National Geographic News
Jairo Mora Sandoval.

Conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was murdered in Costa Rica on May 31.

Photograph courtesy Christine Figgener, Baulas y Negras Ostional

Scott Wallace in Playa Moín, Costa Rica

National Geographic News

Published June 17, 2013

The murder of an environmental activist in Costa Rica has shaken the country's ecology-minded public and has cast a light on what appears to be the growing overlap between animal poaching and drug trafficking on the country's Caribbean coast.

Early on the morning of May 31, masked gunmen abducted 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval from a vehicle he was using to patrol a desolate beach to protect nesting leatherback turtles from poachers. (See photos of Costa Rica.)

Four international volunteers who were accompanying Mora were bound and taken to a nearby shack, from which they eventually escaped. Mora's body was found later the same day, facedown in the sand and exhibiting signs of torture, according to police and witnesses.

More than two weeks later, police continued to search for Mora's killers.

The murder has triggered shock and revulsion throughout Costa Rica. At recent candlelight vigils for Mora across the country, protesters called on government officials to bring those responsible to justice and to make good on promises to strengthen protections for Costa Rica's natural treasures and the people who defend them.

"The government has failed in its responsibilities," said social psychologist Carolina Rizo, as she stood in the rain amid hundreds of other demonstrators at a vigil last week in San José, Costa Rica's capital. (Ocean Views Blog: Mora's Legacy)

"It's been left to young volunteers to do what the state should do," she said. "To be as ecological as our image suggests would require a commitment to laws and standards. People don't do the jobs they're supposed to do."

"Low Presence of Authority"

With a history of political stability, a relatively low crime rate, and dozens of protected areas teeming with biodiversity, Costa Rica markets itself as an idyllic travel destination for eco-adventures and outdoor family fun.

But many officials share Rizo's concerns that weak and ineffective enforcement of Costa Rica's environmental laws belies the country's image as an eco-friendly tropical paradise, especially on the sparsely populated, impoverished Atlantic Coast.

"It's an area where there is an extremely low presence of authority," said Juan Sánchez Ramírez, an investigator with the nation's Environment Ministry. "The government has neglected the region. People must find a way to live by whatever means they can."

For many people on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, Sánchez and other officials say, that means trafficking in protein-rich eggs ransacked from turtle nests. Turtle eggs flavored with hot sauce are served in popular restaurants and sold by street vendors along the Caribbean coast.

At the same time, the poachers have been drawn into the tightening grip of drug runners coming north up the coast from Panama and Colombia in souped-up speedboats designed to outrun authorities.

"The geographical position of the country makes it an ideal place for the transit and warehousing of drugs," said Erick Calderón, commander of Costa Rica's uniformed police, the Civil Guard, in the palm-fringed coastal city of Puerto Limón.

"But it's not all in transit," he said. "Some of it stays here and, worse yet, traffickers are using drugs to pay local distributors. That means it has to be consumed here, which creates and sustains a local market."

According to officials and residents of the Limón area, cash-strapped users are turning to turtle eggs to finance their addiction, even trading the eggs directly to drug dealers for powdered cocaine. A single nest can yield up to 90 fertile eggs, and egg poachers, known as hueveros, frequently dig up several nests in a single night's work. The eggs are sold on the black market for $1 each.

Poachers now brandish high-powered weapons that were rarely seen before on Costa Rica's shores, most notably AK-47s. "The police don't even have AK-47s," said Sánchez, the environmental investigator, "but the traffickers have them."

His claim is borne out by colleagues who worked with Jairo Mora and have reported confrontations with heavily armed poachers while patrolling Moín Beach, a beautiful and desolate stretch of coastline just north of Puerto Limón.

Nowhere to Hide

The very conditions that have made the area's beaches a favorite nesting spot for magnificent leatherbacks and other turtles—their remoteness and the lack of artificial light or human infrastructure—make them a haven of choice for smugglers and poachers.

And that makes them ever more dangerous for the environmentalists who are trying to save the critically endangered turtles.

"Sometimes the [drug] boats come directly onto the beach," said one resident. "That's why they don't want anyone out there patrolling. They don't want people to see what's going on."

There's no comprehensive way to prevent turtle nests from being pillaged, advocates say, without a permanent police presence on every stretch of beach during the four-month nesting season.

"The poachers are always watching us from the trees," said Vanessa Lizano, head of Moín's Costa Rican Wildlife Sanctuary, who was a close friend of Mora's. "So if we hide the nests or move the eggs to another place on the beach, they find them anyway."

For Lizano and her colleagues, the preferred method is to gather eggs shortly after they've been laid—or even while the mother turtle is laying them—then bury them in a hatchery that's guarded by volunteers.

But one night last year, masked assailants raided the hatchery at gunpoint, confiscating cell phones and walkie-talkies while making off with the entire trove of 1,500 eggs.

Activists have reduced their own nightly patrols along Moín since Mora's death, even as police have stepped up their presence. Like NGO personnel and volunteers, the police typically employ foot patrols out on the sand, shadowed by a vehicle that must maneuver through dense palm groves along a narrow dirt track paralleling the beach.

It's an assignment fraught with risk, said police commander Calderón, and also with frustration.

"The poachers can see our headlights from far off," he said. "They hide their eggs and run into the forest. They pick up where they left off as soon as we're gone."

While much of Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast is protected as part of the national park system, Moín Beach is not.

Supporters of Jairo Mora Sandoval are petitioning the government to make the 15-mile-long beach a national park to honor the memory of the valiant young man who gave his life to protect the nesting turtles.

Follow Scott on Twitter @wallacescott or visit his website.

13 comments
Chris Pincetich
Chris Pincetich

Please help and add your name in support of immediate justice ! http://seaturtles.org/article.php?id=2486

I just returned from north of Moin/Limon co-leading a leatherback conservation ecotour. We could see the lights from Limon every night on our patrols, and it haunted me knowing the killers where still at large. The Coast Guard had stepped up patrols, and caught nearby poachers then delivered the sac of fresh leatherback eggs to us to bury in the guarded hatchery enclosure at the Estacion Las Tortugas. Billboards in San Jose had a sea turtle image proclaiming "Gracias Jairo". The MINAE head in Limon is to blame, he must leave this year and be replaced with someone who will enforce Costa Rican laws!

Steven K Gill
Steven K Gill

"...Turtle eggs flavored with hot sauce are served in popular restaurants and sold by street vendors along the Caribbean coast......" And there's the solution: A few undercover cops posing as tourists (I'll bet they'd volunteer from a lot of different nations), a few pictures, a string of high profile arrests followed by long imprisonment....end of problem.

Z M
Z M

Unfortunately this has been going on for so many years all over the country.  I have watched the deterioration over the past 15 years that I've been visiting the country.

Moreover-the costa rican government sits idly by, allowing the Nicaraguan government to dredge oceanic wetlands on Costa Rican borders on the Pacific side--trying to stop them in international courts which will take years as the Nicaraguans destroy a primary source of ecologic life on their coast.  Not to mention the pollution of waterways, and almost unbridled destruction by ICE--the costa rican energy company that is government operated.


It is time for the government to mobilize to protect their true cash crop that lifts up their strong and educated middle class--ecology and tourism.  They're going to need a change in their moral behavior and an army to enforce it before this is over.

Jai's murder is unconscionable.  This over $1 per egg.

You don't fight drug trafficking in the court system--you fight it by protecting your borders.

Z M
Z M

Unfortunately this has been going on for so many years all over the country.  I have watched the deterioration over the past 15 years that I've been visiting the country.

Moreover-the costa rican government sits idly by, allowing the Nicaraguan government to dredge oceanic wetlands on Costa Rican borders on the Pacific side--trying to stop them in international courts which will take years as the Nicaraguans destroy a primary source of ecologic life on their coast.  Not to mention the pollution of waterways, and almost unbridled destruction by ICE--the costa rican energy company that is government operated.


It is time for the government to mobilize to protect their true cash crop that lifts up their strong and educated middle class--ecology and tourism.  They're going to need a change in their moral behavior and an army to enforce it before this is over.

Jai's murder is unconscionable.  This over $1 per egg.

You don't fight drug trafficking in the court system--you fight it by protecting your borders.

Caro Moraga Arias
Caro Moraga Arias

My friend Jai was a great person and fight hand for the care of turtles and the protection of nature ..! I grabbed his friendship in the most heartless .. plus I'm not letting my passion aside, he taught me a thousand things that I convey to many more people, taught me that the turtles are so fragile and yet so bold, that life must be lived without fear, that I should never to give up, so my struggle continues, and as he said many times, today I keep repeating myself with the value that he had, with the same value that went out several nights on one side and I on the other but for the same purpose, to care for our friends, today I say with aloud, as he did repeatedly NEED HELP AND SOON, tHE MORE wE HAVE tO WAIT fOR THAT HELP,?? I HAVE MANY MORE TO LOSE FRIENDS? I LOVE WHAT I DO ... BUT ALSO LOVE MY PEOPLE ..! ME A CONSERVATION OF HEART, STUDENT, AND ANIMAL LOVER ... Just ask Help ..! I would ask my friend returned again this is impossible, but we are still many in the early morning, hanging around on the beach watching our friends .... We exist .... !

<3 caro <3

Eddie Brown
Eddie Brown

I recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica. Fantastic country and lovely people. I hope the authorities come down like a ton of bricks to stop this kind of nonsense. It would be a shame if CR fell prey to the same rampant lawlessness and violence that plagues many other Central American countries. 

mark cameron
mark cameron

It shouldn't have taken the murder of an innocent, hard working conservationist to shine the light on poaching... This problem could have been sorted with correct policing and government attention, but instead it was ignored. When you turn your back on nature, you turn your back on the entire planet... 

Vered Lieb
Vered Lieb

Thank you National Geographic for writing and printing this article.  Some weeks ago I signed a petition to implore justice in Costa Rica for Sandoval. But the petition left out all that you covered and I appreciate getting the fuller picture of the fight against turtle egg poaching and its even sadder connection to drug running. 

I would like to see the murder of this beautiful young person make it into the national news.  Yours is the first step in that direction. It is far from being a trivial matter, and points out the larger problems.

The environmental problems of saving the turtle eggs is connected in this cycle to the deaths of young people from drug overdoses, and so is an issue that touches us all.

The legalization of drugs in the US would end this cycle on many levels, as it would take the profit out of drug selling and bring people out into the open for help with their addictions. Decriminalizing drugs saves lives as has been proved in those countries that have done so. It might also save the turtle and its eggs.

Until such time, I hope that the government of Costa Rica will step up in its protection of the conservationists and the police who guard them.

Chris White
Chris White

You don’t have to live in Costa Rica long to see the truth under this heavily marketed eco destination. Shark fins lining warehouse roofs in Puntarenas, some of the most polluted rivers in the world, forest being knock down for useless roads with underhanded kickbacks, old cars/trucks spewing clouds of pollution, animal cruelty everywhere, even GMC production is now in talks.  Don’t get me wrong, love the place, has a lot of good to offer, but things are getting out of control, fast. Government is having a hard time managing it, hard to tackle easy money, in some cases survival in a developing country. Articles like these may help put on the pressure to take it more seriously. A national park to honor the memory of Jairo Mora would be a good statement.

Steven K Gill
Steven K Gill

@Caro Moraga Arias 

Again, "...Turtle eggs flavored with hot sauce are served in popular restaurants and sold by street vendors along the Caribbean coast......" And there's the solution: A few undercover cops posing as tourists (I'll bet they'd volunteer from a lot of different nations), a few pictures, a string of high profile arrests followed by long imprisonment....end of problem.

Ask for volunteers to document it - i suppose the problem is the courts...are yours as corrupt as ours? Are you plagued by the threat of violence from the cartels, same as us?  Then pass it on to the UN, Interpol, etc - I'm sure this is a violation of international law as well.... 

Steven K Gill
Steven K Gill

@Vered Lieb 

"....The legalization of drugs in the US would end this cycle on many levels"

Absolutely....and hopefully as the whole world wakes up to this glaring fact, it'll change!

Amanda Corrales Ugalde
Amanda Corrales Ugalde

@Steven Gill @Caro Moraga Arias

I think that the problem is the courts but the government itself. PLN has been the worst political party in taking desitions regarding the environment during the last years. Instead of making the police protect our natural treasures, they make them "fight" in the popular protests we´ve been having. I hope we can change that in the next elections.

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