Leader of the Bribri indigenous people, Sergio Rojas Ortiz was murdered at his home in Salitre, Costa Rica on 18 March 2019, hours after making a complaint to the OIJ (Judicial Investigation Organisation) over a land dispute.
Rojas Ortiz was a coordinator of the Frente Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas / National Front of Indigenous People (FRENAPI) and was leading a movement to reclaim indigenous land from non-indigenous settlers – a fight that had led to him receiving numerous death threats, and suffer criminalization by the State and be held for a number of months in preventative detention (2015/2016).
According to witnesses, at approximately 21.15 on 18 march 2019, 15 shots were heard. The police did not arrive until almost an hour and a half later, allowing the killers to escape.
There are land disputes in the region between indigenous groups, who are protected by law, and non-indigenous people who assert that they have rights over some of these lands. This conflict has been ongoing for over 12 years. Indigenous people have decided to recover the land themselves, leaving themselves exposed to attack by non-indigenous people. Salitre and Térraba are areas where the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has granted protective measures due to the aggressions and violence that the indigenous people have experienced when defending their land.
Indigenous groups have denounced Rojas Ortiz’ murder saying,
“This great Bribri defender had already been the victim of several murder attempts, persecution and he was jailed for political reasons for 6 months in 2015.”
In September 2015, in the context of escalating violence in this indigenous region, when asked if there was any possibility of recovering the land without escalating violence, Rojas Ortiz stated:
“The only way depends on the Government: that they apply the law; if they don’t do so we will always have non-indigenous people encroaching on and usurping our land and when we assert our rights, there will be violence, because nobody wants to lose anything; the thief who steals doesn’t want to lose what he has stolen, he wants to be paid to return what he stole”.
The president Carlos Alvarado stated that the Government condemns and denounces the murder completely and added that the 18 March was a sad day for Costa Rica. Avarado promised immediate action to find those responsible and to reinforce security in the region.
On 24 September 2020, after a brief and inadequate investigation into the murder, and without having identified those responsible, the Prosecutor’s Office in Costa Rica announced its decision to archive the investigation, guaranteeing impunity for those responsible, and subsequently requested the competent court to dismiss the case.
Thanks to the calls of the UN and various international and national human rights organisations, academics and members of the different Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica, and after a hearing with the lawyer and the family of Rojas Ortiz, held on 03 December 2020, the Criminal Court of Buenos Aires, on January 14, 2021, rejected the request for dismissal of the case and resolved that the investigation should continue in the light of “due diligence.”