The Environmental Tribunal’s offices in San José were burglarized last month, and officials suspect the culprits were hired by developers upset at the court’s recent crackdowns on illegal coastal projects.
The tribunal, an administrative court of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) created in 1998 to enforce environmental laws, temporarily shut its doors after a break-in was discovered July 23 as officials showed up for work. It was the fifth burglary of the court in recent years.
The burglars apparently broke in the night before, rifled through desks and case files and stole Chief Justice José Lino Chaves’s laptop.
Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) inspected the scene the following day, after a lapse of more than 24 hours. They found fingerprints and blood, which are being analyzed to see if any suspects can be identified.
Tribunal officials returned to work July 24 and began sifting through their case files to see if anything else is missing.
Tribunal officials said they suspect coastal developers of trying to intimidate judges by hiring criminals to rummage through the court’s offices. Judge Mario Leiva said he has also noticed individuals following him.
“Starting about four months ago, the same time we started ordering environmental sweeps and inspections against mega-development projects, particularly in Guanacaste, we started receiving death threats by phone and we’ve been followed,” Leiva said. “It’s very likely we’re talking about some kind of organized crime tied to developers.”
Leiva, his assistant Adriana Bejarano and Chaves were targeted during the most recent burglary. But the thieves’ objective was not money.
“Bejarano’s purse with money in it was there in full view,” Leiva said. “But they didn’t touch it. They were clearly interested in documents and information.”
Chaves filed police reports in May, alleging he received three death threats and that eight computers had been stolen from the Tribunal (TT, May 23).
Tribunal spokeswoman Gabriela Hernández said the court is not backing down because of the threats.
The Tribunal, which has three judges, began an aggressive inspections and enforcement program in Costa Rica’s coastal regions in March. They’ve temporarily shut down numerous development projects from Guanacaste to Limón to Osa for various violations of environmental laws.
Hernández said that to date, the tribunal has received little compliance from developers after they’ve been cited and ordered to suspend their operations until they provide mitigation plans to address their violations.
She said the only developer so far to submit a mitigation plan is Costa Montaña, a company developing the Vista Hermosa condo project in Garabito in Puntarenas province on the central Pacific.
Some developers such as Pelicano Holdings in Zapotillal de Santa Cruz in the northwestern Guanacaste province, instead of complying and submitting mitigation plans, have sued the tribunal for disclosing information to the news media, Hernández said. But those cases have so far been thrown out by the courts.
Hernández said the tribunal has begun digitizing all of its records to avoid losing any information to future burglaries.
Officials have not said whether the burglaries have compromised any cases.