Costa Rica park ranger Mauricio Steller Fallas — recently sentenced to 12 years in prison for shooting a suspected poacher — reached martyr status this past week in local media and among Costa Rican and international conservationists. Even some lawmakers said the 32-year-old Steller should be pardoned for what appeared to many to be an act of self-defense in a dangerous situation.
Then, on Thursday, it came to light that Steller was the subject of a separate investigation for allegedly stealing and selling drugs. Steller’s current lawyer said his client failed to tell him about the investigation, making him question whether to continue representing the park ranger.
Nevertheless, support for Steller among his colleagues and fellow conservationists appears to have wavered little. On Friday morning dozens of workers from Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), including Executive Director Julio Jurado, gathered outside SINAC’s main office in San José to protest against Steller’s prison sentence and, in general, against poor working conditions for park rangers.
Steller, who worked in the Osa Conservation Area, was convicted of attempted murder for shooting a suspected poacher during a beach patrol in 2009. Park rangers say they are under-equipped and ill-trained to handle situations that could necessitate the use of deadly force.
“This wouldn’t have happened if conditions for park rangers were better,” said Fernando Quirós, director of the Cocos Island Conservation Area, who was at the protest.
SINAC protestors also pointed out discrepancies in the law that make it difficult for park rangers to legally use force, and regulations that prohibit the government from providing rangers with legal counsel if they face charges stemming from actions carried out on the job.
Steller’s case captured national attention last week as environmental groups took to social media to show their support for the park ranger. Many noted the apparent contradiction between jailing a park ranger who was attempting to stop poaching and releasing the suspected killers of sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora after a badly botched investigation and trial.
The Environment Ministry even helped contract respected criminal attorney Juan Diego Castro to represent Steller pro bono for his appeal.
But Castro said Thursday that he was reconsidering representing the park ranger after his client allegedly failed to tell him that he was the subject of a separate drug investigation potentially related to a triple murder in 2012. Steller’s father was one of the victims.
According to the Osa Prosecutor’s Office, Steller is under investigation for the possession and sale of eight kilos of cocaine that he allegedly found floating near Caño Island, off the coast of the Osa Peninsula, during a ranger patrol in 2012. Prosecutors allege that Steller gave the cocaine to his father, Rodrigo Steller, to sell. During a supposed drug deal Steller’s father and two other men were murdered.
Steller told The Tico Times he is innocent of the charges. Meanwhile, his superiors in the park service have continued to support him.
“People are now trying to mix these cases together, but [the drug investigation] has nothing to do with what Mauricio is charged with,” Eliécer Arce, the administrator for Corcovado National Park and one of Steller’s immediate supervisors, told The Tico Times.
Arce said he had no knowledge of the narcotics investigation and that it is “completely false” that Steller found drugs during his ranger duties. Despite the investigation, Steller continued to work with SINAC until his sentencing in the attempted murder trial.
Environmental groups have generally continued to support Steller, though some have toned their support down. Mauricio Álvarez, president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) and one of Steller’s supporters, said that though he still believes Steller is innocent of attempted murder, the drug charges have made it difficult for his group to continue rallying for a pardon for Steller
Still, he said, the lack of legal and physical protections for park rangers is a real, and widespread, problem.
“I want to be clear that independent of [Steller’s] specific case there are many other cases,” he said. “Park rangers face systematic aggression and impunity in the cases they present in court against their aggressors.”
SINAC Executive Director Jurado said Friday that he’s working to change regulations to allow SINAC to hire lawyers or use its own lawyers to defend park rangers in court.