The Explainer: The blueprint for the ‘War on Drugs’

OPINION: The blueprint for the ‘War on Drugs’

The Explainer: By Manuel L. Quezon III

Posted at Sep 27 2016 11:08 PM | Updated as of Oct 04 2016 05:52 PM


A portion of a History Channel documentary on the killing of Pablo Escobar. The clip tackles Los Pepes, the vigilante death squad group with murky connections that went after Escobar’s network

WHEN Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the presidency, one of the things she turned her attention to was illegal drugs. It had taken on the character of a war involving national salvation. On July 4, 2001, she issued Letter of Instruction No. 1, s. 2001, with the following assertions that have remained consistent talking-points in officialdom ever since:

“[The] number of drug users increased at an alarming rate of about 300% per annum from only 20,000 in 1972 to about 1.7 Million regular users plus 3.5 million casual users nowadays…

“…the estimated value of illicit drug trade is now about P250-300 Billion per annum, 95% of which is in methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu being sourced from China, thereby resulting in billions of dollars worth of much needed and hard-earned foreign exchange going down the drain and even causing 70% of the heinous crimes, further clogging the dockets of the courts and congesting the jails, with additional 20,000 drug cases per annum;

“…the drug syndicates are now unlevelling both the economic and political playing fields, by investing their dirty money in businesses that could readily drive out of competition the legitimate businessmen who are investing legitimately-earned and borrowed money; and engaging in narco-politics of bankrolling with drug money the candidacies of many politicians who shall protect them, once installed in government…”

And so the first chapter in today’s “War on Drugs” began. As anyone who has watched the two seasons of Narcos will know by now, the War on Drugs is a dirty war where the good guys can end up difficult to tell apart from the bad guys. Or, put another way, it is such a dirty war, that success, to those fighting in it, requires dirty methods. Today, in the ongoing “War on Drugs,” a vigorous debate is ongoing on the methods used in the fight and their impact on society.

Recently in the House of Representatives, when Secretary of Justice Vitaliano Aguirre said that the infiltration of drugs into prisons began in 2013, a PNP officer (Magalong) corrected him, saying their intelligence said it began in 2001. Which raises the question: if raids took place under Leila de Lima but none of her predecessors from 2001-2010 mounted any raids (one FB post lists them as Artemio Tuquero, Hernando Perez, Merceditas Gutierrez,Simeon Datumanong, Raul Gonzalez, Agnes Devanadera and Alberto Agra), what was going on from 2001, when, by all accounts, the drug problem, in the eyes of the government, reached crisis proportions?

So this week, I would like explore how the ongoing efforts of the government, in national terms, are based on the efforts undertaken between 2001-2010. In fact, many of the same set of characters is involved; and many of the controversies over methods and means confronting us, today, originally arose and were heatedly discussed, during that nine-year period.

A month after President Arroyo declared an all-out effort against narco-politics, it became clear who the politicians she thought might be benefitting from it were. In August of 2001 –having taken over the presidency seven months before, and survived an uprising three months prior— the Economist reported that Victor Corpus, head of intelligence, had declared Panfilo Lacson (former head of the police under Arroyo’s predecessor, Estrada and by then a senator who ran on an anti-Arroyo platform), “involved in a plot by drug traffickers to take over the state.”

Corpus accused Lacson of money-laundering, of being a threat to national security because he might win the presidency in 2004, which would “submerge the Philippines in ‘narco-politics’.” A columnist observing the confrontation between the two –Corpus and Lacson— in September 2001 made the pointed observation.

Who wants “narco-politics”? But the thing won’t disappear by mere psy war, or propaganda. Corpus has brought a case against Lacson, and it startles me that almost a month after he did, all he can say when pressed for documents on Lacson’s money laundering, is, “Prove me wrong,” and “I did it to stop ‘narco-politics’ from engulfing government.” It won’t do.

Along the way, the charges and counter-charges created a contagion, as one pro-Corpus commentary pointed out in September, 2001:

“The twists and turns of the Corpus exposé touched on many undercurrents churning within our political system. It somehow has unleashed forces, which acquired lives of their own. Stray exposé bullets have hit other potential presidential candidates like Senators Loren Legarda and Noli de Castro. For some time, the topic shifted to Legarda when the issue was narco-politics and who appear to be involved.

“At this stage, several conclusions are already apparent.

“First, the PNP does not have anything resembling a credible Internal Affairs Department. In many other countries, the police investigate their own kind. Even if the charges against Lacson would prove to be baseless, the sheer gravity of narcopolitics should have commanded the attention of the PNP as an institution. The mere fact that it took military intelligence to do the investigation is a damning indictment of the PNP.

“Second, Corpus is making a political statement on the unreliability of our judicial system. He would have filed charges through our courts. Then again, the evidence he has gathered may not be ripe. Even if he did, Corpus is not naïve. In Colombia, judges who refuse to be persuaded by the drug lords are simply gunned down. And besides, he would have heard many of his lawyer-friends swear that the Philippines has the best judicial system that money can buy.

“Third, enough has been said about how the Senate behaved at the start. The text messages tell the story. Little does the Senate know that if someone started an organization of perceived victims of Senate hearings, they will find hundreds of military, police, career government officials, ordinary citizens eager to join. It will be group therapy to people who feel they were treated like dirt in their own country by some senators who were voted to be public servants only to act like arrogant royalty in Senate hearings.”

The quote above is lengthy because, if you go through it, the battleground today was outlined in that pro-Corpus post a decade ago. Procedures are secondary to intentions; the threat demands thinking outside the box; this is the people versus their officials.

The crusade dragged on, and the confrontation dragged on into the next year.

But in that year, 2002, a major piece of legislation was passed by Congress. President Arroyo then needed people to give teeth to the effort. Among those prominently considered were Alfredo Lim of Manila and Rodrigo Duterte of Davao (both would be approached by President Arroyo to either head, or be advisors to, her anti-drug campaign: Duterte in 2002, Lim in 2003). This search, and the battleground, was not taking place in isolation.

In 2003, there was an exciting example of fighting drugs: Thaksin’s Thailand. Exciting on two levels. First, the reasons to justify the war; and second, the rhetoric used and the methods that were employed. An extended extract from this report in 2013 will explain why:

“In January 2000, both then Royal Thai Army (RTA) commander General Surayud Chulanont and Thai Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Mongkol Ampornpisit inspected troops along the northern border. They were followed in early February by General Boonlert Kaewprasit, head of the RTA’s Narcotics Suppression Committee, who, after a three day tour of the (northern) Third Army Region stated that: “The situation is now quite critical and decisive action inevitable.”

“The impact of methamphetamine abuse in Thai society over the past several years has reached crisis proportions…The impact among youths and students has been most severe. A September 1999 survey of 32 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, including Bangkok, found that 12.4 per cent of youth in secondary and tertiary education were either using or dealing drugs and nearly 55 per cent of that group were using methamphetamines.

“A variety of insurgent groups inside Myanmar are involved in various drug production and trafficking activities… Some reports have stated that up to a billion tablets were smuggled into Thailand in 2003 from UWSA labs in Myanmar.

“The government estimated that three million Thais, or five percent of the population, were methamphetamine users… Between February and August 2003, over 51,000 arrests and 2000 extra-judicial deaths have occurred, causing worry among human rights watchers. Thaksin is still unsatisfied with the results and has threatened harsh action against Wa drug traffickers if Burma does not act. In addition, scandals have also brought police corruption to the public forefront; an issue in which Thaksin must contend…

“PM Thaksin’s campaign has decimated the drug market at the local drug trafficker and street-user level, but it has not reduced cross-border trafficking or attacked the drug trade’s higher elements. Additionally, his battle against “Dark Influences” has been ineffective, with few arrests of note. Thailand’s King has even tactfully admonished PM Thaksin for his ebullient trumpeting of a victory, when in fact the war is far from over. Burma and Laos are still major contributors to Thailand’s drug problem, and most major Thai druglords remain free. In fact, traffickers have simply changed routes or are storing their product in border areas awaiting a time for safe shipment..

“Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej… requested a full inquiry into all drug related deaths – a request celebrated by Human Rights and Health agencies. However the investigation is not going to be conducted by an independent source, so it is widely believed that the police and government agencies will be exonerated…

“While these country’s leaders are publicly accepting many of the plans for stemming drug flow from their countries, very little implementation has actually occurred. This has caused the PM to vacillate between rage at Burma and full support for Burma’s junta, much to the dismay of the United States. Additionally, drug production in these countries did not stop for Thailand’s war on drugs, though cross border trafficking was severely curtailed. According to some sources this resulted in around 800 million yaba tablets being stored along the Thai/Burma border waiting for the anti-drug pressure to subside. PM Thaksin has also begun a second war, this one a war on dark influences, aimed at eliminating the high level drug traffickers and the government personnel protecting or backing them. This war has had very few published successes as the financial and political backing of these influential people is deeply intertwined with Thaksin’s own government.”

The recipe then is as follows: 1. Declare an existential threat against society. 2. Demand that legalities have no place in the effort to extinguish that threat. 3. Escalate, always escalate, expanding the fight from drugdealers to “dark forces” in society itself, because to retreat is to lose the initiative, and to concede any error is tantamount to defeat.

The flaws are also apparent: Wiping out the infrastructure of druglords while leaving the druglords unscathed, only temporarily dries up supplies. Liquidating pushers and addicts creates its own problems, leading to unease within society and concern overseas; an aggressive posture against drugs requires continually pushing the envelope, which may end up more than society can bear –in which case the leader promoting the crusade will fall (for many other reasons, besides drugs).

In 2001, the year the present “War on Drugs” began, note the official figure cited by President Arroyo: 1.7 million regular users, 3.5 casual users; six years later (in 2007), midway through her second term as president, Al-Jazeera, reporting on crystal meth, would quote “official estimates suggest that about seven million people – almost 10 per cent of the population – use the drug.” You still found echoes of these numbers among administration supporters and other officials (Rep. Danilo Suarez, Senator Vicente Sotto III) as late as early 2009.

All the while, the government continued sounding the alarm. By 2008, PNP Director-General Jesus Verzosa was saying that narcotics was funding both Communist and Muslim rebels. Other officials echoed these claims.

But one thing stands out: the argument that while police and other operations did well, the problem was the courts (see this paper on how cases were built at the time, and the problems faced). That is, if cases even got to court. Where the “War on Drugs” ended up on choppy waters was when the zeal of officers collided with The System –either the laws themselves, or the people tasked with fulfilling the requirements of the laws.

On September 20, 2008, PDEA mounted a spectacular raid in a case that has come to be known as involving the “Alabang Boys.” It was during this brouhaha that Dionisio Santiago floated the trial balloon of making Gen. Jovito Palparan his deputy for “special concerns.” What is relevant here about this case, however, is that itcrystallized many of the issues that have been hotly debated about the “War of Drugs” ever since: on the part of law enforcers, their complaints that legal obstacles are thrown in the way of their operations and prosecutions; for the defense, assertions that the authorities are on the take; for the public, seesawing emotions triggered by the perception that justice works only for the rich, and that no one is clean or blameless in officialdom.

At the time, I made two comments on the whole thing:

1. It is wrong to put a civilian undertaking like law enforcement in military hands, the military mentality is incompatible with evidence-gathering and the prosecution of offenders; the reason the military’s colliding with civilians is that the vigilante-minded soldiers have been sent to run after drug dealers but in such a manner as to keep the truly powerful drug dealers beyond the reach of these soldiers; and so–

2. The whole issue is a sideshow because it parades parasitic socialites before the gallery (which always generates applause), but ignores the really powerful drug lords.

Writing in January 2009, John Nery could look not just at the ongoing controversy but the overall record of the anti-drug efforts over eight years of the Arroyo administration:

“Lost in all the noise is the enormous power of the beast that is coiled inside the law creating the PDEA.

“Tito Sotto, chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board as reconstituted by RA 9165, hinted at the stirrings of the beast, with his appeal for a return of the death penalty. PDEA Director-General Dionisio Santiago, once one of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s favorite generals and for five months Armed Forces chief of staff, let the ghostly cat out of the bag when he admitted that PDEA agents sometimes planted evidence. “We sometimes do this although this is against the rule of law. Definitely we only apply this matter to some cases, like a subject who is publicly known to be peddling drugs but always escapes arrest. This is when we enter the picture.”

“Now, the President’s impending appointment of Palparan, the so-called “Butcher” at whose whetting stone the Melo Commission laid the blame for some extrajudicial killings, to the DDB is the virtual pronouncement of the Arroyo administration’s new strategy, its own version of “narcopolitics.”

“Call it paranoia, but perhaps we should brace for a future where critics, whistle-blowers, just plain annoying people can be removed from (political or media) circulation with a timely dose of planted evidence.

“Note that Section 11 of RA 9165 provides that mere possession of “any dangerous drug” (the provision specifies the quantities) can result in “life imprisonment to death and a fine ranging from five hundred thousand pesos (P500,000.00) to ten million pesos (P10,000,000.00).”

Nery went on to reflect on the characters involved:

“For instance… PDEA’s chief legal counsel, Alvaro Bernabe Lazaro… triggered internal alarm bells. In particular, his attempt to raise the stakes by bringing in something Resado said about Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno in a phone conversation was shameless.

“After much hyping of the phone call, Lazaro then recalled Resado saying, “Pare, delikado, wag tayo sa telepono mag-usap. E kasi si Chief Zuno pumirma, e.” After insinuating proof of wrongdoing, he then said (I am recalling from memory): But I am not insinuating anything.

“Santiago is another flawed character. In 2005, he was charged before the Ombudsman with a graft case, based on a military probe alleging that after he had retired as AFP chief of staff he “defrauded the government” by depositing an P8-million check in his personal account…

“What about Marcelino? He remains unsullied by all the back and forth, a good man trying to do his best in a sordid though necessary job. But he strikes me asRuben Guinolbay redux: The Scout Ranger captain emerged a hero from theLamitan siege, but his personal bravery could not mask the reality that, in Lamitan, the Armed Forces suffered one of the worst debacles in its history.”

A chicken-or-egg situation, in other words. The law creating the Dangerous Drugs Board, and the PDEA itself, were powerful; but their usefulness depended on those not only heading the agencies, but whose work would not only lead to drug busts, but result in successful prosecutions; but overzealous but careless, or worse, policing would result in suspects being freed –provoking the police to a frenzy of shortcuts the next time around, and inspiring vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

At the same time, these officials would, in turn, be subject to the scrutiny of fellow law enforcers engaged in the same fight in other countries, who were providing training and support and who, in turn, had to justify that training and support to their bosses in other countries.

If you recall the series Narcos, the efforts of Colombia to fight the cocaine cartels, brought the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the United States into the fray. Suffice it to say that the DEA served as a model for our own PDEA, and that a relationship must exist between the two. Like any bureaucracy, the DEA had to justify its existence while at the same time fending off other agencies also competing for resources. Such is the nature of bureaucracies everywhere, and the intersection between the bureaucracies of different countries. This would explain the following.

In 2009, columnist Babes Romualdez who is widely considered the oracle to consult if one wants to understand Washington’s intentions towards the Philippines, wrote that CIA chief Leon Panetta’s visit to Manila was connected more to the war on drugs than the war on terror. This was my July 2009 summary of what Romualdez wrote:

“Romualdez also framed Panetta’s visit in terms of American official concern over the drug trade being connected to terrorist training. And in this regard, he drops some broad hints about big drug syndicates with connections to very powerful people. The whole narcopolitics angle has been brought up before, as a game-changer, together with gambling lord money, in local politics.

“Romualdez estimated the drug industry as a billion-peso-a-day one: that’s P365 billion a year or $7.5 billion. Enough to warrant American attention? The American DEA in 2006 estimated the value of the Columbian drug trade at $1.5 billion a year; Time Magazine in 2008 mentioned a $25 billion-a-year trafficking industry in Mexico; and an American naval officer’s proposed 2005 thesis estimated the global drug trade at $300-500 billion, although the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) estimated the world illegal drug market to range between $45 billion and $280 billion.

“The thing is, an administration that perpetually brags of its near-total dominance in the lower house, and governorships and mayorships, would necessarily end up saddled, by sheer force of probabilities, with more than its fair share of gambling and drug lord-funded allies. Surely an inconvenient thing to look into going into an election year.”

By then, President Arroyo had declared herself the anti-drug Czarina in January, 2009. Time was running out.There was an effort to put narco-politics front and center as a vital issue in national elections.

In March, 2010, Karl Wilson reported that President Arroyo had been given a list of politicians under investigation; her National Security Adviser, Norberto Gonzales said (in Wilson’s words) he’d “received a number of reports linking some congressmen, councillors and local government officials with drug syndicates or drug lords’; on the other hand, Secretary of National Defense Gilbert Teodoro said that “the problem does not involve politicians at the national level.” Nothing seems to have happened.

According to Senator Sotto, Dionisio Santiago, had put together a list of drug suspects in “less than a month,” and had submitted it to President Arroyo in the “third quarter of 2009.” Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento even made a public appeal to PDEA to publicize the list. President Arroyo did not release it; before the 2016 elections, Santiago claimed he gave it to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in 2010; by August, Santiago said he’d given it to President Aquino. It eventually got released by President Duterte himself, after which the problem became that the list contained mistakes. The result has been, as President Duterte said yesterday (September 27), that he’s had subsequent lists double, triple, even quadruple-checked.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, in an editorial quoted in Wilson’s report, observed, “The good news is no presidential candidate seems to be funded by drug money. The bad news: at the local level, in certain areas, illegal drugs continue to be the gift that keeps on giving — the influence of drug money is real; it makes business sense for operators to place or keep friendly politicians in office, and during elections not too many politicians bother to return cash donations.”

In March, 2010, I’d summarized different views on this:

“In 2008, political scientist Paul Hutchcroft pointed out that “As Philippine elections have become increasingly costly, they have encouraged politicians to become more creative in raising funds, whether through the promise of legislative and regulatory favors, real-estate scams, involvement in gambling syndicates, or links to drug lords and the underworld. In a surprisingly candid moment, Speaker Jose de Venecia said of the system: “It’s the drug lords and the gambling lords … who finance the candidates. So from Day One, they become corrupt. So the whole political process is rotten.” In February 2009, when spectacular bank robberies were hogging the headlines, I recalled Alex Magno’s reminder that the primary sources of political funding are: (1) Drug money; (2) Gambling money; (3) Quotas on customs and internal revenue bureaus; (4) The Philippine National Police.

“Aside from claims of police connivance in protection rackets, there are also allegations that warlords use political office to extort tribute from syndicates. The Ampatuans have been tagged as this type of warlords, but PDEA’s Dionisio Santiago remains tight-lipped, saying only that the agency had received reports about politicians in alliance with drug traffickers. Fr. Eliseo Mercado has gone as far as to state there have been four G’s operating in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: guns, goons, gold and Gloria: with President Macapagal-Arroyo’s patronage allowing the Ampatuans to become paramount warlords and untouchable so that no one could do anything if, indeed, they’d been acting as protectors of various syndicates – from smugglers, kidnappers to traffickers.”

Which only begs the question: whatever their honest intentions, did the 2001-2009 “War on Drugs” lose momentum because of the many other problems –and compromises— a government in survival mode had to make, so much so that the war itself petered out by 2010? Because to do otherwise would have been a political problem for the outgoing administration? Which raises, of course, a question bedeviling us to this day: if the cast of political characters in 2009 meant muting the “War on Drugs” to preserve some chance for the ruling coalition (then) to survive –well, didn’t that coalition instantly become the new ruling coalition in 2010 –and just as instantly, become the ruling coalition in 2016, that is, now?

Imagine that.

Earlier, in January 2009, I’d pointed out the ongoing “War on Drugs” at the time, with its lists, saturation drives, and other activities, still left other factors unaddressed. These were the following:

“The first is that foreign drug syndicates won’t engage in “technology transfer,” so chemists come and go, to cook up batches of the stuff.

“Have we heard of a concerted plan to increase the scrutiny of foreign arrivals, in cooperation with the drug agencies of foreign countries?

“The second, is that ephedrine is a necessary raw material. Tons of the stuff is imported under false pretexts.

“Have we heard from officialdom, first of all, how much ephedrine is required for legitimate purposes? Next, have we heard of any sort of scheme to beef up customs inspections, and fortify the system of permits and documentation? Have we heard of a doable plan to secure our coastlines, scrutinize private ports and docks, keep tabs on interisland shipping? Keep track of cargo manifests outside Metro Manila, in a country where Marina officials keep track of these things by scribbling data on yellow legal pad, which indicates the absence of a timely and reliable national database on interisland and international commerce?

“The third is, if you recall the saturation drives conducted by the armed forces in Luzon during the time of Palparan, and similar efforts undertaken in urban poor areas last year, one benefit people did point out, was that public disorder and things like the drug trade were dramatically affected by the saturation drives. And yet, we have not heard of any plan to integrate the police and armed forces in simply maintaining the high visibility of law enforcement agents, in a manner that inspires confidence and not unease, in the public. This is particularly true in far-flung provincial areas where the drug trade seems to be taking root as things get hot for the syndicates in the metropolis.

“The absence of a holistic picture, informed by facts which could be gleaned from a government that is looking at the big picture –interdiction, patrols, scrutiny, as well as the more dramatic rounding up of petty pushers– is why we ought to consider whether this is really a serious effort to fight the Drug Menace…”

Regarding my observations from 2009, this recent news UN: China synthetic drugs trade ‘out of control’ suggests that the President’s announcement just yesterday, that he intends to raise concerns over the drug trade with China, is a good step.

At this point, reviewing 2001-2010, many of these observations and the back-and-forth over the nine years of the Arroyo administration should sound uncannily familiar to you, the gentle reader. As a final review, here they are:

First, regardless of intentions, the anti-drug effort is only as good as the characters (and competence) of those involved; a case in point would be Dionisio Santiago, who has continued to provide President Duterte with lists (since then, the President has sensibly decided to double, triple, and even quadruple-check evidence to avoid mistakes).

Second, the same problems with law enforcement keep cropping up, such as the planting or manipulation of evidence by government agents, or the huge problem of cases either being dismissed due to due process not being followed, or weak evidence, or outright corruption in the judicial process (when it isn’t agonizingly slow).

Third, accusations that liquidations had became part and parcel of fighting the drug menace (Palparan would then move on to going after Communists), which raised grave constitutional (read: human rights!) and ethical concerns about such methods.

Most of all, the “War on Drugs” of today had its origins in the first decade of this century; the same concerns raised when it first began, continue to be causes of concern today.

Yesterday, during his press conference in Arayat, Pampanga, President Rodrigo Duterte told the public to look at previous statistics to get the real score on the drug situation from 2010-2016. This is what we will be doing next week.

(This is part 1 of 2 parts. Part 2, looking at statistics over the past ten years, next week)
Additional Readings:

President Duterte’s author of choice on Narco-related matters, Ioan Grillo, discussing his work in a 2013 Center for Investigative Journalism event)

Insights into the motivations and methods of the current campaign can be found inShiela Coronel’s piece on President Duterte in The Atlantic, while President Duterte, as Mayor, gave an extended interview to Carol Arguillas of MindaNews in 2001: the three part interview was recently republished by PCIJ.

This article makes reference to observations I made in my blog in 2008 andJanuary 26, 2009, January 28, 2009, see: ; and my columns on , , February 16, 2009, July 12, 2009, March 3, 2010; and The Explainer for February 16, 2009;

Also, answers I gave to a foreign journalist last August can be found here.

Concerning potential models for anti-drug efforts, front and center would be that of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. A useful overview of his career is The Story of Thaksin Shinawatra by Richard Lloyd Parry. See also Nautilus Institute’s The Downfall of Thaksin Shinawatra’s CEO-state. How Thailand has learned from that experience is explored in Philip Bowring’s Thailand’s Novel Approach to Drugs Could Offer Lesson to Neighbors.

For the United States, China, and the drug trade, see: Solving Southeast Asia’s Drug Problem: Drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle is not just a law enforcement issue by Brian Eyler.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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