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Dismissal of Land Defender Sergio Rojas’ Murder Case in Costa Rica Causes Distress and Indignation

By Mariana Kiimi Ortiz (Ñuu Saavi, CS Staff)

Despite its reputation as a country with effective policies to guarantee human rights, Costa Rica continues to violate these and the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples. On March 18, 2019, Sergio Rojas Ortíz (Bribri), Indigenous land defender and leader in Salitre, was killed by 15 bullets after being threatened and attacked numerous times for his struggle in the recovery of Indigenous territories grabbed by non-Indigenous people. The Costa Rican judicial system was unable to bring justice in this instance, as on January 8, 2024, the Criminal Court of the 1st Judicial Circuit of the Southern Zone in Buenos Aires de Puntaneras dismissed the case, alleging that the evidence obtained from the investigation was not sufficient to prosecute the accused.

The struggle of the family members and the community for the Bribri leader's case has been going on for more than five years, a period of time in which they have been dealing with a tug-of-war with the country's authorities to hold accountable those responsible for this crime. In 2020, after calling on local Indigenous and international organizations, as well as UN human rights experts, a campaign was launched for the continuation of the investigation despite pressure for its closure. As a result, in January 2021, a criminal court rejected the closure of the investigation and ordered it to continue. However, on December 7, 2023, an oral and private hearing was held in which the Deputy Prosecutor's Office for Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime requested the definitive dismissal of the case (File 19-000178-0990-PE), which was inevitable to happen in early 2024 despite the campaign promoted by several Indigenous organizations.

The Court’s decision leaves two men unpunished, who were the alleged perpetrators of the homicide, and two other subjects (one of them already deceased) who were the masterminds. They were identified as responsible for the homicide by the Regional Unit of the Judicial Investigation Organism of Buenos Aires de Puntaneras in September 2019, thanks to reports of several testimonies and to the analysis of telephone conversations. Commenting on this ruling, the lawyer of Sergio's family, Oscar Retana, pointed out that the penal system is "very protective" and although this measure could be reviewed again, they will not seek to appeal it. On the contrary, they will call on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to continue seeking justice.

Sergio's legacy has transcended mainly for having initiated a land reclamation process in Salitre in 2010, as since then, he visited several territories to meet with community members and raise awareness about Indigenous rights under national and international law and helping each community to create their own organizations dedicated to the land reclamation process. For more than 12 years, the Indigenous Peoples of Costa Rica have been fighting against the corrupt powers of the State and non-Indigenous farmers to recover and maintain their territories. According to the testimony of Sergio Rojas during his lifetime, one of the major problems that the Indigenous Peoples face is the illegal possession of farmhouses by non-Indigenous people in the territories and the lack of action by the national government and its institutions. However, this process has brought with it a significant increase in violence and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples such as the Bribri people of Salitre.

Violence has escalated to such a level that, to date, two Indigenous leaders have been murdered. Less than a year after the murder of Sergio Rojas, Jerhy Riveras Rivera, a Bröran leader, was assassinated in February 2020. Given this context of insecurity for Indigenous defenders, in 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued the Precautionary Measure 321-12 and stated that "the State must adopt necessary measures to guarantee the life and personal integrity of members of the Teribe and Bribri Indigenous Peoples in the province of Punta Arenas." It also called on the Costa Rican State to "reinforce the comprehensive protection measures adopted in favor of Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders in the territories of Salitre and Térraba, as well as to investigate these facts promptly and diligently."

Unfortunately, the dismissal of the case for the murder of Sergio is further proof of the degree of impunity in Costa Rica and its historical debt to Indigenous Peoples by not guaranteeing the protection of their fundamental rights. The fact that the country has positioned itself internationally as a country that defends rights and that the media and social networks rarely report rights violations in this country makes it even more important that attention is now drawn to the violations against the rights and lives of Indigenous Peoples.

How many more lives of Indigenous Peoples have to be claimed before the Costa Rican government turns its attention to the problems that afflict them? Costa Rica has ratified international treaties such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization's Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to commit to "safeguard the special guarantees of Indigenous Peoples and those who defend their rights," but these can protect Indigenous rights only if they are put into practice. 

Costa Rica also fails to comply with the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her 2019 visit and the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in his 2021 visit. Special Rapporteur Francisco Calí Tzay wrote: "It is also essential to advance in the investigation, trial, and punishment of the material and intellectual authors of the threats against Indigenous leaders, as well as the murders of the Indigenous leaders mentioned. Impunity fosters a climate of violence and insecurity for Indigenous Peoples" and stressed the "urgent need for the State to adopt a mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders."

Cultural Survival condemns the dismissal of this case and urges the Costa Rican judiciary to use its power to comply with national and international human rights obligations and commitments.