Prison sentence for Costa Rica park ranger raises questions about on-the-job protections
UPDATE: Thursday, Sept. 3, 6:00 p.m.
Criminal lawyer Juan Diego Castro said Thursday afternoon that he was reconsidering representing soon-to-be-jailed park ranger Mauricio Steller against attempted murder charges after it came to light that Steller is under investigation for alleged drug trafficking.
Steller was arrested in January 2013 for allegedly selling cocaine that he found in the mountains while working for the Environment Ministry, online news outlet crhoy.com reported at the time. Then director of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) Francisco Segura told crhoy.com at the time that Steller’s drug trafficking activities were related to the murder of Steller’s father, Rodrigo Steller Jiménez, on a farm between Osa and Golfito in August 2012. Two other people were murdered along with Rodrigo Steller.
Mauricio Steller told The Tico Times that he is innocent. “I’m calm,” he said.
Castro’s claims that his client wasn’t forthcoming about his previous run-in with the law made him doubt whether to continue representing Steller. Still, Castro said he thought the park ranger was innocent of attempted murder.
“I have no doubt, when I read the case file, that Mauricio Steller was wrongly convicted of murder,” Castro said in a video he sent to The Tico Times. Castro said he was waiting for more details in order to make a decision in the coming hours on whether to continue representing Steller.
We will continue to follow this story and provide updates.
UPDATE: Thursday, Sept. 3, 3:45 p.m.
Juan Diego Castro, the highly-regarded criminal lawyer who was representing park ranger Mauricio Steller on a pro bono basis withdrew from the case. We are working to bring you an update on this breaking development.
Original story continues below.
On a moonless night in 2009 two Costa Rican park rangers set off to patrol Playa Carate, a remote beach near Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula. They tramped silently through the darkness until four people, illuminated by their glowing flashlights, caught their attention.
It was September, sea turtle nesting season, and the rangers had orders to search anyone walking the beach at night to check for poached turtle eggs. It should have been a routine search, but when the rangers approached the group and introduced themselves, they were greeted with hostility.
“I know who you bastards are,” one man said. Then he pushed one of the rangers, 24-year-old Mauricio Steller, and pulled a machete from his belt. The other two men also drew machetes and threw themselves at the rangers. As Steller dodged blows from his assailants he could smell alcohol on their breath.
Steller’s partner swung his rifle around, but the gun was jammed. He pointed it at the attackers and used it to block machete swipes as he yelled desperately for help. Steller drew his own service weapon, a 9mm pistol, and ordered the men to drop their machetes. The men continued to advance and Steller loaded his gun. He fired, it jammed.
Steller sprinted back 30 meters into complete darkness, reloaded his weapon and fired warning shots. As the ranger retreated one of the attackers, Alix Castro, followed.
“Halt, or I’ll shoot,” Steller said, firing a warning bullet into the sand. Castro stepped forward and said, “Bastard, you are going to have to kill me, or I’ll kill you,” then he lunged with the machete.
Steller fired his gun and buried a bullet into his attacker’s chest.
Castro did not die that night on the beach, but he lost the use of 70 percent of his body and was relegated to a wheelchair. Friday, Steller will go to prison for twelve years for attempted murder.
Legally on their own
Costa Rican park rangers have always had a dangerous job. Policing some of the most remote parts of the country, rangers inevitably butt heads with illegal loggers, gold miners, hunters and poachers.
“During their normal duties park rangers are always vulnerable to to an attack,” Eliecer Arce, the administrator for Corcovado National Park told The Tico Times. “You try to avoid it, but it’s inevitable that sometimes someone will come at you with a gun or a machete.”
To defend themselves, park rangers are often issued guns, but their legal role as police remains ambiguous. While park rangers are considered “wilderness police” in some legal arenas, they are not included in the General Police Law (Ley 7410) when it comes to on-the-job protections. When a park ranger uses his or her service weapon while on duty, the case is treated like any civilian self-defense case, and the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) is prohibited from providing them legal counsel even if the charges were incurred on the job.
It was under these legal conditions, with his own private lawyer, that Steller presented his case to a panel of judges in Golfito. The defense had little evidence beyond Steller’s version of events, which was encapsulated in a 4-page legal complaint he filed the night of the shooting. The Judicial Investigation Police never visited the crime scene and the machete that Castro allegedly used to attack Steller was never recovered.
Court backlogs delayed the proceedings for six years and by trial time Castro had died from an infection he contracted in the gunshot wound four years after his injury. Though the prosecution did not up Steller’s charges to murder, the court determined that the gunshot was the eventual cause of Castro’s death and considered that in its decision and sentencing.
On August 28, the Criminal Court of Osa found Steller guilty of attempted murder and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Friday, the court will finalize the sentence and take him into custody.
Supporters of Steller have launched campaigns on social media in his support.
With help from the Environment Ministry, the park ranger was able to secure the pro bono services of famed criminal attorney Juan Diego Castro, who will present an appeal on Sept. 24. Even if the appeal is successful, it is likely that Steller will serve at least some prison time.
In the week since Steller’s trial, environmental groups and politicians have come out in support of the park ranger.
Wednesday Broadfront Party Lawmaker Edgardo Araya spoke at the Legislative Assembly about the government’s abandonment of the country’s park rangers and encouraged a change in the rules prohibiting park rangers to be defended by state attorneys.
Mauricio Álvarez, president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), called for a pardon of Steller and compared his case to that of slain environmentalist Jairo Mora, whose suspected killers were exonerated in January. According to Álvarez there are at least four other park rangers awaiting trial for violent incidents that occurred on the job.
Corcovado National Park administrator Arce said, “Something needs to change. … Today one ranger falls, but tomorrow it could be another. They can go to jail just for doing their jobs.”
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