Costa Rica – Indigenous leader is assassinated motivating a reaction against the government

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the School of Political Science, University of Costa Rica.

The morning of March 19th, 2019 Costa Ricans woke up with the news that the indigenous leader Sergio Rojas Ortiz had been murdered. He was shot numerous times the night before in Salitre, an indigenous reserve in Buenos Aires, province of Puntarenas, located at the southeast of the country, which has been the focus of a conflict over land during many years.

The situation had a big impact on news outlets and specially on social and academic circles. The broader repercussions of the incident involved—apart from the public anguish for the incident—the government who was accused of indifference towards the conflict situation in Salitre to which has been aware of for many years, with some blaming the government—and even the President Carlos Alvarado—for Rojas Ortiz’s death. The murder of this indigenous leader takes place three years after the murder of the Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist, Berta Cáceres in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. Cáceres was general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). At the time of her murder, she was leading a movement against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River (department of Intibucá). Before her death, Cáceres reported receiving several death threats against her and members of her family, about which some argue that the Honduran State did not follow due.

In both, Costa Rica and Honduras, the indigenous leaders were beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2015, for which their respective governments had to guarantee their safety. Their lack of effectiveness or negligence is one of the reasons why in these two countries governments are being made responsible for the murders of these leaders.

The deaths of Rojas Ortiz in Costa Rica and Cáceres in Honduras remind us that societies in Latin America are multicultural, and that there are ethnic minorities that due to their culture and ancestral past, possess special rights recognized by international law. However, the State, as the comparative politics scholar Donna Lee Van Cott reminded us, in many cases does little to enforce those rights, with negative consequences for democracy: “Even where relatively free and fair multi-party elections are regularly held, governments violating the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, or failing to constrain dominant groups from oppressing and exploiting others, prevent their citizens from enjoying democratic rights and political freedoms”. Clashes between ethnic groups are common in different parts of the world and they have motivated multicultural public policies. Why is this happening in Costa Rica? In Costa Rica as in the Honduran case—as in other parts of Latin America—there is mobilization from indigenous organized groups which are associated with other national and international social movements, often linked to leftist political movements. In the reminder of this post we focus on the recent events that took place in Costa Rica.

The Salirtre’s Bribri situation  

Sergio Rojas Ortiz was broadly known for his leader role in the Bribri’s cause in Salitre—to protect and preserve their land from illegitimate foreign farmers and landholders. The Bribri are one of the eight indigenous groups that inhabit Costa Rican territory. Rojas and other Bribri have strived for the indigenous people rights, locally and in a nationwide scale. As a minority in the country, the Bribri—as other indigenous groups—have had limited access to the fulfillment of their demands.

In Costa Rica, the indigenous people represent a very small minority. In the last 2011 census, the people that identified themselves as indigenous were around the 2.5% of the population of the country. These populations live mostly in rural areas. Many believe that historically, the Costa Rican government has been in debt to this minority as their rights have not been respected entirely, albeit the Indigenous Law of 1977 protects their rights and in recent years there has been an approach from authorities to jointly satisfy their grievances.

In the Salitre’s Bribri case, the Costa Rican State might had indirectly allowed the hoarding of lands that by law are restricted to only natives. Sergio Rojas himself—and what he stood for—caused frictions among the people of Salitre. While it is true that the location is an indigenous reserve protected by law, there are non-indigenous “white” people (the Sikuas) living there, and the clashes between the Bribri and Sikuas were increasingly recurrent in recent years. The main reason for that is that the Bribri started land recovery processes against the Sikuas, in which—not a few times—violent incidents were registered, causing the need of constant vigilance of police authorities to avoid new riots and attacks from the confronted sides.

The situation of Salitre is in fact more complicated, with historic and ethnic differences being central to understand the conflict. In Salitre—one of the four indigenous reserves of the Bribri in Costa Rica—the Bribri, Sergio’s ethnic lineage, and the Brörán—another ethnic ascendancy—live in constant disagreements between them. This has also led to violent episodes, as the former have accused the latter of being allies of the Sikuas, and of not respecting their sacred land which has to be for no one but the natives. The physical violence between Brörán and Bribri  has not been  usual, but when the Sikuas are involved, the discrepancies amongst them arise. In these circumstances, the confrontations remain frequent, and the State approach about this has not been satisfactorily coherent.

The problem even got international relevance as the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 2015 demanded that the Costa Rican government—under the administration of President Luis Guillermo Solís—to adopt all the necessary actions to respect the Bribri’s claims and rights. This was almost four years ago. Yet, machete wounds in indigenous men and women, house fires, and shootings are still common in this area. In the end, the measures were not abided by the government, as problem exists nowadays, with the death of Sergio Rojas as proof.

The presidential response

The next day after Sergio Rojas’s death, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada convened a press conference, in which he stated that “this is a tragic day for the Bribri community, the indigenous people and for all of Costa Rica… We manifest our pain and indignation to his family and all the Bribri people”, he also insisted on the trust he has on the Judiciary, to get with those responsible for the crime, and his compromise with the respect of the Human Rights, minorities and aboriginal rights. Also, the President commanded the police to give Rojas’ family protection; correspondingly he requested for dialogue and peace.

As the days go by, doubts persist about the possibility of coming to a viable solution. There is, evidently, a beforehand lack of trust from the Bribri people towards the government and the justice system. This is one of the main reasons why they try to recover their lands by their own means. The violence experienced in recent years and the murder of the leader Sergio Rojas puts even more pressure on the government to solve the conflict.  A week after the events, the government, headed by president Alvarado sent a group of vice ministers and other officials to keep track of the situation in Salitre, as pressure from national and international organizations mounts on the government to fulfill the rights of the indigenous minority.

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