TÉRRABA, Costa Rica – For decades, members of the Brörán tribe in southern Costa Rica have longed to regain what they considered ancestral land to the farmers who also claimed it. One weekend last month, they traded, entered several farms, hung up signs, and vowed to stay there.
It didn't take long for a group of excited farmers to come out on horseback, on motorbikes, and in pickups. Armed with machetes, sticks and firearms, the farmers crowded the mountain top for hours, throwing threats when indigenous leaders pleaded with the police to get help.
Elides Rivera, a local indigenous land rights leader, still has them Voice recording of the cry for help that she sent to a local police commandant: "I ask you with all my heart."
However, a brawl broke out soon after, ending with the death of her nephew Jerhy Rivera, 45, who was an indigenous activist in the community.
Mr. Rivera's death came only a few weeks after another indigenous man was shot in a land dispute in a nearby town and a year after a land rights leader in that town was gunned down in his home.
In the past five years, conflicts over land and natural resources in the region have led to around 200 confrontations and the deaths of 60 indigenous people, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, a London-based organization.
According to the United Nations, four indigenous peoples were killed in an attack in Nicaragua in January, and at least a dozen more died in Colombia in the first two weeks of this year.
The deaths in Latin America are the result of increasingly violent clashes between people who have lived in the countryside for thousands of years and settlers who have recently arrived.
From Mexico to Brazil, indigenous tribes against cattle farmers, lumberjacks, miners and other business interests – sometimes aggressively – hope to regain their common land.
Sometimes they die for it.
And if they do, newcomers to indigenous countries rarely seem to pay a legal price.
"I told you these criminals would go on," Ms. Rivera said in a follow-up message to the police commanders. "Thank you very much. Today you let her kill Jerhy."
Mr. Rivera, a father of four, sold chickens and worked to raise awareness of his tribe. In 2013, he was struck in an argument with lumberjacks.
Mr. Rivera was a member of one of nearly 800 indigenous tribes in Latin America. Many of them were never colonized after the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese on the continent and maintained their languages and traditions.
Although some groups enjoy protection similar to that of Native American Reserves in the United States, enforcement can be lax.
This can be particularly the case in remote areas or areas rich in natural resources.
In Nicaragua, the home of the Miskitu, the government has spoken out against illegal land grabbing by settlers, but has done nothing to prevent it, said Laura Hobson Herlihy, a lecturer at the University of Kansas.
Four indigenous people were killed in the country in January.
"This is a humanitarian crisis," said Lottie Cunningham, a Miskitu human rights lawyer on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.
Indigenous communities sometimes have no legal way to contact them to rid the country of new arrivals. This process is called "sanamiento". In Costa Rica it is called "relaxation".
"They had shirts saying" Sanamiento "on the back," said Ms. Herlihy. "I always said to them:" Dude, that's a goal on your back. It's just so dangerous. So many people are killed. "
In many cases, settlers occupying indigenous land did not know that their land purchases were against the law. Many have invested their savings in property transactions and are unwilling to remain without a fight.
Víctor Hugo Zúñiga, a 38-year-old father of three, is one of the thousands of non-indigenous farmers who live on controversial land in Costa Rica. He says the government gave his father land in the city of Olán in 1972, five years before indigenous reserves were set up.
"We didn't take it from an indigenous person," he said. "Well, after 45 years here, how are we usurpers?"
Most farmers in the quarrel have nowhere else to go, he said.
Like Nicaragua, Costa Rica began to offer special protection to indigenous peoples and their country in the 1970s.
Marcos Guevara, professor of anthropology at the University of Costa Rica, who has worked on indigenous issues for more than 30 years, says the outbreak of violence has been smoldering for decades due to poorly enforced government policies.
When the government gave land to indigenous groups in 1977, farmers were to be compensated, but only a few.
"These are problems that the state created itself," said Guevara.
Minor Mora, 61, a local farmer and a member of the Buenos Aires Farmers Commission, said that around thousands of non-indigenous people live on indigenous land in Costa Rica. The government should help compensate them or relocate them, he said.
"They all just kick the ball forward," said Mr. Mora.
The role of the Brazilian government in the disputes was even more controversial. Land invasions are increasing across Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro advocates the end of indigenous protection. He says that they hinder economic growth.
In Mexico, the vast majority of the 14 environmental defenders killed in 2018 were indigenous groups.
Indigenous groups from Central and South America are most vulnerable worldwide, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, which maintains a database of attacks and murders of human rights defenders.
Adam Barnett, spokesman for the group, said Central America was the world leader in the number of such confrontations last year, with 54 violent incidents against indigenous peoples fighting against companies. Honduras, he said, had the most.
The problem exploded internationally in 2016 when a Lenca woman, Berta Caceres, who was fighting a dam in Honduras, was murdered. In this case, seven men were convicted.
The murders in Costa Rica were all the more alarming as they escaped the rampant violence in other parts of Central America.
Cindy Vargas, 35, a member of a group of Brörán women called Ruta de las Aves, said Costa Rica was sold as a multi-ethnic and multicultural country, but it doesn't go far beyond folklore.
"They see the indigenous people as dressing up, preparing traditional food and dancing," said Ms. Vargas. “Costa Rica is a country with double standards. They only care about folklore, but not about the application of rights in indigenous areas. "
One of the properties the indigenous people had confiscated the weekend Mr. Rivera died belonged to her grandfather, she said.
After his death, a man turned to the police and claimed that he shot the indigenous leader for self-defense. After a brief detention, he was released.
In January, shortly after New Year's Day, Mark Rivas, a 33-year-old Miskitu youth leader, was found dead at his home in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. Even before the police investigated the case, the local government radio station had declared him suicide, his father Carlos Hendy Thomas said.
"We speak for the country, for the forests, and to kill us, they kill us," said Hendy. "It's the only way to silence us."
Paulina Villegas contributed to the coverage from Mexico City.