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'Cowardly Attack' Exposes Colombia Activists in Firing Line

Colombia activist Francia Marquez, a 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, organized the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land.

An attack against a leading and award-winning Colombian environmentalist, Francia Marquez, has put the spotlight on the dangers facing campaigners in a country where one activist is gunned down every two days on average.

Marquez and other rights activists survived an attack against them involving grenades and gunfire late on Saturday as they held a meeting in a rural area in the country's southwestern Cauca province, according to local media reports.

So far, no one has been arrested for the attack.

Bodyguards provided

Colombia's president Ivan Duque said in a tweet on Sunday that he has ordered an investigation into the incident he called a "cowardly attack,” which authorities say has already started.

"We can't allow the free expression of social leaders to continue to be threatened," Duque tweeted.

FILE - Colombian President Ivan Duque addresses the Organization of American States Permanent Council in Washington, Feb. 15, 2019.
FILE - Colombian President Ivan Duque addresses the Organization of American States Permanent Council in Washington, Feb. 15, 2019.

At least two bodyguards provided by the government to protect at-risk campaigners attending the meeting were injured during the assault, according to media reports.

Last year, Marquez was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the "Green Nobel" that honors grassroots activism, for her work in defending Afro-Colombian land rights and communities.

Faces death threats

Marquez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview last year that she has faced death threats for her activism after speaking out about the scourge of illegal gold mining and the pollution she says it causes.

"We condemn the cowardly attack against Francia and her colleagues and will continue to support her success and safety in any way we can," said Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

"We call on the Colombian government to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice and to redouble efforts to prevent further harm to activists," he said.

The United Nations on Monday also called on Colombia to make sure that the attackers are brought to justice and that efforts are stepped up to protect activists.

The latest attack highlights the dangers facing campaigners in Colombia, where rising numbers of rights activists and land rights defenders are being killed despite a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Accord ends war but not fighting

The accord ended a half century of civil war but activists working to implement the deal, as well as land rights campaigners and those fighting human rights abuses are targeted by criminal groups seeing their financial interests threatened.

According to Colombia's Ombudsman Office, murders of activists have increased to 178 in 2018, up from 126 in 2017.

Diana Sanchez, coordinator at Somos Defensores, a Bogota-based human rights campaign group, said attacks and killings of activists, especially in rural areas, will likely continue.

"This is a very worrying attack … it involves well-known leaders," Sanchez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She said most of the time it is not known who is behind the killings of activists in Colombia, but said drug traffickers, illegal armed groups and FARC dissidents are often to blame.