Following murder of Indigenous leader, Costa Rican government and Indigenous groups hold talks

In April this year (2019), we added to the TVOD website a report about the assassination of Sergio Rojas, President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre in southern Costa Rica. As a follow-up, we can now report that the office of Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has issued an official statement that bilateral negotiations between the government and the Bribri and Teribe indigenous peoples are ongoing. Rojas was also the coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica.

Following the killing of Rojas, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) urged the Costa Rican government to take all necessary actions to resolve the killing of the land rights defender as well as to guarantee the protection of the people of Salitre. Costa Rica’s deputy minister stressed the commitment of the government to comply with precautionary measures established by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and “to continue in a constructive process of dialogue and respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples within the framework of the Inter-American Human Rights System.”

Rojas was one of the beneficiaries of the IACHR’s precautionary measure. Vanessa Jimenez, the lawyer who filed the case before the IACHR, noted that the Costa Rican state is responsible for not enacting the precautionary measures. There have been ongoing land ownership conflicts involving 12,000 hectares of land that were distributed to the Indigenous peoples of the southern region of Costa Rica under a 1977 Indigenous edict.

Rojas (pictured below) was murdered on 18th March this year (2019) and it is believed that the gunmen who killed him did so due to his defence of the Bribri’s struggle to regain their rights over the 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica that was originally pledged to them by a 1938 agreement with the government.

Sergio Rojas

Indigenous Costa Rican activist murdered

In Chapter 9 of The Violence of Development website we try to represent the scale and nature of the threat of violence suffered by Central American people. Undoubtedly, out of the seven Central American countries, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador feature more frequently than the other four, but the following report of the assassination of Costa Rican indigenous leader Jehry Rivera makes it clear that rights activists throughout all the Central American nations are vulnerable as targets if they try to defend their rights and object against the interests of the powerful.

z jehry rivera rivera

Jehry Rivera Rivera (shown right), an indigenous leader from Térraba in southern Costa Rica, was shot dead in February this year. His murder shocked Costa Rica and is associated with land disputes between the Terribe indigenous people and land owners. The Terribe were occupying and reclaiming land used by ranchers.

The assassination took place in an area in which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had issued protective measures for the indigenous population as a result of the constant threats they had been receiving from land owners who were seeking to appropriate their territory.

Rivera’s assassination occurred almost a year after the attack on another Costa Rican indigenous leader, Sergio Rojas, who was also killed by hitmen despite protective measures that had been issued for him.

The Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) suggested that

“this crime against the indigenous rights defender Jehry Rivera splashes with blood the hypocrisy of the Costa Rican state, which claims to protect human rights, but its policies leave all indigenous peoples abandoned and forgotten. Although Costa Rican legislation recognises these lands as part of the indigenous territories, governments do not apply the law. They protect the interests of racist groups.”

Human rights defenders also criticised the Costa Rican corporate media for its negative reports on land recoveries carried out by indigenous peoples. The media ignore the fact that companies have been invading and appropriating indigenous territories for years. Many journalists even encourage violence against those attempting to recover their land.

Representatives of the affected communities claimed that the inaction of the government enabled the violence and gives impunity to those committing the violence.

Our contacts in the village of Longo Maï in the south of Costa Rica have provided us with some background information on indigenous issues in Costa Rica related to this case and this was translated for us from the original German by Kerstin Hansen.

Indigenous peoples make up about 2 per cent of the Costa Rican population (approximately 100,000 people) and there are 24 indigenous territories and 8 indigenous ethnic groups in the country.

The biggest problems in these territories are caused by megaprojects such as hydroelectric dams. In the south, invasions of indigenous territories have been particularly common: for instance, 88 per cent of the Terribe’s territory is not occupied by the Terribe. In the China Kicha territory (which is very close to Longo Maï) this loss of land is even higher (97 per cent). Yet in 1977 a law was passed making it illegal to sell land in these territories, and this was reinforced by the United Nations ILO 169 declaration that was signed by Costa Rica.

For the last 40 years, however, practically all Costa Rican governments have failed to enforce the legal measures to ensure indigenous autonomy. In the last ten years indigenous peoples have therefore taken matters increasingly into their own hands to reclaim lands. In March 2019, one of their activists, Sergio Rojas, was killed by twelve bullets. A few days ago, Jehry Rivera was murdered in Térraba.

And the following statement from the village supports the views expressed above by Costa Rican rights defenders.

“This is proof of institutionalist racism, a relic of colonialism, and an unbelievably cynical discourse which presents this country as an ecologist’s paradise to the outside world while failing to seriously protect ethnic groups who follow a model of ecologically sound agricultural practices and ‘buen vivir’.”


  • Telesur, 25 February 2020, ‘Costa Rica: Jehry Rivera Dies While Defending Indigenous Lands’.
  • Telesur, 27 February 2020, ‘Costa Rican Indigenous Denounce Government Inaction Regarding Murders’.
  • Franfurter Rundschau, February 2020, ‘Indigenous activist murdered in Costa Rica’.
  • Roland Spendlingwimmer, 27 February 2020, personal communication.
  • Agencia, February 2020, Untitled news release.

Costa Rican Indigenous Rights Defender Murdered

The following is a summary of reports from Telesur and other press sources of the assassination of a Costa Rican Indigenous Bribri land rights activist who was shot and killedlast month (March this year, 2019) in his home in Salitre territory.

Bribri territory, Costa Rica

Indigenous land rights defender Sergio Rojas was assassinated by armed gunmen who shot the activist as many as 15 times at around 11:45 pm in his home, according to his neighbours, in southern Costa Rica.

Rojas was President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre and coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica. He was a staunch defender of the Bribri of Salitre Indigenous people who have been fighting for years to regain their rights to over 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica pledged to them by a 1938 government agreement.

This wasn’t the first time Rojas’ life was threatened. In 2012, shortly after the Bribri gained back some of their lands, Rojas was shot at eight times by armed men, but he escaped the shooting unscathed.

The Bribri and other Indigenous peoples have managed to recuperate control of some of their native lands but have become targets of violence from those who oppose their rights and sovereignty. Last December, men armed with guns and machetes held hostage two Bribri women and eight children on land they had recovered in Salitre territory.

According to the women, when police arrived they spoke “aggressively” toward them and asked for their land deeds, which the authorities claimed were invalid. According to the testimonies given to Tree People Programme, the police made no effort to arrest the hostage-takers who escaped.

As this website often reports on the violence and threats suffered by defenders of land rights, environmental rights and human rights in the northern triangle of Central America, it is worth emphasising here that such dangers are also experienced in countries such as Costa Rica whose environment-friendly reputation is high. Capitalist interests will use violence to overcome local objections and resistance wherever it occurs.

Jehry Rivera murder trial

Contributed by Jiri Spendlingwimmer, Costa Rican anthropologist.

Translated by Liz Richmond, who contributed extra material.

In March this year we added to The Violence of Development website a report of the assassination of Jehry Rivera Rivera, an indigenous land defender in Costa Rica. We recently received news of the case from Jiri Spendlingwimmer, an anthropologist and resident of the village of Longo Maï in southern Costa Rica. We are grateful to Jiri and to Liz Richmond for extra information and for the translation.

Jehry Rivera was assassinated by several shots from a firearm on 24 February 2020 in the indigenous territory of Térraba, Buenos Aires, in the southern zone of Costa Rica. The previous night 150 to 200 non-indigenous farmers had organised and formed a mob to surround the town of Térraba, burned land, insulted, harassed and attacked a group of indigenous people who had recovered their ancestral territory. The following table summarises the acts of violence against indigenous people in the southern zone of Costa Rica around the town of Buenos Aires.

Given the incapacity and bias of the Courts of Justice of Buenos Aires, the judicial process for the murder of Jehry Rivera was assigned to a prosecutor in the capital, San José. It is expected that at some point a trial will be held. Today, however, there are no accused, nor a date for the start of the trial. The same impunity was evident regarding the murder of human rights defender and indigenous leader Sergio Rojas in Bribri de Salitre territory, assassinated in March 2019 – and

Escalation of violence against indigenous land reclaimers

The Ditsö group in Costa Rica is a NGO that seeks to defend indigenous and campesino communities and to protect natural resources. Ditsö reports that between February and March 2020 there has been an escalation in violence against land rights defenders in four indigenous territories: Térraba, China Kichá, Salitre and Cabagra. The Cabécares indigenous people of China Kichá have suffered violent incidents including death threats, mob assaults, detonations of firearms, invasions in recovered land, fires, road blockades, physical assaults and chemical attack.

To illustrate the fact that these are not just recent tensions and incidents, it is worth recalling that in 2013 Jehry suffered a brutal attack for lodging a complaint regarding illegal felling of trees and deforestation in their territory –

The Costa Rican State, which is at the centre of national and international criticism, has had to make greater effort to try to settle the historical debt with the indigenous peoples and resolve the conflict. In China Kichá, in May 2020, direct intervention was necessary by the Deputy Minister of Public Security Eduardo Solano to guarantee the removal of livestock from a reclaimed farm and to calm the situation.

Land disputes in southern Costa Rica

By Jiri Spendlingwimmer with material from Liz Richmond.

October 2020 

This section of Chapter 8 of The Violence of Development website includes articles on the assassinations of Jehry Rivera and Sergio Rojas, Indigenous Costa Ricans who fought for the rights of their Indigenous communities in the south of the country.  Jiri Spendlingwimmer, a Costa Rican anthropologist, has sent us an update on the trials and on the tense situation in China Kichá, one of the Indigenous territories experiencing the conflicts between the claims of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Jiri’s account was translated by Liz Richmond who added more details about the situation. We are grateful to both Jiri and Liz for the news and article.


The case against the Indigenous people of China Kichá

Jiri writes: An eviction is pending against the Indigenous people of China Kicha (20 minutes from Cooperative Longo Mai). For the moment it is suspended due to the pressure of solidarity groups organised throughout Costa Rica – see below.


Update on a visit to China Kichá by Jiri Spendlingwimmer (27 Sep 2020)

This week a small delegation from the Movimiento Ríos Vivos (Living Rivers Movement) went to visit and show solidarity with the Indigenous land defenders at the Kono Ju farm, in China Kichá. For me it was my first visit to the territory.

We were surprised at how the police control access to the area; there is a permanent Police post around 1 km before the farm; and the police check each vehicle and person who enters, recording every car registration and personal identity numbers.  They determine who enters, and possibly investigate them.

The land defenders are very brave; they are resisting this very difficult fight whilst under constant threat.  In summer their crops were burnt, along with their water supply hoses. In total there are 38 people, including families with children. They have some necessities such as first aid kits, torches, batteries and face masks.

An eviction date is scheduled for the Konu Ju families for 29 September 2020, however due to the support and solidarity of individuals and groups nationally, there has been a temporary suspension of eviction, declared 25 September 2020.  Albeit temporary it is important, as this legal action will allow for more time.

The government’s reaction was reflected in a statement from the Vice Minister of the Presidency in Citizen Dialogue, Randall Otárola, in which he positioned himself for the temporary suspension of eviction. However he did not propose a concrete alternative solution, or speak in favour of granting the Indigenous land defenders their legitimate territory.

On the contrary, Deputy José María Villalta of the Frente Amplio suggests, among other solutions, that the executive power could disobey the orders of the judge, as these are contrary to the International Treaties applicable in Costa Rica regarding the autonomy and rights of Indigenous peoples, which are above national legislation.

At the same time, the Public Ministry dismissed and recommended the closing of the case regarding the cause of homicide of Sergio Rojas, land defender assassinated in March 2019 in the Indigenous territory of Salitre.  This sets a dangerous precedent, as it grants impunity to the murder of Sergio Rojas, and the same could therefore occur with the case of Jehry Rivera. This gives the green light to racism, violence and deaths towards Indigenous people in the process of recovering their territories, which has recently extended from the Southern regions of Costa Rica to the North, in the Indigenous territory of Maleku.


The case of Sergio Rojas

Sergio Rojas was assassinated in March 2019. Rojas was President of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre and coordinator of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP) in Costa Rica. He was a staunch defender of the Bribri of Salitre Indigenous people who have been fighting for years to regain their rights to over 12,000 hectares of land in southern Costa Rica pledged to them by a 1938 government agreement.

Jiri writes: The biggest scandal is that the courts decided to close and file away the case of Sergio Rojas with no further action.  They claim that they cannot determine which of the three suspects is responsible for his murder.