In the two weeks since the murder of Costa Rican turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval, 26, vigils have filled the streets, security has increased on the northern Caribbean coast were he was killed, and government commissions have been formed, but little else has changed for the nesting turtles on Moín Beach.
“Every night all of the [turtle] nests are raided,” said Vanessa Lizano, Mora’s close friend and fellow turtle protector. “It is still pretty much the same even though we walk with police.”
Twenty officers now patrol Moín Beach and escort conservationists as they carefully gather eggs to guard until they are hatched, according to Limón Police Chief Erick Calderón.
On the night of May 30, when Mora was killed by five masked suspects, despite repeated requests for help by both Mora and Lizano, there were only five cops in the area. Spread across an 18-kilometer beach, the five police officers didn’t see when Mora, along with four foreign volunteers – three from the U.S. and one from Spain – were captured by at least five masked men. They didn’t see the men take the volunteers and leave them in an abandoned house, and they didn’t see them drive off with Mora, beat him, strip him naked and leave him to suffocate alone in the sand next to his vehicle.
Despite its location in a remote and dangerous part of the Limón province, the Moín Beach turtle nesting program increased in importance over the past several years due to changes in the nesting patterns of the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, said Didiher Chacón, the Costa Rica director for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST), where Mora worked. In 2012, conservation programs on Moín beach collected more than 1,500 leatherback nests, more than any other beach in the country.
Even after repeated threats from poachers, Mora requested to return to the beach year after year during leatherback nesting season, from February through July in Costa Rica.
“Jairo loved this beach and he believed in this project,” Lizano said. “Sometimes I think that me and Jairo were the only two people who cared at all about Moín.”
Since Mora’s murder, WIDECAST has pulled out of the Moín Beach program, and the organization’s previous job of monitoring turtle nests is now being carried out by a small group of unaffiliated environmentalists.
According to the Judicial Investigation Police, there are still no suspects in the case, and now other groups are taking matters into their own hands.
Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson, made famous by Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” reality show, announced a $30,000 reward last Friday for any information leading to the arrest of Mora’s killers.
Watson is wanted by Costa Rican authorities for an incident in 2002 between a Sea Shepherd ship and a Costa Rican shark-finning boat in Guatemalan waters. Costa Rican fishermen accused Watson of attempted murder at high seas, but Watson said the incident, captured on video, is nothing more than a fisherman's tale made up to cover up illegal fishing by the Costa Rican crew.
This week, Watson blasted the Costa Rican government on his Facebook page both for his arrest warrant and the lack of arrests in the Mora case.
“It seems to me that if the government spent the same amount of time pursuing violent poachers and fighting drug cartels as they do pursuing nonviolent conservationists, they might regain the trust of the conservation community worldwide, a trust they pretend to have but do not,” Watson wrote.
Last week, Seaturtles.org became the first group to offer money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspects, posting a $10,000 reward on their website.
Costa Rican lawmakers are also pressuring law enforcement to find the killers. On Thursday, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved a motion by lawmaker José María Villalta, of the Broad Front Party, to form a commission to investigate the case. According to Villalta, the commission is probing the Environment Ministry (MINAE) and other government agencies to determine if their actions contributed to Mora’s death. The commission also will ensure that both the ministry and police follow procedure during the murder investigation.
“It is important to acknowledge that the death of Jairo is not only the fault of these bands of criminals, but also the fault of the state,” Villalta told The Tico Times. “In this case the state did not fulfill its responsibility, and now we need to take actions so that this doesn’t happen again.”
Following the backlash from Mora’s death, MINAE has begun holding open meetings to determine a plan of action. WIDECAST submitted a proposal for the formation of a protected area around Moín at the first meeting on June 6. The next meeting will be held Thursday, and MINAE will lay out several proposals for actions in Moín and other dangerous areas across the country.
“We see that we need more security,” José Lino Chávez, vice minister of the newly created Waters and Oceans Ministry said. “We are working on a number of proposals from arming our park rangers to increasing security on Moín.”