Unknown attackers shot dead Sergio Rojas Ortiz, 59, a prominent indigenous leader and defender of the rights of the Bribri indigenous population over the lands of Salitre, in Buenos Aires de Puntarenas, about 200 km (124 miles) south of the San Jose.

Sergio Rojas indigenous land activist is pictured in October 2015 during an interview with La Nacion in Salitre, Buenos Aires de Puntarenas.

Hours before the shooting on Monday, Rojas had accompanied two indigenous people to the Fiscalia (Prosecutor’s Office) of Buenos Aires, precisely to file a complaint for threats.

The police have not established links between the homicide and the complaint, but the case exemplifies the constant tensions in the area and its violent manifestations. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, the indigenous people reported having been intimidated by gunshots to abandon reclaimed land.

Everything points to a prolonged dispute over land as a motive for the homicide. The Ombudsman’s Office itself pointed out the indigenous people’s exposure to “discrimination, offenses, aggressions and now to murder”. 

In an editorial today (Thursday), La Nacion says “the State contributed to create the conflict with the intervention of institutions in charge of solving the problems related to land tenure, such as the Institute of Agrarian Development (IDA) and the Land and Colonization Institute (ITCO). Now, it violates agreements adopted in the dialogue processes mediated by the Ombudsman, according to the latter entity. On the other hand, government actions against the precautionary measure of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in safeguarding the life and rights of indigenous people have not been effective.”

President Carlos Alvarado called the killing “regrettable” and ordered protection for the Rojas’ family. At a press conference Casa Presidencial, Zapote, the president said that he also asked the Minister of Public Security, Michael Soto Rojas, to strengthen security in the indigenous territory of Salitre, which covers some 11,700 hectares.

Rojas’ body was found on Tuesday, in a room on the second floor, mainly with bullets wound to the abdomen.

Costa Rica has 24 indigenous territories inhabited by eight ethnic groups, with occupation and encroachment on their land by ranchers causing conflict since the 1960s.

Rojas had survived at least one previous assassination attempt. In 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the government to provide Bribri and Teribe people with protection, arguing they were at risk because of actions taken to recover their lands.

Salitre has experienced land conflicts for generations, with Bribri activists trying to remove non-indigenous farmers from the land in recent years.

Costa Rica’s 1977 Indigenous Law prohibits the sale of indigenous lands, but is not clear on what to do in cases where land within reserves was already farmed by outsiders.