Documents recently obtained by The Tico Times in the investigation of Jairo Mora’s death help unravel the mystery behind the murder of a young Costa Rican conservationist who once worked peacefully with poachers on the beach he tried to protect–Lindsay Fendt reports for The Tico Times.
Hours before his murder, sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora came upon poachers digging up turtle eggs at the notoriously dangerous Moín Beach, near Limón on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast. Mora reasoned with the poachers, perhaps explaining that leatherbacks – enormous, prehistoric-looking turtles – are endangered. He convinced the men to give up half of their eggs, which he planned to rebury in a safer location.
Negotiations like this happen all over Costa Rica – where six species of sea turtles nest each year – and are part of a tradition that can be traced to the late 1950s and Archie Carr, a U.S. zoology professor who co-founded the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and helped establish the Tortuguero National Park.
On Moín Beach, negotiations have been especially common. Sold for up to $1 apiece, turtle eggs have been a lucrative side business for the poor and underemployed residents of coastal communities for decades – despite the illegality of the trade.
“We’re not law enforcement,” said Vanessa Lizano, who heads the Costa Rican Wildlife Sanctuary and frequently walked the beach with Mora. “All we can do is negotiate. We used to have a very friendly relationship with some of the poachers and then they started to change. They got aggressive.”
Later that night, May 30, Mora encountered a different group of poachers who kidnapped him and four women, then beat him, stripped him and tied his body to the back of a car. The poachers dragged him through the sand and left him to suffocate on the beach he had vowed to protect. A passerby discovered his motionless, naked body early the next day. Mora was 26.
The brutal attack and the investigation that followed dominated headlines for months, generating international attention and concern among the conservationist community, both in Costa Rica and abroad. Celebrity conservationists like Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson blasted the Costa Rican government and maintained intense pressure on cops to make an arrest.
On July 31 – exactly two months after the murder – Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided several locations in Moín and further inland, sweeping up eight suspects following a detailed and lengthy investigation. The Tico Times has obtained documents from the murder probe that show the OIJ ’s investigation was both serious and, with exceptions, thorough.
Yet for environmentalists, many questions linger. One of the most important is this: How did the relationship between conservationists and poachers on Moín Beach escalate from forced coexistence to violent retribution?
The documents obtained by The Tico Times, as well as interviews with people close to the case, provide answers to that question, along with an inside look into the poaching business in Limón, the lives of Mora’s suspected killers and the methods police used to build a case against them.
The poaching program
The first time Vanessa Lizano met Maximilian Gutiérrez, or “Guti” as he is known around town, he was being arrested for poaching turtle eggs. That was in 2009, shortly after Lizano had first started walking Moín Beach with police to collect and protect turtle eggs. It was a rough start, Lizano knew, because Gutiérrez and other poachers had never before faced consequences for their illegal activities.
“Before I came, people were freely selling turtle eggs in the street,” Lizano said. “I’ve had a poacher tell me it’s totally my fault Moín is the way it is, that before I came people would never get arrested for taking a nest.”
Lizano, 36, moved to Limón in 2009 with her family and opened a butterfly farm. After a year in the area the family noticed the growing need for a rescue center because local residents often abducted wildlife as pets to show off to tourists. At first, the Lizanos had only heard about nesting sea turtles on Moín Beach – an 18-kilometer stretch of coastline located 160 kilometers east of the capital – but they had never seen one. On her first trip to the beach, Lizano saw seven.
“After that I became somewhat fanatical,” she admitted.
She began calling every conservation group she knew to help protect the beach, and encouraged WIDECAST, the organization that contracted Mora, to come to Moín.
In time, some of the poachers got to know Lizano and came to understand her motives. She told them stories of how the leatherback – the world’s fourth-largest reptile weighing in at 680 kilos (1,500 pounds) – is also the most endangered sea turtle. Running into her night after night, the poachers eventually grew comfortable with Lizano’s operation, and even Guti warmed up to her. By the time Mora arrived in late 2011, Guti’s poachers were fully on board with the conservationists, even as they continued selling eggs.
“These poachers are living in huts,” Lizano noted. “They have no electricity. They have no water. They do this because they can make some money.”
In March 2012, the annual start of leatherback nesting season on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Lizano came up with a plan: The Wildlife Center contracted Guti and nine other poachers to walk with volunteers on the beach to collect and relocate turtle nests to give baby leatherbacks – which face overwhelming odds for survival even without the threat of poachers – a better shot at making it to the ocean. Using money from volunteer fees, the organization paid 10 poachers $300 a month, allowing the group to cover more beach than ever before. As Lizano noted, at the start of the 2012 nesting season, the conservationists “were winning.”
But other poachers outside Guti’s group weren’t cooperating. According to Lizano, occasional threats became constant threats in 2012, and they had a more violent tone. Yet as conflicts began to fester and multiply, Lizano received an official letter in March from Limón’s Tourist Police saying officers would no longer accompany conservationists, citing “a number of reasons.” A month later, the first serious confrontation happened.
For volunteers, it had been another successful night collecting nests. Shortly after they returned to the hatchery, four men wearing black balaclavas stormed in, armed with assault rifles. The assailants robbed the volunteers’ shoes and cellphones, and then began removing all of the turtle eggs. They threatened to rape and kill one victim if they saw her again on Moín Beach.
The result of the nighttime assault was the shuttering of the volunteer program, and with it, the poacher program.
For a while, Lizano and Mora continued walking the beach together, facing constant harassment. But when poachers threatened her son’s life, Lizano left Limón. From that moment on, Mora walked the beach alone.
A poaching gang
During the 2013 nesting season, police did patrol Moín Beach, but not with Mora. And despite police presence, threats from poachers began to pay off, while the success conservationists had cultivated the previous season waned. The poachers had become more organized and ran the isolated beach like a criminal gang.
Felipe Arauz, known as “Renco,” a 38-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant with a rap sheet that includes drug trafficking, kidnapping and violations of the Wildlife and Fauna Act, is one of the suspected gang leaders, and according to investigators, it was his car that dragged Mora to his death. Arauz allegedly helped escalate turtle egg poaching from a small side business to a planned, lucrative criminal enterprise, according to witness statements.
According to OIJ investigators, Arauz allegedly used a green tourist minibus to shuttle poachers to drop-off points along the beach, where they would scoop up turtle eggs as fast as nesting turtles could lay them. The poachers carried cellphones to report turtle sightings and to monitor police patrols. When police did manage to question them, they produced turtle-friendly, red-tinted flashlights and latex gloves, passing themselves off as conservationists.
“A lot of people were taking advantage of the situation,” Lizano said, “but those were very aggressive poachers. They wanted to harm people.”
Due to the volume and severity of the threats on Moín Beach, volunteers were no longer permitted to patrol for turtle nests. Even Mora had mostly stopped walking the beach at night, venturing out in the morning to count nests that had been sacked for his reports.
The night of May 30 was an exception.
Although the volunteer program had been shut down, several former volunteers and study-abroad students remained in Moín. For some, it was their final night in the area. “They just wanted to see a turtle,” Lizano said.
Knowing that what he was doing might be dangerous, Mora set out that night in a small, gray Suzuki Jimny along with four others. The car belonged to a 26-year-old veterinarian from Spain, who worked at the wildlife sanctuary. She drove while Mora walked, and three students from the United States in their early 20s rode in the back.
Some tourism business owners along the Caribbean coast are angry that Mora and Lizano would risk the lives of young, foreign students to save a few turtles.
“It was completely irresponsible, what were they thinking?” said Colin Brownlee, owner of Hotel Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo, a popular coastal tourism destination 60 kilometers south of Moín. “What would have happened if those girls were murdered? The social implications of this are huge.”
Some of the victims’ testimony to prosecutors hours after the attack also question Mora’s judgment.
“He never told us the whole truth and that is why we thought it was safe that night,” one victim stated in sworn testimony before leaving the country.
After arriving at the beach the night of May 30, Mora got out of the Jimny and walked alone, while the four women drove behind him as a safety precaution. Three police units patrolled the beach that night, and according to one witness, an officer who Mora encountered told him to be careful. The police officer allegedly told Mora that a group of armed men were in the area, and their guns were legally registered. (There is confusion over this point, as later reports say a police search of the men and their vehicles turned up no weapons.)
A short time later, at about 9 p.m., Mora encountered Guti and some other poachers. The conversation was amicable, and Guti convinced the other poachers to split the eggs with Mora.
At about 11:30 p.m., Mora returned to the Jimny and he and the four women drove south along the beach to the animal rescue center that served as their base of operations. The last police patrol of the night had passed them 20 minutes earlier.
The group then passed a bonfire on the beach. Two cars were parked nearby, and three men stood around the fire. The men flashed bright lights on Mora’s and the women’s faces. It was a menacing gesture and some in the group became anxious. Police officers later stated that one of the cars belonged to Arauz.
Just a few kilometers from the rescue center, Mora’s friend, the Spanish driver, was forced to stop by a tree trunk blocking the road. It had been placed there after the group entered the beach earlier in the evening, and after the police patrols had gone.
Mora got out of the vehicle to remove it, then replace it “to piss off the poachers,” according to victim testimony, when five masked men jumped out of the forested area next to the car and began attacking him.
The Spanish driver was forced out of the car and sexually molested while the men continued to beat Mora. The assailants gagged Mora and threw him in the back of the car. According to testimony, he was still conscious at that point. The attackers then piled into the car and drove north to an abandoned house. Over the back seat, Mora, badly injured, held his friend’s hand as the attackers forced their victims to keep quiet, heads down. Two women in the back seat were sexually molested during the drive.
At the abandoned house, two kidnappers watched over the women while the other attackers left with Mora.
The kidnappers allegedly told the women they would be using the car to “meet a boat” and “get a shipment,” according to one victim. A second victim also told police the suspects mentioned drugs.
The men also allegedly told their victims they had worked with Mora in the past, and had an agreement with him and Lizano to be paid for the eggs they collected. The men claimed Mora had broken the agreement and contacted police, and that he “had already been warned.”
Some of the testimony differs from statements made by OIJ officials later in San José. OIJ spokeswoman Marisel Rodriguéz told The Tico Times that WIDECAST was responsible for the agreement with the poachers, not Lizano’s organization. As reported earlier by The Tico Times, WIDECAST denies ever paying for turtle eggs.
In a May 31 press conference in the capital, officials said the motive of the attack was robbery, and that when the assailants realized one of their victims was Mora, they decided to kill him.
This also is controversial, given the evidence in the case. At a preliminary hearing in the First Circuit Penal Court of Limón just hours after Mora’s body was discovered, Assistant Prosecutor Lisbeth Solano, describing the suspected motive of the crime, told a judge: “There definitely existed prior problems, certain threats by the suspects toward Jairo Mora Sandoval, who was the lead biologist of the organization for which he worked, and it was determined that the motive of the homicide, the motive for which Jairo was killed, is apparently revenge.”
In the early morning hours of July 31 – exactly two months after Mora’s body was discovered – OIJ agents conducted six simultaneous raids that led to the arrest of six murder suspects and two women in possession of stolen items. A ninth suspect fled and was arrested 10 days later.
Arauz was among those detained, and the six other men allegedly are members of his gang.
The raids were a bookend to an intense two-month investigation that began with phone records pulled by the OIJ for Mora’s stolen cellphone. Though the SIM card had been changed, a serial number on the phone could still be tracked.
That phone was in the possession of 20-year-old suspect José Bryan Quesada. The OIJ began tracing Quesada’s calls, leading them first to Donald Alberto Salmon, or “Sombra,” 28, another of the gang’s suspected leaders. Investigators found that on the night of Mora’s murder, Quesada and Salmon’s phone numbers were in use and had activated radio towers consistent with the location of the crime scene.
Tracing more than a hundred calls and text messages from both Quesada and Salmon, investigators were led to other members of the suspected gang: Ernesto Enrique Centeno, alias “Kike,” 24, William Delgado Loaiza, alias “Willy”, 19, Darwin Salmon (Donald’s brother, age unknown) and Héctor Cash López, a Nicaraguan immigrant whose age also is unknown.
A special team of OIJ agents created to investigate Mora’s murder built a case around text messages between the suspects, triangulating locations from three cell towers. Two texts in particular, between Darwin Salmon and Loaiza, allegedly linked the group to the murder.
“Mae, yesterday I dragged him with sombra and kike and sombra told us that you left,” Darwin texted, according to the investigation. “We dragged him on the beach behind Felipe’s car and you know it.”
Location tracking also enabled the OIJ to link several members of the gang to another crime a week earlier, in which a woman was raped and her family robbed and taken to the same abandoned house where the women were held in Mora’s case. The previous assault’s similarities to the murder played a key role in piecing together the gang’s members and M.O.
According to victim testimony, assailants in both cases mentioned a boat and picking up a “shipment.” The rape victim testified that her attackers said they needed her family’s car to pick up a “drug shipment.” She also testified to hearing a boat approach, and her kidnappers loading “something into the car.”
In addition to the rape, the OIJ also linked the gang to two gasoline thefts at nearby National Refinery facilities.
Following the investigation, The Tico Times again interviewed OIJ Director Francisco Segura, who reiterated the motive in the case had remained unchanged from initial statements made on May 31. He added that the OIJ has never denied that revenge was a factor in the killing.
“They were common delinquents,” Segura told The Tico Times. “They were more than poachers, they were a criminal gang.”
Each of the seven murder suspects was given six months of preventative detention while awaiting trial.
The future of Moín Beach
In 2012, with little money, conservationists on Moín Beach saved 1,474 sea turtle nests. In 2013, poachers stole the eggs from all but eight.
Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry is currently exploring options to create a protected area on Moín Beach that would allow park rangers to patrol the area, and a recent executive decree would allow them to be armed.
According to Lizano and the Limón Police Department, police have resumed walking the beach with conservationists.