Verdict in second Jairo Mora trial expected Tuesday

March 29, 2016
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GANDOCA, Limón — The sun has not yet risen in the secluded Caribbean town of Gandoca, in southern Costa Rica, but the roosters are already crowing. Despite the hour, the birds’ cries don’t disturb the members of the Mora family, who have been stirring in their small, three-room bungalow since 3 a.m.

Fernanda Sandoval, the family’s matriarch, emerges into the kitchen fully dressed as two of her daughters put together a hasty breakfast. Her husband, Rafael Mora, places small loafs of bread into bags for the day’s journey.

Since January, this before-dawn ritual has become the daily norm for Fernanda and Rafael as they struggle to make daily appearances at the courthouse in the city of Limón. The trip takes three hours by bus, and these days the two rarely see their home during daylight.

Rafael has been unable to care for his crops, the family’s main source of income, and Fernanda worries about leaving her aging mother alone. But it is more than a legal obligation that keeps Fernanda and Rafael going back to Limón; these court proceedings may be their last chance to see their son’s killers put behind bars.

Jairo Mora, Fernanda and Rafael’s 26-year-old son, was killed on Limón’s Moín Beach in 2013 while working as a sea turtle monitor. Since that day, the Moras have stood by as police investigated the case. They sat by as activists and the media invaded their lives, and watched hopefully as police arrested seven alleged poachers suspected of the crime.

Then, last January, they sat helplessly in the courtroom as most of the prosecution’s evidence was ruled inadmissible at trial. When the panel of judges returned a not-guilty verdict, Fernanda and Rafael hurried, crying, from the courthouse.

This second trial, set to conclude Tuesday, is the prosecution’s last chance to try the original defendants. If the suspects are acquitted this time around, they will go free.

Guilty or not-guilty, the decision will mark the end of a three-year saga that has captivated people across the globe. In Costa Rica, Jairo Mora has become a household name. His likeness has been incorporated into murals and graffiti, and environmental groups use his photo to promote turtle conservation programs.

In court each day, in front of the cameras, it is this image of their son — Jairo the martyr, the turtle guardian — that his parents cannot escape.

“What we want is justice,” Fernanda said, “but no one has a heart of steel to keep remembering every detail of this every day.”

Those who live in the tiny town of Gandoca, where there is no cell service and only one home has Internet, people remember a different Jairo than the one shown on TV. Though he is now depicted as a lone, fearless defender of sea turtles, Jairo was just one of a group of children from Gandoca trained by the conservation group Widecast to care for turtles in the small wildlife refuge on the town’s coastline.

Ten other boys around Jairo’s age wound up working for Widecast, and some still work with turtle conservation programs. On weekends they come back to help on the family farms, just like Jairo did. These frontline turtle defenders go unnoticed, just as Jairo did before his death.

Regardless of the court’s decision, Rafael and Fernanda will return home Tuesday night unburdened by another court appearance. But beyond the remote pastures of Gandoca, the verdict’s ramifications will linger.

“All that Rafael and Fernanda ask is that this crime not go unpunished,” Rodrigo Arias, the Mora family lawyer, pleaded during the trial’s final days. “It is our desire, that of all Costa Ricans, that this crime not go unpunished.”

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