- Last week on May 4, two bodyguards were wounded when armed gunmen tried to storm a meeting of Afro-Colombian activists that included 2018 Goldman Prize winner Francia Márquez.
- The community leaders had been meeting to discuss future actions following a massive land rights protests last month in Colombia’s Cauca region in which one protester was killed by armed forces.
- In March and April, Afro-Colombian activists participated in an indigenous-led protest with 20,000 people against the government’s environmental and social policies.
BOGOTA – Renowned environmental activist and Goldman Prize winner Francia Márquez has survived an attack against a meeting of Afro-Colombian human rights defenders by unknown gunmen in southwest Colombia.
During a meeting of prominent human rights activists on a farm in Santander de Quilichao municipality on May 4, two government-assigned bodyguards were wounded when an unknown number of armed men tried to push in. The activists were discussing agreements made between the government and Afro-Colombian communities following a massive land rights protest last month.
“We were attacked by armed men with weapons and grenades, there are two wounded [bodyguards],” Márquez said in a post on Twitter shortly after escaping the armed assault.
She and other social leaders were left the farm unharmed, and the wounded guards are in stable condition at a nearby hospital. The identities of the attackers have not yet been confirmed.
“…including mothers with our children, [we] gathered together to plan for [an] upcoming meeting with [the] national government on May 8,” Marquez told Caracol Radio in an interview less than two hours after the attack. “At one point, we heard a gunshot and everybody got up to see what had happened. Then they started firing on the bodyguards. We threw ourselves on the floor with our children.”
The attack follows social unrest and other violence in the Cauca region. In March and April, Afro-Colombians participated in an indigenous-led protest with 20,000 people against the government’s environmental and social policies. The protesters called on the government to provide security guarantees for threatened ethnic minority leaders and communities caught up in increasingly violent situations.
The negotiations with the government stalled when President Iván Duque refused to meet with protesters, and the Pan-American highway connecting Colombia to Ecuador remained blocked by protesters for nearly a month. Duque was criticized for his heavy-handed attempts to break the blockades that caused the death of one protester and wounded several more.
The government and the protesters eventually reached a compromise where protesters reopened the Pan-American highway after the government agreed to invest $246 million in the region. Although the president traveled to the Cauca region, he has refused to sit down directly with the ethnic minority protesters, who remain in an ongoing mobilization amid negotiations with the government.
Duque condemned the attack on Márquez and the other social leaders, calling it an “act of terrorism” and promising “the full weight of justice will fall on the perpetrators.” The army said it would put together an “extraordinary security council” in Santander de Quilichao to “evaluate the situation and take necessary measures.”
Aguilas Negras, a far-right armed group aligned with the interests of powerful landowners, has made threats against indigenous leaders during recent land disputes. Guerrillas and dissident armed groups that have splintered off from the now-defunct FARC guerrilla group are also active in the region.
Márquez, a single mother of two, has fought tirelessly since age 13 for environmental and ancestral land rights in La Toma, home to nearly 250,000 African descendants who work primarily in small-scale agriculture and artisanal mining.
In 2018, Márquez received the South and Central America Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for grassroots environmental activism, for her work protecting her community’s ancestral land and water from multinational and illegal gold mines.
Following a paramilitary massacre in 2001, mining rights in the collective territory of La Toma were issued via concession to multinational mining companies without prior consultation with the local community. While the community maintained an ongoing struggle against the multinationals, thousands of illegal miners came flooding into the territory by 2014.
The illegal miners, who displaced traditional artisanal miners, brought in bulldozers that tore apart riverbanks while dumping mercury and cyanide into the nearby Oveja River, the community’s only source of fresh water.
To fight illegal mining, Márquez organized 80 women in her community to undertake a 10-day march to the nation’s capital, Bogotá. The march brought national attention to their struggle and pushed the government to remove the illegal mining operations from La Toma.
Since a historic peace agreement with the FARC was signed in 2016, Colombia has experienced a sharp rise in targeted killings against community leaders. The NGO Somos Defensores released a report on April 23 showing 2018 was one of the bloodiest years on record for Colombia’s human rights defenders, with 155 murders and 805 instances of aggression.
Márquez, who was involved in the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC rebels in Cuba, told RCN Radio the government must work toward a peace agreement with the illegal armed groups that continue to operate in the country.
She also called for dismantling long-standing paramilitarism tied to complicit landholders, politicians and elements of the military, which has helped turn Colombia into one of the deadliest countries for land defenders in both Latin America and the world.
“If the government is not determined or doesn’t put forth the will to resolve the armed conflict that persists in the country, we will continue to grieve through these events,” Márquez told RCN Radio. “It’s time to build together a Colombia in peace. We do not want to continue adding up the dead. We want to walk calmly in our territories without fear for our lives.”