Galapagos Marine Reserve in 2001, the year before this encounter. The vessel was at the time a convicted poaching vessel.

Minister Castillo: This is simply your story.

Captain Watson: And easily verified by the Galapagos National Park.

Minister Castillo: You will have an opportunity to present your case to the Costa Rican court.

Captain Watson: I will come to Costa Rica and appear in your court if I am not detained or extradited onto Japan and if I can be guaranteed that my life will not be put in danger. The shark-finners of Puntarenas put a $25,000 bounty on my head, so going to one of your jails could be a death sentence.

Minister Castillo: You need not worry. We have a former president and former members of previous governments in prison and many people hate them and they are protected. We are a civilized country and the government is not corrupt.

Captain Watson: If the government is not corrupt then why are former presidents and former members of government in prison?

Minister Castillo: That was a previous government, not ours.

Needless to say, there was no reasoning with Castillo. The party line was that the fishermen were innocent and I was guilty.

The situation in Costa Rica is serious. Conservationists cannot be guaranteed safety, and habitats and protected, threatened and endangered species cannot be given adequate protection. …

There is no excuse for the failure to solve the Jairo Mora Sandoval murder. There were five men involved with the murder. There were witnesses. A cellphone from a volunteer was stolen by one of the parties responsible. People talk and leads present themselves. The men who committed this murder are not that intelligent that they would have left no clues. Perhaps the international conservation movement should hire a private investigator to do the job that the police seem incapable of doing.

I believe the Costa Rican police and the government could solve this murder if they invested the resources to do so. And they need to do so. Jairo is no longer simply a murder statistic. He is now an icon, a symbol of conservation, of passionate volunteerism and he is in every way a son of the Costa Rican people, a hero and an inspiration.

If this government in Costa Rican cannot solve this case than perhaps it is time for a new government to be elected, a government that truly cares about Costa Rica and the Costa Rican people.

Captain Paul Watson is founder of the conservation group Sea Shepherd. In 2002, he was briefly detained in Costa Rica on charges that his crew attacked a Costa Rican fishing vessel off the coast of Guatemala. In May 2012, he was arrested in Germany on a warrant from that event in Costa Rica 10 years prior. He has called the charges a sham. 

Correction from author: In my article “Miedo y asco en San José” I made a mistake. The notes I had with me from the meeting with the Costa Rican delegation in June of 2012 referred to the Minister of the Environment René Castro. The person that I had the conversation with regarding the Varaderi I was in fact Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo. My apologies to Mr. Castro. The transcript of the conversation was correct but I had written down the wrong name for the Minister. It was a year ago and it has been hard to keep proper notes while at sea.

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