THERE has been no letup in President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats to kill drug users and dealers. Yet, near daily news reports of arrests and seizure of drugs in Cebu, sometimes from new players, mean the threats have failed to dampen interest in the illegal trade.
From July 2016 to March 2018, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested 13,603 people in anti-illegal drug operations in Cebu, 300 of them minors. Another 229 persons were killed in its anti-illegal drug operations, none of them minors, the Police Regional Office (PRO) 7 said.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) 7 and other units arrested another 669 persons from July 2016 to January 2018.
The agency, which collects data on operations by PDEA and other law enforcement units, said 52 of the people arrested in Cebu from July 2016 to January 2018 were government employees, including barangay officials, law enforcers and administrative workers.
Eleven drug personalities were killed in PDEA’s anti-drug operations in Cebu in the same period, which saw law enforcers confiscating some 80,000 grams of methamphetamine hydrochloride, locally known as shabu, with an estimated market value of P400 million.
Yet, illegal drugs remain pervasive.
“Of the country’s 81 provinces, Cebu is the 14th most drug affected,” said PDEA 7 Director Emerson Margate.
As of January, 1,024 of the 1,203 barangays in Cebu (including Cebu, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu cities) remained drug affected, the agency said.
Of the 1,066 barangays covered by the Cebu Provincial Anti-Drug Abuse Office (Cpadao), only 23 were unaffected, said Cpadao executive director Carmen Remedios Durano-Meca.
She said 522 barangays were moderately affected, 521 slightly affected, while 160 had been “declared drug-cleared by the Oversight Committee led by the PDEA and also composed of the Department of Health, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) 7, PNP and the representative of the province, which is the Cpadao.”
The Dangerous Drugs Board defines “slightly affected” as having a reported presence of drug user/s, and “moderately affected” as having a reported presence of drug pusher/s and/or user/s.
Who is to blame for the intractable illegal drug problem?
There are the sellers of drugs, the buyers, and law enforcers who fail to rein in, and at times even participate in, the lucrative trade.
Even if 51 police officers in Central Visayas were subjected to investigation in March 2017 for lavish lifestyles unexplained by their salaries, and even if former and active cops have been nabbed for drug peddling in Cebu in the last two years, the PRO 7 said its Oplan Tokhang did not include visits to the homes of its own policemen.
“When we address the fight against drugs, both demand reduction and supply reduction have to be addressed,” Meca said. “Cpadao is focused on the demand reduction side, which is prevention through education. That’s why we are focused on strengthening the anti-drug abuse councils, implementation of the national programs that will be implemented by DepEd, the social welfare, by the health unit, by the DILG. We believe educating our constituents will lead them away from trying illegal drugs.”
Chicken and egg
It’s been a chicken-and-egg issue for the stakeholders in the fight.
In July 2017, then newly appointed PRO 7 Director Jose Mario Espino sought the help of the Department of Health and Department of Education on demand reduction activities against illegal drugs, saying, “Even if we in the PDEA and PNP vigorously work on supply reduction, if we don’t address the demand, supplying drugs will continue to be a lucrative business.”
The Cpadao’s Meca, however, said law enforcers should intensify their fight against drugs by focusing on the big players to stop the supply of drugs once and for all.
“How can you stop the supply if you’ll get only those street pushers and users? Definitely, if the government goes after the big fish, the supply will stop,” she said.
“Our ports are not even monitoring the ins and outs of this supply. That is where law enforcement units should focus, on drug trafficking. Where do the drugs really come from? Have we determined the presence of any drug lab here in the province? Or is it transported through our ports? When they say the supply is from Bilibid (prison in Muntinlupa City), how did it enter our province?” she asked.
Though Meca acknowledged that law enforcers were working on the problem, as shown by the number of anti-drug operations they had conducted, she said: “Mag-unsa man sila og magsige og operate, nga dili man mahurot ang supply (there will never be an end to their operations for as long as the supply is endless). The big players continue to be in business. That’s why the supply continues to come in,” she said.
Commission on Human Rights (CHR) 7 special investigator Leo Villarino agreed with Meca, saying: “Actually, it’s useless killing all the drug users because drug users come every day. But if you will go to the source of the drugs, if there is no longer the supply, there will no longer be the demand.”
Nationwide, 20,322 people have been killed in the war against drugs, according to the Duterte administration’s yearend report, which said 3,967 drug personalities had been killed in anti-illegal drug operations from July 1, 2016 to Nov. 27, 2017 while 16,355 homicide cases were under investigation.
The CHR 7 is investigating 100 drug-related alleged extra-judicial killings in Central Visayas committed from July 1, 2016 to March 23, 2018.
“Now, we are seeing a lot of users and small-time pushers arrested or gunned down. There are many more small-time pushers being apprehended than big-time pushers. Granting there are fewer big-time pushers, if they are only few in number, why can’t they be caught?” Villarino asked.
He did not buy the authorities’ explanation that they didn’t know who the suppliers were.
“I don’t believe that,” Villarino said. “That’s failure, or lack of use, of intelligence. Government is providing so much in intelligence funds. So why is our intelligence community able to provide only the names and identities of small-time users and pushers, but not the names of big-time pushers? We have resources to do buy-busts, and secure search warrants and arrest warrants against small-time pushers. But are we seeing day-to-day operations against big-time pushers? We hardly hear of that.”
Margate replied that as the lead agency in the implementation of the anti-illegal drugs law, it was “a priority of PDEA, with the support of other law enforcement units, to go after high-value targets and conduct high-impact operations.”
He said that in the first quarter of this year, more than seven kilos of shabu had been confiscated in Central Visayas “and major target-listed drug personalities” had been apprehended.
He said PDEA was also coordinating with the Anti-Money Laundering Council and PDEA’s foreign counterparts for other bigger operations, “such as the financial investigations against suspected drug lords and protectors and the recent dismantling of drug laboratories in Batangas and Malabon.”
Margate said there was no monitored existence of a shabu laboratory in Cebu. Rather, drug personalities were using weak spots in the region to transport illegal drugs.
So PDEA has signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Maritime Industry Authority to deputize the PDEA to inspect domestic and international maritime vessels and public and private ports nationwide.
“A MOA was also signed between PDEA, the Philippine Air Force, Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources for joint anti-illegal drug operations in Philippine high seas to stop shipside smuggling,” he added.
Margate said PDEA would establish offices with K9 units in key seaports nationwide in addition to existing PDEA offices in the country’s major airports.
It is also augmenting its manpower. As of February, the PDEA 7 had only 55 agents guarding the 3,003 barangays in Central Visayas.
But then drug lords would not be able to continue doing business, if not for the endless supply of people willing to work for them as pushers.
In July 2016, Nestor Maghanoy, 55, a former barangay street sweeper, was caught by authorities repacking 50 grams of shabu in a shanty in Barangay Mabolo, Cebu City.
Just weeks earlier, lured by the promise of a job, he had surrendered under Oplan Tokhang. “We were told we would be given jobs, so we kept waiting,” he said in Cebuano.
When the job did not come, he returned to selling drugs because he needed to eat, he said.
Last September, Ricardo Cabanes, 50, also a surrenderer, was nabbed in Cebu City. He said he had to resume selling drugs so he could buy the maintenance medicines that prevented his epileptic son from having seizures.
Some 57 Tokhang surrenderers in Cebu have been nabbed in anti-drug operations after their surrender.
“The bottomline is still poverty,” Meca said. “Because the drug trade is where the easy money is, and most small street pushers are able to earn enough to meet the daily needs of their families. If you talk about P200 or P300, that’s already food for their family for the whole day. So poverty and education are really the two main factors. That is why Governor (Hilario) Davide (III) always emphasizes that in terms of illegal drugs, it has to be a shared responsibility. Everybody has to work together to address it, not just the local government and the PNP,” she said.
The Cebu Provincial Government has banner projects for 2017-2019 to reduce poverty, including the setting up of a Technical Education and Skills Development Authority Center in each of the 51 towns and cities it supervises, the building of 2,000 classrooms, the increase in crop and livestock production, and the setting up of one economic zone per district for countryside development, according to the Provincial Planning and Development Office.
But it is unclear by how much this will reduce the poverty incidence in Cebu.
Most drug affected
Asked which Cebu barangays are the most drug-affected, PDEA 7 listed the following, based on the number of anti-illegal drug operations it conducted from July 2016 to January 2018 in coordination with other law enforcement units: Subangdaku, Mandaue City; Mactan, Lapu-Lapu City; Tangke, Talisay City; Gun-ob, Lapu-Lapu City, and Calamba, Cebu City.
The agency also provided a list of Cebu barangays with the most number of Tokhang surrenderers during this period. (See list below.)
Top 5 barangays in Cebu in number of anti-illegal drug operations conducted*
1. Subangdaku, Mandaue City
2. Mactan, Lapu-Lapu City
3. Tangke, Talisay City
4. Gun-ob, Lapu-Lapu City
5. Calamba, Cebu City
*Anti-illegal drug operations by PDEA 7 and coordinated by other law enforcement units, including buy-bust operations, implementation of search and arrest warrants, checkpoints, in flagrante delicto operations etc., from July 2016 to January 2018
Source: Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency 7
“In some of the barangays mentioned, poverty may be considered as one reason why peddling of illegal drugs is rampant, as some resort to the illegal trade for profit. However, some involve themselves in the drug business to support their own drug use; profit is just a secondary motivation,” Margate said.
He said different factors affect a barangay’s drug affectation. Some barangays, for instance, are used as transshipment points: “This is evident in arrests and seizures during the conduct of checkpoints in different areas in the province.”
He said the country’s illegal drug problem was complex and that supply reduction was only one part of the solution.
“Equally important is the expeditious and successful prosecution of cases, the treatment and rehabilitation of drug users, and the unrelenting effort of all stakeholders geared toward advocacy and demand reduction,” he said.
In Barangay Marigondon, Lapu-Lapu City, Barangay Councilor Jovito Espinosa bared the challenges of keeping its Tokhang surrenderers away from the drug trade.
“The main problem is poverty, especially since they have experienced that there is an easy way to earn money. Masilawan og kuwarta, so naay panahon nga mobalik (The gleam of the money lures them back to the trade). Our Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Council is monitoring them,” he told SunStar.
“I want to give them jobs in Marigondon, but we have no budget. But we have listed the names of the surrenderers, so if someone looks for people to employ, they are the ones we will refer,” he said.
Espinosa said efforts to rid the village of drugs continue.
“There are only two sitios left in Marigondon that still have drugs. The problem is that if the adjacent barangays don’t closely monitor their people, that they don’t sell drugs, then people will go there to buy drugs. Especially Cordova (town), people buy drugs there,” he said.
Cordova is only five kilometers from Marigondon, said Espinosa.
He cited the Lapu-Lapu City Jail in Sitio Soong, Barangay Mactan as another source of drugs.
Under Oplan Tokhang, police have visited 799,361 households in Cebu. With the 2015 Census of Population showing there were 1,077,223 Cebu households, this means they have covered nearly 75 percent of all homes in Cebu.
Yet the drug pushers still keep coming.
“Higher levels of income inequality are known to encourage drug trafficking,” according to the World Drug Report 2017 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Organized crime looks attractive where corruption, high levels of poverty and high levels of youth unemployment exist, James Cocayne and Phil Williams said more specifically in their 2009 paper on drug trafficking in West Africa.
They put 15-24 years old as “the age at which young men are most likely to be involved in criminal activity and to pose a threat to stability.”
Youth unemployment is “extremely high” in the Philippines, according to the National Economic and Development Authority, which put youth (15–24 age group) unemployment at 14.4 percent in 2017, more than double the country’s overall unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.
Focus on the poor
When then PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa issued Command Memorandum Circular 2016-16 launching Project Double Barrel, which comprises (a) Project Tokhang, where police visit homes of suspected drug personalities to ask them to stop their illegal drug activities, and (b) Project High Value Target, where police conduct operations against drug personalities and syndicates to eradicate drug distribution from the street to the national level, he cited the “worsening drug problem that has victimized mostly the underprivileged and impoverished sector of the society.”
And yet police operations seem to focus on the underprivileged and impoverished, making them the victims of the war on drugs instead of the people the war was intended to save.
Why is this so? The answer lies in the circular itself.
Explaining the reason for the police campaign, the circular says, “Apparently, in the quest to go after high level drug traffickers, the government seems to have overlooked the worsening drug problem at the grassroots level.”
Woe then to the poor, already at risk on both sides, of becoming potential client and peddler of drugs.
Seduced by the promise of an escape from their wretched existence, they eventually find in drugs not freedom, but a new master, and now—a reason to become a target for eradication instead of rescue.