Sergio Rojas by Olivier Kugler for DAWNING.

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.

May 2020

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.”


Jose Moreno, 52, with one of his sons, identifying bullet holes in Sergio Rojas’ house a week after the murder. DAWNING/Nick Parisse
The grave of Sergio Rojas a week after his burial in April 2019. DAWNING/Sam Hutchinson


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.


Celedina Moroto with two of her grandchildren at home in Boruca. Mrs. Moroto claimed: “I am the last true speaker of the Brunca language. Who will teach my grandchildren if I don’t?” Mrs. Moroto died at age 73 in June 2020. DAWNING/Deuce Janisch


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.


Jeffrey Villanueva, 44, crushing cocoa beans at his family home in the Terraba territory. DAWNING/Rafe H Andrews
Felipe Figueroa, 57, on his way home from the school where he teaches Bribri language. DAWNING/Sam Hutchinson


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.


William Vega, 60, in his kitchen, holding the deed to the 100-hectare farm where he grew coffee, bananas, avocado, and kept pigs for 28 years. DAWNING/Joey Rosa


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.


Genaro Gutierrez, 65, at a bar in Terraba. Mr. Gutierrez is one of the indigenous leaders investigated for corruption related to El Diquis. DAWNING/Joey Rosa
An abandoned piece of the hydroelectric infrastructure of El Diquis. DAWNING/Daniel Sperrin


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.


On February 25, 2020, about 200 citizens gathered in a vigil in central San José to mourn the death of Jerhy Rivera, an indigenous leader killed the day before in Terraba. DAWNING/Juan Carlos Ulate


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.

Get The Full Story

Our investigation was published in its entirety by Spain’s El Pais in 2021. Al Jazeera published a summary of our work in 2022. Here you can safely download the full report as originally conceived by DAWNING: a 50-page PDF containing over 100 photographs and illustrations.

The Team

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