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Costa Rica under pressure to solve ecologist’s murder

Turtle defender had denounced police negligence after death threats

This image released by the Widecast organization shows Jairo Mora (center) instructing a group.
This image released by the Widecast organization shows Jairo Mora (center) instructing a group.AP

The murder of environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval has put Costa Rican authorities in a difficult position after conservation groups accused the government of this Central American country of not doing enough to solve the case.

The 26-year-old Mora, who was paid to protect endangered leatherback turtles and their eggs on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, was kidnapped on May 30 along with four volunteers, one of whom was from Spain. Mora was tied to the bumper of a vehicle and dragged in the sand, police said, adding that he died from head trauma and asphyxiation. His body was found the next day. The four volunteers were tied up but left unharmed in an abandoned house.

Environment Minister René Castro surprised as well as angered many when he clarified that his agency wasn’t responsible for protecting Moín beach in Limón province, where the crime occurred. Adding fuel to the fire was Vice President Alfio Piva who told CNN en Español that the incident was “an accident.”

Piva said the government could not be held responsible for the killing. “It is an area where there are a lot of drug traffickers, many of them from Colombia. It could be that this kid stood up to the traffickers,” the vice president told the US network during a visit to New York.

If the police say they are supporting us, then they are lying”

Last April, Mora and the organization he worked for, Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Widecast), did indeed denounce cocaine traffickers, and said that they were also involved in the stealing of eggs from leatherbacks that nest in large numbers on Moín beach.

The turtle’s eggs are considered a delicacy in Costa Rica as well as in other Central American and Caribbean nations. Many believe they are an aphrodisiac despite experts’ advice not to eat them because of the high cholesterol content and possible contamination.

Conservation groups are demanding that Piva — who is a former director of the National Biodiversity Institute — apologize for calling Mora’s death an accident. They also are demanding that President Laura Chinchilla publicly condemn the killing.

Mora, who had been the target of death threats in the past, had been demanding that the government do more to protect the leatherback turtles from poachers. “If the police say they are supporting us, then they are lying,” he said a few weeks ago. Up until Wednesday police had arrested no suspects in the case.

“The solving of Jairo Mora’s murder should be a top priority for the police, not only to bring the killers to justice, but also to satisfy the community’s right to know in detail the dimensions and range of the challenges at hand in defeating crime,” the San Jose daily La Nación said in an editorial Wednesday.

International environmentalists are offering a $10,000 reward for anyone with information leading to arrests in the case. At the same time they are pressuring the Costa Rican government to declare Moín beach a protected area.

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