While 1.2 million Filipinos await the inauguration of their new president on 30 June, one of his main policies – a nationwide eradication on the country’s illegal-drugs trade – is already being implemented.
Since Rodrigo Duterte’s sweeping presidential election victory on 8 May, at least 40 suspected members of drug rings have been killed – one more than the total for the preceding four months. Fire fights between police and drug dealers have taken place in Manila, Bohol, Bulacan, Cebu, Laguna and Rizal.
Throughout his campaign, Duterte promised to rid the country of its drug menace within six months, and judging from these events it looks like he and his Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Ronald dela Rosa, intend to waste no time in delivering on that promise. Dela Rosa has said that the recent killings took place during legitimate police operations.
In May, an anti-drug task force demolished more than US$192,000-worth of illegal drug-production equipment on the outskirts of Metro Manila. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which has destroyed over US$170 million-worth of illegal drugs since 2012, has pledged to intensify its crackdown under Duterte’s leadership.
Meanwhile, dela Rosa and incoming Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, are already collaborating on tackling another drug-related problem – New Bilibid Prison, a maximum security facility in Muntinlupa City in the southern reaches of the capital.
Covering 551 hectares and housing 20,000 inmates, it is the country’s largest penitentiary. It is also rife with drugs and is a centre of the illegal-drugs trade – dealing and manufacturing – in its own right. Some of the country’s most notorious drug lords are incarcerated there, and from there continue to conduct their businesses – with the help of prison personnel.
It’s an open secret in the Philippines that PNP officers and Bureau of Corrections staff have been heavily involved in the illegal drug trade for years. At New Bilibid Prison, this working arrangement has virtually gone on unchecked.
Aguirre and dela Rosa intend to change all that, and the PNP chief has promised to deploy 1,000 members of his Special Action Force to replace New Bilibid’s jail guards while investigations into the conduct of Correctional Bureau workers is carried out.
Aguirre will also be investing in more than US$200,000 worth signal jammers from Israel to prevent prisoners from carrying out drug transactions on electronic devices. He has said that he will use “shock and awe” to clean out Bilibid which he has described as a drug haven. A major reshuffle of the prison’s administration is expected very soon.
Duterte has told the country’s drug lords that he will have zero tolerance for anyone dealing in drugs: “I have no patience, I have no middle ground,” he said.
That message has got through to New Bilibid inmates who are denying any knowledge of the US$1.09 million assassination contracts that have been put out on both Duterte and dela Rosa – though it’s believed the bounties are worth far more than that. Sixteen prisoners signed a letter which was sent to outgoing DOJ secretary, Emmanuel Caparas, claiming ignorance of any contract and adding that “such rumours about bounty” were being spread to win over public support for any future action taken against them. They feared that it could be a “conspiracy” to silence them.
The Philippines drug problem is considerable. Shabu, a methamphetamine more commonly known outside the Philippines as ‘ice,’ is the country’s overwhelming drug of choice. Official estimates for shabu users in the Philippines are put at around 8.5 million, 8.3% of the population. The drug is imported from other Asian countries, including China, Japan and South Korea as well as from Mexico. There is also domestic production for home consumption and for export. In the 2009 World Drug Report, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Philippines, along with China and Myanmar, accounted for most of the world’s production of methamphetamine since the start of the millennium. The 2015 World Drug Report estimates that users in Luzon and Mindanao who inject drugs, have an HIV infection rate of between 25% and 50%. The Philippines is also a longstanding marijuana grower.