Should Colombia Save Its Drug Smugglers From Execution Abroad?

Repatriating people like Ismael Arciniegas, a Colombian executed in China for drug smuggling, could create a perverse incentive.

147 Colombians are in Chinese jails for suspected drug offenses
147 Colombians are in Chinese jails for suspected drug offenses


BOGOTÁ — China's recent execution of a Colombian arrested for drug trafficking — and the uproar it caused here — underscore just how inhumane the death penalty is and offer a helpful reminder of why we don't have capital punishment in Colombia.

And yet we need to be careful, in situations like this, not to fall into the trap of blaming the Foreign Affairs Ministry for failing to repatriate citizens who've broken the law in other countries. Because when the government does bring those people home, it creates a perverse incentive for criminals, especially so-called "drug mules."

The case reached its cruel climax shortly before 10 p.m. on Feb. 27, when Chinese authorities executed Ismael Arciniegas Valencia, a Colombian captured in 2010 with 4 kilograms of cocaine. Arciniegas had been sentenced to death in keeping with Chinese laws mandating punishments of between 15 years in jail and execution for smuggling more than 50 grams of cocaine. During his trial, the Colombian pleaded guilty and said he knew the drugs he was carrying were illegal. He also said he'd been paid $5,000 to transport the cocaine. He was a mule, in other words.

The sentence, no matter how you look at it, was excessive. For a state to dispose of a person's life in this way is inhumane. On that we can all agree. But there's another element in all of this that needs to be considered.

Unfortunately, Arciniegas's situation isn't all that exceptional. There are 15 other Colombians presently facing death sentences in China for drug trafficking. Another 15 are serving life sentences in prison. Of the 163 Colombians held in China, 147 are in detention for suspected drug offenses. And the number is going up.

As a sovereign state, China is entitled to enforce its laws as it sees fit.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has tried, for several years now, to secure the release of Colombians caught for breaking the law in China. But this is no simple matter. Numbers provided to El Espectador by the Colombian government suggest that every time a Colombian detained abroad is repatriated, the number of Colombian nationals arrested for drug trafficking goes up. Worldwide, 57% of all Colombians detained are held for drug-related offenses.

This is how the perverse logic works: Traffickers tell their "mules' not to worry if arrested. "Our government will do absolutely everything to bring you back to Colombia," they say. In this way, an essential humanitarian act becomes a tool for criminals.

That's why it's unfair, in these cases, to criticize the Foreign Ministry. The death penalty may seem despicable to us. But as a sovereign state, China is entitled to enforce its laws as it sees fit, even if they contravene the customs of other countries. It is also very telling that many of those arrested say they knew of the risks they incurred as couriers for crime.

The message from the Colombia government must be firm: We utterly reject the irresponsibility of aiding drug trafficking but will, within the bounds of the law, do everything possible to avoid smugglers paying an inhuman price. And for Colombians entertaining the idea of dabbling in this type of illegal tourism, they need to remember that the law is the law, however harsh and exaggerated it may seem.

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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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