Trying to shut her up: Indigenous activist facing threats stands up for peace in Colombia

By — January 3, 2017

On April 20, Marcia Mejía Chirimia, 28, an indigenous Colombian peace and women’s rights activist, received this text message from someone she believes is a member of a paramilitary group.

The message read:

I would like to remind Marcia Mejía and other fucking snitch Indians who block roads and are informers to the guerilla[s] that you will die. …You rats, we know where you are and you are a military objective. Watch out, there is no time left. You will die.

Shortly after receiving the threat, an unidentified man was found prowling around Mejía’s house when only her young son was at home.

These are just a couple of the several kinds of intimidation Mejía and other Colombians have experienced in their difficult careers as indigenous activists.

Born in the remote jungle of Valle del Cauca on the southwestern Pacific coast of Colombia, Mejía grew up with little formal education and spoke only Wounaan, a language she shares with her Sia indigenous community. Her life changed in 2010. Paramilitary groups in the area made threats against the leaders of her village and eventually forced them to flee in hopes of making a permanent land grab of the mineral- and resource-rich region. Mejía and 24 families relocated to the coastal city of Buenaventura, where for 11 months they lived in an abandoned warehouse. She was 22.

Learning from the language level up, Mejía committed herself to finding ways to protect indigenous lands after threats forced her community to flee its village. (Witness for Peace)

Mejía, who is short and soft-spoken with wide, expressive eyes, started studying Spanish and began meeting with members of the Interchurch and Justice Peace Commission, or CIJP in Spanish, a human rights organization that supports community organizations of indigenous and African descent. Since Spanish is not her native language, when she is searching for a particular word she uses hand gestures to illustrate her thoughts.

Learning from the language level up, Mejía committed herself to finding ways to protect indigenous lands and her community. After all, her country, and her community, were in the middle of a war.

The war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government has continued for more than five decades and left hundreds of thousands dead. Between 4.9 and 5.5 million people are displaced in Colombia, the highest number in the world, according to the UN Refugee Agency. And, as violence progressed over the years, so did the use of tactics such as terrorism, rape, and kidnappings.

But Mejía wanted to protect her community from this conflict. So, taking the lessons she learned from CIJP, she helped her community craft a plan to make their territory a humanitarian refuge and prevent violence between paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the army from posing a threat to them. This tactic was also successfully employed by indigenous Colombian environmental activist Nidia Becerra. A three-time-elected governor of the Inga community of Yunguillo in the southwest of the country, Becerra negotiated the five-fold expansion and protection of her indigenous territory, which is both mineral-rich and biodiverse.

For the past five years, Mejía has served as leader of the women and gender group at the Association of Indigenous Councils of Valle del Cauca, an organization that represents nearly 100 indigenous towns in the Cauca region of western Colombia. As part of her job, she tries to address the concerns of women and girls in indigenous communities. “I started working not only in defense of human rights, but also to defend the rights of women, my peers, my community, and to defend our territory,” she told me.

She often takes her son, 9, and daughter, 7, with her as a way to teach them about the importance of being active in the community. “I tell my children that the government wants to take away our land, and I bring them with me when I work to educate them,” Mejía said. “I want them to see that speaking the truth is the only thing that can heal us, that can bring us together.”

Peace at last?

During the four-year peace process that culminated in congressional approval in 2016, Mejía found that she and other women from her organization were playing an important role in representing indigenous communities who were victims of the violence caused by the FARC, the army, and paramilitary groups. She wanted to make sure the voices and stories of marginalized groups—including indigenous groups, women, and children, who were particularly affected by the violence—were taken into account in the process. As a spokeswoman for Communities Building Peace in their Territories (CONPAZ), she worked to integrate victims’ voices and concerns into the peace process, including prioritizing truth and reconciliation over jail time for perpetrators. Many of those recommendations are reflected in the final accord. 

The peace process, however, has stalled or failed many times, including when former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana worked to negotiate a peace process between 1999 and 2004, which ultimately failed.

“People have lived with this war for years, and it is at the familial and communal level that people forge lasting, sustainable peace,” said Kimberly Theidon, a professor of international humanitarian studies at Tufts who worked with peace communities in Urabá in northern Colombia bordering the Caribbean. “This cannot be imposed from above.”

Part of the problem has been that there are too many who benefit from allowing the war to continue. “There are people in the peace process who are not interested in peace,” Theidon said, describing how war allowed militarized groups to seize land, especially in territories that had minerals or other natural resources that could be sold.

Then, in September 2016, after four years of negotiation, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Timoleón Jiménez, leader of FARC, signed a peace deal that would bring an end to the armed conflict. But the deal needed to be ratified by Colombians—and in October, voters said no.  The vote for peace failed, Mejía said, because, in her view, those in the city—who overwhelmingly voted “no”—had experienced less direct violence and displacement than poorer, more rural populations.

“The Colombian peace process attempted to both engage women themselves in the peace negotiations and include gender issues on the agenda,” said Roxanne Krystalli, the humanitarian evidence program manager at Feinstein International Center at Tufts University and a researcher on gender, violence, and transitional justice in Colombia. Specifically, she said, “It remains unclear whether the gains in terms of the inclusion of women in negotiations and gender on the agenda will be preserved as the peace process moves forward. We must build peace, and women have to have a voice in the process.”

President Juan Manuel Santos, buoyed by winning the Nobel Peace Prize, worked on a revised peace deal, and Congress approved it on November 30—a vote The New York Times called “most likely the final hurdle in ratifying the troubled agreement.” However, Álvaro Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, has promised to seek a new referendum against the agreement approved by Congress.

Also, at the end of December, Congress approved an amnesty law for thousands of demobilized FARC members and some members of the military that will forgive minor crimes, which will not include killings and acts of sexualized violence.

For now, the peace process remains ongoing.

‘We can’t remain silent’

Mejía’s work is more important than ever. After all, she is training indigenous and Afro-descendant girls and women to participate in leadership roles in the country. Yet the period of transition to peace carries both opportunities and risks for women: Theidon’s research, for instance, has shown that female former guerrilla members do not want to be forced into traditional domestic roles. It remains to be seen whether ex-guerillas can negotiate a leadership role in the future of the country.

Young indigenous activists like Mejía provide hope that a diversity of voices will ensure that the transition to peace also creates greater equality for women. “I have to be an example to women and to show that we will continue to speak,” Mejía said. “The threats are sent to make us be silent.”

But, despite these threats, Mejía plans to continue her work as a community leader and to support the peace process in the years to come. “They can kill me, but at least it is for the truth,” she said, and grew silent for a second before adding, “I always tell women that we have to continue speaking up, that we can’t remain silent.”