Earlier this month, curious a fisherman hauled up a drum that’s believed to have broken free or jettisoned from a storm-stricken freighter off Sorsogon, on the southern tip of the Bicol region. Authorities said they found about $2.5 million-worth of cocaine, a more costly drug that caters mostly to the affluent, raising questions about the efficacy of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war. It comes 45 years after a firing squad executed the Chinese drug lord Lim Seng in Fort Bonifacio, drying up the country’s drug trade overnight, albeit temporarily.
Pres. Duterte has made fighting illicit drugs the centerpiece of his peace and order agenda. In the nearly 20 months since he took over the reins of government, anywhere from 4,000 to 14,000 people (the numbers changing, depending on who you ask) have been killed in the name of this “drug war”. Human rights groups allege many are victims of extrajudicial killings – a charge vigorously challenged by the police and the President’s defenders. Many of those killed were poor, often labeled as dregs of society.
Mr. Duterte has tagged everyone from the Chinese triad to the Siniloa cartel for the drug menace in the country. He has revealed a “drug matrix” that purportedly shows the link of powerful protectors in the drug trade – but focused at one woman in particular, former Justice Secretary now Sen. Leila de Lima who has been jailed and refused bail. De Lima, an outspoken critic of the deadly drug drive, has overshadowed everyone else who’ve been implicated and has certainly lent a sinister, partisan political color to the President’s anti-drug campaign. Her supporters have been mounting an international campaign – including here in Washington D.C. – to pressure Manila to release the feisty lawmaker, and in the process keeps the world’s eyes squarely focused on the Philippines’ vitiated human rights posture.
In a sense, that’s a real shame, even tragic. The Philippines does have a very real problem with drugs. And while there seems to be universal consensus – even from some of Mr. Duterte’s most vociferous critics – that drug trafficking poses a true threat to the nation’s security and the people’s safety, the feeling of menace seems to get diluted by partisan political squabbles. On the one hand, the challenge to government to defeat the threat from drug trafficking grows in the face of recent reports like the cocaine seizure in Sorsogon; and on the other, the challenge for Pres. Duterte – and this we see as the more formidable hurdle – to build a consensus on a strategy that achieves his vision of decisive, effective action to curb drug use but also in a manner that does not alienate and repulse well-meaning citizens who also have a vested interest, even a burning desire, to see a Philippines free from the grip of illicit drugs.
A focus on “body count” – as what appears to be the objective of some in the frontlines of the government’s anti-drug campaign – does not take them any closer to their goals. It does not work in anti-insurgency; it will not work in the so-called drug war. The “One Time Big Time” operation in Bulacan last year looks to have been designed to produce “body counts” (the raids also targeted alleged robbers and other suspected criminals). The sight and smell of slain addicts floating down the Pasig River is a false deterrent. True, it instills fear but it instills that fear on the wrong people. The Duterte administration has heretofore remained largely mute on charges that it only targets the poor; that they have yet to net the “big fishes” – the seemingly invisible, impervious millionaires and billionaires whose lavish homes are furnished from drug money. I wonder, when will the police confront them so they can “resist arrest”? That’ll give Mr. Duterte something to really crow about.
The Philippines is a crucial transit point for the international drug trade – that fact has been known by authorities for ages. But the focus has been on methamphetamines – shabu – that can be mass-produced in kitchen-type laboratories (usually near poultry or hog farms to hide the stench from the chemicals used to make them). The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) estimates the illegal drug trade is worth from $6-8 billion annually. There is only a limited market for other drugs like cocaine which is more expensive. The apparently botched smuggling of the cocaine recovered in Bicol suggests not all of it was perhaps intended for the Philippine market. In 2013, the police revealed for the first time that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel has opened shop in the country. Perhaps significantly, the Ninoy Aquino Internatioanl Airport – the country’s premier gateway – has been identified by narcotics experts as a favorable illegal drug trafficking hub.
Follow the money, suggested that famous line in the Watergate-theme “All the President’s Men”. Pres. Duterte has reveled in his “Punisher” persona but his vaunted decisiveness remains suspect while it’s wielded against powerless, unworthy opponents like street peddlers or slum dwellers.
The flourishing trade in illicit drugs has to be exterminated from both the demand as well as the supply side. And you don’t have to kill thousands. The late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos ordered the execution of Lim Seng – who reputedly supplied 10 percent of America’s heroin at the time – in January 1973. Mr. Marcos could have executed him by electric chair, but chose a firing squad instead, witnessed by some 5,000 spectators. It was fear administered on the “right people”.