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How the Drug War Can Turn Environmental Activism Into a Deadly Undertaking

As cartels battle drug warriors, environmentalists struggle to preserve nature in dangerous territory.



Costa Rica is commonly known as the safest country to visit in Central America. At this time of year, its secluded beaches on the Caribbean coast are a major attraction for tourists and environmental activists from around the world, many of whom come to experience the sea turtle nesting season from April to July.

However, the same remote areas visited by eco-tourists have also been staked out by drug traffickers who use the beaches as stopover points on their route from Colombia to the United States. When environmentalists attempting to protect the natural ecosystems on these beaches cross paths with the traffickers, the outcome is sometimes deadly.

The recent murder of 26-year-old Costa Rican turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval is a case in point, highlighting larger conflicts between conservation and drug trafficking. Increased militarization in response to the drug trade could not protect this young activist or the local community, and as a result of his murder, turtles and their surrounding ecosystem will also suffer. In this collision between nature and narco, and in the same collision around Central America, narco is several points up on nature.

Photo Credit: 
Jairo Mora Sandoval, from WIDECAST

On the night of May 31, Mora was driving on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica near the city of Limón with a small group of environmental volunteers. When he got out of the car to remove a branch from the road, he and the other volunteers were kidnapped at gunpoint by at least five men. The next day, Mora was found dead on a nearby beach.

Mora’s body showed evidence of a serious blow to the head. The four women who were with him that night (three from the United States and one from Spain), managed to escape their kidnappers unharmed and run to a nearby town where they alerted authorities. Despite a $56,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, no one has been apprehended for Mora’s murder.

On the night he was killed, Mora and the other volunteers were on their way to Moín Beach, famous for being a nesting place for the critically endangered leatherback turtle. Last year, there were 1,474 leatherback turtle nests in the area. This was the highest number in Costa Rica, making Moín an extremely important beach for conservation efforts, according to Didiher Chacón, Costa Rican director of WIDECAST, the international organization dedicated to the protection of sea turtles for which Mora worked.

The five conservationists had been planning to measure the leatherbacks as the turtles made their way up the dunes to lay eggs that night. They had also planned to patrol the beaches, as they did almost every night, protecting nests from local poachers.

In Costa Rica, taking turtle eggs is illegal except on two Pacific Coast beaches, and the crime comes with a three-year prison sentence. But the law is almost never enforced, and poachers can easily make $1 per egg by selling them at local bars and shops, marketing them as a cheap aphrodisiac (the eggs actually possess no such qualities). According to Chacón, only one poacher has been apprehended in the past 15 years.

To sell all of the eggs laid on Moín beach last season would have generated a profit of around $120,000, according to Chacón, a large sum in a country where the minimum wage hovers around $2 per hour for non-skilled workers. In the past, poachers have threatened conservationists and volunteers attempting to protect the eggs. In 2012 an armed gang raided a hatchery, tied up the volunteers and stole all the eggs.