Convictions for the killing of Jairo Mora Sandoval reverse 2015 acquittal
LIMÓN, Costa Rica––Four poachers have received prison sentences ranging from 74 to 90 years for the May 30, 2013 murder of Costa Rican sea turtle defender Jairo Mora Sandoval, 26, and the kidnapping and robbery of four volunteers who were helping Mora to protect sea turtle nests.
Perps nearly walked
A three-judge appellate court on March 29, 2016 reversed the January 26, 2015 acquittal of defendants Héctor Cash, Ernesto Centeno, José Bryan Quesada and Donald Salmón on all charges directly pertaining to the Mora case.
“Each of those defendants will serve 50 years in prison, the maximum allowed by Costa Rican law,” explained Tico Times reporter Lindsay Fendt, whose investigative work was instrumental in keeping the Mora case in the public eye.
“Donald’s brother Darwin Salmón, Felipe Arauz and William Delgado were cleared of all charges,” Fendt continued. “All seven defendants were acquitted on charges of sexual assault against one of the female volunteers captured with Mora because prosecutors were unable to prove which of the defendants had committed the assault.”
Cash, Centeno, Bryan, and Salmón were initially acquitted in 2015, after a three-month trial, due to what Judge Yolanda Alvarado termed mishandling of evidence by investigators, prosecutors and preliminary courts.
“She also cited an incomplete investigation that was unable to determine with exactitude the identities of the perpetrators,” wrote Fendt.
But Alvarado did convict Cash, Centeno, Bryan, and Salmón at the January 2015 trial “of kidnapping, raping and robbing a Costa Rican couple and their young nephews nearly two weeks before Mora’s murder,” Fundt recounted.
Alvarado sentenced Cash to serve 23 years in prison, Salmón to serve 27 years, and Bryan and Centeno to serve 17 years each.
Prosecution appealed & won
Costa Rican law, unlike U.S. law, allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals. Amid public outrage and pressure from the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly, the prosecution appealed and won.
“In an explanation of the ruling that lasted more than two hours, the court’s panel of three judges highlighted Mora’s work with sea turtles as the primary motivation for his murder,” summarized Fendt.
The defense had tried to portray the killing as the work of unknown drug traffickers who allegedly used the beach to land their smuggled wares.
War against poachers
Said chief appellate judge Carlos Alvarez, “The court rejects that there is any other motive for this murder. The killing of Mr. Jairo Mora Sandoval was the straw that broke the camel’s back in a war that was taking place between poachers and environmentalists on the beach.”
Recounted Fendt, “Mora was working as a sea turtle monitor for the conservation group Widecast, now renamed Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST), on the crime-ridden Moín Beach in Limón. Notoriously headstrong, Mora had gained a reputation on the beach as a vocal advocate against turtle egg poaching, earning himself enemies among the beach’s poaching gangs.”
Cell phone records
Cell phone transmission records “also placed Arauz and Delgado on the beach the night of the murder,” Fendt said, but the judges “said they could not convict based on a lack of witness testimony describing them participating in the crimes. Weeks before the verdict, prosecutors had dropped charges against Darwin Salmón due to a lack of evidence.
Said judge Alvarez, “The phone evidence showed that they communicated with the other suspects, but it didn’t prove that they participated in the murder.”
On the night of the murder, Fendt wrote, “Mora, who worked at a nearby wildlife refuge, along with four foreign volunteers from Moín Beach near Limón, on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast,” went to the beach “to collect leatherback sea turtle eggs to rebury them safely away from the poachers who frequented Moín. As the group was returning to the sanctuary, they encountered a log blocking the road, and when Mora exited the car to remove it, he was ambushed by a group of masked men. The men took the four women to an abandoned house, while Mora was taken to the beach, beaten, and dragged naked behind a car. He died of asphyxiation in the sand.”
The case broke, Fendt reported, when “In the early morning hours of July 31, 2013––exactly two months after Mora’s body was discovered ––Judicial Investigation Office 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,” reported Lindsay Fendt in the September 3, 2013 edition of The Tico Times.
Deal with poachers failed
Fendt’s in-depth account detailed the deterioration and eventual disintegration of a 2009 deal brokered by Limon butterfly farmer Vanessa Lizano between the poachers and the conservation group Widecast, Mora’s employer. Ten poachers were hired to relocate leatherback nests to give hatchling sea turtles a better chance to reach the ocean. The agreement failed when other poaching gangs became active on Moin Beach.
Remembered by Sea Shepherds
Sea Shepherd Global, based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in March 2014 named a patrol vessel the Jairo Mora Sandoval. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had earlier offered a reward of $30,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mora’s killers.
Said Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, “When I heard of the murder of 26-year-old Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval, I was saddened beyond measure. And then I became angry. Angry because it happened despite Jairo expressing concerns for his safety to the police and the government. Angry because the government did not react, angry because we had to pressure the government to act, and angry that the poachers continue to desecrate and plunder the nests of the turtles.
“I also vowed,” Watson continued, “that the name Jairo Mora Sandoval would not be forgotten and toward this end, I decided that we would name a vessel after Jairo. We have done so and now, the Jairo Mora Sandoval will begin anti-poaching operations off the coast of West Africa under the direction of the Government of Senegal.”