Drugs and Animal Poaching Overlap in Costa Rica

By McCarton Ackerman 06/17/13

Drug runners' recruitment of poachers brings crime to the country's once-protected shores.

Jairo Mora Sandoval died protecting Costa
Rican sea turtles
Photo via

Costa Rica has a history of political stability, a relatively low crime rate and rich wildlife, making it a sanctuary for many eager travelers. But the recent murder of an environmental activist has cast light on the rising overlap between animal poaching and drug trafficking on the country's impoverished and sparsely populated Atlantic coast. The body of 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval was found last month after he was abducted by gunmen while patrolling the beach to help save nesting leatherback turtles from poachers. "It's an area where there is an extremely low presence of authority," says Juan Sánchez Ramírez, an investigator with the nation's Environment Ministry. "The government has neglected the region. " Poverty in the area has driven many locals to poach protein-rich eggs ransacked from turtle nests that end up being served in popular restaurants. And many poachers are now being lured into the grips of drug traffickers who move up the coast from Panama and Colombia in speedboats. "The geographical position of the country makes it an ideal place for the transit and warehousing of drugs," says local police commander Erick Calderón, "But it's not all in transit. 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, drug addiction is rising in the region, and many addicts have taken to trading eggs directly to dealers for powdered cocaine. The poachers' collaboration with drug traffickers has also increased the presence of dangerous assault weapons on Costa Rica's shores. "The police don't even have AK-47s," says Sánchez Ramirez, "but the traffickers have them."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.