Manila losing its battle with drugs
By Cristian Segura
BEIJING - The Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) keeps a special trophy
beside the basketball court at its headquarters in Manila. It's a silver BMW
that was owned by Antonio Kcomt, a notorious Chinese-Canadian cocaine and
Kcomt was racing the sedan through Quezon City last August when PDEA agents
shot him dead after a high-speed chase. The agency keeps the bullet-holed BMW
as a reminder of what it can achieve despite staffing and funding problems, and
despite the upward spiral of drug-related crime in the Philippines.
The PDEA employs about 600 agents, but estimates it needs three times that
figure to win the battle against drug trafficking in the Philippines, which is
worth an estimated 300-400 billion pesos
a year (US$6-8 billion). The Philippines has in recent years become a regional
hub for drug syndicates from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well as the
southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.
Shabu, a methamphetamine notorious throughout Southeast Asia, is
manufactured in the Philippines, which has also become a major transshipment
point for drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana that are made abroad.
This is partly due to the country's geography: the Philippines is an
archipelago of 7,100 islands that has historical trade links with Southeast
Asia and China. The narcotics problem is made worse by widespread corruption
and a lack of the government resources needed to police borders.
The PDEA's director general, Dionisio R Santiago, says Chinese drug syndicates
have made the Philippines their hunting ground. "In terms of drug trafficking,
the Chinese are everywhere," he said. Seven large international drug syndicates
are active in the country, apart from over 200 domestic outfits, according to
Derrick Carreon, the PDEA's press officer.
Shabu is made in small "kitchen" labs capable of making three kilograms
of methamphetamine crystals each day. The laboratories became smaller and more
discreet after the PDEA began working with China's tough Narcotics Control
Commission (NNCC) in 2006.
Beijing stepped in because shabu was being smuggled into China. PDEA
chief Santiago says his agency was unable to stop the flow. "Our country lacks
the resources to patrol the coast and these syndicates try to use the
opportunity." He says that working with the Chinese authorities is "complex".
"They do not allow us to interview the Filipinos in Chinese jails, a procedure
that is common between other countries. This is a pity because inmates will
always talk more easily with officers from their own country than with the
Chinese," said Santiago, a retired general.
Louis, a former shabu addict and drug dealer from Malolos, a city two
hours north of Manila, says that while pushers are usually Filipinos, the
people in charge are mostly Chinese.
"They are never seen because they are well protected by corrupt politicians,
policemen or judges. I had a 'protector' at the police station, an agent who
stopped others catching me," said Louis.
Cindy D Ang, executive director of Philcadsa, an anti-drug coalition of 20
non-governmental organizations, says corruption is partly to blame. "If there
is a culture of corruption at all levels, as in the Philippines, drug-related
criminality spreads faster."
A number of high-profile politicians in the Philippines have been implicated in
the drug trade.
Last February, Le Peng Wee, a cabinet secretary under former president Joseph
Estrada, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug smuggling. A month
earlier the director general of the Philippine National Police during the
Estrada era, Panfilo Lacson, fled to Hong Kong after an arrest warrant was
issued for alleged links to Chinese drug lords.
Santiago says Philippine crime syndicates have connections with Chinese mafias
because China "is currently the biggest market" for drugs.
In December 2009, Chinese authorities tipped off authorities in the Philippines
about a ship carrying two tons of cocaine that was passing through the
Philippines' territorial waters on its way to China. Two tons of cocaine would
have a street value of around US$350 million. Though the ship's crew was
alerted and dumped most of the shipment overboard, the PDEA was still able to
seize 300 kilograms of cocaine.
Aside from collaborating on stopping shipments, the Philippines and China also
have to deal with nearly 200 Filipinos currently jailed in China for drugs
smuggling. Among the 66 facing the death penalty are 53 women. The PDEA say
they are likely from poorer families and were duped into becoming drug mules.
Almost all Filipino drug carriers are recruited by Africans, especially
Nigerians, according to the PDEA. Santiago says that West African syndicates
are established in the country and receive shipments from Africa. They persuade
or fool poorer Filipinos into becoming drug mules, promising them jobs abroad.
"We have encountered situations where the African dealer was introduced to
girls' families as a boyfriend or even a priest devoted to finding job
opportunities for young Filipinos," said Carreon.
However, when asked about the status of these women by Asia Times Online,
officials from China's NNCC said they were too busy to discuss the case and
"this is information that we can't make public".
Santiago also told Agence France-Presse in January that his agency has received
reports that Muslim rebels use drug profits to fund their insurgency.
Santiago said drug laboratories had also been found in areas where separatist
Muslim guerrillas were operating, with some 30 million pesos worth of marijuana
seized on another southern island from the Abu Sayyaf group of rebels in 2008.
"Just imagine how many guns that money could buy for the Abu Sayyaf," Santiago
told the news agency.
Cristian Segura is a European journalist based in Beijing.