As Zika Spreads, A Colombian Region Asks "Why Here?"

Health authorities in Cúcuta, northeastern Colombia, are struggling to stop the spread of mosquito-borne infections like zika. And the blame game has begun.

Anti-Zika fumigation campaign in Caracas, Venezuela
Anti-Zika fumigation campaign in Caracas, Venezuela
Marcela Díaz Sandoval

CUCUTÁ â€" Colombia has been unable to control the Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus, chikungunya and dengue fever. The failure to control the insect is perhaps most evident here in Cúcuta, a damp city on the Venezuelan border.

The Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever mosquito, seems to have made a particularly fierce appearance in Cúcuta. In 2014, 27,000 people here caught chikungunya â€" which leads to fever and joint pains â€" one of the highest rates in the country, and now some 2,000 residents have Zika. The Health Ministry qualifies the city as the most infected in the country alongside Girardot and Barranquilla.

I have heard from my own family members here who have suffered the pains of this illness. What, we ask, has made the capital of the Norte de Santander department so attractive to this mosquito?

It is not yet clear. In fact health authorities are not even working with consistent figures. While the national Health Ministry reports 1,917 cases, the local health secretariat has mentioned 2,300 cases and Aristides Hernández, president of ANTHOC, the regional branch of the health worker's union, says more than 200,000 people in Cúcuta and its surroundings, one third of the district's population, are infected with Zika.

"I get these figures from the field work I do every day, observing and watching people who come into health centers," Hernández says. "It is a mistake going only by the number of registered patients, as many go back home while others don't even go to the doctor since they know what they're going to be told. Everyone is treating this like a viral infection and we already know it's already way past that."

The Health Ministry's epidemics chief Claudia Cuéllar gives clues on what might be happening. "Environmental circulation, or the way the wind moves in the frontier zone, the sun and generally the climate conditions favor more breeding grounds. We know that if the mosquito rises beyond 2,200 meters above sea level, it can't adapt as it only lives in hot zones."

Judith Ortega, the Cúcuta Health Secretary, admits that officials do not know why the city has had the most cases of chikungunya and now, Zika, since it has a temperature similar to many other cities in Colombia, which have lower infection rates. "On Jan. 22, the number of infections reached 2,300," she said. Ortega adds that the effects of fumigation last just one week, so blocking the virus's advance depends on private action like "cleaning yards and leaving no stagnant water."

Is next week too late?

In fact, in its efforts to reverse the situation in 2014, local authorities invested in some imported tools to boost fumigation against chikungunya, but these remained under lock somewhere for months, because moving them around was expensive. Hernández of ANTHOC says the result is "there has been no efforts to restrict" the mosquitos. "We can show that none of the three machines works. The new local administration says it is working with the Health Ministry to get the insecticide needed to renew fumigation.

New measures are being taken as a result of alarm over the Zika virus, insists Ortega, with a massive "clear-out" day with cleaning and recycling firms, whereby households are expected to bring out all trash or items from their yards that might be serving as breeding grounds for the mosquitos. "We are also fumigating particular points, but the initiative will be more aggressive" during the collection days, she said, "Hopefully, by late next week."

People continue to move about outside as normal, including pregnant women, children and the elderly. "Why go to a clinic when they will tell you the same as anyone else?" says Claudia Sandoval. "People know what they have to do, and are doing what they can. At least Zika is much weaker than chikungunya," she adds.

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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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