Millions of donkeys killed each year to make medicine

A man with his working donkeys in Lamu, Kenya
Image caption,A donkey can mean the difference between a modest livelihood and destitution for many people in poor, rural communities

To sell water and make his living, Steve relied completely on his donkeys. They pulled him in his cart loaded with its 20 jerry cans to all his customers. When Steve’s donkeys were stolen for their skins, he could no longer work.

That day started like most others. In the morning, he left his home in the outskirts of Nairobi and went to the field to get his animals.

“I couldn’t see them,” he recalls. “I searched all day, all night and the following day.” It was three days later that he got a call from a friend telling him he had found the animals’ skeletons. “They’d been killed, slaughtered, their skin was not there.”

Donkey thefts like this have become increasingly common across many parts of Africa – and in other parts of the world that have large populations of these working animals. Steve – and his donkeys – are collateral damage in a controversial global trade in donkey skin.

A worker carries a donkey skin at a slaughterhouse in Kenya
Image caption,The slaughter and export of donkey skins could be banned across Africa

Its origins are thousands of miles from that field in Kenya. In China, a traditional medicinal remedy that is made with the gelatin in donkey skin is in high demand. It is called Ejiao.

It is believed to have health-enhancing and youth-preserving properties. Donkey skins are boiled down to extract the gelatin, which is made into powder, pills or liquid, or is added to food.

Campaigners against the trade say that people like Steve – and the donkeys they depend on – are victims of an unsustainable demand for Ejiao’s traditional ingredient.

In a new report, the Donkey Sanctuary, which has campaigned against the trade since 2017, estimates that globally at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to supply it. And the charity says that demand is growing, although the BBC was unable to independently verify those figures.

It is very difficult to get an accurate picture of exactly how many donkeys are killed to supply the Ejiao industry.

Ejiao, the traditional Chinese medicine made using donkey skin, in its various forms
Image caption,Ejiao is an ancient remedy that comes in the form of food, liquid or pills

In Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s 53 million donkeys live, there is a patchwork of regulations. Export of donkey skins is legal in some countries and illegal in others. But high demand and high prices for skins fuel the theft of donkeys, and the Donkey Sanctuary says it has discovered animals being moved across international borders to reach locations where the trade is legal.

However, there could soon be a turning point as every African state’s government, and the government of Brazil, are poised to ban the slaughter and export of donkeys in response to their shrinking donkey populations.

Solomon Onyango, who works for the Donkey Sanctuary and is based in Nairobi, says: “Between 2016 and 2019, we estimate that about half of Kenya’s donkeys were slaughtered [to supply the skin trade].”

These are the same animals that carry people, goods, water and food – the backbone of poor, rural communities. So the scale and rapid growth of the skin trade has alarmed campaigners and experts, and has moved many people in Kenya to take part in anti-skin trade demonstrations.

The proposal for an Africa-wide, indefinite ban is on the agenda at the African Union Summit , where all state leaders meet, on 17 and 18 February.

A family with their donkey in Manda village in Kenya
Image caption,Women and girls bear the burden when an animal is taken.

Reflecting on a possible Africa-wide ban, Steve says he hopes it will help protect the animals, “or the next generation will have no donkeys”.

But could bans across Africa and in Brazil simply shift the trade elsewhere?

Ejiao producers used to use skins from donkeys sourced in China. But, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs there, donkey numbers in the country plummeted from 11 million in 1990 to just under two million in 2021. At the same time, Ejiao went from being a niche luxury to become a popular, widely available product.

Chinese companies sought their skin supplies overseas. Donkey slaughterhouses were established in parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

In Africa, this led to a grim tug of war over the trade.

Working donkeys at a quarry in Kenya
Image caption,Working donkeys pull a cart at a quarry

In Ethiopia, where the consumption of donkey meat is taboo, one of the country’s two donkey slaughterhouses was closed down in 2017 in response to public protests and social media outcry.

Countries including Tanzania and Ivory Coast banned the slaughter and export of donkey skins in 2022, but China’s neighbour Pakistan embraces the trade. Late last year, media reports there trumpeted the country’s first “official donkey breeding farm” to raise “some of the best breeds”.

And it is big business. According to China-Africa relations scholar Prof Lauren Johnston, from the University of Sydney, the Ejiao market in China increased in value from about $3.2bn (£2.5bn) in 2013 to about $7.8bn in 2020.

It has become a concern for public health officials, animal welfare campaigners and even international crime investigators. Research has revealed that shipments of donkey skins are used to traffic other illegal wildlife products. Many are worried that national bans on the trade will push it further underground.

For state leaders, there is the fundamental question: Are donkeys worth more to a developing economy dead or alive?

Donkeys in a pen at a slaughterhouse in Kenya
Image caption,Campaigners against the skin trade say it is inhumane and unsustainable

“Most of the people in my community are small-scale farmers and they use the donkeys to sell their goods,” says Steve. He was saving money from selling water to pay for school fees to study medicine.

Faith Burden, who is head vet at the Donkey Sanctuary, says that the animals are “absolutely intrinsic” to rural life in many parts of the world. These are strong, adaptable animals. “A donkey will be able to go for perhaps 24 hours without drinking and can rehydrate very quickly without any problems.”

But for all their qualities, donkeys do not breed easily or quickly. So campaigners fear that if the trade is not curtailed, donkey populations will continue to shrink, depriving more of the poorest people of a lifeline and a companion.

Mr Onyango explains: “We never bred our donkeys for mass slaughter.”

Prof Johnston says that donkeys have “carried the poor” for millennia. “They carry children, women. They carried Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus,” she says.

A child with a donkey
Image caption,Some worry that, if the trade is not curbed, the next generation will not have access to a donkey

Women and girls, she adds, bear the brunt of the loss when an animal is taken. “Once the donkey is gone, then the women basically become the donkey again,” she explains. And there is a bitter irony in that, because Ejiao is marketed primarily to wealthier Chinese women.

It is a remedy that is thousands of years old, believed to have numerous benefits from strengthening the blood to aiding sleep and boosting fertility. But it was a 2011 Chinese TV show called Empresses in the Palace – a fictional tale of an imperial court – that raised the remedy’s profile.

“It was clever product placement,” explains Prof Johnston. “The women in the show consumed Ejiao every day to stay beautiful and healthy – for their skin and their fertility. It became this product of elite femininity. Ironically, that’s now destroying many African women’s lives.”

A still of the TV drama "Empresses in the Palace", also known as "The Legend of Zhen Huan"
Image caption,A Chinese TV drama ‘Empresses in the Palace’ featured the donkey hide remedy Ejiao

Steve, who is 24, is worried that, when he lost his donkeys, he lost control over his life and livelihood. “I’m just stranded now,” he says.

Working with a local animal welfare charity in Nairobi, the charity Brooke is working to find donkeys for young people – like Steve – who need them to access work and education.

Janneke Merkx, from the Donkey Sanctuary, says the more countries that put legislation in place to protect their donkeys, “the more difficult it will get”.

Janneke Merkx with one of the donkeys at the Donkey Sanctuary
Image caption,Janneke Merkx with one of the donkeys at the sanctuary in Devon

“What we’d like to see is for Ejiao companies to stop importing donkey skins all together and invest in sustainable alternatives – like cellular agriculture (producing collagen in labs). There are already safe and effective ways to do that.”

Faith Burden, the Donkey Sanctuary’s deputy chief executive, calls the donkey skin trade “unsustainable and inhumane”.

“They’re being stolen, potentially walked hundreds of miles, held in a crowded pen and then slaughtered in full view of other donkeys,” she says. “They need us to speak up against this.”

Steve with his new donkey, Joy Lucky
Image caption,Steve now has a new donkey that he says will help him achieve his dreams

Brooke has now given Steve a new donkey, a female that he has named Joy Lucky, because he feels lucky and joyful to have her.

“I know that she will help me achieve my dreams,” he says. “And I’ll make sure that she is protected.” https://itusiapalagi.com/

Julian Assange: Australian politicians call for release of WikiLeaks founder

Julian Assange
Image caption,Julian Assange has been held in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019

Australia’s parliament has passed a motion calling on the US and UK to release Julian Assange, ahead of a crucial legal hearing.

Mr Assange will appear in front of the UK’s High Court next week for his final appeal against US extradition.

The Australian citizen, currently in London’s Belmarsh Prison, is wanted in the US on espionage charges and faces up to 175 years in prison.

Australian MPs voted 86-42 that Mr Assange should be allowed to come home.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who supported the motion, has called for the Assange case to come to a “conclusion” since taking office in 2022.

He raised the matter directly with US President Joe Biden during a state visit in October.

It followed a cross-party delegation of Australian MPs travelling to Washington to lobby US lawmakers for Mr Assange’s freedom.

The WikiLeaks founder is wanted for publishing thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011, which American authorities say broke the law and endangered lives.

He has long argued that the case against him is politically motivated. His legal team say he is at risk of taking his own life if he is sent to the US.

In 2021, a UK judge blocked Mr Assange’s extradition, citing concerns for his mental health.

The High Court subsequently reversed that decision on the basis that the US had proven that Mr Assange would be safely cared for. In 2022, then Home Secretary Priti Patel approved the US extradition request – triggering his renewed legal appeal.

Mr Assange’s family have continued to call on the Australian government to do more to secure his release, warning that the 52-year-old could “disappear” into the US justice system for decades if handed over.

Australia’s Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said he had raised the matter with his US counterpart Merrick Garland at a meeting in Washington last month.

“This was a private discussion, however this government’s position on Mr Assange is very clear, and has not changed. It is time this matter is brought to an end,” Mr Dreyfus said in a statement.

Mr Assange has been in the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019. He had previously spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London while trying to seek asylum in the South American country. https://itusiapalagi.com/

Indonesia election: Who are the presidential candidates?

Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto, Anies Baswedan hold hands as they attend a televised debate at the election commission headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 12, 2023.
Image caption,The candidates at a TV debate last year: (L-R) Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan

Indonesia, the third-largest democracy in the world, is voting on 14 February in just its sixth election since it emerged from a military dictatorship in the 1990s.

It’s a three-way race for the top job, between current Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and two former governors, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo.

One of them will succeed President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who has served two full terms.

Mr Widodo remains hugely popular but his legacy has been tainted by accusations that he’s sought to retain political influence through his eldest son, who is running alongside Mr Prabowo, a military commander under the Suharto regime.

It has prompted fears that Indonesia is in danger of sliding back towards its authoritarian past.

The outcome of the election will also have an effect far beyond Indonesia, with the winner having to contend with the growing US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region.

Prabowo Subianto, Advanced Indonesia Coalition

Prabowo Subianto (left) and Gibran Raka
Image caption,Prabowo Subianto has the outgoing president’s eldest son Gibran Raka (right) as his running mate

The frontrunner to be Indonesia’s next president has tried desperately to soften his strongman image but to some voters he is still associated with abuses committed during General Suharto’s dictatorship.

The 72-year-old Mr Prabowo was a military general who married one of General Suharto’s daughters. He came from a wealthy political family but the first half of his career was dedicated to the army.

During his time as a leading officer in Suharto’s regime, he’s accused of ordering his unit to abduct and torture dozens of democracy activists.

He was discharged following this scandal and went into self-imposed exile in Jordan in the 2000s.

But he returned to Indonesia a few years later, building up his wealth in various businesses before making the jump to politics.

He’s had the money and connections to run for president two times before – losing both times to Mr Widodo.

But in the last term, Mr Widodo brought him into his cabinet as defence minister – and this is now the closest Mr Prabowo has ever been to the top job. His running mate is Mr Widodo’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka.

Though Mr Widodo has not appeared at Mr Prabowo’s campaign events, he is seen as having tacitly endorsed the Prabowo-Gibran ticket.

A possible victory for Mr Prabowo is a frightening concept for freedom fighters. They fear a Suharto-era general back at the helm of Indonesian government will drag the country back into a dark period.

Anies Baswedan, Coalition of Change for Unity (KPP)

Anies Baswedan
Image caption,Anies Baswedan has portrayed himself as an alternative to the two other candidates

From languishing at the bottom of opinion surveys, Anies Baswedan is now polling second after he criticised Jokowi’s plan to move the capital from Jakarta to a new city that is being built on Borneo island.

The former Jakarta governor instead favours the development of existing cities to boost equitable growth instead of developing a new capital from scratch.

Mr Anies, 54, has portrayed himself as the alternative to the two other candidates who are expected to continue most of Mr Widodo’s policies if elected.

He has repeatedly claimed democracy has declined under Mr Widodo and pledged to be “consistent in keeping the country away from the practices of feudalism and nepotism”.

Mr Anies and his running mate Muhaimin Iskandar will be contesting this year’s elections under the banner of the Islamic-leaning Coalition of Change for Unity. Their narrative for change has received support from conservative Islamic groups in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The pair has pledged to create 15 million jobs, offer easier access to credit for prospective home buyers and to upgrade infrastructure in Indonesia’s second-tier cities, if elected.

Born into a family of academics, Mr Anies spent the earlier years of his career lecturing economics at Paramadina University, before entering politics in 2013, He was appointed education and culture minister after Mr Widodo’s first victory but he has been more vocal in criticising the president after being removed in a cabinet reshuffle.

In 2017, he won the election to become Jakarta’s governor in a divisive vote that exposed religious and ethnic tensions in the Indonesian capital. His tenure saw a push for urban infrastructure in the city, but some feel he has not done enough to address perennial issues like air pollution and traffic congestion.

Ganjar Pranowo, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P)

Ganjar Pranowo
Image caption,Ganjar Pranowo was seen as Mr Widodo’s shoo-in successor

The governor of one of Indonesia’s largest provinces presents himself as a humble man of the people.

There’s no political dynasty or family wealth behind his rise – only a skill to connect with people on a populist agenda: it’s won him two terms in Central Java.

But he’s facing long odds in the national election without the backing of the enormously popular Mr Widodo – who was himself backed by the PDI-P for the last two elections.

In the early days of the campaign, he was seen as Mr Widodo’s shoo-in successor and analysts had him pegged as the frontrunner. But Mr Widodo has since distanced himself from his party’s campaign.

Mr Ganjar has been left to rely on his populist appeal and grassroots campaign- selling policies such as millions of jobs, social welfare expansion and making university more accessible.

His campaign trail has focused on poorer areas across Indonesia’s islands – starting in Papua in the far east and moving across the archipelago, staying in humble villagers’ homes.

The silver-haired politician had been riding high as governor until he expressed opposition to Israel’s participation in the Under-20 Fifa World Cup which was to be held in his province. Fifa then announced it was pulling the tournament from the country – prompting a backlash from football fans against Mr Ganjar.

His running mate is Mohammad Mahfud, Indonesia’s former security minister, who was also a former chief justice of the Constitutional Court. https://itusiapalagi.com/

James Marape: PNG leader makes historic speech in Australia amid China tensions

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister has hailed ties with “big brother” Australia in a historic and closely watched speech in Canberra.

James Marape’s address to Australia’s parliament – the first by a Pacific Island leader – comes as Australia and China race for influence in the region.

It is also nearly the 50th anniversary of PNG’s independence from Australia.

“Nothing will come in between our two countries because we are family,” Mr Marape told Australian MPs.

In jest, he added that “one can choose friends, but one is stuck with family forever” and “we have no choice but to get along”.

Mr Marape joins an elite list of overseas leaders who’ve addressed lawmakers in Canberra, including the Chinese President Xi Jinping, former US President Barack Obama, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

PNG is Australia’s nearest neighbour. The two nations are separated by just a few kilometres of sea in the Torres Strait where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet. It is the only country that can be seen from Australia’s shoreline

There are two main undercurrents to Mr Marape’s visit. Firstly, there’s unrest at home sparked by a strike by police officers, which has destabilised his government and could potentially lead to a motion of no confidence in his leadership within days.

Then there’s China, and its growing ambitions in the Pacific, which have reignited a diplomatic race with Australia.

In 2021, Beijing signed a security pact with Solomon Islands, a strategically located archipelago north-east of Australia. Canberra has responded, striking accords with neighbours big and small, including PNG, the largest Pacific Island nation.

Mr Marape did not make reference to China in his speech.

He twice emphasised that “a strong economically empowered Papua New Guinea means a stronger and more secure Australia in the Pacific”, and concluded by urging Australia to “contribute where you can and leave the rest to us”.

James Marape and Anthony Albanese
Image caption,Mr Marape with Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese

It’s clear the regional dynamics are changing, said Dirk van der Kley, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College.

“We [Australia] are used to being the leading economic and security power within the Pacific region and that is probably still true,” he told the BBC.

“[But] there is concern in the government and more broadly in Australian society that our ability to shape events in our region may be less than it was previously.”

“Australia has been trying hard – prompted by China’s rise in the region – to change its behaviour. In many cases Australia is out in front of China.”

Last November, Canberra announced a security and climate change accord with Tuvalu, a grouping of several low-lying coral atolls in the South Pacific. A month later, Australia reached its security agreement with PNG. But within weeks, PNG’s foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko had dropped an apparent diplomatic bombshell when it was reported that his government was talking to Beijing about forging a similar type of deal.

This week, Mr Tkachenko has backtracked, blaming “misinformation” for suggesting a security pact with China was being negotiated. Australia, he insisted, was PNG’s partner of choice.

Canberra regards the Pacific as its traditional sphere of influence. China is, geographically speaking, a distant power. So, why is Beijing investing so much time and money in a remote and sparsely populated part of the world?

Kiribati, for instance, is made up of 33 coral atolls spread over 3.5 million sq km of ocean – an area larger than India. It’s home to about 130,000 people.

“You are talking about a handful of countries that are spread a long way out from each other with relatively small populations that are relatively poor,” said Mr van der Kley. “China is trying to increase its influence in the region so that it can shape the global order.”

It’s part of a strategy to undermine Taiwan, experts say.

“The diplomatic dividend of having strong relations with PNG and other Pacific countries is very important for China partly as it seeks to erode international diplomatic support for Taiwan,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, a research organisation based in Sydney.

Flames from unrest in Papua New Guinea earlier this year
Image caption,Papua New Guinea has seen bouts of unrest – including last month

In January, Nauru, a small Pacific republic, re-established formal diplomatic relations with China after severing ties with Taipei, boosting support for Beijing in international forums. At the UN, a vote cast by Nauru (population 13,000) is equal to that of the US (population 333 million).

China also sees opportunity in Papua New Guinea’s rich reserves of natural resources, including gas, minerals, fisheries and forestry.

But perhaps the unbreakable relations between Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders who live on the tip of Queensland and their cousins to the north will give Australia an advantage in the race for influence and alliance.

“Culturally and socially they are completely intertwined. It would be impossible to delineate where one kinship network begins and ends,” Lowy Institute Pacific Islands project director Mihai Sora told the BBC.

“The communities in the far north of Australia with their counterparts across the sea in Papua New Guinea have a unique governance framework that manages the travel between the two halves of the same cultural group.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the two countries could not be closer.

“Neighbours and mates, partners and equals,” he told parliament. “Today, our government is partnering with yours to build the architecture of peace and opportunity. We embrace each other as equals.” https://itusiapalagi.com/

Clare Rewcastle Brown: UK journalist says Malaysia sentence is ‘political revenge’

British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown speaking during an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Image caption,Sarawak Report founder Clare Rewcastle Brown is the sister-in-law of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown

UK journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown has accused Malaysia of seeking “political revenge” for her reporting after a court jailed her in absentia.

The 64-year-old is appealing a surprise conviction for criminal defamation of a Malaysian royal handed down this week.

A local magistrates’ court sentenced her to two years in prison during a single-day hearing.

Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC she was being targeted after her work on the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal.

The scandal saw $4.5bn (£3.9bn) stolen from the Malaysian sovereign fund founded by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in what is thought to be the world’s largest kleptocracy case.

It ensnared top Hollywood celebrities, brought down bankers from Goldman Sachs and saw the first criminal charges filed against the storied Wall Street firm.

Najib was jailed in 2022 but still faces a raft of other charges. He denies all wrongdoing.

On Wednesday the Kuala Terengganu Magistrates’ Court ruled that Ms Rewcastle Brown had criminally defamed Malaysia’s former Queen Nur Zahirah in her book The Sarawak Report – The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose.

Ms Rewcastle Brown said she was not notified in advance nor given the opportunity to defend herself in court. Her lawyers have already requested the ruling be set aside by a higher court on violations of the criminal procedure code.

“I’m afraid this is malicious, it is politically motivated. And I see it as revenge for my public interest journalism,” she told the BBC.”I think there are a lot of very powerful and wealthy people in Malaysia who are revengeful that I identified the corruption of their former prime minister [Najib Razak], who remains popular and powerful and wealthy.

“And I think that it’s no coincidence that just two or three days after [he] failed to get a pardon from the [Malaysian] King that would have let him out of jail after a fraction of his sentence, that this sentence was then passed against me”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the decision to jail Rewcastle Brown as “outrageous” and has called on Malaysia to scrap the sentence and to “stop harassing the journalist over her crucial reporting on the country’s 1MDB scandal, recognized as one of the world’s biggest-ever corruption cases”.

“The harsh ruling will deter all reporters from investigating official corruption in Malaysia and represents a clear and present danger to press freedom in the country,” CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said in a statement issued on Friday.

The outgoing 13th king of Malaysia, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin (L) and Queen Nur Zahirah (R), stand for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2011. (Photo credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Image caption,Malaysia’s 13th King, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, finished his five-year reign in 2011. Sultanah Nur Zahirah is to his left with Najib Razak’s wife Rosmah Mansor behind them

Defamation cases

Malaysia has the world’s only rotating constitutional monarchy. The federal head of state changes every five years in what is a largely ceremonial role but the monarch wields significant cultural and political influence.

The oil-rich coastal state of Terengganu is home to one of the country’s nine royal families. The Malay ruler is called a Sultan and his wife, a Sultanah.

Terrangganu Sultanah Nur Zahirah, who served as Malaysia’s Queen from 2006-2011, has filed two defamation cases against Ms Rewcastle Brown for allegedly insinuating she was involved in corrupt practices linked to 1MDB.

The first was a civil case in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur which was dismissed by the High Court in October 2022. That was overturned on appeal and is still making its way through the courts. The second filing was the case in her local magistrates court which she has won.

Ms Rewcastle Brown said there was a misidentification error in the book that was corrected back in 2018. She also apologised for the error. But her legal team have argued that the error is not defamation, nor criminal libel.

“I do fear that there has been manipulation of this case and I do not seek to lay blame for that at the feet of the Sultanah. She was understandably annoyed,” Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC.

Sultanah Nur Zahirah and her legal team have been approached for comment by the BBC.

Najib’s reduced sentence

The former leader is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence that was halved this week by Malaysia’s pardons board – a move that sends a message leaders in South East Asia can act with impunity, said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which previously led the ruling coalition that governed Malaysia, has been pushing for a royal pardon after testing and exhausting other legal avenues of appeal.

Najibin court in janaury
Image caption,Najib had his sentence halved last month

Ms Rewcastle Brown told the BBC she finds it hard to believe Najib’s reduced sentence and her defamation conviction, which took place shortly afterward, are not linked.

“I have become somewhat emblematic in the eyes of those who are deeply resentful that Najib was found guilty and convicted of this crime.

“We can speculate, but I think that it’s hard to come to the conclusion other than it is all connected to this 1MDB case”.

Najib’s lawyers are reportedly also trying to get Netflix documentary Man On The Run about the 1MDB scandal taken down for “sub judicial and contemptuous” content.

He is also said to be looking to take legal action against former Malaysian attorney-general Tommy Thomas and Rewcastle-Brown over their statements in the documentary Man On The Run.

A Netflix spokesperson said they wouldn’t be commenting on the matter.

Interpol involvement

Ms Rewcastle Brown also fears the Terengganu magistrates court ruling may impact her ability to travel freely.

Malaysian law enforcement officials have twice before applied for an Interpol Red Notice for Rewcastle Brown on charges related to her 1MDB reporting. Interpol denied the previous two applications, she said.

It is unclear whether Malaysian authorities will pursue an Interpol Red Notice for Rewcastle Brown’s arrest again. The Kuala Terengganu Magistrates’ Court did not immediately reply to the BBC’s request for comment.

Ms Rewcastle Brown is requesting support from the UK government and various non-governmental organisations such as the CPJ and Index on Censorship.

Born in Sarawak, Ms Rewcastle Brown has two grown sons with husband Andrew Brown, a media strategist and former journalist who is the younger brother of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

She founded investigative website Sarawak Report in 2010, which made her name as a journalist and environmental campaigner focused on corruption in the lucrative palm oil trade.

She hopes to one day return to Malaysia without the threat of imprisonment.

“I will just keep going,” she said. “I’m just one of many, many journalists campaigning to support the right of journalists to do their job, which is to bring information in the public interest to the wider audience.” https://itusiapalagi.com/

DR Congo violence: Panic in Goma as M23 rebels advance

A family flees fighting on the back of a motorbike
Image caption,Goma’s population has swelled in recent days as people arrive by motorbike and foot fleeing advancing fighters

Emile Bolingo is not sure how long he and other residents of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, can hold out.

This major city in the region, with about two million people, has been cut off from the farms that feed it for several days.

It is the latest episode in a resurgence of fighting that has seen tens of thousands added to the nearly seven million who have been forced from their homes in the country because of multiple conflicts.

Rebels from the ethnic Tutsi-led M23 movement are blocking the two main roads into Goma from the north and the west and preventing produce from getting through.

“We are scared of going hungry if the [Congolese army] do not liberate any of the main roads very soon. You can feel the panic here… people are very scared,” Mr Bolingo told the BBC.

Goma’s population has swelled in recent days with people running from the advancing fighters.

Mundeke Kandundao lies in a hospital bed, shirtless, looking at his mobile phone
Image caption,Mundeke Kandundao, a motorbike taxi rider, has just undergone surgery after a bomb blast

Sake, a town 25km (15 miles) north-west of Goma, came under attack on Wednesday.

“I sustained a pelvic injury caused by shrapnel,” Mundeke Kandundao told the BBC from his hospital bed in Goma where he has undergone surgery.

The 25-year-old motorbike taxi driver said a shell was launched by the rebels from a hill overlooking the town on Wednesday.

“I was standing behind a cabin and there were a lot of other people there and that’s where it exploded,” he said.

“We are scared because you know the war goes on and on, it is meaningless. We are waiting to see if it ends so that we can go back to our homes.”

Laurent Cresci, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told the BBC from the state-run Bethsaida Hospital in Goma that patient numbers had surged on Wednesday: “It was really a mass casualty. We were before 80 patients in our ward, and now we have 130 patients so it’s really hard to manage.”

For many people it is a tragic case of déjà vu.

“For how long shall we live like this? Every now and then we keep fleeing,” Pascal Bashali told the BBC after he had arrived in Goma. People are streaming in by foot, on motorbikes and mini buses.

Aline Ombeni said she was distraught on her arrival in the city: “We have fled empty-handed just as you are seeing us – no food, no clothes we need help with shelter and food.”

Armed M23 fighters sit on the back of a pickup truck
Image caption,M23 fighters are well equipped, but the group denies being a Rwanda proxy

As the conflict edges closer, it brings back memories of 2012 when the rebels occupied the lakeside city for 10 days before abandoning it following international pressure.

The M23, formed as an offshoot of another rebel group, began operating in 2012 ostensibly to protect the Tutsi population in the east of DR Congo which had long complained of persecution and discrimination. UN experts have said that the group is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, which is also led by Tutsis, something that Kigali has consistently denied.

“We all know that the reason of this war is economic. Rwanda is continuing… for the past 25 years… looting our mineral resources,” Congolese Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya told the BBC, urging the UK to use its influence with Rwanda to ease the situation.

There are now fears that the M23 – by far the most organised, disciplined and well-equipped of the many militia groups in the region – could capture Goma once again.

Recently re-elected Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi last year said that “Congolese need to learn to trust us, Goma will never fall”. He repeated the promise, in the city itself, during the election campaign in December.

Within reach of major mining towns supplying metals and minerals in high demand such as gold, tin and coltan, Goma has become a vital economic hub. Its road and air transport links, and the fact that it has a huge UN peacekeeping base, has attracted a host of businesses, international organisations and diplomatic consulates.

As such, Goma is a valuable strategic target, but the M23 says it does not want to capture it and maintains it is on the defensive not offensive.

“If you see the military power of the M23, they could take Goma if they wanted to, but this could bring them many problems,” said Onesphore Sematumba, a DR Congo analyst at the International Crisis Group thinktank.

The rebels may just be displaying their capabilities, and also thinking back to 2012 and the international opprobrium that followed the seizing of Goma then.

In the aftermath of its withdrawal it suffered a series of heavy defeats at the hands of the Congolese army backed by a multinational force that saw it expelled from the country. M23 fighters then agreed to be re-integrated into the army in return for promises that Tutsis would be protected.

But, in 2021, the group took up arms again, saying the promises had been broken.

It emerged from the mountain forests on the border between DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and edged closer to Goma taking swathes of territory.

Ceasefires have been agreed, but these have all broken down, with the government and the M23 blaming each other.

The M23 has repeatedly said it still wants peace negotiations with Kinshasa.

“We asked for the dialogue to resolve this problem peacefully,” M23 spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka told the BBC. “Many cycles of war… don’t resolve the root causes of conflict. The Congolese government itself doesn’t want that, it wants to go on a war, and kill people even more.”

President Tshisekedi has said talks are “out of question”.

“One thing must be clear is that we as government, we will never negotiate with M23. M23 doesn’t exist. It’s Rwanda acting with its puppet,” his communications minister told the BBC.

An image of tents in large camp near Sake for those who have fled their villages
Image caption,Hundreds of thousands of people have already fled their villages to live in makeshift camps; some are on the move again

Last year, an East African force, which was in DR Congo to help protect civilians and secure areas that armed groups had withdrawn from, left the country at the government’s request.

Its departure in December was followed by the end of the latest ceasefire and the recent upsurge in activity by the M23.

President Tshisekedi hopes that a southern African force that recently arrived in its place will have more success as it has a mandate to attack rebel groups.

He has also asked the large UN force in the country, known as Monusco, to leave. It has become increasingly unpopular for its failure to end the conflict during its 25-year deployment.

But there are concerns that the conflict could get even worse after the Congolese president threatened in December to declare war on Rwanda if the rebels attack again.

In an apparent reply to the remarks, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said in January that in defending his country “we will fight like people who have nothing to lose”.

Meanwhile, Natàlia Torrent, from medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has warned that the intensification of fighting in “different areas and on different fronts” since mid-January is having a devastating effect on an already vulnerable population.

“We are in an area that has been already prone to the spread of different epidemics. We have been already working in the last year on cholera or measles and we are afraid… [a] new wave of epidemics are going to surge again,” she told the BBC.

Reflecting on the fighting, Goma resident Mr Bolingo added: “We are the ones who suffer.”

Mr Bashali, who fled from Sake with his wife and nine children, agreed: “Men are dying, children are dying, women are dying, those fighting are dying, what for? We are praying that our country will be peaceful.” https://itusiapalagi.com/

‘They’ve both got pyramids’: Biden gaffe sparks memes

Pyramids of Giza
Image caption,Some social media users poked fun by claiming Mr Biden confused Egypt’s Pyramids with Mexico’s.

Egypt and Mexico are separated by thousands of miles of ocean and desert, with vastly different languages, cuisines, politics and cultures.

But as citizens in both countries rose to read the news on Friday morning, some unified behind a common sense of puzzlement – and in some cases levity – at US President Joe Biden.

At a contentious Thursday night news conference aimed at defending his cognitive abilities from detractors, Mr Biden inadvertently referred to Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as the “president of Mexico”.

The comment, which came hours after the findings of a report into Mr Biden’s handling of declassified documents were released, quickly set social media in both countries ablaze.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, some Mexicans took a light-hearted approach to the gaffe, sharing images of the Mexican flag with its characteristic, snake-eating eagle replaced by the Egyptian eagle of Saladin from the country’s coat of arms.

Similarly, some Egyptians shared images of a Mexican eagle on an Egyptian flag, with one including the caption “Long Live the Arab Republic of Mexico”.

“Let’s be honest. The Mexico and Egypt flag mash-up just looks really cool,” one Mexico City-based user wrote.

Other X users went even further, sharing AI-generated images of Mayan temples improbably placed in the sand dunes near the Pyramids, of sombrero-wearing taco vendors in Giza or President Al-Sisi wearing traditional Mexican garb and strumming on a guitar.

“They’ve both got pyramids,” one X user wrote. “Anyone can get confused. I’m 65 and almost daily I get my car confused with others of the same colour.”

In Egypt, locals have long referred to Mr Al Sisi as “El Miksiki” – the Mexican – to avoid government censors.

The long-running moniker originated from a years-old meme that was popular in Egypt, prompting one user to write that its citizens “memed this to reality”. Another explained that Egyptians who are against the regime sometimes refer to it as being under “Mexican occupation”.

“You can’t criticise the president freely so Egyptians started calling him ‘El Miksiki’ (‘the Mexican’ in Arabic) because it sounds like ‘al-Sisi’ so they can avoid censorship and criticise him freely,” one user explained on X.

However, not all Egyptians saw the funny side of the Biden gaffe. Many users expressed disbelief at the blunder and anger at the president, with some using the moment to criticise him for US support of Israel during the war in Gaza.

Thursday’s gaffe was just the latest of several mistakes Mr Biden has made when speaking about world leaders, and raised further doubts about the 81-year-old’s memory and mental fitness.

Earlier in the week he spoke about discussing the 2021 Capitol riot with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. However, Kohl resigned as chancellor in 1998 and died in 2017.

And during a recent campaign speech in Nevada, he confused former French President Francois Mitterrand – who died in 1996 – for France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron.

His likely Republican opponent Donald Trump, 77, has also mixed up names – most recently confusing his rival Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. https://itusiapalagi.com/

Ukraine war: Zaluzhnyi sacking will not instantly solve battlefield woes

Former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi
Image caption,General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who led Ukraine’s war effort for two years, faced huge challenges

Speculation that Ukraine’s popular military chief, Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi, was on his way out has been swirling for months.

That in itself has been damaging. Strain at the top does not bolster morale at home or abroad.

Confirmation of General Zaluzhnyi’s removal will not immediately resolve the crises either. Ukraine is struggling on the battlefield, facing shortages of both ammunition and manpower.

Removing Zaluzhnyi as commander in chief, but keeping him as part of the team, may be politically astute for President Zelensky. Some opinion polls suggest the general was more popular than the president.

We know only a little about why Mr Zelensky decided to make a change.

Remember that Gen Zaluzhnyi was hand-picked for the job by him in 2021 – ahead of more senior officers. He had already proven himself in battle as a commander in eastern Ukraine, fighting pro-Russian separatists from 2014.

But the reality is that it is the president’s prerogative to appoint who he wants as leader of the nation’s military.

Gen Ben Hodges, the former head of the US Army in Europe, says: “When it becomes apparent that the government has lost confidence in you, it is your duty to step down because of the principle of civilian control over the military.”

“My impression was this was a guy who was trying to change and modernise [Ukraine’s military], to get rid of all the old Soviet era thinking,” Gen Hodges, who had several dealings with Gen Zaluzhnyi, says.

He also thinks history will judge him kindly: “He’ll correctly get a lot of credit for having stopped the Russians.”

Gen Zaluzhnyi was facing a huge challenge to transform Ukraine’s military into a modern Nato military machine.

The defence analyst and expert Justin Crump says it was a near impossible task. Not least, he says, because Ukrainian soldiers were often only given a few weeks of Western training.

Gen Zaluzhnyi may have been a post-Soviet era general, but he was still heavily influenced by it.

In one of his rare interviews with Western media, he told Time magazine: “I was raised on Russian military doctrine, and I still think that the science of war is all located in Russia.” But he quickly looked to Nato and the West to train, rebuild and restructure his armed forces.

He was soon given credit for turning away from the top-heavy, hierarchical, old Soviet military structures to more nimble Western-style command.

That certainly proved effective in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion – with Ukraine adopting quick hit-and-run tactics against long, unwieldy, columns of Russian troops and armour.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomes Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi during a celebration ceremony of the Independence Day of Ukraine, amid Russia's invasion of the country, in central Kyiv, Ukraine August 24, 2023.

At the time, the former head of the US military, Gen Mark Milley, credited President Zelensky with those successes: “His leadership enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to adapt quickly with battlefield initiative against the Russians.”

There was more to come. In the summer of 2022 Gen Zaluzhnyi fooled Russia into thinking Ukraine’s next move would be a massive counter-offensive in the south. Instead he took advantage of weakened Russian defences in the northeast of the country and launched a lightning counter-offensive which took back a huge swathe of territory around north-eastern Kharkiv.

The expected southern offensive still took place and eventually forced Russia to retreat across the Dnipro River – forcing them to quit their occupation of southern Kherson. These early offensives would be the pinnacle of Gen Zaluzhnyi’s battlefield successes. But they also fuelled unrealistic Western expectations of what might happen next.

The subsequent, long-anticipated Ukrainian offensive in the summer of 2023 was supposed to be decisive. It wasn’t.

In fact Gen Zaluzhnyi ended up calling it “a stalemate”.

Mr Crump, who is also CEO of risk and security consultancy Sibylline, says that comment may have led to the breakdown of the relationship between the president and his top military commander.

“The Ukrainian leadership didn’t want to see the word stalemate used – not least to make sure that support [from the West] kept flowing,” he notes.

Even those who spoke in terms of great hope for the offensive now concede it was highly likely to fail.

Gen Hodges says the West would never have tried to do the same without air power. The heavily-mined Russian defensive lines proved hard to break through.

Various briefings from Western military sources since haven’t helped either, says Gen Hodges – with the suggestion that Gen Zaluzhnyi had ignored some of their advice.

Removing military commanders in a time of war is hardly unusual. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did it during World War Two.

And US President Harry S Truman famously dismissed the highly popular Gen Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War. President Truman later said: “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was. I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president.”

Gen Zaluzhnyi’s departure appears to be a lot more amicable than that. He will remain part of the military team advising the president.

The general has forged close relationships with many Western military leaders. He clearly still has a vision to continue the fight by building an arsenal of drones – which he set out in a recent article in the Economist.

Analyst Mr Crump says the change might be good – “leading a nation and a military in a time of war can get pretty stressful”.

But his replacement, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, has also been doing the same as the commander in the east for the last two years. His new job won’t be any easier. https://itusiapalagi.com/

Martin Scorsese says immersive screening experiences can weaken films

US film director Martin Scorsese arrives for the 81st annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 7, 2024
Image caption,Martin Scorsese is nominated for best director at the forthcoming Oscars

Director Martin Scorsese has said he is “concerned” that immersive and 3D screenings risk detracting from the quality of films.

In recent years, some cinemas have introduced immersive experiences for movies, often known as 4DX screenings.

These see audiences sit in chairs that move with the action, while water and smoke are used to enhance some scenes.

But Scorsese said such techniques can mean films “don’t necessarily work as well” when those elements are removed.

In 2019, Scorsese gave an interview to Empire magazine in which he likened the Marvel superhero movies to theme parks, prompting a debate in Hollywood about the artistic value of blockbusters.

Man in cinema seat surrounded by fog in 4DX screening
Image caption,Smoke, smells, water and moving seats are among the special effects created in 4DX screenings

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Scorsese reflected on his original comments – telling presenter Amol Rajan his primary concern was about techniques that take away from a film’s content.

“I was concerned that if a film needs more than just projection on a screen, if it needs chairs that bounce around or certain scents that are used in the theatre, or more technical elements besides the image on the screen, what would that film look like without those elements?” he said.

“Would it still be a film? There are major elements of it missing.”

Screenings in the sensory 4DX format are similar in some ways to simulators – audience members are in seats that shake and move to mirror action scenes like car chases.

Smoke is also used to replicate the effects of on-screen explosions, scented air is released, and water is lightly sprayed on audience members during scenes that take place in the rain or at sea.

Screenshot from Mario Movie
Image caption,The Super Mario Bros Movie was the most popular film at 4DX screenings last year

Last year, the highest-grossing films in the 4DX format in the US were Super Mario Bros, Avatar: The Way of Water and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

However, 4DX is a tiny fraction of overall box office takings, accounting for $50m (£40m) of the $9bn (£7.1bn) earned in the US in 2023. In the UK, Cineworld offers 4DX screens in nearly 40 of its cinemas.

Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, told BBC News that cinemas were offering fans a choice of experiences as well as films.

“The recent advent of 4D at some UK sites, for example, has proved popular, particularly with family audiences and young people, but of course might not be appropriate for every film, nor for those cinema-goers who prefer a more traditional screening,” he said.

“Where that is the case, then luckily the diverse range of offerings which is now a feature of the sector ensures that those tastes are amply catered for as well.”

‘We’re missing the intimacy’

Scorsese is nominated for best director at the forthcoming Oscars for Killers of the Flower Moon, with the film nominated in 10 categories in total.

He is considered one of the greatest living directors, with credits also including The Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Goodfellas and Taxi Driver.

The 81-year-old has previously also dabbled in 3D, shooting his 2010 movie Hugo using 3D cameras and describing it as “liberating” at the time.

Martin Scorsese, Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio pose on the red carpet for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 14th Annual Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Los Angeles, California, USA, 09 January 2024.
Image caption,Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film Killers of the Flower Moon stars Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio

However, Scorsese suggested that when techniques like 3D are used, it can mean a film does not function as well for a viewer if they don’t see it in that format.

“When you see films that were shot in 3D, but you see them flat – well there’s an entire arena of information that’s missing,” he told Rajan.

“And the flat versus the 3D films don’t necessarily work as well. And so it’s almost like they are not films any more.”

The director also warned that if the film industry began relying too heavily on traditional narrative arcs with familiar character tropes, much of the nuance and subtlety of films could be lost.

“An archetype, I enjoy – certain films have archetypes, the good and the bad guys, all this sort of thing. I like the archetypes,” Scorsese said.

“But on the other hand, if it’s only archetypes, we’re missing the intimacy of character, and I think of younger people seeing this and thinking cinema may only be that.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is a three-and-a-half hour epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone, who is seen as a strong contender to win the Oscar for best actress.

Set in 1920s Oklahoma, the true story depicts the gradual and brutal murders of Native Americans by white settlers who are fuelled by greed for the oil on their land. https://itusiapalagi.com/

‘People will keep dying’: Fentanyl crisis grips Mexico’s border cities

Overdose in La Perla bar
Image caption,Paramedics in Tijuana say they are seeing increasing numbers of suspected fentanyl overdoses on their nightshift

The scene which greeted Tijuana’s paramedics as they entered ‘La Perla’ bar in the early hours of the morning was grim.

Two men were unconscious – a heavy-set man sprawled on the floor, his friend slumped in a chair – both clinging to life by a thread.

Once more, the city’s emergency services had been called out following a suspected fentanyl overdose – increasingly part of every nightshift, says paramedic Gabriel Valladares.

“It’s getting worse. We’re seeing more and more, and it’s always fentanyl,” he says.

The synthetic opioid is 50 times stronger than heroin and is making the paramedics’ job much harder.

“We generally see two or three overdoses a night. But we’ve had as many as six or seven cases in a single call – probably because they all took the same substance,” adds Gabriel.

Some in the team quickly began CPR on the two patients while others prepared doses of Narcan, the most effective drug to reverse a fentanyl overdose.

The two men may not have even known they were taking fentanyl. Because the opioid is cheap and easy to produce and transport, Mexican drug cartels have begun to cut it into recreational drugs like cocaine.

Homeless people in Tijuana
Image caption,The Mexican president has played down the extent of the fentanyl problem but authorities in Tijuana disagree

The Mexican border city finds itself in the grip of a full-blown drug epidemic. But the country’s president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, has played down the extent of the problem.

“We don’t produce fentanyl here. We don’t consume fentanyl here,” he said last year. Following that controversial claim, he has promised to introduce new legislation to Congress to ban the consumption of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Those working on Tijuana’s frontlines fear that may be too little, too late.

The director of the state’s forensic services, Dr César González Vaca, tells me that for over a year his department has tested every dead body that comes into their morgues in two border towns, Mexicali and Tijuana, for fentanyl.

The study has shown that around one-in-four bodies in Mexicali contained fentanyl, he says, and last July, the statistics for Tijuana were as high as one-in-three.

“It seems the closer we are to the border, the more consumption of this drug we see”, explains Dr González Vaca. “Unfortunately, we can’t compare to other states in the Republic as, in Baja California, we’re the first state to carry out this study,” he adds, urging his counterparts around the country to help build a clearer national picture.

Dr César González Vaca,
Image caption,Many dead bodies in Tijuana test positive for fentanyl, says Dr César González Vaca

People working with the living in Tijuana also claim the president has underestimated the scale of the crisis in Mexico.

Prevencasa is a harm reduction centre in the city which provides a needle exchange and medical services to addicts. Its director, Lily Pacheco, randomly selects two used needles and two empty drug vials from their disposal unit.

All four items of drug paraphernalia test positive for fentanyl. The city is awash with it, says Lily.

“Of course fentanyl exists. To suggest otherwise is a lack of recognition of this reality. We have the evidence right here,” she says, pointing at the testing strips.

“The overdoses we see and all those who’ve died from fentanyl are part of that evidence too. Ignoring the problem won’t solve it. On the contrary, people will keep dying.”

As our interview ends, there is suddenly a much more visceral illustration of the crisis than fentanyl tests on used syringes.

Lily is rushed outside where someone is overdosing on the street. She carries Narcan too, donated by a US charity after her federal funding was cut, and saves the man’s life.

He was lucky. But many were not so fortunate.

The fentanyl epidemic has hit the neighbouring US – the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs – especially hard. There, an estimated 70,000 people died of overdoses last year.

Elijah Gonzales was one of them.

Just 15 when he accidentally overdosed on a counterfeit Xanax pill from Mexico, he had no idea it was fentanyl-laced. Text messages Elijah’s mother, Nellie Morales, found afterwards suggest it was his first time experimenting with drugs.

His body simply couldn’t cope.

“I miss him every day,” says Nellie in her apartment in El Paso, Texas, adorned with pictures of her son. “He was going to graduate this June. A piece of me died that day that he died.”

Nellie
Image caption,Nellie’s son Elijah overdosed on a fentanyl-laced pill in El Paso, Texas on the other side of the Mexico border

Unfortunately, such deaths are common in the US. More than five Texans die every day from fentanyl, say state authorities, and in El Paso County alone, fentanyl was involved in 85% of accidental overdoses like Elijah’s.

City police compare the situation to the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

El Paso sits across the border from one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, Ciudad Juárez. When we visited, US customs officers seized 33kg (73lb) of fentanyl in a single day, enough to kill everyone in El Paso twice over.

Arguments over the drug have even seen some Republicans advocate for sending troops into Mexico to fight the cartels. No doubt such debates will feature highly in the US election campaign. In truth though, given how easily it can be transported, it is almost impossible to stem the flow of fentanyl into the US.

In Ciudad Juárez, I meet Kevin – not his real name – a 17-year-old drug smuggler and hitman for La Empresa cartel. He shows me videos of his gang moving the drug through tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border.

“A kilo of fentanyl makes the cartel around $200,000 (£160,000) in the US”, he says, “I earn about $1,000 (£800) to take it north.”

Drug smuggler
Image caption,Gangs are recruiting children to help them traffic fentanyl

Kevin has been working with the cartel since he was just nine. But he has never seen anything like fentanyl. He predicts it is the future of the illegal drug trade:

“It’s the strongest drug I’ve ever seen, chemically so powerful that people keep demanding more and more. It’s going to keep blowing up,” he says.

I asked him if he felt any remorse over the deaths of US teens like Elijah.

“No, it’s all part of a chain”, he shrugs. “They send guns south, we send fentanyl north. Everyone’s responsible for their own acts.”

Back in Tijuana, it took three doses of Narcan, but the paramedics managed to bring one patient back from the brink in the ‘La Perla’ bar.

For his friend, though, it was too late. He died amid the beer bottles and empty glasses on the barroom floor.

The paramedics’ dignified silence is pierced by the awful sound of wailing. His mother has made it to the bar only to be told her son, at 27, is another victim of this most powerful of narcotics, his death a footnote in an election year on both sides of the US-Mexico border. https://itusiapalagi.com/