In the early morning of May 31, the body of Costa Rican Jairo Mora Sandoval was found on Moín Beach, along the Caribbean coast. Serving as a wildlife conservationist for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), Mora Sandoval and four other volunteers, three Americans and one Spaniard, were kidnapped by five masked gunmen on the night of May 30 and taken to an abandoned house. Separating Mora Sandoval from the rest of the group, the attackers proceeded to beat the 26 year-old until his body lay lifeless, strip him of his clothes, and leave him to suffocate by shoving sand in his mouth. The autopsy determined that he died from asphyxiation. The four foreigners were unharmed and were responsible for alerting the police.

Setting the scene

In Costa Rica, there exists a growing trend of trade between poachers and drug traffickers supplying drugs for turtle eggs, which are considered to be an aphrodisiac. Given that a sea turtle lays 80 eggs or more, and that an individual egg values at $1 US, the trade has become more prevalent in recent years. According to WIDECAST’s Costa Rica Coordinator Didiher Chacón, “The socioeconomic situation in the region has led people to believe in illegal businesses… And on a public beach, a place without any protection, they can do whatever they want. There is no law there.”

Though no evidence exists to link Mora Sandoval’s death to the country’s illegal drug trade, local authorities believe it was drug traffickers sending a message to declare the beach as their own.

In April, Mora Sandoval spoke out against drug traffickers in La Nación, Costa Rica’s most popular newspaper, for their responsibility in the disappearance of thousands of turtle eggs. Chacón admitted that “[Jairo Mora Sandoval] was getting in someone’s way. Jairo spoke out against the criminal elements there. And the fact that they left sand in his throat sends a clear message to our organization. They wanted to silence him.”

According to Sebastian Troeng, current Managing Director of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans who spent nine years working on sea turtle conservation along the same beaches, “The links between the drug trade and sea turtle poaching along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica have been known for a long time.” He writes for the Huffington Post, “Locals talk of intimidation of or collusion by police and judicial officials to minimize action against poachers and drug runners.”

Costa Rica’s drug trade

Writing for the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), Samuel Logan and John Sullivan warn of Costa Rica’s rise in the Columbia-supplied drug trade. They argue that while “Central America’s northern triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – to be the most affected by the regional drug trade,” Costa Rica has “become [a] de facto passageway… for both Mexican and Colombian organized crime.”

The country’s anti-drug police confiscated close to 16 tons of cocaine in 2012, selling in US streets for a total of US $2 billion, as cited by Costa Rica’s Public Security Ministry.

Former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias once equated his country’s drug problem to its geography, “We are the waistline of the Americas, we are between the producers and consumers and we can’t do a thing.”

Threats to conservation

Accounting for a mere 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, Costa Rica holds five percent of its biodiversity, “A density that is unmatched anywhere else in the world,” according to the National Institute of Biodiversity Costa Rica (INBioparque). Specific to sea turtles, Costa Rica and most of Central America once supported populations in the thousands, but with illegal poaching, loss of critical habitat and increased pollution, sea turtle populations are in decline.

Included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species, global adult female sea turtle populations have declined by 70 percent over the last 75 years. While this might pale in comparison to other species’ decline, Julia Whitty for Mother Jones offers that this rate becomes a “fast-track to extinction for a species that’s survived 110 million years of pre-human challenges.”

Besides the human-induced changes that directly threaten sea turtle populations, human-induced climate change also plays a role in their decline. Pilar Tomillo recently published a report on the increasing rate of egg and hatchling mortality “affected by climatic variability… Drier and warmer conditions associated with El Niño increased egg and hatchling mortality.” Unfortunately, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that Costa Rica will continue to experience a warmer and drier climate in this century, with a three degrees Celsius increase in temperature and a 25 percent decrease in humidity on the Pacific coast.

Target on its back

A country known as the Switzerland of Central America, today’s Costa Rica has become a destination hot spot in the region. Citing the country’s “good system of social services… political stability, high education and tourism infrastructure,” author Nate Cavalieri et al. writes that “Despite the economic tumult that has rocked the world since 2008, Costa Rica’s economy has remained remarkably stable.”

Of the largest economic boosters, tourism in Costa Rica currently “outpaces both agriculture and industry for the biggest slice of [its] economy.” In 2012 alone, Costa Rica received more than 2.3 million visitors, leading Central America’s tourism industry and surpassing the previous years by almost seven percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Earning the country billions of dollars per year, Costa Rica’s tourism industry has encouraged foreign investment to build soccer stadiums, improve oil refineries and invest in the country’s plethora of natural resources. Much of the trust and endowment in Costa Rica’s future comes from China, whose president, Xi Jinping, recently visited to “provide new vigor to the two countries’ economic and trade ties,” reports the Global Times.

However, the University of Miami’s Department of International Studies’ chairman, Bruce Bagley, contends that the country’s recent success also makes it “a target of opportunity and must be aware of and alert to its institutional vulnerability.”

Costa Rica’s response

According to Limón’s Chief of Police Erick Calderón, “The goal of the police patrols [is] less about protecting volunteers and more about increasing the number of eyes and ears on the beach.”

Following news of Mora Sandoval’s death, Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla called it a “despicable murder” and urged police to bring the killers to justice. Chinchilla, who became Costa Rica’s first female president in 2010, signed an executive decree to establish an anti-drug commission on the first day of her presidency. She supported former president Oscar Arias’ green-minded policies, including environmental conservation, eco-tourism and the goal to be the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021.

Still, some question the country’s role in protecting those that protect the natural world. Contributing to National Geographic as a guest writer, Brad Nahill writes, “Costa Rica is known around the world as the place where eco-tourism was born… Hundreds of people come to volunteer annually on these beaches without incident, spending their time, money, and sweat with the goal of contributing to the conservation of these incredible animals.” Nahill, who had previously worked with WIDECAST for two years, asks, “When the government of Costa Rica spends millions of dollars to market itself as a wildlife paradise but next to nothing to protect that wildlife, will the volunteers and tourists still come?”

On June 12, Costa Rica’s Prosecutor’s Office announced they had identified potential suspects in the case, but no arrests have yet been made.