Episode 3.4: Sergio Rojas
Hello, and welcome to this special episode of Assassinations Podcast!
Over the last three weeks, we’ve been investigating the case of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, as part of our season on the theme of journalists.
However, this week we’re going to hit pause on that theme in order to take a look at a breaking story we’ve been tracking recently.
On March 18th, Sergio Rojas was gunned down in his home in Costa Rica. Rojas was a leader of the Bribrí people, an indigenous community in the country, and also an activist and spokesman for native groups in ongoing disputes over land rights.
This murder has received very little coverage in the English-language press, and it was brought to our attention on Twitter by Russell Davis. To be honest, had it not been for Russell reaching out, I probably wouldn’t have heard of it.
Russell Davis is someone you may be familiar with. In 2012, he was voted Bartender of the Year. And from 2013-2015, Russell was a fixture on the popular US bar makeover show, Bar Rescue.
These days, he works all over the world, studying drinking culture and helping to open new businesses in the hospitality industry.
Russell was in Costa Rica when Sergio Rojas was shot, and reached out to us when he noticed a lack of coverage of the case in the western media.
Immediately after the killing, people in the indigenous communities believed that Rojas had been assassinated due to his role in the land disputes in the country. Subsequent police investigations have confirmed that he was killed deliberately— though it remains unclear who was responsible.
We were able to interview Russell for this episode, who has given us his insights into what’s been happening on the ground in Costa Rica since Rojas’s death.
He also put us in touch with several Costa Ricans connected to the story who have been really helpful in providing us with their knowledge and perspective on the case.
The murder of Sergio Rojas is part of a very controversial, and clearly very dangerous, situation in parts of Costa Rica - and we want to be sensitive to the security implications of reporting on what’s going on there right now.
During the course of this episode we discovered that we have something in common with Russel Davis: Shaker & Spoon. As you may know, Shaker & Spoon is one of our sponsors this season, and while working with Russell on this episode we discovered that he’s their Chief Cocktail Officer!
Since this episode is an unexpected break from our regular season, we’ve decided to treat it a bit differently. We’re going to forego our mid-episode ad break and devote the entire episode to this breaking story, but I’d like to take a minute before we get started to tell you a little bit about Shaker & Spoon.
Shaker & Spoon is a monthly cocktail subscription that sends you everything you need to create bartender-designed craft cocktails at home. Each month’s shipment is designed around a particular type of alcohol, and each box contains everything you need to make 12 cocktails from 3 different recipes. You just provide the alcohol.
If you love creative, high-end cocktails & want to sample incredible cocktails designed by gifted bartenders like Russell Davis, check out Shaker & Spoon.
And now, we launch our investigation into the case of Sergio Rojas.
At 9:15 on the night of March 18th this year, neighbors heard multiple gunshots from the home of Sergio Rojas.
A well-known leader of the indigenous rights movement in Costa Rica, Rojas was shot to death inside his house.
Aged 60, he had been at the forefront of a long running conflict with non-indigenous farmers for many years.
Rojas lived in the territory of Salitre in the south of the country, about 200 km from the capital, San Jose.
This is a close knit community of tribal people, and the murder of one of their leaders was both a personal tragedy and a political hammer blow.
Rojas was an important figure in the fight for land rights for his own Bribrí people, and other indigenous groups in the region. Salitre has experienced land conflicts for generations, with activists such as Rojas trying to remove non-indigenous farmers from the land.
As such, his death did not come as a surprise to the people of his community - nor to the wider indigenous rights movement.
According to those who knew him, Rojas had been the victim of several assassination attempts, a result of his struggle for the indigenous people.
“He made a lot of enemies over the years,” a schoolteacher in Salitre told the local press.
Another woman, who had known Rojas since childhood, said: “He was a great leader and a great defender of his people.”
She added: “Even if he was hungry, with no money, he was on the forefront of the fight. He never lowered his head for anything.”
A few days before he was killed, Rojas had requested police protection. He and other activists were allegedly shot at in connection with their effort to occupy - or reclaim - a farm on the traditional land of the Bribrí people.
The Bribrí and the Broran group are involved in long-running land disputes around the Térraba River region.
Over many decades, the indigenous people have been largely displaced from their ancestral lands by non-native farmers.
Costa Rica has 24 indigenous territories inhabited by eight tribal groups, and all have had to deal with what they regard as the occupation and encroachment on their land by outsiders - what the tribal people call “landlords”.
In the 1960s, land disputes turned into violent conflicts between tribal and non-indigenous peoples.
In an attempt to manage the conflict, in 1970s, the Costa Rican government stepped in to legally protect indigenous rights in their ancestral homelands; however, very little changed in practice.
Costa Rica’s 1977 Indigenous Law prohibits the sale of indigenous lands, but it was not made clear what to do in cases where land within these reserves was already being farmed by outsiders.
The 1977 law did not allocate funds to compensate the non-indigenous farmers. And with an estimated 85 percent of the land allocated to indigenous Costa Ricans in the Térraba region still in the hands of non-indigenous people, the law did little to change the situation facing groups such as the Bribrí.
Many of the non-indigenous farmers have lived in these tribal areas decades, for generations in some cases. They say that they rightfully purchased the land, that they have worked hard to develop their farms, and they refuse to be ousted from it.
However, the question of who might have purchased land in the past is far from clear cut.
Indigenous rights activists, as well as academics and lawyers, have said that in some cases farmers will present a forged bill of sale to show they have a claim to the land.
Activists also say that because of different concepts of land ownership between indigenous and non-indigenous people, and a lack of understanding of the law in some cases, many tribal people were tricked into selling their land.
Areas of tribal territory might have been purchased by wealthy people decades ago, but are now farmed by poor tenants with few other options to make a living.
Also, some non-indigenous farmers are squatters, often poor and landless people who have occupied tribal territory out of economic desperation.
Regardless of the circumstances by which they came to live on these tribal lands, without compensation most non-native farmers simply couldn’t afford to leave.
And so, these farmers still occupy much of the territory of the tribes, and therefore the often bitter stand-off has continued.
Rojas was a veteran of this land rights struggle in Costa Rica. Not only was he a leader of his own people, he was a leading organizer of the National Front of Indigenous Peoples.
In 2009, an armed conflict with non-indigenous landowners resulted in serious injury for around fifty Bribrí people, whose homes were also vandalized and looted.
In response to such incidents, Rojas helped to organize a resistance movement.
He lead several demonstrations against what he believed to be the occupation of tribal lands by non-indigenous farmers, which he and other activists claimed to be a violation of the autonomy of the tribal peoples.
Rojas made the case that the Costa Rican government had failed to enforce the legal protections guaranteed to indigenous people, to ensure their rights, and to protect them from acts of violence.
According to the Tico Times newspaper, in 2012, Rojas was shot at six times in an apparent assassination attempt.
The paper reported that Rojas had been arrested in November 2014 as part of a government investigation into into allegations of theft from a fund intended to help tribal people. And he was accused of using his position of authority to intimidate other members of the indigenous community.
Rojas denied these accusations, saying they were politically motivated.
His supporters said that he was being smeared because of his work defending indigenous rights.
Two anthropologists at a Costa Rican university, who work with the indigenous people, claimed that Rojas was a political prisoner and that powerful people in the country were concerned that his struggle for the Bribrí might inspire other tribal groups to demand land rights in other parts of the country.
Rojas was one of several indigenous people who were imprisoned in 2015 for protesting the loss of traditional tribal lands.
That same year, Rojas survived another alleged assassination attempt.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the indigenous people of the Térraba region are in a situation where their way of life - and, indeed, their very lives - are at risk as a result of this struggle over land ownership and use.
The Commission has requested additional protection measures from the government following the killing of Sergio Rojas.
It has also requested that the government of Costa Rica fulfill its obligation to guarantee the physical and territorial integrity of the indigenous peoples.
At this stage it is still not clear if the death of the Sergio Rojas was an ordinary crime - perhaps as a result of a theft - or if this is an assassination - a politically motivated killing of an indigenous leader.
But many of his neighbors, friends, family, and fellow activists are sure - everything, they say, points to this being an assassination, a cold blooded murder of a man who dared to defend his people.
The police investigation into his death lead to a conclusion that he had been murdered, though it remains unclear who by.
President Carlos Alvarado issued a statement that:
The government of Costa Rica condemns and repudiates in all extremes this violent act against the life of the indigenous leader. This is a tragic day for the Bribrí people, the indigenous communities, and for all of Costa Rica.
The president said he has ordered extra security for Bribrí communities and has called for peaceful dialogue between indigenous groups and non-indigenous farmers.
In addition to the question of land ownership, there are other serious issues facing the people living in the Térraba River region.
Pineapple plantations occupy a large part of the river basin. The intensive agribusiness methods involved in pineapple production can have a negative impact on the environment.
Fertilizer and pesticide run-off from the plantations pollutes the Térraba River.
And then there is a plan to build a hydroelectric dam that could flood a huge area, displacing many people, both native and non-indigenous.
The El Diquís Hydroelectric Project, currently in the planning stages, would be the largest such project in Central America, producing enough electricity for one million consumers.
The project will require flooding 18,000 acres, or 73 square kilometers, of land, part of which is on territories guaranteed to indigenous groups.
It is estimated that this will displace some 1500 people.
As well as the human population, the dam would have a serious impact on wildlife - much of it endangered - including in rainforests and mangrove swamps that are protected under environmental laws.
The watershed of the Térraba is very important for marine life, including whales; and the hydro project will have an impact on the small islands off the coast, where wildlife populations and human communities rely on the ecosystem fed by the river.
In addition, the flooding would engulf archeological sites going back to the ancient Indian cultures that occupied the territory for thousands of years.
Hundreds of these sites - both archeological and natural - are sacred to the indigenous people of the area.
One the other hand, the project will employ an estimated 3,500 people in the construction phase, and the electricity produced will help the development of the Costa Rican economy - without significantly increasing carbon emissions.
The El Diquís Hydroelectric Project is the latest iteration of a scheme that has been in the works for the last 30 years. Originally intended to be even bigger, with an aluminum smelter attached, the project has been scaled back and altered to try to accommodate some of the environmental and human impact.
So, basically, there are a lot of major challenges that the people of the region have to contend with. Life has never been easy for the people of the Térraba, but it might never have been more precarious than now.
We’re now going to hear my interview with Russell Davis, who has been working in Costa Rica for several months, and who gives us his insights into the situation facing the indigenous communities that he’s been able to work alongside.
I spoke with Russell last week via Skype. The call quality is not too bad, but the call did drop at one point, so you might notice a slight change in the sound.
So, he’s my interview with Russell:
Niall: I’m joined via Skype by Russell Davis. He’s joining us from Costa Rica. You initially reached out to me to let me know about the assassination of Segio Rojas, but before we dive into that, I was hoping you could tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, your background, and what brought you to Costa Rica.
Russell: Well, my name’s Russell Davis. Basically, I’m a bar and beverage consultant now. Even though I’m actually doing a little bit more than that, specifically with this work that I’m doing with the indigenous. But I used to be a well-known bartender, mixologist, and I did a little bit of television in the United States on a show called Bar Rescue as one of their experts.
Russell: Yeah. So, ever since I left Bar Rescue, well … one, I’ve had a bar consulting company since 2012-2013. One of our projects is actually the Shaker & Spoon subscription box. So, for the past 4 years, besides my consulting company, I’ve been traveling around the world studying obscure and indigenous drinking culture, rituals, customs, techniques, ingredients, recipes … before we lose them. Because there’s some things happening in society right now, and we’re losing these things very quickly. And that kinda leads me to what brings me here to Costa Rica. Right now, I’m about to do a 12 project run all around the Caribbean, Central America, South America. We’re starting on one that we’re doing in Costa Rica, and so I’ve actually developed a great relationship with one of the leaders and the cultures of the Broran who are of the Térraba people. So in this specific area, the Térraba’s actually the biggest river in Costa Rica, and the wetlands where the river meets the ocean is very much a very biodiverse and internationally protected site. This land, which belonged to the Térraba and Bribri people, for the most part, maybe some others mixed in. Traditionally, this was their land. And, when you deal with these people … right off the bat they made sure to let me know that I was a sigua, sigua, sigua, sigua, which is outsider. Anyone not of true blood. You know, they want to make sure because the sigua has been what has hurt them the most. There was a belief system for these people that westerners just do not understand. Pre-1977 there was a lot of this land around the Térraba river that basically the Bribri and [indistinct]… that they didn’t have, like 88% of their land was lost, some of these people. So, in 1977 the government realized how awful this was and put into effect that all this land should now be protected, and is the indigenous’ land again. So the Bribri and the Térraba have the rights back to this land. Right?
Russell: But the government there, they never did put into place how these farmers and these people — these non-indigenous — that were there, there was no way to actually get them paid for losing their land that had also been in their family now. Right?
Russell: So, since then, because there’s no answer issued to it, there’s always been this little war between the landlords, which are what the indigenous call the people that have owned their own land for generations even though the land has been given back to them by the government. And these things have gotten dangerous. And then the whole idea of who’s land it really is in the sense of the indigenous. The indigenous don’t even really feel like it’s an ownership of their land, but that they belong to the land and maybe they protect it. And Sergio was one of the leaders of the Bribri tribes there, and has been fighting against this land stuff for many many years. And so, Sergio Rojas was apparently sitting in his own home, in his bedroom, and someone came in and shot him. And essentially took out one of the biggest leaders of the Bribri in that area who’s fighting for… everything. These people had asked for assistance and protection before because they were getting so much threats and unfortunately, everybody turned their back on them. And then something like this happens. It’s a true blue assassination, and there’s a lot of people they think are possible suspects, but there’s a lot of rooms also that could be tied together, you know. It could be a much larger or smaller thing than we all think.
Niall: So there’s really no indication yet as to who might be responsible, there are basically various people who would have an interest in killing a leader like Sergio Rojas.
Russell: There’s a lot of people that would benefit from it. And there’s also a tying of people that these people that benefit could also help benefit each other. And in all honesty, there is an indication. And I’ve been told who they think it is. I just don’t know if they would want me to talk about it.
Niall: No, that’s fair enough. That’s totally understandable. And I would also think that there are ongoing concerns about violence and further attacks on other people in the communities. And the general mood down there? Has the killing of Sergio Rojas made people more nervous about speaking up, or has it started to galvanize things in a different way? I understand it’s still very fresh.
Russell: It’s kind of interesting; that’s a very interesting question. And right now, you don’t know who’s out to get who, or what’s possible. I mean, this was a leader in his own room, in his house, in the village. It is dangerous from that aspect. But you have you know certain people, non-indigenous, who are afraid to talk about it. There’s an expert, a professor, that I’m working with on some other stuff. You know, he’s not necessarily Bribri or Térraba, but he is afraid to talk about it because he doesn’t know what would happen … because you know, they don’t know how deep these run. You know, and then you have the actual leaders of the Bribri and the Térraba, you know, those people who are warriors, who are not afraid to say anything. Are literally standing up and ready to do whatever’s necessary. That’s in their culture, and so that’s what they’re doing. But no one’s listening to them.
Russell: We need to get those people that are afraid of reporting this, to the extent that it can be reported, to do it. And not be afraid of that, to help them. Because they are standing up, they are taking about it. Costa Rica is talking about it. But you know there's a lot of investigation that can be done, and my things need to stop this way.
Niall: Well, thanks for speaking to me to raise awareness about what is a very important story.
Russell: I appreciate it, sir. Thanks for helping to spread the word.
Niall: No, it’s really great to be able to work on something like this, so thanks very much.
Russell: No worries. Take care, my friend.
On March 24th, indigenous leaders, friends and family of Sergio Rojas gathered in a Bribrí village to commemorate Rojas’s life - and his struggle.
Many hoped for a peaceful solution to the land rights issue, but they also stated that they would not stop their fight.
One of those at the gathering said, “We can’t keep allowing the bloodshed of our people who fought for what is ours.”
Another mourner said that the struggle of Sergio Rojas was bigger than what was going on in his community or even in Costa Rica. She said that an indigenous leader who fights for their people’s rights, regardless of what country they are from, is also taking a stand for every indigenous community and territory in the world.
She added: “In a lot of negotiations and proposals, Sergio said he’d defend his rights, and that the Bribrí aren’t afraid of anything. He said if he had to die to defend our rights, he would. And he fulfilled his mandate.”
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.
This episode has been brought to you by Shaker & Spoon. If you enjoy high-end, craft cocktails, and want to make drinks designed by world-class bartenders like Russel Davis in the comfort of your own home, check out Shaker & Spoon. You can get $20 off your subscription by visiting shakerandspoon.com/assassin, that’s shakerandspoon.com/assassin.
Next week, we resume our regularly scheduled programming. We’ll look at the case of Ahmed Divela, an investigative journalist from Ghana, West Africa.
We was assassinated on the streets of Accra, the capital city, earlier this year.
His killing took place amidst a heated conflict between powerful political forces and a journalism website investigating official corruption.
This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. A special thanks to Russell Davis and those in Costa Rica who helped me with this story.
Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show.
Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To check out more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember. We’ve included a link to his iTunes band page in our show notes.
You’ll find us on Twitter, @AssasinsPod.
If you’d like to support the show, check us out on Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast. And remember you can support our sponsors by going to our website and clicking the link at the top of the page that says, “support.”
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week.
Until then, goodbye.