Born in Colombia’s gold-panning river town of La Toma in 1982, Francia Márquez Mina grew up amid poverty and armed conflict, with few prospects ahead of her. When mining multinationals encroached on her community and threatened their displacement, Márquez fought back alongside local leaders with litigation that successfully revoked the mining titles on their land. Since then, the Afro-Colombian activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner hasn’t stopped fighting. It’s this fervency that makes Márquez a prospect in Colombia’s presidential race.
Since announcing her historic bid for presidency last year, Márquez is constantly on the road, travelling to cities across the country and packing university auditoriums and public squares. In the crowds are loyal supporters who want Márquez to become the South American country’s first Black woman president. They see in the 41-year-old contender a fierce advocate of the people. Márquez, herself, has presented her campaign this way, describing her bid as the people’s response to Colombia’s fragile peace.
Five years after a peace deal was signed between the national government and rebels, fighting endures in remote areas throughout Colombia, where civilians pay the price of the war. “The armed conflict persists despite the fact that the communities clamor for peace,” Márquez tells Refinery29 Somos, recalling a recent visit to the riverside town of Guapi where Black women and children fled the violence by boat. “Our greatest challenge is to stop the war.”
Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for activists and the deadliest for environmentalists. In 2019, Márquez, who has devoted three decades of her life to protecting her people’s ancestral lands, narrowly escaped death when assailants sprayed a local centre where she and four other Afro-Colombian activists gathered with bullets that injured three people.
It’s this fervency that makes Márquez a prospect in Colombia’s presidential race.
Her decision to focus on the grievances of these communities and sidestep left-right politics altogether has helped to set Márquez apart in a crowded race. Her politics, she argues, come from the ground up and are instilled in Soy Porque Somos, or “I Am Because We Are,” the political movement she co-founded and that is rooted in the Zulu belief that better societies are built from a strong sense of community.
Uncoincidentally, her campaign has appealed to an often overlooked electorate: poor, Black, and Indigenous women from Colombia’s forgotten rural lands. In a presidential primary debate in 2021, Márquez spoke to the experience of these women when a fellow candidate said the country’s security forces defended democracy in Colombia. “How can we call this a democracy? How is there democracy for the impoverished women of this country who go work in domestic homes and come back to bury their sons who have been killed in their neighbourhoods,” she asked, in reference to the youth that were killed last year by police during historic mass protests.
For Márquez, protecting women would require a real implementation of the peace deal. “Women have disproportionately been affected by armed conflict, namely Black and Indigenous women because, without a doubt, the armed conflict has unfolded in the racialised territories where they live,” Márquez says. President Iván Duque, who ran in the 2018 presidential elections on a platform critical of the peace deal, has under-financed key provisions, such as the war tribunal and a substitution program of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, and other illegal crops.
Márquez’s plan for peace is supported by other proposals, namely the legalisation of drugs, which Márquez said would replace U.S.-backed prohibitionist policies with a human rights approach. “This involves a direct dialogue with the United States because their Black youth are incarcerated because of racial profiling. The same happens here with our racializsd communities,” Márquez says. Support from President Joe Biden on repealing prohibitionist policies, and securing Colombia’s food security through investment in the agroecological economy instead of the extractivist industry, would be key to her success. Last year, she appealed to Vice President Kamala Harris in a letter seeking her solidarity on issues such as drug legalisation and the implementation of the peace deal, which she said would improve conditions for racialised, poor communities. Harris, however, did not respond.
When Colombian voters go to the ballot on 13th March to pick their legislative representatives and nominate a candidate in their party’s coalition race, these issues—peace, economic inequality, land rights, and gender equality—will be top of mind. While Gustavo Petro, the 61-year-old senator and former M-19 guerrilla rebel, is polling as the winner of the May presidential elections, Márquez is expected to place second in the primary race. Last year, the candidates, both part of the same center-left coalition known as the Historic Pact, made a deal that Petro would select Márquez as his vice presidential running mate if she wins second place in the race.
Márquez’s presidential run, and potential VP pick, sets an important new precedent for Colombia.
While she has never held political office, Márquez has made a name for herself during the campaign trail and in nationally televised debates by standing up to Colombia’s establishment politicians and elites. Previously, Márquez was mostly known among activist circles and grassroots groups for her work as an environmentalist and Black rights advocate. Currently, she is outpolling a former governor and a sitting senator in her own Historic Pact coalition race.
Márquez has also earned praise from the feminist movement, having won the endorsement of the country’s first National Feminist Convention last year. In February, after Colombia’s high court decriminalised abortions in pregnancies up to 24 weeks, which Márquez has actively supported, she celebrated the win and challenged the feminist movement to be more intersectional. “This is a victory for all impoverished, Black, Indigenous, and rural women who have been persecuted and criminalised for abortions,” Márquez said, while acknowledging advances were still needed in terms of racial justice, the transformation of the extractivist model, economic equality for women, and their political participation. “We have a long way to go.”
In her fight for environmental justice, land rights, and gender equality, Márquez has always centered Black and Indigenous women. In 2014, she led 80 Black women in a 350-mile march to Colombia’s capital with demands for the government to halt all illegal mining operations on their lands and rivers. Four years later, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Since then, Márquez has found community with Black and Indigenous women leaders across the Americas, including her friend and supporter Angela Davis.
Regardless of how Colombians vote on March 13, Márquez’s presidential run, and potential VP pick, sets an important new precedent for Colombia, a country that has historically refused to recognise its entrenched racism and is only recently making strides toward gender equality.