The biggest revelation of Colombia’s presidential election campaign is a black female social activist who is no longer running for the top job.

Francia Márquez, who was little known outside the Afro-Colombian community until this year, caused a sensation when she won the third-largest number of votes of any candidate in national presidential primaries last month.

Her 785,000 votes comfortably beat much better-known politicians from traditional parties and gave Colombia’s long-neglected black and Afro-descendant community, estimated to number 4.7mn, a strong voice for the first time in a presidential election.

She is now aiming for the vice-presidency as the running mate of Gustavo Petro, the radical senator who most pollsters tip to win. If the pair is successful, Márquez would take an additional role heading a new ministry dedicated to eradicating inequality of race and gender in one of Latin America’s most class-ridden societies.

“I want to be a minister who is useful to this country and that’s it,” Márquez said in an interview at her modest campaign office in Bogotá. “I see the state as a means, not an end. The end is to live in dignity, in peace, without being discriminated against for the colour of your skin. The end is that they don’t look at us as incapable because we are women. That’s the goal.”

As in many Latin American nations, politics and government in Colombia have largely been the preserve of long-established families of European or Levantine descent. When Márquez decided to run, her own community did not believe it was possible. “They were saying: ‘Francia, you’ve gone mad’”, she recalled.

Sandra Botero, an associate professor at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, said that during the presidential campaign Márquez had “grown immensely and shown a very good instinct for national politics”.

“Now you can clearly see her projection for national audiences,” Botero added. “One thing she’s done really well is to connect to young people in the big cities.”

Márquez has had to overcome formidable obstacles to break into Colombia’s closed political world. The impoverished rural community of Yolombó where she grew up may lie only 50km from the country’s third- largest city, Cali, but its residents live in a different world.

Access is via a disused railway track and Márquez laughs when asked if there is a paved road. Although close to a dam, the village has no running water. There is no internet connection and no proper school.

Her community, she said, has for years been marginalised and excluded from politics. “We have been told all our lives that we aren’t able to do anything. They saw us as children,” she said. “I was taught I was a descendant of slaves. They didn’t teach me I was the descendant of free men who were enslaved.”

At the age of 13, Márquez began her social activism, helping document the impact of a nearby dam project on her community and seeking reparations for displaced inhabitants. 

She studied law at Cali university but money was a constant problem. “I did one semester, then had to stop as I didn’t have the money to pay the fees,” Márquez said. At times she worked as a housemaid to make ends meet.

While at university she won an injunction blocking the grant of mining rights on nearby ancestral lands, and in 2014 she helped organise a 10-day, 350-km march of women from the region to the capital to demand a halt to illegal gold mining. In 2018 Márquez won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a global award for grassroots activists, for her successful campaigning.

Colombia has been riven for decades by armed conflicts between leftwing guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. While a 2016 peace agreement between the government and most rebels brought major change, the country remains one of the world’s most dangerous for environmental and social activists. 

Márquez survived an assassination attempt in May 2019, and her team of election bodyguards has been reinforced after a spate of recent threats from paramilitaries and racist abuse. “This month I have received three threats from armed groups,” she said.

She felt particularly exposed after the president of Colombia’s congress, Juan Diego Gómez, accused her publicly of receiving backing from the ELN Marxist guerrilla group, citing a message of support for her on a website supposedly sympathetic to the rebel group.

“I have never had any connection to the ELN or any armed group,” she said. “Quite the opposite . . . I have had to confront armed groups to tell them not to sow coca in my communities.” In a subsequent statement, Márquez said she rejected any support from the ELN.

Márquez has also been attacked for receiving social security payments during the pandemic shortly after she bought an apartment in Cali. She said she was unemployed at the time she received the money and that the payments were justified.

Having never held elected office, Márquez is now within reach of the vice-presidency of Latin America’s third-most-populous nation. The most frequent criticism raised in the Colombian media is that while she has proven her credentials as a social leader, she lacks experience in government.

“I wish those demanding that I have experience had found themselves in the middle of a war like me, fighting for freedom,” she responds. “I wish they had suffered hunger like I did in order to study. They don’t know these realities because they are stuck in their privilege in a bubble in Bogotá.”

Those in government in Colombia today “continue to see the state as like a slave farm, with slaves who are nobodies, who aren’t human beings, so they administer them but don’t care about them”. Her role, she adds, “is to change this. That’s why my presence makes them uncomfortable.”

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