PRESS RELEASE: Indigenous human right leader in Costa Rica assassinated

Press Release
Press Release

PRESS RELEASE: Indigenous human right leader in Costa Rica assassinated

March 19, 2019:

Last night at approximately 9:15pm in Costa Rica, beloved indigenous leader of the Bribri people, Sergio Rojas Ortiz, was assassinated while alone in his home in Yeri, in the indigenous territory of Salitre (Puntarenas, Costa Rica).  Two Bribri neighbors reported hearing 15 gunshots. It appears the armed assailant entered the back of Sergio’s home. Neighbors called 911. Over an hour later police arrived. Eventually members of the Red Cross entered and confirmed that he died of multiple gunshot wounds.

Sergio Rojas was the leader of the Bribri indigenous movement seeking to peacefully recuperate their lands and defend their human rights.  He was the legal and political coordinator of the Bribri traditional council, “Consejo de Iriria Ditsö Ajkönuk Wakpa”.  He was a member of the coordinating body of the Frente Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (FRENAPI), and was formerly a president of the Asociación de Desarrollo Integral (ADI) (local governing body in Salitre).

Mr. Rojas is well known by national and international officials for his work on behalf of indigenous peoples. This was not the first time Sergio has been threatened or shot at for his work as a human rights defender for his people. For years the Bribri people have been the subject of egregious violence, threats and retaliatory litigation because of their unwavering struggle to defend their lands, culture and traditional institutions. Because of the urgency and gravity of their situation, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued Precautionary Measures in April 2015 ordering the Government of Costa Rica to take measures to protect the lives and physical integrity of the Bribri people.  The Government had been warned repeatedly that if they did not do something, deaths could occur.  Nevertheless, after years of communications with the Government, including a failed and unimplemented Protocol to comply with the precautionary measures, little has been done by the State to improve the security in Salitre, evict and prosecute known instigators of violence, and return their lands from the hands of illegal occupants (as required by law).

In the past few months, Bribri people have been threatened almost daily by illegal occupants in their territory – often detonating small explosives, firing shots into their lands and farms, burning their trees and destroying structures. The Bribri call the police, they arrive hours later, and do little.  In one case, the police retired and were told that a unit would return if there is new violence or to pick up the dead. Dozens of attacks and threats have occurred over the past years (burning of homes, gun and machete attacks, leaving families fleeing for safety), and yet no perpetrator has been held responsible.  Just three days ago, groups of armed men gathered around a recently recuperated farm known as La Huaca in Salitre. They shot their guns into the farm to scare the Bribri inside. The police arrived several hours after being called, but only remained on the outskirts of the property.  They were afraid to enter. They left after doing nothing other than to tell the indigenous people to file a complaint.

The Government of Costa Rica must take its responsibilities to protect the Bribri indigenous peoples of Salitre. The authorities must conduct a thorough investigation and find and prosecute the person responsible for Sergio’s death.  As the Commission and the Government has recognized, the underlying cause of this violence is the land insecurity in the region – in particular, the illegal occupation. The State must stop with its delays and remove non-indigenous occupants, so often the instigators of violence.

This is a sad day not only for the Bribri indigenous peoples, but all those that knew and loved Sergio, and for all indigenous peoples in territories throughout Costa Rica facing the same situation. It is also a sad day for human rights advocates and all the good citizens of Costa Rica who want to live in a society of justice and rule of law and who expect so much more from their Government. We call upon all of you to remember Sergio, keep his fight for human rights alive, support indigenous peoples, and call upon the Government to act immediately.

For more information:

Contact, Vanessa Jiménez, Senior lawyer, Forest Peoples Programme, and legal advisor to the Bribri indigenous peoples of Salitre: +1 202 215 8418, whatsapp, vjimenez3432@gmail.com.