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Don’t Be Fooled By Medellin And Her Pretty Face

Medellín officials tout the city's transformation, diversions and high-tech investments. They're less keen to talk about criminal gangs that operate with impunity reminiscent of the drug cartel days in the 1980s.

The shiny Medellin metrocable soon after opening.
The shiny Medellin metrocable soon after opening.
Reinaldo Spitaletta

-OpEd-

MEDELLÍN â€" One chronicler, years ago, described Medellín as "a pretty girl." Others call it gaudy, with its pylons and cement, its bridges and overpasses bearing the names of engineers and Catholic saints, and its somewhat misshapen historic center. Perhaps a quintessential example of the Medellín style, as it were, are the colorful (and horribly ugly) pyramids one mayor built as the dividing strip for one of the city's avenues.

Associated a generation ago with the drug cartel of Pablo Escobar, Medellín has more recently been touted as an "innovative" place. But for starters, that would require the buildings and urban development projects had any kind of social sense or purpose. Sadly, though, the city's leaders have given more thought to the concrete jungle than to its human inhabitants.

But more to the point, this is a city â€" along with several other towns and nearby suburbs â€" in the hands of an industry called crime. Because the other industry, with its factories and smokestacks, disappeared years ago.

Medellín's particular facade of bricks and tarmac interspersed with the odd trumpet tree is deceptive. Crime prevails here, and entire neighborhoods are ruled by gangs that do as they please, particularly in Comunas (districts) 1, 2 and 3, where groups like "Los Terribles," "Los Triana" and "La 29" flourish, as a recent article in the weekly Semana revealed.

The mayor insists otherwise, saying it's a high-tech city. And he scoffs at suggestions that the authorities "share" control with bandits, or that gangs have a "gun pact" in place to divide the city between them. Authorities also point out that the homicide rate has dropped in Medellín. That's a good thing, though hardly proof that all is well. What about all the other crimes â€" extortion and protection payments, mobile phone thefts, drug dealing?

All indicators suggest there is a parallel authority in Medellín, where gangs now control an extensive territory, from downtown to the suburbs. A particularly disturbing example is Villa Santa Fe de Antioquia, a public housing estate for poor families where an armed gang sells drugs, extorts residents and in some cases throws people out of their homes. It is not the only case in Colombia of criminals creating a refugee problem inside cities.

The future of a city â€" Photo: Colores Mari

Sure, Medellín seems pretty in its way, and generally quiet, even if buildings tend to collapse from time to time and its center is utterly polluted and much hotter than the rest of the city, with whole areas bereft of any greenery. It has its flashy trams and overground trains, and one sees police officers standing at street corners (more often than not checking their phone messages, not the street). But it's also overrun by extortionists combing every shop and kiosk for their money. They even go into people's homes, telling owners to pay up or "see what will happen, you little shit."

In the historic Prado district, where the rich used to live, someone has put up cheeky posters saying "Prado-Centro for Sale, interested parties contact Mayor Aníbal Gaviria." The posters point to popular frustration with the way officials have neglected this area â€" perhaps as a prelude to high-rise construction? That would be no surprise given that Pardo is the only part of Medellín to be declared a cultural heritage site, and from what I know, officials usually despise and fear culture.

I'll admit Medellín has a pretty girl's face. But there's nothing attractive about its body and spirit, which are dominated by dark, ugly interests. In that sense, things don't seem to have changed much since the old days of political feudalism, when every area was controlled by a local boss who'd say, "Around here, I'm the one in charge."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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