Afro-Colombian women are risking their lives to defend their communities

By Duncan Tucker, Americas Media Manager at Amnesty International

Danelly Estupiñán will never forget the first threat she received. The text message arrived at 5:35pm on 30 November 2015, saying: “Danelly, your end has come”. Hours later, during a phone call with a friend, a distorted voice appeared on the line, repeating: “We know where you are”.

Since then, Estupiñán has been constantly followed, photographed and had her home broken into, in apparent retaliation for her human rights work defending black communities in Buenaventura, Colombia’s biggest Pacific port.

“I don’t go out anymore. I just move between the office and the house. I have no social life, I have nothing. I only go out to do specific things because wherever I go, they’re there,” she said in June, shortly before fleeing the country upon learning of a plot to kill her.

Having lost fathers, husbands and sons to years of bloodshed, Afro-descendant women like Estupiñán are bravely assuming more active roles in defending their ancestral communities. However, standing up to corporations and criminal organizations who seek to oversee development projects, mineral extraction and drug-trafficking in their territories has put them in the crosshairs.

Colombia is the world’s deadliest country for human rights defenders, with Frontline Defenders registering at least 126 killings there in 2018. It is also home to 7.8 million internally displaced people, more than any other country, according to a 2018 UN report. Indigenous and campesino leaders comprise many of the victims, but black women are increasingly at risk in the western provinces where Colombia’s Afro-descendent population is concentrated.

The violence is aimed at destroying the social fabric to create a weak community that can be controlled socially, culturally and politically
Danelly Estupiñán

Since taking office in August 2018, President Iván Duque has adopted a plan to protect human rights defenders, social leaders and journalists by strengthening specialist police units and improving coordination between state bodies, as well as offering rewards for information on suspects wanted over killings. Duque says killings of social leaders dropped 35 percent during his first year in office, but those at risk say state protection remains insufficient.

Estupiñán, a leader of the Afro-Colombian rights group Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), is one of the most prominent activists in Buenaventura, a gritty, sweltering hub where the jungle collides with the ocean. In the last 20 years, Buenaventura’s Afro population has faced a wave of killings, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances at the hands of paramilitaries infamous for dismembering their victims in casas de pique, or “chop houses”.

Many in the black community believe the violence is a manifestation of structural racism and discrimination, aimed at driving them from the waterfront areas where they have lived for generations in wooden houses and stilted huts, so the government and private developers can press ahead with plans to expand the port and build tourist infrastructure there.

“The white and mestizo people who [bought properties] in the worst moment of the armed conflict and now have big hotels and tower blocks with supermarkets – why did the bullets never hit them?” asks Leyla Arroyo, another PCN leader. “There are no ‘for sale’ signs in any of those places, but there are in the homes of our people. What is it that scares my people and doesn't scare those who move in?”

Estupiñán believes “the violence is aimed at destroying the social fabric to create a weak community that can be controlled socially, culturally and politically”. Women are being targeted to prevent them from repairing that social fabric, she says, with paramilitaries using femicide and rape as systematic tools to control their territories and intimidate the population.

The government’s National Protection Unit (UNP) has assigned bodyguards to shadow her and Arroyo due to the threats against them. “I haven’t got used to it. It’s so invasive and at the same time it creates psychological dependencies,” Estupiñán says. “You completely lose the right to intimacy. They know everything, if I go to the supermarket and buy sanitary pads they know my period is coming.”

As of November 2018, the UNP was providing protective measures for 3,733 human rights defenders, yet recipients say these measures are flawed. Some cannot afford fuel for the cars they are given, while their bulletproof vests are cumbersome and draw unwelcome attention. Other measures such as mobile phones prove useless in remote rural areas with no signal, while panic buttons do not always draw quick enough responses from the police to deter killers.

Many women displaced from black communities seek refuge in Cali, southwestern Colombia’s biggest city. Erlendy Cuero, a 44-year-old grandmother of four, fled Buenaventura in 2000 when her father was murdered, she was sexually assaulted, and her house was destroyed in a land dispute. She is now vice-president of the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (Afrodes).

Wearing a lime polo and jeans, her afro tied back behind a pink headscarf, Cuero says she and her two children have suffered constant threats, harassment, surveillance and break-ins at their modest red brick home in a public housing development on the outskirts of Cali.

A few years ago, government analysts came to assess the level of risk Cuero faced. She says they interviewed her for an hour or two in their hotel room but never visited her home or consulted anyone else about her situation: “They simply arrived and determined that there was no risk.”

It was only when two men shot dead her brother, Bernardo Cuero, while he was watching soccer at his home in the city of Malambo in June 2017, that authorities finally assigned her bodyguards, a vehicle, bulletproof vests and a phone. The UNP had provided Bernardo – another Afrodes leader and prominent human rights defender – with protective measures but withdrew them months before he was killed and denied his requests to reinstate them, having decided he was no longer at risk. Nine months later, gunmen also killed Bernardo’s son, Javier Cuero.

Erlendy Cuero’s 21-year-old son, Alex, has been targeted too. He survived a shooting in 2016 and narrowly avoided a stabbing two years later when his pet pit-bull fought off the assailant.

Cuero believes the attacks were a message to her to “keep quiet or we’ll hit you where it hurts the most.” The logic is brutal, she explains: “What hurts me the most is for them to kill my son, because I’ve already lived, I’ve done what I had to do and I’m ready. But if they kill my children, well… you have to live with the guilt that a child’s life ended because of what you were doing.”

What hurts me the most is for them to kill my son, because I’ve already lived, I’ve done what I had to do and I’m ready. But if they kill my children, well… you have to live with the guilt that a child’s life ended because of what you were doing
Erlendy Cuero

Francia Márquez, a Goldman prize-winning environmental activist, is also living in Cali after being displaced from her home in La Toma, a rural area two hours south of the city, when gunmen came looking for her in 2014.

Speaking at a temporary residence, Márquez says she began receiving threatening letters and phone calls in 2010, when she was defending La Toma against the devastating environmental and social impact of illegal mining. That year she won a case in Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which suspended concessions in the area belonging to the multinational AngloGold Ashanti.

“The armed groups said they were declaring us a military objective because we were blocking the entrance of multinationals and obstructing development. What development? Who’s the development for if my community doesn’t have clean water and we’re drinking water poisoned by mercury from the mining?” Márquez asks. “I can live without gold and jewels. I can’t live without water or food.”

AngloGold denied any link to the threats against Márquez in July and denounced a recent attempt on her life. Márquez was in a meeting with other black leaders at a farmhouse on 4 May when armed men opened fire and threw grenades at them. Her state-assigned bodyguards repelled the attack, but it exposed potentially fatal flaws in their security protocol.

“One of my bodyguards went in the bulletproof car to chase the supposed aggressors and left me laying there… instead of staying and putting me aboard the car to get me out of there,” she says solemnly. “If another armed group had arrived they would have killed me.”

Many human rights defenders do not survive such attacks. A month later, assassins on a motorcycle shot dead María Hurtado, another Afro social leader, in front of two of her four children in the town of Tierralta. Images of her body circulated widely on social media, soundtracked by the piercing screams of one of her sons. Local activists said Hurtado had defended the community in a land dispute and had recently denounced threats from paramilitaries.

Although she feels safer in Cali, Márquez has struggled with the city’s elevated costs of living. She sold juice, tamales and ceviche for a while but had to stop when the threats intensified. The city feels like limbo for her family, she says: “My children live in frustration because they’re locked up here and we can’t go home.”

Márquez is also concerned about the impact of human rights defenders leaving their communities, even when it’s for their own safety. This plays into the hands of their aggressors, who seek to drive them from their homes and weaken their communities, she says.

Human rights defenders need solutions that allow them to remain in their territories and are tailored to the specific needs of each community, Márquez adds. She hopes to launch a community radio network to combat the disinformation and stigmatization that encourage violence against social leaders, and advocates bolstering the capacity of community guards who keep watch for intruders and accompany leaders on their travels.

War has always been driven by machismo, by the patriarchy and by business between men. I think these men need to stop being so aggressive in life and think about feminizing themselves
Francia Márquez

The government must also work to eradicate the corruption that fuels the marginalization and exploitation of Afro communities and the killings of those who defend their rights, Márquez says. The state must not let killings of social leaders go unpunished, she adds, and must stop justifying them by falsely accusing the victims of involvement with drug-traffickers or guerrilla movements.

While she “would rather die of old age than have a violent death”, Márquez insists that Colombia’s Afro women “must keep going”, despite the risks they face. She believes women have a key role to play because their “caring instinct” drives them to protect not only their children, but also their territory, the environment and their communities.

“We need to feminize politics and fill humanity with maternal love,” she says. “War has always been driven by machismo, by the patriarchy and by business between men. I think these men need to stop being so aggressive in life and think about feminizing themselves.”

A shorter version of this article was previously published by TIME magazine