Government News Analysis

Crime wars in a queue

With crime battlegrounds on several fronts – drugs, illegal gambling, public and corporate corruption –  Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, has decided to fight them one at a time. Right now the war on drugs is his administration’s key focus. And all available resources – financial and manpower – are being focused on a scourge that has bled the economy, trapping hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Filipinos in a world of addiction, crime, poverty and violence.

The government is not ignoring the illegal gaming industry largely centred on jueteng, a numbers racket that has flourished in the Philippines since the 1800s; his crime task forces are closing operations down wherever they find them. Virtually, though, this war has been put on hold and Duterte has said as much. He believes that if law enforcement goes after that target at the same time as cracking down on illegal drugs, the police will lose focus and be stretched too thin.

In its war on drugs the government is already overstretched. Duterte has said that if he used every peso available to him, it would still be tough to beat an enemy that is so well-resourced and so well-equipped.

It’s not just about defeating the drug lords – Drugs war moves up the food chain – and their armies of salesmen across the archipelago; the critical need is to break the supply chain bringing drugs into the country. We believe that in this effort he will be looking to form a coalition of neighbours: the Philippines’ partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, particularly next-door countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, – it’s likely this issue was discussed at their Trilateral Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Bali last week – as well as Australia, Japan and most probably China.

If he can get their help to prevent the drugs flooding into the Philippines – much of the supply of the main narcotic, shabu, a methamphetamine, is produced on factory ships in international waters and brought ashore at points along a largely unsecured coastline – local law enforcement can better tackle the drugs chain on land. It’s clear that this war cannot be won without cutting off the inward supply.

Certainly, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and their affiliates have made some major in-roads into dealing with the problem – a problem that was seriously understated by the previous two administrations. Since early June, 600,000 addicts have surrendered to the police and 4,400 arrests have been made. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, there have been 485 drug-related killings by law enforcement in the month since Duterte was sworn into office – a statistic that has left international rights groups and the Western media fuming. And up to 200 more have died at the hands of vigilante groups.

But condemnation of Duterte’s law-and-order policies by the Western media, liberty groups and foreign watchdogs will have zero effect – the president has identified illegal drugs in his country as the number one cause of communal criminality which has had a devastating effect on the lives of ordinary Filipinos for too long. The Philippines has become an open and extremely lucrative market for the shabu salesmen and unless it is dealt with now, he warns, it will get even worse and even more lives will be ruined.

But the successes have thrown up other problems: for example, how to deal with the human wave of detainees and convictions. There simply isn’t enough space in the Philippines’ prisons to accommodate them. The Bureau of Corrections currently operates seven penal facilities across the country, all of which are extended well beyond their intended capability.

These seven prisons combined have a capacity to house 16,000-inmates; presently they are home to some 42,000. Add to this the 85,000 held in detention by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and the number of people currently incarcerated in the Philippines judicial system is somewhere north of 101,000 (UN estimates put it close to 140,500). Meanwhile, a new state-of-the art super penitentiary in the Central Luzon province of Nueva Ecija which can house 27,000 prisoners has still not been approved under the Public-Private Partnership scheme.

Like the prisons, city jails where many who have been arrested are being detained – the BJMP population – are bursting at the seams. Quezon City Jail in Manila, for example – a facility intended to house 800 detainees – is currently home to 3,800. But, impractical though overcrowded jails might be, right now there is nowhere else to keep them. Bleating from naysayers aside, that’s the reality facing this administration.

And then there’s the custody bill. To feed all prisoners and detainees, the government currently spends slightly over US$1 for each per day. That equates to a monthly food bill of US$3.03-US$4.22 million. Last year’s federal budget to staff and run all prison and detention facilities was US$8.5 billion. But the sheer weight of detention numbers will also create a new set of logistical problems when it comes to bringing these cases to court.

Jueteng operators, meanwhile, have been put on notice; Duterte has told them he will dismantle their networks. Like drugs, jueteng prays on the poor and despite pledges from previous administrations to eradicate it, the game is as popular today as ever. Among the plunder charges which former president, Joseph Estrada was found guilty of in 2000, was receiving the proceeds of jueteng and relatives of former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were also alleged to have received jueteng cash.

Duterte has also directed Andrea Domingo, chairman of the government-owned Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation – the country’s biggest revenue earner after Tax and Customs – to cancel all online-gambling permits, saying that it is impossible to collect taxes on gaming transacted outside the Philippines.

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