San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
National parks

Strong support for Costa Rica park ranger sentenced for attempted murder despite revelation of separate drug case

Costa Rica park ranger Mauricio Steller Fallas — recently sentenced to 12 years in prison for shooting a suspected poacher — reached martyr status this past week in local media and among Costa Rican and international conservationists. Even some lawmakers said the 32-year-old Steller should be pardoned for what appeared to many to be an act of self-defense in a dangerous situation.

Then, on Thursday, it came to light that Steller was the subject of a separate investigation for allegedly stealing and selling drugs. Steller’s current lawyer said his client failed to tell him about the investigation, making him question whether to continue representing the park ranger.

Nevertheless, support for Steller among his colleagues and fellow conservationists appears to have wavered little. On Friday morning dozens of workers from Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), including Executive Director Julio Jurado, gathered outside SINAC’s main office in San José to protest against Steller’s prison sentence and, in general, against poor working conditions for park rangers.

Steller, who worked in the Osa Conservation Area, was convicted of attempted murder for shooting a suspected poacher during a beach patrol in 2009. Park rangers say they are under-equipped and ill-trained to handle situations that could necessitate the use of deadly force.

“This wouldn’t have happened if conditions for park rangers were better,” said Fernando Quirós, director of the Cocos Island Conservation Area, who was at the protest.

SINAC protestors also pointed out discrepancies in the law that make it difficult for park rangers to legally use force, and regulations that prohibit the government from providing rangers with legal counsel if they face charges stemming from actions carried out on the job.

SINAC employees protest in front of the SINAC building in San José demanding better conditions for park rangers, Friday, September 04.

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Steller’s case captured national attention last week as environmental groups took to social media to show their support for the park ranger. Many noted the apparent contradiction between jailing a park ranger who was attempting to stop poaching and releasing the suspected killers of sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora after a badly botched investigation and trial.

The Environment Ministry even helped contract respected criminal attorney Juan Diego Castro to represent Steller pro bono for his appeal.

But Castro said Thursday that he was reconsidering representing the park ranger after his client allegedly failed to tell him that he was the subject of a separate drug investigation potentially related to a triple murder in 2012. Steller’s father was one of the victims.

According to the Osa Prosecutor’s Office, Steller is under investigation for the possession and sale of eight kilos of cocaine that he allegedly found floating near Caño Island, off the coast of the Osa Peninsula, during a ranger patrol in 2012. Prosecutors allege that Steller gave the cocaine to his father, Rodrigo Steller, to sell. During a supposed drug deal Steller’s father and two other men were murdered.

Steller told The Tico Times he is innocent of the charges. Meanwhile, his superiors in the park service have continued to support him.

“People are now trying to mix these cases together, but [the drug investigation] has nothing to do with what Mauricio is charged with,” Eliécer Arce, the administrator for Corcovado National Park and one of Steller’s immediate supervisors, told The Tico Times.

Arce said he had no knowledge of the narcotics investigation and that it is “completely false” that Steller found drugs during his ranger duties. Despite the investigation, Steller continued to work with SINAC until his sentencing in the attempted murder trial.

Environmental groups have generally continued to support Steller, though some have toned their support down. Mauricio Álvarez, president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) and one of Steller’s supporters, said that though he still believes Steller is innocent of attempted murder, the drug charges have made it difficult for his group to continue rallying for a pardon for Steller

Still, he said, the lack of legal and physical protections for park rangers is a real, and widespread, problem.

“I want to be clear that independent of [Steller’s] specific case there are many other cases,” he said. “Park rangers face systematic aggression and impunity in the cases they present in court against their aggressors.”

SINAC Executive Director Jurado said Friday that he’s working to change regulations to allow SINAC to hire lawyers or use its own lawyers to defend park rangers in court.

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Rick, I don’t know, what you say is very nuanced such as the the battle between the poor and the laws of conservation.
I have been stuck in a major battle with getting water for a project for about a year now and i can tell you that the crap i am going through is like science fiction. The dishonesty, extortion, incompetence and bad will that i must deal with is the stuff of fiction.
I have an endless stream of very unkind words for those wh try to block me but i would not go as far as saying Minae’s is corrupt or out to get me. In fact there are a lot of good people there and very good laws about protecting the environment and Costa Ricans are very lucky to have this. Any failure in the system, i would think, is isolated rather than the rule.
The problems are a bit complicated to detail here unfortunately but it is certainly a great subject and i hope you will bring it up again.

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Rick Drigo

Some low level and field employees reap immediate benefits by looking the other way. But the big $$ are made by NOT issuing permits, ahile they fool everyone using environmental concern as the reason. Just look at how the ex-ministers of Energy and the Environment are rewarded if they have been against all development and how they are persecuted if they have approved a certain Project. With the press egging on the mobs, accelerating all forms of poverty.

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Do you mean to say that by means of issuing permits, Minae operates a monopoly for its own gain?

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Rick Drigo

Arce looses credibility by denying what is already public knowledge, that Steller unwittingly caused the death of his own father and another individual whom were trying to sell the drugs he had found.

While it may be true that compared to drug dealers these rangers are at a disadvantage for example, it is also true that rangers intimidate everyday citizens whom are trying to survive. In effect the MINAE functions as the policing force for the powerful whom grab and utilize the country’s natural resources, including those within national park boundaries. Whether we are talking of precious Woods or precious metals, they have always taken for themselves what they want, and eliminate all competition by way of “Conservation policies”.

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