The Murder of Sergio Rojas
Three years after a brutal murder, calls for justice in resolving indigenous land disputes in Costa Rica remain unanswered while violence continues.
About three hours after sunset on Monday March 18, 2019, Antonio Moreno heard gunfire coming from his neighbor’s house in Yeri, a remote settlement in the Bribri indigenous territory of Salitre. Mr. Moreno waited outside until the only police unit in the area arrived at the crime scene two hours later. They found a 59-year-old man lying in his bedroom with seven 9-millimiter bullet wounds across his back. They also found 10 bullet holes dispersed through the house.
Costa Rica learned quickly about the murder of Sergio Rojas, the most prominent indigenous leader in the country’s recent history. Carlos Alvarado, President of Costa Rica at the time, described Rojas’ death as “tragic for the Bribri community, indigenous peoples, and the whole country.”
Three years later, the murder of Sergio Rojas remains an unresolved mystery, increasingly mired in controversy. In September 2020, the special criminal investigation team supervised by the Costa Rica Attorney General’s office announced the dismissal and filing of the case, arguing absence of sufficient evidence after 18 months of work.
Following a public outcry, the tiny courthouse in Buenos Aires, the small capital of Puntarenas hosting the only state institutions around the indigenous communities where Sergio Rojas lived and died, declared it would resume the investigation.
In January 2021, a human rights commission within the Legislative Assembly in San José urged the central government to reopen the case.
Critics blame the government for not applying the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights’ mandate to protect indigenous leaders like Rojas. The government is also criticized for failing to apply the Indigenous Law of 1977 – a difficult-to-enforce piece of legislation that grants indigenous people exclusive land ownership within indigenous territory.
Alvarado’s administration hoped to formalize the complex land reclamation process, without success. Nonetheless, his government seemed aligned with Rojas’ cause, which encourages locals to take the law into their own hands.
In February of 2020, a written response from officials at the Ministry of the Presidency who had participated in the government’s efforts to rebuild dialogue with indigenous leaders after Rojas’ murder stated: “Sergio Rojas’ fight represents a historic and legitimate claim.”
Rojas’ followers argue that government inaction leaves them no option but to forcefully invade property inhabited by those they deem nonindigenous. “I will stop at nothing to continue Rojas’ legacy”, says Felipe Figueroa, the new leader of the land reclamation movement initiated by Rojas in Salitre. “We’re ready with weapons if necessary”, claims Jeffrey Ortiz-Villanueva, an indigenous leader inspired by Rojas in nearby Terraba.
On the opposite side, those who have lost their land also feel abandoned by the government. “My fight is against the government for not compensating me as promised by law”, says William Vega, considered nonindigenous and whose property was seized by 15 men with machetes almost a decade ago.
At the courthouse in Buenos Aires there are hundreds of cases mounting from each side of the conflict. Before the start of the global pandemic, there were over 150 indigenous people investigated for crimes related to land reclamation, including attempted homicide, land misappropriation, and assault with a weapon. There were a similar number of nonindigenous people also under investigation.
The autonomous indigenous governments of Salitre and Terraba, the local institutions in charge of land management, are under investigation for corruption.
On the Terraba river, the disputed construction of the El Diquis hydroelectric powerplant, an abandoned infrastructure that was once the most important energy project in Central America, remains a buried case involving several indigenous leaders.
Even Sergio Rojas, at the time of his death, had spent seven months in prison, and was being investigated for embezzlement during his tenure as leader of the autonomous government of Salitre.
The real fight is far from the courthouse, however, and even farther from San José. The most visible conflict is between indigenous and nonindigenous neighbors. But indigenous peoples are not united in their pursuit of justice. There is growing tension between indigenous people who continue Rojas’ legacy and others who disagree, in an atmosphere of decades-long mistrust.
On February 19, 2020, Jerhy Rivera, another indigenous leader who fought alongside Rojas, was assassinated on the streets of Terraba.
“As long as the government provides fast and concrete solutions, indigenous people won’t need to recover land by their own hand,” said officials at the Ministry of the Presidency. The pandemic pushed the government to its limits.
Far away from the capital, wars over land linger.
This is an original piece of investigative reporting based on over 75 in-depth interviews with every side of the conflict in Buenos Aires, Salitre, Terraba, Boruca, Curre and San José, Costa Rica, conducted between March 2019 and February 2020.
You can download the full report below.
This project was produced by DAWNING in partnership with Newton Europe. This collaborative effort is rooted in social science methods and ethics. DAWNING adheres to its independent editorial team policy.
This is a non-partisan and non-ideological report, in the tradition of social science in the public interest.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Director of Photography: Nick Parisse
Executive Editor: Rafe H Andrews
Fieldwork Logistics Managers: Diego Rivera & Alberto Molina
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Research Assistants: Elizabeth Skokan & Mees van der Werf
Logistics Assistants: Felipe Chacon
Visuals Assistant: Deuce Janisch
Illustrations: Olivier Kugler
Photographs, Interviews, and Transcripts:
Luke Tregidgo, John Strijdom, Gareth Ingram, Daniel Sperrin, James Watson, Sam Hutchinson, Justin Geldof, Georgia Wickes, Toby Parnell, Tom Elton, Juan Carlos Ulate, Deuce Janisch, Nick Parisse, Rafe H Andrews, Joey Rosa, and Raul Roman