MOÍN, Limón – The ground was still wet from an early morning rain as a troop of agents from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) marched down a gravel road, guns drawn. In the dim, predawn light, they were followed by a procession of police vehicles as they closed in on two small shacks deep in the jungle, perched just a few kilometers from the beach where 26-year-old turtle conservationist Jairo Mora was murdered exactly two months ago.
When police arrived at the two small lots, truckloads of agents emptied onto the lawn. Four officers approached the doors and readied a battering ram. After a silent countdown, they burst through one door, then another. Seconds later, shouts emerged from one house, and a shirtless man, hands held high in the air, appeared in the window, illuminated by a policeman’s flashlight.
As two agents brought the man to the ground, two white geese in the backyard began to squawk, and other officers hustled back into the vans.
That’s how it happened at one of six raids conducted Wednesday at around 5 a.m. by a special OIJ unit charged with investigating the brutal murder, along with police tactical teams. They surprised suspects at several homes in Moín, Limón and Guapiles in the province of Limón, 100 kilometers northeast of the capital. The morning’s arrests are the latest development of a two-month homicide case that has generated international pressure from environmental groups and even a U.S. congressman.
At a press conference Wednesday morning in San José following the raids, Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chaverría and OIJ Director Francisco Segura announced the arrest of eight people – six men and two women – in connection with the case. One suspect remains at large.
The last names of the captured men are: Salmón Meléndez, Cash López, Centeno Rivas, Delgado Loaiza, Quesada Cubillo and Arauz Martínez. The women, whose last names are Delgado Loaiza and Chavarría, were booked and released pending trial, OIJ spokeswoman Marisel Rodríguez told The Tico Times. Some of the other suspects could also be released, she said.
The last names of the suspect who fled also are Salmón Meléndez, and his whereabouts are unknown.
The six men – four Costa Ricans and two Nicaraguans – are accused of participating in Mora’s murder, and the two women likely will face charges of possession of stolen property and the environmental crime of poaching, officials said.
The men are being held for questioning in the Limón Prosecutor’s Office.
The announcement is the culmination of a two-month investigation into the killing of Mora, which took place on the night of May 30 or early morning hours of May 31 on Moín Beach, a 16-kilometer stretch on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast that attracts thousands of endangered nesting sea turtles each year.
Among the evidence recovered in the raids, officials said, were two cellphones belonging to two of the four foreign volunteers – three U.S. citizens and one Spaniard – who were kidnapped along with Mora, and who later escaped and called police. Through surveillance, police were able to trace the phones to the two women, who are wives of two murder suspects.
Police tracked the group – allegedly members of a criminal gang that robbed, raped and terrorized local residents and tourists in the area – through a previous attack against a tourist couple on the same beach on May 18, officials said.
In that attack, which was in some ways similar to the attack on the turtle conservationists, armed men blocked a path with a large tree branch, then kidnapped a tourist couple, tied them up and raped the woman while beating up her husband.
The assailants took the couple to the same abandoned house as the foreign volunteers in the second attack later that month. Police said members of the gang returned and burned down the house in an attempt to destroy evidence.
During the press conference, Chaverría and Segura also offered a suspected motive and some new details. However, when consulted by The Tico Times, both Vanessa Lizano – a longtime friend of Mora’s who patrolled Moín beach with him – and Didiher Chacón, the Costa Rica director of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), which employed Mora, challenged the OIJ officials’ descriptions of events.
“Poaching in Limón is a big organization. It’s a lot bigger than people think it is. I think it does have to do with poaching, and it wasn’t just a criminal gang,” Lizano said.
Officials claim Mora likely knew his attackers, a group of thugs who they say often committed assaults and robberies in the area, and were known turtle egg poachers. According to officials, WIDECAST negotiated a deal to pay 10 poachers $300 a month in exchange for bringing turtle eggs in for protection.
The official theory is that attracted by quick cash, the poachers quickly grew in numbers, and the NGO didn’t have the funds to pay them all. According to officials, WIDECAST struck a second deal that entailed a race to the eggs: whoever reached the turtle nests first would keep the eggs.
Asked about the payment agreement, WIDECAST’s Chacón said, “WIDECAST has never promoted this kind of program. WIDECAST has never paid poachers or anyone for turtle eggs. This is something completely fabricated by the OIJ.”
Officials then said that when the poachers obtained a microbus and outpaced volunteer conservationists in collecting eggs, WIDECAST decided to stop paying them. Mora, who officials said did not approve of the “race to the nests” agreement, instead turned to police for help protecting the beach, a move that officials said led to his death.
Prosecutors then theorized that the night of the attack, the suspects likely were planning a robbery – or worse – again dragging a large tree branch to block the path that visitors and conservationists use to drive along the beach. But it likely was a coincidence that they encountered Mora that night with the group of volunteers, officials said. Angry that WIDECAST had cancelled the payment deal and contacted police, the suspects decided to kill him.
The Tico Times was unable to contact defense attorneys to obtain the suspects’ version of events. Family members would not comment. But both Lizano and Chacón say the authorities’ version doesn’t make sense.
“I had a program with Jairo [Mora] in 2012 where we worked with former poachers. They were not poaching [when they worked with us], they were patrolling the beach with us,” Lizano said.
“This was our way of giving these guys a second chance. Police told us they think the particular poachers that we hired in 2012 are not involved with this group [of suspects]. Everyone wanted the money, but we only hired 10,” she said.
Lizano acknowledged paying poachers $300 a month to help collect eggs for conservation and to patrol the beach instead of selling the eggs on the black market. But she said the program didn’t work because they ran out of money and volunteers were scarce. Plus, poachers can earn more money selling eggs than protecting them. There was no such payment plan in place in 2013, she said.
“I still have poachers approaching me for work, and I give them what I can, but we have no money. These poachers are living in huts, they have no electricity, they have no water,” Lizano said.
“Jairo trusted them and I still trust them. I don’t think [the suspects] are the people who worked with us in 2012. We hired 10, and we’re still in contact with four of them,” she said.
Regarding the agreement over who reaches the nests first – poachers or conservationists – Lizano referred to it as a “beach agreement” that has been in place since the 1950s and was designed by pioneer conservationist Archie Carr.
Local residents and neighbors of the eight people arrested Wednesday could help clarify who the men and women are, and what – if any – relationship they might have had with Mora. But none of them are talking, citing fear of reprisal.
One neighbor, who would not give her name, said, “I don’t see nothing, don’t hear nothing, don’t say nothing. The whole barrio is like that. Those are the rules.”
Despite the confusion generated by Wednesday’s press conference, investigators are celebrating what they consider to be a quick and thorough investigation.
“The case was solved rapidly,” Rodríguez said. According to Lionel Kleven Paco, the OIJ’s regional director in Limón, Wednesday’s arrests bring a “sigh of relief.”
Nevertheless, a protest planned for 4:30 p.m. in front of the Environment Ministry in San José will move forward as planned. Said marine biologist and Marine Turtle Restoration Project President Randall Arauz: “We are definitely not going to celebrate until we get a conviction and these thugs are rotting in jail.”
Lindsay Fendt and Zachary Dyer reported from Limón. Laianer Arias and David Boddiger reported from San José. Follow ticotimes.net for updates.
Video courtesy of OIJ