An unsolved murder amid Costa Rica’s Indigenous land disputes

Questions of heritage and who the land belongs to remain difficult to answer.

DAWNING/Olivier Kugler
[Olivier Kugler/DAWNING]
[Olivier Kugler/DAWNING]

It was about three hours after sunset on March 18, 2019, when a resident of Yeri, a remote Indigenous settlement near the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, heard the sound of gunfire from his neighbour’s home. When two policemen arrived at the crime scene a couple of hours later, they found a 59-year-old man lying in his bedroom with seven 9mm bullet wounds across his back.

News spread quickly of the murder of Sergio Rojas, the most prominent Indigenous leader in the country’s recent history.

Carlos Alvarado, the president of Costa Rica at the time, described Rojas’s death as “tragic”, not only for Indigenous peoples but also for the whole country.

Rojas, the leader of the Bribri tribe, had fought to reclaim Indigenous ancestral land, the vast majority of which had been illegally occupied since at least the 1960s.

Land is vital to the histories and identities of Indigenous people around the world, including those in Costa Rica. Their relationship to a given territory is often familial and spiritual, not to mention critical to sustaining their agricultural livelihoods and lifestyle close to nature. Rojas fought not only for land as an economic resource, but for what he believed to be the cultural integrity and dignity of his people.

But he had been a controversial figure.

In 2010, he launched a campaign to reclaim land, resulting in the seizure of 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of farms and homes owned by people his followers did not recognise as Indigenous.

At the time of his death, he was being investigated by the local Public Prosecutor’s Office for allegedly misappropriating nearly $800,000 worth of funds as president of the local governing body.

A photo of the grave of Sergio Rojas, with a cross on a little hill and a flower near the cross.
The grave of Sergio Rojas a week after his burial in April 2019. Across the Indigenous territory of Salitre, the community mourns his death, although debate continues to surround his life. Many of Rojas’s Indigenous neighbours did not approve of his methods and say they prefer peaceful ways of preserving their culture [Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]

Contentious history

Rojas’s legacy is undergirded by a long and complex history of contention over land in Costa Rica.

Legal recognition of Costa Rica’s 24 Indigenous territories has been a prolonged and convoluted process since the 1930s. A lack of constitutional assurances for property and cultural rights spurred decades of tension, which led to the gunfire that took Rojas’s life.

At the heart of the violence has been a 1977 law that sowed confusion about who could own property in Indigenous areas. The nation’s eight tribes, who make up 2 percent of Costa Rica’s population of five million, live mostly in self-governed, remote corners of the country where poverty is high, access to social services is minimal, and disputes over territory are left unmitigated by government or police forces.

The law gave the Bribri and another tribe, the Teribe, legal rights to 11,700 hectares (29,000 acres) of land without allocating funds to compensate displaced non-Indigenous residents, despite a vague stipulation that they would receive payment.

The failure of the government to compensate landowners or control the illegal sale of land to outsiders has resulted in the displacement of people on both sides of the disputes.

Meanwhile, debate about who is considered Indigenous is nearly as contentious as the struggle for land tenure itself. Tribes have varying unique qualifiers for certification, a process fraught with disputes - the Bribri, for example, insist on express proof of a Bribri mother, while the Teribe accept Teribe lineage on either the maternal or paternal side within six generations.

An illustration of a map of the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica.
[Olivier Kugler/DAWNING]

Unsolved murder

Rojas, who became a lightning rod in this conflict, suffered a previous attempt on his life in 2012 when someone fired at his car.

In response, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – a regional body with moral authority but little teeth – in 2015 ordered the Costa Rican government to adopt precautionary measures to protect the Bribri and other Indigenous people and investigate any danger they faced. Critics have said that no effective safeguards were put in place, particularly in the case of Rojas.

His murder remains unresolved, increasingly mired in controversy. In September 2020, investigators supervised by the Attorney General’s Office announced the dismissal of the case, arguing an absence of sufficient evidence after 18 months of secretive work.

No official suspects were produced by the investigation, although the culprit is widely considered by Indigenous activists to be either a political adversary of Rojas or a person displaced by land invasions.

Following a public outcry, the tiny court in Buenos Aires, the small capital of the Puntarenas region where Rojas lived and died, declared it would resume the probe. In January 2021, a human rights commission within the Legislative Assembly in the Costa Rican capital San José urged the central government to reopen the case. Nothing tangible has transpired since.

Who decides who is Indigenous?

Today, Rojas’s followers argue that government inaction leaves them no option but to forcefully invade property inhabited by those they deem non-Indigenous. “I will stop at nothing to continue Rojas’s legacy,” says Felipe Figueroa, who took over to lead the land reclamation movement after his death.

“We’re ready with weapons if necessary,” explains Jeffrey Villanueva, an Indigenous leader inspired by Rojas.

On the opposite side, those who have lost their land feel abandoned by the government. “My fight is against the government for not compensating me as promised by law,” says William Vega. Fifteen men with machetes who considered him non-Indigenous seized his property 10 years ago.

At the court in Buenos Aires, hundreds of cases mount from all sides of the conflict related to land reclamation, including attempted homicide, land misappropriation, and assault with a weapon.

Jean Carlo Cespedes, one of two judges in the region who preside over Indigenous land rights cases, said the central question in the continuing feuds is who has the right to define who is Indigenous.

Multiple organisations in each territory claim to certify identity, which means “everyone has an interpretation of the law designed to help their side,” according to Cespedes. No one centralised body has the power to resolve most disputes.

Without solutions from national leaders, the fight continues, the most visible conflict playing out between Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours. Yet Indigenous people are not necessarily united in their pursuit of justice – some continue Rojas’s legacy while others disagree with it. Others who consider themselves to be Indigenous are not recognised as such.

In remote communities far from San José and the court, tension simmers between neighbours.

A photo of a man holding an accordion with one hand and a traditional headdress on his head with the other.
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]

Costa Rica's South Pacific territories host three Indigenous groups: the Bribri (in Salitre), the Teribe (mostly in Terraba) and the Boruca (in Boruca and Curré, also known as Rey Curré), which are all in the province of Puntarenas.

Each community lives in a continuing push and pull between tradition and outside influences, and members are largely subsistence farmers.

The Bribri are the biggest group, numbering about 11,500 people. There are about 3,300 Teribe and 2,600 Boruca.

A photo of Felipe Figueroa standing in the middle of a very green forest.
[Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]
[Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]

Felipe Figueroa, 57, on his way home from the school where he teaches the Bribri language.

Figueroa, Rojas’s successor in the land reclamation movement he started and a member of the council of elders in Salitre, which has its own autonomous government that manages land, argues that taking the land by force is the only course of action available.

“Land reclamation is our version of going on strike. It’s risky and dangerous, but this is how we achieve our rights.”

Residents say that an occupation generally unfolds when small armed groups go onto the land and repel any attempts to resist them. They erect small wooden structures and remain there.

Sometimes they burn the previous owner’s home. Police lack the authority to intervene.

A photo of Doris Ortiz, 65, inside her home in the Salitre territory.
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]

Doris Ortiz, 65, inside her home in Salitre where she and her husband run an organisation devoted to verifying individuals’ claims to Indigenous status.

Multiple people and associations in the area purport to provide proof of ancestral identity and certificates. Different territories and their corresponding organisations have a range of certification processes and qualifications to establish Indigenous identity. The wide range of interpretations muddies the issue and fuels the fire of land conflicts. No single body is invested with the power to decide.

“These days there is no such thing as pure Indigenous - there has been generation after generation of mixing,” Ortiz asserts. Her criteria: One must prove that within four generations on either the paternal or maternal side there was at least one Indigenous individual.

However, some within the community believe she and her husband, Manuel, are not Indigenous. As a result, their land has been subject to multiple, forceful invasions by followers of Sergio Rojas “armed with machetes, knives, sticks and stones”, according to Ortiz.

A photo of Junior Jara, 22, a student from Salitre, playing football outside his new home.
[Justin Geldof/DAWNING]
[Justin Geldof/DAWNING]

Junior Jara, 22, a student from Salitre, plays football outside his new home, where he lives with his mother and sister.

People with mixed heritage are vulnerable to property invasions.

Jara's parents are both Bribri but only his father is recognised as such since his mother has not been able to prove her heritage. That was grounds for another family to occupy their house.

Jara claims the men they hired to repair the bathroom occupied the building and chased them away with knives and they were forced to move elsewhere.

A photo of Isabel Vargas-Cascante, 65, showing footage she captured during one of three violent invasions of her property by followers of Sergio Rojas..
[Nick Parisse/DAWNING]
[Nick Parisse/DAWNING]

Isabel Vargas-Cascante, 65, shows footage she captured during one of three violent invasions of her property in the Salitre area by followers of Sergio Rojas.

Vargas-Cascante said she returned from the market on July 20, 2012, to discover 40 people inside her home. The police offered no help when she called them.

A month later, 20 people from the same group occupied the family’s second farm.

“I began filming, which upset them. They threw me to the ground and hit me repeatedly with a stick. I kept photos of the bruises. We asked for our cattle back but were told: ‘They’re ours to eat now.’”

A photo of a close-up detail of a phone recording of an elder under attack during the seizure of Vargas-Cascante’s third farm.
[Nick Parisse/DAWNING]
[Nick Parisse/DAWNING]

A few months later, Vargas-Cascante says the group returned for the third farm.

“Our elders came to try and negotiate, but they were attacked as well.”

Vargas-Cascante and her husband relocated to a small community outside Buenos Aires.

“We lost our livelihood – we are left with nothing.”

A photo of William Vega, 60, in his kitchen, holding the deed to the 100-hectare (247-acre) farm.
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]

William Vega, 60, in his kitchen, holds the deed to the 100-hectare (247-acre) farm, where he grew coffee, bananas and avocados, and kept pigs for 28 years.

In many cases, non-Indigenous people did not know that their land purchases went against the 1977 law that grants Indigenous people exclusive ownership within their territory. An occupation can rob a family of their life savings.

Vega is considered non-Indigenous and bought the land from another non-Indigenous farmer, who bought the land before the 1977 law.

He says there was harmony between everyone before Rojas stirred things up. Then, several years ago, a band of 15 people armed with machetes and knives seized his land. They set up camp and told him to go.

Vega has not received compensation for the land that was taken from him.

A photo of Jeffrey Villanueva, 44, crushing cocoa beans at his family home.
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]

Jeffrey Villanueva, 44, crushes cocoa beans at his family home in the Terraba territory, where he runs an ecotourism business.

Villanueva is part of a group that has drawn up lists of whom they consider to be Indigenous and of the farms occupied by non-Indigenous people that they intend to take forcefully.

To date, they have recovered two of 18 farms, including one previously owned by his great-great-grandfather.

Villanueva’s next goal is to reclaim the farm and home of his next-door neighbour, Donald Guadamos, which he claims used to belong to his great-grandfather.

A photo of Donald Guadamos, 49, standing in the middle of a field of trees.
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]

Donald Guadamos, 49, the intended target of Jeffrey Villanueva’s takeover plan, with one of his sons.

Guadamos has lived in Terraba since he was five and considers himself Indigenous, but he is not on the official list of Teribe people created by Villanueva. His father bought his house and surrounding 107 hectares (264 acres) of land overlooking the river from a non-Indigenous man the year Guadamos was born, before the 1977 law.

Guadamos says he would be prepared to move away if he was properly compensated.

A photo of Cecilia Leyva, 35, leaning on a wooden table with a woman standing in the back near an open door.
[Raul Roman/DAWNING]
[Raul Roman/DAWNING]

Identity is at the core of land disputes and members of the communities in Puntarenas strive to keep traditions alive regardless of ownership.

Above, Cecilia Leyva, 35, and her mother are at their farm in Curré.

Leyva leads a cultural organisation that promotes Indigenous languages, makes natural medicines and teaches others how to weave bags and clothing with time-honoured methods.

A close-up photo of Melvin Gonzalez, 42, at his home and mask-making workshop.
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]

Melvin Gonzalez, 42, crafts traditional balsa wood masks in Boruca.

The traditions of Borucan masks began more than 500 years ago, during the Spanish Conquest.

“Diablito”, or little devil, masks, were created and worn with the intent to scare the unwelcome invaders back to Spain.

A photo of Mareju Vargas, 46, at her home in Terraba hugging her 42-year-old sister Ana Laura.
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]
[Joey Rosa/DAWNING]

Mareju Vargas, 46, at her home in Terraba with her 42-year-old sister Ana Laura.

Some residents accuse the local authority, the ADI, of cronyism and corruption. Vargas’s sister has Down’s syndrome, and she says the ADI rejected her appeal for help, on the grounds that they were not Indigenous. She claims that the community is ruled by nepotism.

“Everything here is controlled by three clans … they are the ones that benefit from land seizures,” she says.

In her view, the issue of Indigenous identity is a smokescreen to hide corruption.

A photo of Celedina Moroto with two of her grandchildren sitting next to her on a sofa.
[Deuce Janisch/DAWNING]
[Deuce Janisch/DAWNING]

Many Indigenous elders strive to pass on cultural knowledge to younger generations before it is lost to exposure to outside influences.

Above, Celedina Moroto with two of her grandchildren at her home in Boruca.

She feared no one would teach them to speak the Borucan language after she died. She passed away at 73 in June 2020.

A photo of Santiago Figueroa, 68, on his horse in Salitre.
[Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]
[Sam Hutchinson/DAWNING]

Santiago Figueroa, 68, on his horse in Salitre.

Like many members of the community, he opposes violence and is happy to coexist with non-Indigenous farmers.

A photo of the abandoned remnants of the El Diquis construction site by the Terraba river.
[Toby Parnell/DAWNING]
[Toby Parnell/DAWNING]

Abandoned remnants of the El Diquis construction site by the Terraba river.

Plans to build Central America’s largest hydroelectric dam have been frozen.

In 2019, the Indigenous people of Puntarenas won a 40-year battle against its construction. Going ahead would have flooded 200 historical sites, ancient ruins and sacred burial areas.

A photo of a vigil held to mourn the death of Jerhy Rivera with a circle of candles with photos of Jerhy Rivera in and around it, with people sitting around the circle..
[Juan Carlos Ulate/DAWNING]
[Juan Carlos Ulate/DAWNING]

A vigil on February 25, 2020, in central San José, the country’s capital, to mourn the death of Jehry Rivera, another Indigenous leader killed 11 months after Rojas, who he fought alongside.

Rivera was shot five times in the back in a street dispute over recently reclaimed property. Two suspects were detained but a judge in Buenos Aires quickly released them, arguing the gunshots were in “self-defence”.

A photo of a green building with a person standing inside looking at their phone.
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]
[Rafe H Andrews/DAWNING]

Schools in Indigenous territories face a complex challenge in balancing standardised curriculums with those tailored to the Indigenous history and language of a particular area.

Bilingual education for Indigenous children has no direct budget in Costa Rica.

Disagreements over curriculums have been contentious in these territories, leading to physical violence between the parents of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

A photo of the inside of a house with two children sitting on a sofa looking at a person wearing a mask standing next to them.
[Deuce Janisch/DAWNING]
[Deuce Janisch/DAWNING]

A sense of history and cultural pride pervades kitchens and living rooms across Puntarenas where family life continues.

Families on either side of the Indigenous conflict are largely forgotten by their national leaders as they pursue their own versions of justice.

The story was produced by DAWNING in partnership with Newton Europe.

Source: Al Jazeera