Murder on Moín Beach

This story was originally published in The Tortoise Volume 1, Number 3

Update: There is now some resolution to this case: a Costa Rican court delivered guilty verdicts for four of seven defendants in the murder of Mora and the kidnapping and robbery of four foreign volunteers. The same defendants were acquitted in a previous trial last year, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

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The author stands next to a stenciled image of Mora that graces Limón’s waterfront.

The author stands next to a stenciled image of Mora that graces Limón’s waterfront.

Moín Beach is a sparsely inhabited stretch of dark grey sands and coconut palms on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, just north of the city of Limón. It begins at an aging shipping port where bananas and pineapples leave the country on container ships registered in Hong Kong and Monrovia. From there the beach curves northwest, disappearing from view into a cloud of surf and mist. With so little around to see — few bars or homes or hotels — locals orient themselves on Moín by its mile points: tres millas, seis millas, nueve millas.

The late American turtle biologist Archie Carr described this piece of coastline as “remote and dangerous,” and that was in the 1950s, long before cocaine and all its violence arrived. When I visited, hoping to learn more about the young turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval, who was murdered on this beach in May of 2013, patrons of Moín’s roadside taverns stared coldly at our passing truck; others ripped by us aggressively on all-terrain vehicles. I was traveling with Vanessa Lizano, a conservationist who worked closely with Mora, and her parents, Bernal and Marielos. The Lizanos have owned an animal sanctuary at seis millas for nearly a decade. Over the years, as Moín became dominated by delinquency and drugs, the friends they once had sold their properties and left. 

 
“I told Jairo I needed someone with balls to do this project.”
 

As in any community whose main income is drugs, affluence and poverty mix awkwardly here. The beachfront road was in poor condition but the passing cars and trucks were new, with tinted windows and exaggerated chrome bumpers. In tres millas, Moín’s most densely settled region, the houses facing the beach ranged from metal-roofed shacks to three-story constructions with thick steel gates: Vanessa pointed out one still bearing bullet holes from a battle with police. Moín has traditionally been a place of scavengers, people who picked up sea turtle eggs and coconuts for a living. This they still do, but they also shuttle food and fuel to drug boats and fish for floating packets of cocaine discarded from boats fleeing the coast guard. A couple of packets is enough to build someone a respectable home. “That guy found seven,” said Bernal, pointing out a blue monstrosity with columns and terraces. 

At about four miles, the road along Moín becomes a coconut-strewn path on the beach itself, just past the high tide line. Waves lap at it during storms. The road runs parallel to some old railroad tracks, and behind those is a quiet mangrove canal that winds its way up toward the famous sea turtle beaches of Pacuare and Tortuguero National Park. At night the canal provides cover to drug boats entering through the mouth of the Matina River, the inlet just north of doce millas, or 12 miles. There is no way to get past the inlet by car, so few know it besides drug boat captains and turtles. Only an old rail bridge offers access from land. 

Archie Carr was able to explore that portion of the beach in 1955, reaching it by a mule-pulled rail car. On it he discovered a huge concentration of Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nests. These were a revelation, the first evidence that Leatherbacks weren’t just arbitrary wanderers of the seas, as was previously thought. Like other marine turtle species, they, too, had somewhere they called home. “It now seems probable that the mass arrivals were not due to chance convergence of individuals but were the result of mass travel to the area,” Carr wrote of his finding. In the same paper, published in 1959, he also noted that poachers dug up all the eggs as soon as they were laid. The poachers mule-carted the eggs down the railroad tracks and sold them in the towns, where vendors boiled them with salt, vinegar and hot peppers and sold them as snacks, the way they still do today, in defiance of Costa Rican law. What little data Carr was able to collect on the Leatherbacks came through “outrunning, browbeating, and bribing the egg collectors,” he wrote.

Carr had seen enough to establish that the beaches north of Limón were major Leatherback rookeries. But before later generations of scientists could get a more precise sense of them, they had become landing points for cocaine — for boats arriving from Colombia and Panama that made use of their darkness and back network of canals. When the Costa Rican turtle scientist María Teresa Koberg tried to work on Moín in the early 1990s, thugs set fire to her encampment. Ten years later, the marine conservation group PRETOMA considered starting a Leatherback monitoring program at doce millas. “We visited at the invitation of a hotel owner who was trying to draw tourists. I went with my wife and we were like ‘we’re not gonna work here,’” said biologist Randall Arauz, PRETOMA’s director. “It’s scary, remote, there’s no police out there. We didn’t have the infrastructure or support, so we thought it would be crazy to try.” 

Moín’s Leatherbacks remained a mystery, a half-century-old anecdote, until the Lizanos moved to seis millas in 2005. There, on a beautiful patch of jungle between the sea and the mangroves, the family opened a butterfly farm and, later, a wildlife sanctuary, where they, their employees, and their volunteers rehabilitated sloths and primates that arrived orphaned, malnourished or burnt on power lines. Getting involved in sea turtles, much less battles over sea turtles, was never part of Lizano’s plan. But Lizano had known Koberg — the two had even attended the same high school, decades apart — and Koberg had advised Lizano to look out for Leatherbacks at Moín. It was a major nesting spot, Koberg said, perhaps as important to the Atlantic Leatherback population as Tortuguero, Pacuare, or Gandoca, the better known Leatherback beaches of the Caribbean. On her morning walks at seis millas, Lizano began seeing the massive, tractor-wheel-like tracks of female Leatherbacks, and sacks of their eggs being loaded onto trucks. Koberg had been right — Moín was a Leatherback hotspot, a bigger one than anyone suspected. 

The Leatherback is heavier and more elongated than other sea turtles, and its unique carapace is covered not by a hard shell but by thick, almost rubbery tissue. Its high body fat content permits it to hunt its jellyfish prey in cold and distant seas; healthy specimens have been found off Norway in the fall. Leatherbacks return to the tropics mainly to attend to matters of breeding, as Archie Carr first discovered near Moín. Still, they are not as loyal as other marine turtles to their natal beaches, and females practice “a scattered nesting, focusing on some areas some years, other areas other years,” said turtle biologist Didiher Chacón, director of the conservation group WIDECAST Costa Rica. In Costa Rica there might be 1,500 Leatherback nests in Pacuare or Gandoca one season, and 500 in Tortuguero; the following season it might be reversed. Lizano contacted conservation groups in Costa Rica and abroad, seeking support to conduct formal nesting surveys. In 2009 WIDECAST offered her scientific advice and training, and Lizano was able to collect some nesting data every season onward, with the help of volunteers. But until WIDECAST sent Jairo Mora Sandoval to seis millas in 2011, it was still unknown just how many Leatherback nests occurred in Moín.

© Jason Isley-Scubazoo/Science Faction/Corbis

© Jason Isley-Scubazoo/Science Faction/Corbis

Mora, 24 years old at the time, made his living collecting data for sea turtle conservation groups. He had grown up in Gandoca, a few hours south of Limón. Gandoca was a Leatherback beach on which conservation groups had been active since the 1980s. Mora’s father wanted his son to be a farmer, like him, but from a young age Mora emulated his maternal uncle, a conservationist who collaborated closely with turtle scientists. “I have pictures of Jairo as a little boy releasing hatchlings into the ocean,” said WIDECAST’s Chacón. By age 15, Mora was collecting nesting data as a volunteer. By his twenties he was working professionally on turtle beaches all over the country and in Panama, employed under seasonal contracts for three conservation groups, depending on the time of year and which species were nesting. 

Mora worked fast and walked fast, easily covering 15 miles of beach in a night. He earned an average of $500 a month, standard pay in Costa Rica for science workers without college degrees. So that he could one day earn more, he enrolled in biology courses, holing up between turtle gigs to study. A number of young Costa Ricans make their living as turtle monitors, migrating from nesting beach to nesting beach. The lifestyle suited Mora, offering him among other things a steady stream of foreign women to date; the only things that could distract him from turtles, his friends say, were soccer and girls. The Lizanos ran their animal sanctuary with the help of paying volunteers from all over the world, most of them young women, and more than once Lizano found herself having to intervene in Mora’s love triangles. “He had such a pretty face,” she recalled. “He looked just like Aladdin.”

Mora was known in turtle circles as passionate, if not an outright hothead. “Jairo was exploding with energy, always,” said WIDECAST’s Chacón, who for years had been hesitant to hire Mora over his lack of diplomacy. But Mora was exactly what Lizano wanted for Moín. “I told Jairo I needed someone with balls to do this project,” Lizano told me, “because these poachers were different.” WIDECAST offered Mora a contract for survey work at Moín.

When Mora arrived he was taken aback by the impunity and violence of Moín’s egg poachers, who chased the conservationists with machetes and fired gunshots their way in the dark. These were not the kind of poachers Mora had grown up with in Gandoca. These were hardened thugs for whom turtle eggs were just another source of income. “But over time he got used to it,” Lizano said. “Hearing gunshots came to seem natural to us. Sometimes you could say we were adrenalized by it. The fact that there were so many turtles made it worth it. We would go insane on the beach, competing for who could find more nests in a night. It would be 5 a.m. and we’d still be working like crazy.”

Mora’s instinct in dealing with the Moín poachers was to try and get them all arrested, but Lizano had another idea. Not all of them were thugs, she felt. Many hunted eggs because they were addicts, or just poor, and there were some she thought she could work with. They would help her and Mora locate eggs, and also provide safety in numbers on an unpredictable beach. Though she was just as strident as Mora when it came to turtles, Lizano, 10 years older than Mora, had better people skills. She was petite and pretty and willing to kiss up to her enemies if it helped her cause. 

The thieves tied the volunteers up, took their cell phones and threatened to rape them. They stole some 1,000 eggs…

One morning before the start of the 2012 nesting season, Lizano showed up at the home of Maximilian Gutierrez, a sort of village elder among the Moín poachers, with a homemade breakfast to share. Guti, as everyone called him, was a grizzled, dreadlocked man who lived at doce millas in a hut constructed of palm thatch and plastic tarps. The laid-back, alcoholic Guti was a traditional sort of poacher, without direct ties to the drug trade and not violent; when he wasn’t stealing turtle eggs he scavenged coconuts to sell. Lizano had gotten Guti arrested a few years earlier for poaching, but after breakfast with him and a couple of his friends, they had an understanding. Lizano used the proceeds from her volunteer program to hire Guti and nine other local egg poachers, paying each the Costa Rican minimum wage of $300 a month. It was far from what they could earn poaching — sea turtle eggs are a popular bar snack in Limón, and collecting them can earn poachers hundreds of dollars in a night. But this was steady work, and legal. The poachers learned how to measure and tag nesting females, to excavate nests without damaging the embryos. The Limón police accompanied Mora, Lizano, the volunteers and the poachers on their nightly patrols, to the point where it sometimes looked like a presidential motorcade on the beach. Any Leatherback nests the group found were removed to a hatchery at seis millas, on the beach just in front of the Lizanos’ sanctuary. 

Walking beaches for hours and hours every night tends to bond people together, and everyone — cops, conservationists, poachers — came to know each other well. On the weekends, some of the young poachers would throw barbecues with Lizano’s volunteers. “It was a weird relationship we had with them,” Lizano said. “But it was a relationship.” And it was thanks in large part to the poachers that Mora and Lizano could collect so much data and save so many nests in 2012. By the end of the season they had recorded nearly 1,500. This was a surprising tally, enough nests to put the desolate, unprotected, little studied Moín on the map as one of the most productive Leatherback beaches in Costa Rica. 

But the discovery of so many nests also had political implications. Moín was not a conservation priority for the Costa Rican government. In 2011, the same year Mora arrived at Moín, Costa Rica granted a 33-year concession to a Dutch company called APM Terminals to turn the creaky port of Limón-Moín into a modern megaport, a terminal for the monster container ships that the Panama Canal is being widened to accommodate. The terminal, which will cost $1 billion to build, would drastically increase Costa Rica’s capacity for fruit exports; it would also be the biggest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the country. Though the first-phase plans alone call for extensive dredging and the construction of a 99-acre offshore island, APM officials have never expressed anything but confidence that the megaport would meet environmental approval. In one document submitted to Costa Rica’s environmental agency, consultants for APM reported that Moín “does not harbor important sites for marine turtle nesting.” For Lizano and Mora, it didn’t seem unreasonable to think that the discovery of 1,500 Leatherback nests might slow the march toward a megaport, or that Moín might even one day become another wildlife refuge or national park, once people realized its conservation value. 

Vanessa Lizano talking to Guti.

Vanessa Lizano talking to Guti.

“We were so proud,” Lizano said, remembering the successes of the 2012 nesting season, the successful co-opting of the poachers, the strong police support she and Mora enjoyed. “We thought ‘finally, we’re winning this war.’” But the season ended disastrously, when masked men with automatic weapons assaulted a group of female volunteers from Belgium who’d been working at the wildlife sanctuary and guarding the hatchery. The thieves tied the volunteers up, took their cell phones and threatened to rape them. They stole some 1,000 eggs and destroyed others. The volunteers went home traumatized. 

The men whom Mora and Lizano suspected of robbing the hatchery were some of the same all-purpose thugs who had threatened them before. They had rap sheets for assault, kidnapping and drug crimes in addition to egg poaching. On the beach they sometimes didn’t bother to hunt for nests themselves, but merely mugged other poachers of their fresh bags of eggs. They weren’t from Moín like Guti and his friends, but mostly lived in the hills to the west, driving over to the beach at night in a green van. This particular group made a sport of menacing and impeding the conservationists. On occasion they even impersonated them, wearing the red headlamps of the turtle patrols as they sacked the beach, to fool any passing authorities. They put logs in the road all the time, to thwart conservationists and cops. And the conservationists would replace the logs once they’d passed, “just to mess with them back,” Lizano said. 

It would have made sense, given the assault on the hatchery and the climate of hostility building at Moín, for the Limón police to step up their efforts to protect Mora, Lizano and their volunteers during the next Leatherback season, but this was not the case: 2013 started off badly. There had been few volunteers at seis millas, giving them little money to pay Guti and friends. The upper ranks of the Limón police had changed, and the new brass decided that their officers had better things to do than keep turtle workers safe. Police patrolled Moín beach a few nights a week during the 2013 season, but they no longer escorted the turtle patrols personally.

Lizano was a single mom, and when the hostile poachers were seen hanging around her son’s elementary school in Limón, and trying to take his picture in a restaurant, she relocated with him to San José. She came to Moín only on weekends, leaving Mora to manage the turtles and volunteers during the week. And Mora and Lizano could only offer the most meager of enticements — bags of rice or pasta — to get the poachers to come out of their huts and help. The data the conservationists were able to collect was scant, and they worked the dark beach in pairs or small groups, at the mercy of whomever they might encounter. 

One night that April, Mora stood on a section of beach staring helplessly as poachers dug up every Leatherback nest in sight; he appealed to friends on Facebook to pressure the police. That same month he spoke to La Nación, Costa Rica’s newspaper of record, about a “mafia” of armed poachers making conservation work all but impossible. In early May a reporter from La Nación arrived from the capital to learn more about what was happening. He walked the beach with Mora and Lizano and found them frighteningly vulnerable, with not a cop in sight. “If an officer says he’s helping us, he’s lying,” Mora told him.

On the night of May 30, 2013, Mora ran into Guti standing over a nesting Leatherback on Moín beach. Guti was back to poaching, but Mora didn’t hold it against him, and Guti agreed to split that turtle’s eggs; Jairo would take his half back to the sanctuary. While Mora finished walking the beach, his four female companions — a Spanish veterinarian and three American college students — rode parallel to him in a Suzuki 4x4. 

Their work that night was largely symbolic. The 2013 season had been a wash. Mora and the volunteers were barely able to record, much less remove to safety, a significant number of Leatherback nests, thanks to constant harassment and threats. The group hadn’t been out at night for weeks, because the beach had become too scary. But they had grown to be close friends, and one of the women was about to fly home. With Mora’s encouragement, they headed out together one last time.

Some police were on the beach that night, but their last patrol car left before the group wrapped up. At 11:30 the women picked up Mora and began driving south, back to Lizano and the sanctuary. 

They were a mile from home when they encountered a bonfire burning on the side of the road, and two parked cars. Lights flashed in their faces as they passed. 

Moments later they came to a palm trunk that had been placed in the middle of the road. This was a trademark of the poachers in the green van: Mora had dealt with their logs many times before, and he got out of the car to move this one. But before he could, he was jumped by five men with ripped T-shirts tied around their faces, who had been hiding in the brush. 

Two of Mora’s assailants crammed themselves into the Suzuki, pulling Mora with them. They overtook the vehicle, one lying atop the women while the other drove. An injured Mora was crushed into the very back, where he remained silent, seemingly stunned. None of the women had ever known Mora to be silent. The Spanish vet was able to reach behind her and hold his hand, the only comfort he had as the assailants turned the car around and hurtled north along the beach. 

The women were dropped off at a primitive beachfront hut not unlike Guti’s. There, other men were waiting for them. Two guarded the girls, demanding they remove their clothes and threatening them with rape. The rest drove Mora toward nueve millas, where the Suzuki got stuck in the sand. Footprints suggested that Mora may have tried to escape at that point, trying to run to Guti’s hut, but that his assailants caught up to him before he could. They struck Mora on the back of the head with a rock or heavy stick, tied him to one of their own cars, and dragged him. Medical examiners would find Mora’s throat and lungs full of sand and conclude that he died of asphyxiation. His body, stripped of all clothes and belongings, was left face down on the beach beside the abandoned Suzuki. At dawn, a man who lived in a ranch across the railroad tracks found Mora in the sand. 

The women were unharmed. Their captors, after mocking and sexually harassing them, had suddenly left them alone in the hut, disappearing without explanation. They walked south toward the sanctuary, arriving hours later, where a panicked Lizano awaited them. She would soon get a call from the ranch owner about Mora. But she could not force herself to believe that Mora was dead. Her urge, always, was to find a peaceful solution, to keep negotiating, to reach the poacher with the green van and offer him whatever he wanted. It would take until the police confirmed that Mora’s body had been found for her to stop trying.

Didiher Chacón and the staff of WIDECAST got a call from Lizano, in the early hours of May 31, saying something had happened to Mora. They still did not know what as they set off from San José, headed toward the coast. They would end up waiting in the morgue for his body to be released. The day of Mora’s death marked the end of WIDECAST’s involvement with Moín. Chacón and scientists like him knew very well how dangerous sea turtle work could be. Within days the rest of the world would, too.

Guti’s hut. Not a tourist’s idea of Costa Rican beach living.

Guti’s hut. Not a tourist’s idea of Costa Rican beach living.

The reaction to Mora’s murder was immediate and impassioned. Environmentalism, after all, is a part of Costa Rica’s national identity, and as much a point of pride as its lack of an army, high education rates, and strong institutions in a region better known for backwardness and instability. When Costa Rica’s vice president at first referred to Mora’s murder as “an accident,” citing the high risks of working in a drug region like Limón, he was nearly shamed out of office. Then-president Laura Chinchilla called the killing “despicable,” and Mora’s story dominated Costa Rican headlines for weeks. WIDECAST succeeded in having Mora posthumously named a Walt Disney “conservation hero,” and some $14,000 was collected by conservationist groups to help his family in Gandoca. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine protection group founded by Capt. Paul Watson, collected some $60,000 worth of pledges to reward anyone with information leading to the arrest of Mora’s killers, though in Limón, there was never much doubt as to who had killed Mora or why.

The high-profile nature of Mora’s case, and the sense that the Limón police could not be trusted to handle it, resulted in a special team of investigators being sent up from the capital. It took the team two months to make their arrests, but when “Operation Baula” — the Costa Rican word for Leatherback — finally came to a head, the evidence against the suspects was overwhelming. On July 31, six men were arrested in simultaneous morning raids in Limón and Moín. One suspect was still using Mora’s cell phone when he was captured. A seventh was arrested a little over a week later.

The poachers in the green van turned out to be less than criminal masterminds. The flurry of text messages they’d sent after killing Mora — some of them from Mora’s own phone — allowed investigators to establish links among them, and locate them at the scene of the murder. One message referred explicitly to three of them dragging Mora behind a car. Police tied some of the suspects to other assaults, robberies and rapes on and around Moín Beach. The suspects, all men, were placed in preventive detention for six months until prosecutors could present their case. The oldest among them, a 38-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant named Felipe Arauz, was thought to have planned the crime. He and six others all waited to be tried for the assault and murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval. 

The arrests came as a relief to conservationists, who feared that they would never happen at all. But the turtle community was taken aback when, in a press release, police seemed to blame WIDECAST, Lizano and even Mora himself for the murder. The implication was that Lizano and Mora had brought this upon themselves by hiring egg poachers — criminals — to help them. The killers were retaliating, police suggested, because they’d been left out of the program. “That really sucked, what the police did,” said PRETOMA’s Randall Arauz. Co-opting poachers is standard practice on turtle beaches all over Costa Rica. “My first funding from the United Nations in 1998 came from a turtle beach where we did something very similar to what Vanessa was trying to do — hire the locals who take eggs on the beach, or whose fathers took eggs,” Arauz said. “Ten years later these are some of our most dedicated conservationists. It can take a generation, but it works.” 

Many conservationists, meanwhile, remained unsatisfied with the idea that Mora could have been killed over eggs. There were too many competing interests on Moín beach for it to be so simple. Biologist Karen Eckert, the executive director of WIDECAST USA, told colleagues in a widely circulated email that “conservation groups in Costa Rica doubt that the arrests are related to the killing and view the effort as a sideshow to reduce international pressure.” Chacón said he suspects that high-level drug traffickers were involved. Lizano believes that the port interests may have been responsible, if not for Mora’s murder, for the waning of police commitment in the months before it — no one connected to the megaport wanted to make it easy to find an endangered species on Moín. Randall Arauz thinks it was just about eggs. “People wanted the police to say it was international drug cartels with links to some politicians,” he said. “There was a lot of disappointment when it turned out to be petty crime. Not some big plot against environmentalists, just some crackhead poachers who were mad at Jairo because he was interfering with their business.”

The wildlife sanctuary at seis millas sits on land that the Lizanos lease from the Costa Rican government. The family has received word that they and their animals will have to move — their parcel will be needed to build the megaport. Plans originally called for construction to start in February 2014, but union opposition and new environmental impact studies have held it up, and most agree it will be many more months, if not years, before the first dredge arrives. One of the new studies underway involves turtles; Chacón and WIDECAST are preparing a report using the few years’ worth of nesting data that Lizano and Mora were able to provide. Still, Chacón thinks the port can’t be stopped. The best conservationists can hope for is that the company, in exchange for taking over the southern half of the beach, will pay for the policing of its northern stretch, where the nesting is most concentrated. 

On my visit in late 2013, Lizano was still spending weekends at her family’s sanctuary, driving up from San José every Friday evening. Her current crew — three German college kids and two young locals — were caring for 36 sloths, a small group of baby howler monkeys and a maniacal troop of spider monkeys. Until Mora’s death the sanctuary attracted volunteers eager above all to work with Leatherbacks. Some were grad students and serious undergraduates who carried out research projects in addition to counting nests. But the young people at the sanctuary now had to make themselves content with hugging sloths and babysitting monkeys. None set foot on the beach. Especially not at night.

Lizano was well aware that she risked her life with every visit to seis millas. Even with Mora’s alleged killers in preventative detention, there were members of their gang at large, and barely a day passed there when she did not run into a friend, girlfriend, brother or mother of one of the suspects awaiting trial. Recently, one had reached out from a motorcycle and slapped her. But she still ran her errands in a tank top reading: “I don’t eat turtle eggs, I protect them.” 

I followed her one Saturday as she braved the farmers’ market in Limón in that shirt, ignoring the loud snickers and snide remarks that it generated. “I don’t protect turtle eggs, I eat them,” joked a group of young boys, aged 10 or 11 at most, who were selling tomatoes. Lizano either didn’t hear them as she passed, or, more likely, ignored them. She was used to it.

Lizano went off to negotiate giant purchases of fruit and vegetables for the sanctuary while I stayed back to talk to the boys. How do turtle eggs taste? I asked them. “Delicious,” they said — better than chicken eggs. They liked turtle meat too, they said, cooked in coconut and peppers. It tastes like steak, they said.

They asked me what I was doing in Limón and I told them. The kids seemed to register who Lizano was and, to my surprise, claimed they had known Jairo Mora as well. They liked him very much, they said.

A round-faced young girl joined the boys. “They killed Jairo,” she told me solemnly. She, too, had thought of him as a friend.

I told them that without Jairo, Vanessa was all alone now trying to protect the turtles. “People should come from other countries and help her,” one of the boys told me. The kids nodded in agreement. They were too young to recognize any contradictions in what they were saying. Or they were too much a product of Limón.

Costa Ricans credit Archie Carr with making them aware that unchecked exploitation was pushing certain species of sea turtles to extinction, and that protecting nesting beaches was the key to reversing the trend. Carr’s Caribbean Conservation Corporation, founded in 1959, mounted the first serious beach protection efforts in Costa Rica, and generations of dedicated Costa Rican conservationists have since succeeded in maintaining and expanding a park system designed to protect the country’s nesting beaches and attract appreciative tourists to them. 

The Limón region, though, remained a stubborn outlier when it came to turtles. Fishing in its waters was always difficult, and aside from the commercial fruit plantations, there was little farming or ranching. For much of the past century the region lacked easy access to Costa Rica’s interior, and some combination of isolation and scarce resources led residents to exploit turtles heavily. In the mid-1950s, Carr was shocked to discover an organized and sanctioned Green Turtle trade in which every single mile of beach from Limón to Tortuguero was assigned to a hunter. The hunters would flip nesting females on their backs, usually before they had a chance to lay their eggs, and wait for the boat to come up from Limón to collect them. If the boat didn’t arrive on time, and it often didn’t, the turtles died and rotted in the sun. “It’s a deadly system,” Carr wrote in his 1956 book, The Windward Road. “Operated at capacity, it would surely destroy the rookery.”

A quarter-century later, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlawed international trade in all marine turtle products. Still, legal hunting for local consumption continued in Limón, under quotas that were widely flouted, until conservation groups sued for a complete ban in 1999. Leatherback Turtle meat is said to be greasy and unappetizing — only the eggs are eaten — but “the female Greens and Hawksbills that show up on these beaches disappear totally. Even now,” said WIDECAST’s Chacón. The Lizanos have treated many marine turtles confiscated by the coast guard; they arrive badly dehydrated or even partially butchered. 

With eggs, the situation is even more complicated. Costa Rica sanctions a limited egg trade, allowing sales of eggs from one turtle species collected on one beach. The Pacific beach of Ostional, one of the beaches Jairo Mora worked during the course of the year, is home to annual arribadas, or mass nesting migrations, of Olive Ridley Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea). On just over a half mile of beach, 100,000 Ridleys might lay eggs over the course of a week. Arribadas remain a biological mystery, as they can seem downright suicidal; the extreme concentration of nesting can leave nearly all the eggs crushed or colonized by fungi. In the 1980s, researchers found that the deliberate removal of eggs laid early in the arribada improved the overall rate of egg survival at Ostional. Recently, this assumption has been challenged, but eggs from Ostional continue to be legally sold in Costa Rica under the premise that culling them improves hatching success on the beach. 

The bigger trouble with Ostional, conservationists say, is that its legal egg sales have created a loophole by which sea turtle eggs of all species get sold and consumed in Costa Rica. On the Pacific they are served raw, in shot glasses, with spicy sauce; on the Caribbean they’re boiled. All a vendor needs to do to sell them is produce a false receipt from Ostional. And most don’t bother to do even that. 

“Ostional makes a mess for the rest of us,” said Lizano. 

PRETOMA’s Arauz agreed. “People are now starting to look at Ostional and say, ‘If we hadn’t been still eating turtle eggs, Jairo would not have been murdered.’ Some of the NGOs here are now calling to shut it down.” 

There were a couple of people around Moín who were genuinely happy to see Lizano. The poachers who used to work with her were among them. On my visit we stopped by Guti’s beach shack, where his chickens pecked at a pile of discarded coconut hulls and his wife smoked fish over an open fire. Lizano regularly brought Guti bags of coffee and other small gifts; in exchange he fed her bits of information about what was happening in Moín, and he even protected some Green Turtle eggs for her in coolers.

WIDECAST had pulled the plug on the Leatherback project, but Lizano was still determined to collect nesting data and save eggs again in 2014, when Leatherbacks started arriving in early March. Right now, however, Lizano had neither the support nor the funds to do turtle work. The police would have to agree to help her — but so far they hadn’t. The $60,000 in reward money Sea Shepherd had solicited for information about Mora’s killers never was collected, because police investigators were able to make a case without it. 

Lizano knew that forging ahead with more turtle studies on Moín could end in her being killed as well. She was 36 years old and getting tired of the battles. She knew she had to think of her son, of the rest of her life. And she was considering all of her options. With the megaport closing in, the best thing to do seemed to be to move the wildlife sanctuary to a safer spot on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. But she had a hard time abandoning the Leatherbacks of Moín. She didn’t want Mora, her good friend and colleague, to have died for nothing. “This beach hypnotizes you,” she said. “It makes you want to come back to it, even though you shouldn’t.”

I went for a walk with Lizano one broiling afternoon in downtown Limón. We passed the shady park where Archie Carr once liked to rest and watch sloths in the tall trees. Not far from that is the waterfront, where the hollow remains of an old movie theater stand baking in the sun. Stenciled in black on one of its walls is a large, striking image of Mora’s handsome face. “Jairo Vive,” it reads. An artist had traveled here from the capital to paint it. 

Within days of Mora’s death there had been vigils in six Costa Rican cities, the biggest in San José, where hundreds came out to mourn a 26-year-old environmentalist they had never met or heard of before that week. But the memorial in Limón, where Jairo was known to many, drew few attendees, Lizano said.

In the streets just behind us, women in pink T-shirts were marching, followed by a band of high school drummers. It was a rally to raise awareness of breast cancer, and a spirited one considering the heat of the day. The people of Limón could get behind a cause when they wanted to; they just didn’t get behind Mora’s.

Lizano said she wished she could restore this old theater, and show movies here once again. Kids in Limón don’t get to see movies, she said. “They don’t have those Disney dreams of animals as something cute and special to be protected. They don’t see them as anything but food.” 

Hours later, when the sun fell, we came back to Limón for drinks. Lizano brought along Roger Sanchez, a teenager who lives and works at the sanctuary, and Marjorie Balfodano, Roger’s girlfriend. Both were committed conservationists who once walked the beach with Jairo Mora. Balfodano was wearing the same “I protect turtle eggs” top as Lizano had been earlier. We had her go into a bathroom and turn it inside out. You don’t want to look like a turtle conservationist in Limón’s rowdy cantinas, where turtle eggs are sold, every evening, by vendors who roam from bar to bar, carrying rice cookers or coolers to keep them warm. The sellers dole the hot eggs into white plastic bags, three for 1,000 colones, or $2. It does not take much effort to encounter one; just sit in any crowded bar in Limón, order a beer, and wait. Within an hour, three or four hueveros will find their way to you. 

This time of year the hueveros were selling local Green turtle eggs, which they did bother to claim were the legal product from Ostional. It’s often said that Costa Ricans consume turtle eggs as aphrodisiacs, or that turtle eggs are a food traditionally eaten only by poor Afro-Caribbean residents on the coast. We watched men and women of every race, color and class buy baggies of eggs, bite holes in their leathery shells, and suck the contents down lustily. “Wow, they’re really enjoying those eggs over there,” Lizano said, scowling at the patrons of a distant table. Turtle eggs were just another spicy, salty, greasy bar food in Limón. “If Jairo were here, he’d be going nuts, calling the cops,” Lizano said as she snapped surreptitious pictures of passing hueveros on her iPhone. 

I asked her if I could try an egg, to see what the fuss was about. Lizano agreed and sent Sanchez to buy a baggie. The egg tasted just as people had described it, soft and fatty, offset by the sting of hot peppers and the earthy mineral taste of the boiled shell. Lizano watched me with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. “How was it?” she asked. It tasted good, I admitted, but I felt dirty nonetheless. We let the remaining two eggs grow cold on our table. Finally, as though he could stand the sight of them no longer, Sanchez stood and went to throw them away. Growing up here, Sanchez used to eat turtle eggs, too. It was his culture and tradition. But working with Lizano and Mora had changed him. The sight of boiled turtle eggs now repulsed him. 

Just as the evening’s fourth vendor made his rounds with two coolers full of eggs, and we were about to leave, a fight broke out between two women in the bar. When a team of police showed up minutes later to break it up, the huevero made no effort to slip out of the bar unnoticed. Instead he looked on nonchalantly, still holding his coolers of eggs, until the officers finished dealing with the battling women. He then made his leisurely way outside and was halfway down the street when the cops began to follow him. 

Lizano rushed outside with her iPhone, excited, thinking that the police were about to make an arrest. When she got closer, though, she realized that the officers were, in fact, buying turtle eggs themselves. She snapped a picture of the transaction, the eggs still protruding from one cop’s hand. “Let’s go,” she said suddenly, and we paid the bar tab and rushed into her truck. She was headed to the police station with her incriminating photo. 

But the two cops who had just bought eggs had hopped onto their motorcycle, seemingly trying to beat us there. When they saw that Lizano was winning, they turned away, headed elsewhere. 

© SA Team/ Foto Natura/Minden Pictures/Corbis

© SA Team/ Foto Natura/Minden Pictures/Corbis

A lieutenant emerged from the station and gave Lizano a kiss. Lizano still had good relationships with many Limón police, especially those who used to walk with her and Mora on the beaches of Moín. When Lizano showed the lieutenant her pictures of the officers buying eggs, he seemed embarrassed. “They’re new, they’re young guys,” he told her. “We’ll have to talk to them.” Lizano said goodbye to the lieutenant and got back in her truck. On the drive home, she got a call from him. The same officers had gone back and arrested the egg vendor, he told her, claiming that it was their plan to do so all along. Lizano thanked the lieutenant and hung up. 

“It just goes on and on,” Lizano said as she navigated the dark beachfront road back to seis millas, the lights of the shipping port behind her in the distance. “It’s incredible to think someone died for this.”

In the year after Mora’s murder, some 12,000 acres of conservation land in Gandoca, his hometown, got renamed the Jairo Mora Sandoval Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. Capt. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, christened one of the society’s conservation ships the SS Jairo Mora Sandoval. 

In Moín, though, little had changed. Nearly a year after after Mora’s murder, not one of the seven suspects had been tried. They remained in preventative detention, which a Limón judge continued to extend, while prosecutors worked on their case. 

The Leatherbacks had come back to Moín, and it appeared to be another bumper year. But Lizano remained in the capital, working six days a week, trying to raise money to get formal surveys going again in 2015. This would be “a lost year,” she told me. In Moín, her assistant Roger Sanchez walked the beach on the nights police made themselves available to escort him, though they often stood him up. He was under strict instructions from Lizano and her family to collect data only for now, and leave the nests for the poachers.

 

This 184-page issue, with over 150 color photos, covers a variety of stories ranging from editorials chronicling the death of a young conservationist to long-standing conservation programs in the field. The issue is complete with photo essays and interviews with prominent figures in our community, containing a total of 19 pieces that focus on a number of Threatened and Critically Endangered species from around the globe. From the deserts of Nevada where a rogue rancher battles the Federal Government for grazing rights on Desert Tortoise habitat, to the runways of John F. Kennedy Airport where Diamondback Terrapins search for suitable nesting sites — this issue covers the most pressing conservation topics facing tortoises and turtles today.

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Jennie Erin Smith

I am a reporter, writer and reviewer specializing in science and natural history, with a longtime interest in zoos, museums, animals and conservation.  For several years I worked as an environmental reporter in Florida, where I developed many of the contacts needed to write Stolen World; currently I write for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, McSweeney's, and other publications. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you care to. Many thanks for visiting! Jennie Erin Smith