The tear-streaked cheeks of Vanessa Lizano, the close colleague of murdered turtle conservationist Jairo Mora, stood out among the stone-faced officials at the Costa Rican Environment Ministry’s (MINAE) action meeting Tuesday.
Despite the shock from her friend’s murder, Lizano told the Tico Times that she will not stop until Moín Beach, on the northern Caribbean coast, is protected. Now, a proposal from the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST) and promises from Environment Minister René Castro may help make a difference.
“We will be using the proposal submitted by WIDECAST in order to formulate a plan for the creation of a protected area where Jairo worked,” Castro said.
Wednesday morning Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said in a radio interview with Noticias Monumental that there were several suspects in Mora’s murder, which took place during a night patrol on May 30. Mora, a 26-year-old Costa Rican who walked the beaches at night to protect nesting sea turtles and their eggs, and four foreign volunteers – three women from the United States and one from Spain – were attacked and kidnapped by at least five masked men. The assailants took the four volunteers to an abandoned house and drove away with Mora.
An autopsy revealed that Mora died from head trauma and asphyxiation from sand, according to an updated statement from the OIJ. A previous statement said that Mora died of a bullet wound to the head, but the OIJ now says that Mora had no bullet wounds.
The four-part plan submitted by WIDECAST would put Moín Beach under the jurisdiction of park rangers with the power to arrest poachers. A new protected area on the Caribbean coast would be named after Mora.
The plan also proposes an increase in penalties for poachers, the formation of a code of conduct for beach visitors in the entire country and the creation of a memorial fund in Mora’s name.
Although Castro’s announcement was followed by a wave of applause, it soon faded into complaints of rampant threats to environmental programs throughout the country.
“This isn’t only happening in Moín and this not only happening with turtle conservation,” said Roberto Molina, secretary general of MINAE’s labor union, during the meeting on Tuesday morning in San José. “This is happening in every coastal protected area.”
Mora’s death was not the first violent confrontation with environmentalists in Costa Rica’s history. Activists in the meeting referenced the 1994 slaughter of Jaime Bustamante, Óscar Fallas and María del Mar Cordero, environmentalists killed in an unsolved arson case following their successful campaign against loggers in the Osa Peninsula. There are several other cases of attacks and threats against environmental workers, too.
According to Didiher Chacón, Costa Rica country director for WIDECAST, threats to turtle conservation programs from poachers are common across the country. Threats at Moín Beach, in particular, have been reported for years.
In a blog post for Conservation International on Monday, Sebastian Troeng, a former Sea Turtle Conservancy employee on Costa Rica’s Caribbean, remembered confrontations with poachers from his time there before 2006.
“I can’t count the number of times I alerted park rangers to the presence of poachers,” Troeng wrote. “The rangers would fire warning shots in the air that sent the poachers running back to their boats. Sometimes the poachers would fire back.”
Sea turtle NGOs have expressed concern that failure to find Mora’s killers quickly could have an impact on environmental programs across Costa Rica.
“The perpetrators of this heinous crime need to be brought to justice and they need to be brought to justice quickly,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and director of SeaTurtles.org, an NGO that deals with a number of conservation projects in Costa Rica. “We are concerned that if that doesn’t happen that it really threatens the ecology of all of Costa Rica.”
To help ensure a successful investigation, SeaTurtles.org along with other environmental groups are offering a $10,000 reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mora’s killers.
People with information can email [email protected] or call +(506) 2236-0947.
Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Public Security Celso Gamboa also attended the action meeting and, in a brief statement, assured attendees that the ministry was investigating the case. But he also admitted that “security efforts in the area have been insufficient.”
On Monday, Costa Rican Vice President Alfio Piva received a wave of criticism following an interview with CNN in which he referred to Mora’s murder as an “accident” and blamed Limón’s high crime rate.
“I lament that my words were misinterpreted,” Piva wrote on three tweets sent on Monday. “I only meant to recognize that the area where this happened unfortunately has a high murder rate and that there is high risk when working in an area where there is drug trafficking. The work that the young Mora did was admirable, and days ago, I condemned the murder and the authorities already in the area.”
Unsatisfied with the tweets, environmental groups called for a public apology from Piva in a signed letter Tuesday and announced a vigil in Mora’s honor for Wednesday, coinciding with the World Environment Day.
Currently six cities have announced participation in the vigil.
“We are asking for justice for Jairo’s murder and that it not be confused with an accident,” Mauricio Álvarez, president of the Ecologist Federation and an event organizer told elpais.cr. “Also we demand a halt to the impunity that has reigned over too many threats to ecologists, farmers and indigenous groups.”
This story was last updated at 9:58 a.m. on June 6
Alajuela: In front of the courts, 5:30 p.m.
Cañas: Parque Central, 5 p.m.
Heredia: In front of the courts, 5 p.m.
Puerto Viejo: Casa de la Cultura, 5:30 p.m.
San José: In front of MINAE, 5 p.m.