Is the government losing the war on drugs?

By Perry Diaz

WHEN President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, he vowed to rid the country of illegal drugs, crime, and corruption in three to six months. Six months went by and the drug problem was still around. He then extended the deadline by another six months. A year and a half later, the drug problem still exists. What happened?

During the final session of the oral arguments on the two petitions seeking to nullify the government’s war on drugs, two Supreme Court justices observed that the number of drug users have more than doubled and there had been almost 4,000 killings since Duterte assumed office last year.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio noted that drug users in 2015 was set at 1.5 million as cited under the Command Memorandum Circular No. 16-2016, which contains the provisions of Project Double Barrel, the anti-drug campaign of the Philippine National Police (PNP). However, data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) showed that by 2016, drug users had ballooned to 4.7 million. “So it actually increased during the term of President Duterte. Is that correct?” Carpio asked Solicitor General Jose Calida. Calida said the data “was not really accurate and was understated.” [Source: Inquirer, Dec. 5, 2017]

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen also noted that there had been almost 4,000 people killed since last year. “There are thousands upon thousands of people who are killed either in police operations or found on the side of the road,” Leonen said. “Would you say we are now suffering a crime wave consisting of a lot of murders?” he asked Calida, who responded: “I am not an expert on that your honor.” “But with the 4,000 murders for a period of one year, don’t you think that this is something we should worry about, regardless of who these people are?” Leonen said. Leonen also noted that the number of deaths went up after July 2016 when Duterte took office. [Ibid]

During the hearing, it was revealed that Command Memorandum Circular No. 16-2016 had explicitly stated that there are three transnational drug organizations operating in the Philippines. The memorandum stated, “Chinese or Filipino-Chinese drug syndicates dominate the drug market in the country.” It also stated that these Chinese syndicates “facilitate production, manufacturing and bulk smuggling of dangerous drugs in the country.” [Ibid]

Calida said that based on statistics, there were 418 Chinese who were arrested. However, he stressed that they were “not killed, but arrested.” Calida added that they could not determine what exact role of those arrested by the police was — whether they were users, peddlers or manufacturers. [Ibid]

Chinese drug lords

Carpio asked Calida: “How many Chinese or Filipino-Chinese drug lords have been neutralized by the PNP since July 1, 2016?” [“Neutralized” is a euphemism for “killed.”]

Carpio further asked Calida: “Can you explain why PNP, in this circular, is concentrating on street-level operations and is practically ignoring the big time drug lords? How come the flagship project of the president is concentrated in going after small-time peddlers? Why not big-time drug lords?” Carpio lamented how the anti-drug campaign had focused on street level pushers and users when Chinese and Filipino-Chinese drug lords dominated the drug trade. Calida said Duterte’s instruction was to go after all drug users, sellers and manufacturers. “The big-time Chinese drug lords are outside our jurisdiction. They are in China,” he said. [Ibid]

With the Chinese drug lords operating in China, where they’re “untouchable” and protected by corrupt Chinese officials, the Philippine authorities couldn’t do anything to bring them to the country to be prosecuted.

Shabu labs

It is a known fact that the illegal drug crystal methamphetamine — known as “shabu” in the Philippines – is mainly produced in China. China has unrestricted availability of precursor chemicals, which is the main ingredient in the production of shabu. The shabu laboratories are believed to be located in the region around Guangdong and Hong Kong, and along China’s eastern and southeastern coastal areas. Many of the shabu traffickers are from organized crime groups based in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

The shabu trade is controlled by small, tight-knit groups of Chinese who oversee the entire process: from the procurement of precursor chemicals in China to the production of the drug in the Philippines to its distribution by local gangs. Philippine authorities say many of those running the shabu trade are Triads, the ruthless criminal syndicates that have long been involved in drug trafficking.

Due to China’s abundance of precursor chemicals and its unregulated chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the country has become the world’s major exporter of precursor chemicals.

Smuggled drugs

Philippine officials say that shabu is smuggled from China by passing it from large ships to smaller vessels, mainly off the coast of Luzon. Packages are sometimes dropped into the sea along the country’s long coastlines and picked up by fishermen. They then pass the shabu into the hands of local drug traffickers. [Source: Reuters: Meth gangs of China play star role in Philippines drug crisis, Dec. 16, 2016]

It is not uncommon that large amounts of shabu are smuggled through the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and other ports in the country.

Another method of production is the use of shabu labs set up all around the country. The drug syndicates flew the production experts into the Philippines from China to work at the labs. They come in on separate flights posing as tourists or businessmen. They include a “chemist” to oversee the operation and a “cook” to actually make the synthetic drug. One such lab – a former piggery farm — was located at Mt. Arayat in Pampanga. The police raided it after a local resident notified the police of the presence of Chinese nationals lurking around the farm.

It is interesting to note the ease of which shabu is smuggled into the country. Surmise it to say, this could only happen with the collusion of corrupt customs officials and local politicians who protect the drug lords and their shabu labs.

A lot of questions remain unanswered, but one thing is certain: the government is losing the war on drugs.

Last December 5, Duterte issued a directive that allows the PNP to participate again in the war against illegal drugs. However, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) remains as the overall lead agency in the campaign against illegal drugs. But bringing back the PNP into the bloody campaign isn’t going to eradicate the drug menace. Simply put, killing drug users is not going to win the war on drugs. For as long as the country is proliferated with illegal drugs, the peril of drug addiction continues.

The challenge is: how can the government stop shabu smuggling and shut down the shabu labs? Evidently, corruption drives the government’s inability to fight the drug traffickers. Is it then fair to say, “Stop corruption and you can win the war on drugs”? It’s worth a try.