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Weaponized fly from the series War Bugs, by JuegaSiempre.

In downtown Bogota, amidst tall buildings, tons of concrete, and crowded, noisy and foul-smelling streets, stands a mural evocating injustices and atrocious crimes that occurred in Colombia during more than five decades of war. While large, mainly human figures occupy the foreground, a swarm of insects covers the background: flies, wasps, dragonflies and mosquitoes, all carrying weapons instead of wings. JuegaSiempre[1], one of the creators of this fascinating work, is the artist behind the hybridization between flying insects and AK-47 rifles, the emblematic weapon of the extinct FARC guerrilla. When I came across these enthralling war bugs—half guns, half insects, partly living beings, partly weaponized life—I had been a while exploring the relationship between the Colombian armed conflict and a vector-borne disease called leishmaniasis ethnographically. Therefore, I could not help but see in JuegaSiempre’s insects an unparalleled depiction of what leishmaniasis represents in Colombia.

Leishmaniasis[2] is a disease transmitted by tiny sandflies who belong to the selva[3] ecology. It is not contagious, deadly, or painful. It starts out like a tiny skin sore that continues to grow into an ulcer. In medical practice, the sore is often described as a small volcano: a circular lesion with a raised edge and a reddish crater that may ooze or be covered by a scab. After a leishmaniasis lesion heals—either by treatment or because the body itself mitigated the infection—a scar usually remains as a reminder of a previous encounter between a person, a sandfly, and microscopic parasites in the selva.

Since the Colombian war has developed mainly in this exuberant environment, the disease has been particularly severe with the combatants of the armed conflict—soldiers of the national army and members of guerrilla and paramilitary groups. But, of course, leishmaniasis similarly affects civilian populations whose daily lives are entangled in one way or another with the selva. Despite the fact that guerrillas are far from being the only population affected by leishmaniasis, this illness has been dangerously stigmatized as “the guerrilla disease.”[4] This stigma has materialized in the restrictive control the state exercises over the circulation of anti-leishmanial drugs, which is often interpreted as a war strategy to harm insurgent groups.

When I came across JuegaSiempre’s artwork, I was intrigued by what was behind his ingenious hybridization of insects and weapons. I became so interested in the subject that one day we ended up having coffee and talking about his work and his concealed identity. He told me that his creation, called War Bugs, belongs to a larger project called Señalética por un Mundo Mejor [Signage for a Better World]. He merges images of two dissimilar elements to generate new semiotic meanings.  Drawing inspiration on the work of Banksy, such as the image of warfare helicopters adorned with pink bows, JuegaSiempre plays with juxtaposition, seeking to elicit critical reflections on the Colombian reality and, particularly, on the armed conflict and its associated politics and dynamics. Making the most of the stencil technique, which allows for the easy and low-cost reproduction and amplification of provocative images and messages, JuegaSiempre has created more than hundred pictograms scattered today on quite a lot of walls in Bogota and other parts of Colombia.

About War Bugs, in particular, he told me this:  

The silhouettes of weapons are very expressive and easy to recognize. They are also easy to hybridize, they are apt to mix with other elements, and they work as a functional and reproducible module. They have a lot of symbolic weight in the observer, they are thought-provoking, maybe because of their intimidating nature . . . I like insects, they are interesting aesthetically. I have always found them similar to guns of all kinds, and the truth is that they are well equipped . . . War Bugs holds a double meaning, referring both to the bugs of war, and the war that bugs. It speaks of the relationship that we, Colombians, especially those of us living in the main cities, generally have with the armed conflict. We have become used to the war and established a passive relationship to it that makes us believe the conflict might bother but doesn’t affect us directly. So we think we can ignore it, shoo it away, and distance ourselves from it, as we do with insects. Only recently I came to understand that insects could be more dangerous than many weapons and produce more deaths. However, it is the realm of nature, and I imagine that even they [vector insects] are doing something right, judging from the acts of our [human] species.

Thinking about the embeddedness of things in the world and the world in things (Dumit, n.d.; Ingold, 2012), what follows is an experimental attempt to write in a more creative and less contained way about the symbolic and the bodily dimensions of JuegaSiempre’s weaponized sandflies in relation to leishmaniasis-transmitting sandflies in Colombia. In other words, I want to explore some of the obvious and less obvious connections between these two flies, what they represent, their metaphoric richness, and the reasons as to why I saw (and keep seeing) a rich representation of leishmaniasis’ entanglement to war when I encountered JuegaSiempre’s work for the first time.

1.

Doña Amelia. Street vendor at Plaza de Bolivar.

Manta blanca[5]. This is the name given to the tiny, hairy sandflies that transmit leishmaniasis. They are whitish and light, like animated dust particles that inhabit micro-worlds under leaves, in rock crevices, or on the textured surface of tree trunks. They spend most of the day in those dark, humid nooks and crannies that abound in the Colombian selvas. At twilight, however, female sandflies take an energetic flight, close to the ground, in search of vertebrates whose blood allows them to mature their eggs. Opossums, armadillos, sloths, anteaters, bats, wild rats, porcupines, pumas and jaguars are attractive sources of blood for these flies. But so are two-legged selva mammals, many of them armed and dressed in camouflage who, thanks to the armed conflict, have provided blood abundantly and almost permanently to the mantablanca.

Soldiers of the Army told me that, when they were guarding the sleep of their companions, thousands of little flies suddenly surrounded them and, making a show of their name, covered them like a pearl-colored blanket that attacked the skin from all sides without giving them any truce. They began wearing gloves and a kind of wide hat, lined with camouflage, with a veil hanging down and going inside the collar of the uniform. In that way, they could at least keep their eyes open and minimize the shoo-away movements that the enemy could easily detect. The guerrillas, however, suffered from the same evil. Members of the FARC told me that, watching from afar with some envy how the soldiers protected themselves from the mantablanca, they decided to create their own version of such efficient technology. Thus, making use of old mosquito nets and a bejuco [flexible wood] shaped like a hoop, they created their own “Chinese hats.”

Despite that and other efforts, skin sores never ceased to afflict those who, because of the war, entered the selvas and stayed there for months or years. Circular ulcers and scars bear witness to the multispecies encounter between parasites, flies and humans that originates with war. The mantablanca and leishmanaisis have persisted throughout the conflict; they are part of the daily life of those in charge of annihilating the other: one of many perks of the war job that has accompanied soldiers and guerrillas during decades of violence. The mantablanca—like the war—has enveloped us without asking, without us being able to chase it away, to ignore it, or act as if it did not exist. Today, this tiny and elusive insect has weapons instead of wings. Like each one of us, some more than others, the mantablanca also carries the war on its back and breathes the same air that remains congested from accumulated death. This fly has also been part of this tragedy. And it will also have to be part of its overcoming, otherwise it will remain weaponized.

2.

War economy. “From 2006 to 2007 more than 10.000 bills where stamped as a way of pointing out that war is a business in which we all participate.” JuegaSiempre wrote this in his Instagram account. This image appears next to other seven stamped bills.

Leishmaniasis has constituted a significant financial burden for the state, in general, and the Army, in particular. Keeping a man out of combat is costly. It is also expensive to get him out of the selva because the usual way out is by helicopter. The costs associated with the leishmaniasis diagnosis, treatment and medical follow-up are also high, as well as returning a recovered soldier to his military unit and then to the operations area.

In the Army, leishmaniasis is regarded as an enfermedad profesional (occupational disease), which means that the circumstances under which a member of the military acquires the disease occur “in the service, for cause and reason thereof.”[6] Considering leishmaniasis an occupational disease acknowledges that it derives from the labor performed by military personnel while on duty, making the Army health subsystem responsible for all the leishmaniasis-related health care services required by a member of the military[7]. A soldier staying at the Army Leishmaniasis Recovery Center (CRL)[8] represents approximately COP 110,000 (about USD 35) per day for the Army. “That person stops working for at least three months. However, we must continue paying him his salary, food, health, accommodation. Then, this represents a detriment for the Army,” said a military physician to me[9]. Additionally, the Army pays economic compensations to its members for acquired disabilities and diminution in work capacity. In the case of leishmaniasis, the Army compensates both for the scars and for some of the sequelae associated with the treatment. Given the high prevalence of the disease in the Army, these compensations also imply high charges for the institution.

Despite being the less expensive pharmaceutical for treating leishmaniasis, Glucantime®—a pharmaceutical produced by the French multinational Sanofi—is also costly. Even though the Army does take responsibility for the medical care of its members with leishmaniasis, it is important to highlight that, while leishmaniasis is recognized by the military as an occupational illness, it is not the Ministry of Defense, but the Ministry of Health that pays for the antileishmanial medicines used to treat any member of the Army.  In other words, the budgetary state allocation for health and not for defense has been paying for the drugs to treat a disease soldiers acquire while on duty—while “defending the nation,” as the military like to say. Between 1997 and 2017, the Ministry of Health has spent more than 17 million USD in Glucantime ampoules, many of which were allocated to the Army. Purchasing Glucantime has represented a considerable expense for the state, and a substantial profit for Sanofi.

According to classified cables released by WikiLeaks, in 2005, “budget limitations and distribution problems [were] making it hard for the [Colombian] military to obtain [antileishmanial] drugs in sufficient quantities.”[10] Thus, the Colombian government sought assistance from the U.S. government to fund the costs associated to the increasing need of Glucantime within the Army[11]. However, the US could not provide any financial assistance for that purpose because, at that moment, no drug for leishmaniasis had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. In its place, the US provided USD 500,000 to the Colombian Army to purchase insect repellents such as DEET and Permethrin[12].

3.

Picture taken at the Tibabuyes wetland (Bogotá, Colombia).

The silhouette of a chimeric insect appears in the middle of a circle, on a fluorescent green background. It is a giant fly carrying AK-47 rifles instead of wings. It takes center stage and draws all the attention to itself. Like a road signal, it forces you to stop going about your daily business and look at it. It demands you to trouble yourself with its intimidating body. It warns you about nearby weaponized life. It alerts you of the filthy environment you are surrounded by.

“Flies, Saint Augustine wrote, were invented by God to punish man for his arrogance” (Raffles, 2001: 45). Judging from the unlimited brutality we have naturalized in Colombia throughout decades of violence, leishmaniasis-transmitting sandflies might be just that—a divine punishment that is suffered en carne propia [firsthand].

“We coexist without even barely realizing that nothing happening here is healthy or normal” (Mera, 2008). We are so accustomed to war and to looking at each other with suspicion that it seems credible to think that leishmaniasis was something introduced, a biological weapon to slowly and remotely diminish the enemy’s health. “In Colombia, I haven’t been able to know who Cain is and who Abel is,” said Jesús Abad Colorado, a renowned photographer who has bravely and carefully documented the conflict with his camera. Indeed, many Army soldiers affected by leishmaniasis believe that it was guerrilla organizations that somehow released the disease in the selva to harm state troops. And many guerrillas believe that it was the state that devised a kind of biological weapon, based on Leishmania parasites, to affect subversive groups.

But leishmaniasis is a pre-Hispanic disease that even ceramists of the Moche culture (100-700 A.D.) carved on human figures well before the Spanish set foot on these lands (Altamirano-Enciso et al., 2003). However, the armed conflict logics have made it possible to think that leishmaniasis lesions are nothing more than embodied evidence of biological warfare. As Aura María Mera wrote, “when we all carry pustules and ulcers, no one notices having them” (2008).

 

References

Acevedo Serna N (2012) Leishmaniasis, ¿una marca de la guerra? Infrarrojo. 37. Teleantioquia. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=570g9D9JKXY.

Altamirano-Enciso AJ, Marzochi MC, Moreira JS, et al. (2003) On the origin and spread of cutaneous and mucosal leishmaniasis, based on pre-and post-Colombian historical sources. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos 10(3): 853–882.

Beyrer C, Villar JC, Suwanvanichkij V, et al. (2007) Neglected diseases, civil conflicts, and the right to health. The Lancet 370(9587): 619–627.

Contexto Ganadero (2014) Medicina contra leishmaniasis la nueva ‘vacuna’ de las Farc. Contexto Ganadero, 30 September. Available at: http://www.contextoganadero.com/regiones/medicina-contra-leishmaniasis-la-nueva-vacuna-de-las-farc (accessed 27 November 2018).

DGSM (2008) Directiva No. 118 de 2018. Calificación en primera oportunidad de las contingencias de origen laboral.

Dumit J (n.d.) Artifact Project. Available at: http://web.mit.edu/dumit/www/artifact-frame.html (accessed 23 October 2015).

Emanuelsson D (2012) La guerrillera Susana que sobrevivió el bombardeo del campamento de Raúl Reyes: “En esta lucha unos vamos, otros nos quedaremos en el camino y otros continuarán la lucha que llevamos”. Available at: http://2014.anncol.eu/index.php/opinion/dick-emanuelsson-anncol/1034-dec-12-video-la-guerrillera-susana-que-sobrevivio-el-bombardeo-del-campamento-de-raul-reyes-en-esta-lucha-unos-vamos-otros-nos-quedaremos-en-el-camino-y-otros-continuaran-la-lucha-que-llevamos (accessed 13 July 2015).

Ingold T (2012) Toward an Ecology of Materials. Annual Review of Anthropology 41(1): 427–442. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145920.

López JP (2017) El arte de abrir mentes: rayando con DJ LU. Vice, 24 November. Available at: https://www.vice.com/es_co/article/bj79v5/dj-lu-perfil-grafiti-revista-bogota-estencil-carteles-stickers (accessed 5 March 2018).

Lyons KM (2016) Decomposition as Life Politics: Soils, Selva, and Small Farmers under the Gun of the U.S.–Colombian War on Drugs. Cultural Anthropology 31(1): 56–81. DOI: 10.14506/ca31.1.04.

Mera AL (2008) Leishmaniasis en el Alma. El Espectador, 26 May. Available at: http://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistasdelimpreso/aura-lucia-mera/columna-leishmaniasis-el-alma (accessed 27 July 2016).

MinSalud (2010) Guía para la Atención Clínica Integral del Paciente con Leishmaniasis. Available at: http://www.ins.gov.co/temas-de-interes/Leishmaniasis%20viceral/02%20Clinica%20Leishmaniasis.pdf (accessed 13 July 2015).

Minuto 30 (2013) La leishmaniasis, una enfermedad ‘que camina’ con el conflicto armado en Antioquia. Minuto 30, 16 August. Available at: https://www.minuto30.com/la-leishmaniasis-una-enfermedad-que-camina-con-el-conflicto-armado-en-antioquia/174556/ (accessed 27 November 2018).

Molano Bravo A (2005) Perversa estrategia. Agencia Prensa Rural, 9 April. Available at: http://www.prensarural.org/molano20050409.htm (accessed 13 July 2015).

Ospina M (2014) Las naturalezas de la guerra: topografías violentas de selva en la narrativa contemporánea colombiana. Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 40(79): 243–264.

PECET (2015) Leishmaniasis. Available at: http://www.pecet-colombia.org/site/leishmaniasis-enfermedad.html (accessed 6 May 2018).

Raffles H (2001) Insectopedia. New York: Vintage Books.

Rodríguez I (1997) Naturaleza/nacion: Lo salvaje/civil Escribiendo Amazonia. Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 23(45): 27–42. DOI: 10.2307/4530889.

Semana (n.d.) La bolsa o la vida. Available at: https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/la-bolsa-vida/234832-3 (accessed 27 April 2018).

US Embassy in Colombia (2005a) Cable: 05BOGOTA3217_a. WikiLeaks. Available at: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05BOGOTA3217_a.html (accessed 23 October 2015).

US Embassy in Colombia (2005b) Cable: 05BOGOTA3937_a. WikiLeaks. Available at: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05BOGOTA3937_a.html (accessed 23 October 2015).

US Embassy in Colombia (2005c) Cable: 05BOGOTA8545_a. Available at: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05BOGOTA8545_a.html (accessed 23 October 2015).

Velez ID, Hendrickx E, Robledo SM, et al. (2001) Gender and cutaneous leishmaniasis in Colombia. Cadernos de Saúde Pública 17(1): 171–180. DOI: 10.1590/S0102-311X2001000100018.

 

Endnotes

[1] For a journalistic account about JuegaSiempre’s work—also known as DjLu—see Juan Pablo Lopez’s article (2017).

[2] Biomedicine describes two major forms of leishmaniasis: cutaneous and visceral. While visceral leishmaniasis can be deadly and constitutes a serious problem in other countries, 97% of all leishmaniasis cases in Colombia correspond to cutaneous leishmaniasis (MinSalud, 2010). In this text, I use the term “leishmaniasis” to refer to cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is the illness my research is concerned with.

[3] Selva is a Spanish word that is usually translated into English as ‘forest’, ‘tropical forest’ or ‘jungle’. While both ‘selva’ and ‘jungle’ hold colonial, civilizatory and modernizing connotations (Ospina, 2014; Rodríguez, 1997), in this paper I draw on Kristina Lyons’s (2016) take on selva to choose this word over English translations. In contrast to the word ‘jungle,’ selva avoids leading the reader to tropes that have more to do with histories and geographies of the British Empire and less with colonial and development struggles and debates in South America. I also choose the noun selva to highlight how reductionist it is to make it into ‘forest.’ ‘Forest’ makes invisible the exuberant biodiversity underlying the messy, relational and metamorphic nature of selva, and also the ways in which selva becomes deeply entangled with human and more-than-human phenomena that develop within it—like leishmaniasis.

[4] See, for example, journalistic (Acevedo Serna, 2012; Contexto Ganadero, 2014; Minuto 30, 2013: 30; Molano Bravo, 2005), scientific (Beyrer et al., 2007; PECET, 2015; Velez et al., 2001) and testimonial (Emanuelsson, 2012; Semana, n.d.) accounts that have framed leishmaniasis as ‘the guerrilla disease’.

[5] Manta means blanket, and blanca means ‘white’ in Spanish. During my fieldwork, I heard people referring to sandflies as manta or manta blanca. However, I have found documents where names such as palomilla, aliblanco, jején, capotillo, arenilla and pringador also appear.

[6] Decree 1796 of 2000. Available here: https://www.sanidadfuerzasmilitares.mil.co/english/the_entity/normativity/decrees/decreto_1796_2000.

[7] See DGSM, 2008.

[8] The Leishmaniasis Recovery Centre (CRL) is a clinical facility created in 2005 and officially inaugurated in 2008, located inside the Silva Plazas Battalion in Duitama (Boyacá), for the exclusive care of members of the Army affected by leishmaniasis.

[9] Interview with the author on May 2, 2017.

[10] See US Embassy in Colombia, 2005b.

[11] See US Embassy in Colombia, 2005a.

[12] See US Embassy in Colombia, 2005c.