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

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.


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.

Many people have tried to link Mora’s murder to angry poachers, but Chacón, who is familiar with the beach and its poachers, says he doesn’t think that is likely. “For 25 years I have patrolled beaches in Costa Rica and always you have poachers,” said Chacón. “The 'white law' on the beach is that if you find the turtle first—the turtle and the egg—and you relocate the egg to a hatchery or a safe place, then it’s yours. But if a poacher finds the egg first and the poacher takes the egg, then the egg is theirs to trade. And we never, never have problems.”

Chacón believes the murder was more likely retaliation for an interview Mora and several other environmental activists gave to the widely read Costa Rican newspaper, La Nacion, in April. In the interview, Mora said drug traffickers use Moín Beach as a stopover point and called for increased security on the beach. He also exposed connections between drug trafficking and poaching, saying an increasing number of poachers are crack addicts who pay for drugs with turtle eggs.  

La Nacion gave us the front page of the newspaper and four pages inside and we think this is maybe why they killed Jairo,” Chacón explained. “I think it was drug traffickers.”  

There is little doubt that drug traffickers have a presence at Moín Beach. On June 8, just over a week after Mora’s murder, Costa Rican police seized 1,200 kilograms of marijuana from two speed boats attempting to flee Moín Beach. The traffickers themselves escaped after a shootout with the police. According to the report, 1,700 kilograms of cocaine were also confiscated from the area earlier this year.

If Mora’s murder was indeed an attempt to silence and clear out irksome volunteers calling attention to a major drug trafficking point, the attempt has so far been successful. Volunteers for WIDECAST have been withdrawn from the area pending increased security measures and assurances of safety for their volunteers. Other organizations that previously had sent volunteers are also skeptical of returning to the area due to safety concerns.

This withdrawal of volunteers means an even more precarious situation for the turtles and their eggs, which are now left virtually unprotected, except for a group of unaffiliated volunteers who have continued to patrol the beaches at night.

Beyond the immediate negative effect to the nesting turtles, there is the longer-term tragedy of losing a dedicated conservationist. “This is a bad thing because Jairo was teaching the new generations the kind of things that the new generation needs to help this planet,” Chacón said.

Violence brought by drug cartels also scares away ecotourists, who would have otherwise put money into the local economy and conservation efforts. The Caribbean coast has already reported a decrease in tourism as a direct result of Mora’s murder. In Costa Rica, where about 5% of GDP comes from tourism, much of it ecotourism, an increase in drug-related violence could mean a significant decrease in economic prosperity.

Drug traffickers are gaining ground in Costa Rica, and Central America in general, as the drug war spreads. The subsequent flow of drug money means that drug cartels have the power to fundamentally affect local and sometimes national infrastructure to favor their activities, which are often counterposed to conservation efforts.  

Mauricio Boraschi, recently appointed drug czar of Costa Rica, told the New York Times, “They [cartels] buy everything — the farms, the means of production, the transport… It’s all to move cocaine.” Additionally, cartels have the money to buy off law enforcement and other officials throughout Central America. In Mora’s case, this lack of civil protection means no one will speak up if they have information about the murder out of fear of retaliation.

In the first few years of her presidency in Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla exclusively followed the standard U.S. “war on drugs” policy of increasing law enforcement and militarization to combat drug trafficking around the country. As it has no standing army of its own, Costa Rica relies heavily on military assistance from the United States. Last year the U.S. provided $18.4 million in direct security to Costa Rica, according to Fox News Latino. In the past, the U.S. has provided night-vision goggles, speed boats, satellite and radio communication stations on the Pacific coast, and a $500,000 crime-mapping computer network. The U.S. has two Coast Guard stations on the Pacific coast and provides training for security forces throughout Latin America. 

This increase in militarization, however, has not produced positive results. The quantity of drugs passing through Central America has actually increased in recent years. In Costa Rica in 2011 “there were 100 maritime events, up from just 12” in 2006, according to the New York Times. Violence in the region has also been on the rise, especially in Honduras which is home to the current murder capital of the world, San Pedro Sula.

This increase in drug trafficking through Costa Rica and other parts of Central America is largely a result of what Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos calls the “balloon effect,” where drug operations shift to areas with weaker infrastructures, like Costa Rica, Honduras and other parts of Central America, specifically as a result of significant increases in military pressure in places like Colombia and Mexico.

In essence, the intense war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico has squeezed drug cartels from the north and south into Central America. Costa Rican police say that many Mexican cartels—including the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia and the Gulf Cartel—now have a presence in Costa Rica.  

Recognizing the US drug war’s fight-fire-with-fire approach as a failed policy, Chinchilla spoke up in 2012 for other options for combating narcotrafficking aside from militarization. She is not alone. Leaders of countries in the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Guatemala on June 4-6 to discuss options for combating narcotrafficking. During the meeting a report was produced that detailed drug trafficking and drug use in Latin America. The report also presented four scenarios, one being legalization, that would possibly provide more sustainable options for combating drug trafficking, addiction and the resulting crimes in Latin America.  

Since the beginning of this year, however, and especially since Obama’s visit to Costa Rica in May, Chinchilla has backed off her pressure for ending the war on drugs, sticking to more U.S.-approved talking points.

To date, the U.S. maintains its military-first approach, which conveniently extends its imperial reach in Latin America through military training, loans and the provision of military equipment to countries in the region. As Anne Bird from Human Rights Watch wrote, “The militarization of the region has been concentrated where there are conflicts over control of land and resources. In other words, militarization in Central America is less about controlling crime than ensuring access to natural resources.”

Often in their eagerness to extract resources from this region, the U.S. and its allies sacrifice the environment. In addition to pushing harsh extraction techniques like open pit mining, the increased militarization, under the aegis of the drug war, is in itself bad for the environment. “Whilst often overlooked as a cause of environmental degradation, military activities, particularly civil or international war, is also a significant contributor to such harms as deforestation, pollution and loss of biodiversity,” according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In an historical analysis of the military’s effect on the environment globally, Professor Steve Dutch of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, lists dozens of ways military operations can affect the environment including everything from the building of roads, to digging canals, to defoliation and chemical warfare. In the case of the war on drugs, an obvious example is the herbicide used to kill drug crops, which poisons waterways and harms sensitive wildlife.  

However, the military is not the only group to blame. The drug traffickers also take a toll on the environment. The chemicals used to synthesize methamphetamines contaminate air and waterways, forests are clear-cut to make room for fields of coca and marijuana, and the list goes on. As Wallace Nichols wrote in his article, “Nature versus Narco” for the Huffington Post, “The hidden costs to human and ecosystem health, tourism economies, biodiversity and fisheries caused by this corrupt industry [drug trafficking] are large and under-appreciated.”

The unfortunate truth is that conservationists like Mora, with the goal of helping save the environment that is so quickly being depleted, often get caught in the crossfire of the drug war.

Mora’s murder has sparked activism in Costa Rica. WIDECAST sent a letter to the government with a four main demands: 1) a memorial fund for Mora; 2) a national park at Moín Beach; 3) a code of conduct for beaches where turtles nest; and 4) changes in the law and taxation structure in Costa Rica to give the government resources to help activists protect sea turtles as well as stricter penalties against poaching.

On June 5, activists met in San Jose and in various other locations around the country to hold a vigil for Mora. They demanded action around Mora’s death, calling for the government to devote its resources to finding Mora’s killer and securing the beach for future volunteers.

In response to demands, the Costa Rican government announced last week that it would allocate $40,000 to the construction of a memorial for Mora, though the details have yet to be decided. It has also agreed to turn Moín Beach into a protected area. However, many activists continue to demonstrate, unsatisfied by the response.

“The murder causes a lot of indignation, but it also gives us a moment to reflect on the situation that is facing this country,” said Victor Artavia, an activist with the New Socialist Party who has been part of organizing vigils for Mora in San Jose. “Costa Rica is promoted as having a supposedly environmentally friendly government, but with these events we see that internally it is not environmental at all.”

Many organizers, like Artavia, want to see a larger change in the drug policies of the region, which they think could prevent future tragedies like Mora’s murder. Implementing policy changes like those laid out in the OAS report could have a profound effect for Moín Beach, Costa Rica and the region in general.

Legalization would mean much less pressure on drug traffickers to maintain anonymity through violence. It would also shrink criminal markets where illegal drugs are currently sold. The “balloon effect” would be eliminated if Colombia and Mexico implement the same policies and decrease militarization. More infrastructure projects would mean more people with jobs and less looking for a quick buck to be gained through trafficking, poaching or both. Adding healthcare facilities that provide addiction counseling as well as rehabilitation programs could mean fewer poachers taking eggs as well as a smaller customer base for drug dealers.

Had these different policies had been in place, perhaps the dealers or poachers who killed Jairo Mora Sandoval might have felt less threatened by his presence and that of other volunteers at Moín Beach. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been on the beach at all.

If policy had been different, it is conceivable that Mora would still be smiling with his friends, rescuing turtle eggs on Moín Beach and nature would be one up on narco.  

Translations in this article were done with the help of Jesse Chapman.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.