“You are corrupt to the core,” the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, said to his own police force after announcing he would be indefinitely halting his controversial war on drugs to tackle endemic corruption within the Philippine national police.
This is following the death of South-Korean businessman, Jee Ick-joo, who was left strangled in the grounds of Camp Crame, the police force’s headquarters, after a bungled kidnap and interrogation attempt by anti-drugs officers.
The breather this reprieve is offering is a choice time to look at just how bad the Philippines’ drug problem is, especially after Duterte has been accused of rabble-rousing populism, having inflated drug use statistics in his speeches, almost doubling the number of Filipino users from 1.8 to 3 million.
But to make sense of the Philippines’ new starring role in south-east Asia’s calamitous and violent war on drugs, you have to understand how the region became one of the largest consumers of methamphetamine in the first place.
Meth’s status as the overwhelming drug of choice in south-east Asia is thought to stem not from a need for recreational drugs and escapism, but rather as a result of poverty meeting the cultural weight of maintaining an “Asian” work ethic. In an analysis of meth users in Manila by the Philippines’ Dangerous Drugs Board, the lion’s share of users shown were young men, living in poverty and working long hours.
Rates of usage were startlingly high among bus and taxi drivers, no doubt struggling to stay awake in Manila’s purgatorial traffic. Speaking to Filipino users, though they get some respite from their reality with occasional bouts of euphoria, for the most part, meth (known locally as “shabu”) is just the pragmatic option: a cost-effective solution to having no food to eat but feeling the need to work until you drop.
The role geography plays is not one to be undermined either. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of methamphetamine’s main ingredient – pseudoephedrine – and south-east Asia has provided a convenient playground for formidable Chinese drug syndicates to set up shop with the raw materials.
While Mexico has the Sierra Madre mountains for cartels to disappear into, south-east Asia is a cluster of jungle land with miles of unguarded coastline, making it near impossible to track the passage of drugs for any meaningful amount of time. The authorities feel they’re chasing ghosts.
In the Philippines’ sprawling archipelago of 7,641 islands, when meth lab busts do happen, they are often large, well-oiled operations that prove the days of south-east Asia as just a transit point rather than a place of production are long gone.
However, of the tangle of issues that has had the region teetering on the edge of a drug epidemic for the last decade, the hangover of European colonisation may be the most powerful.
All of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries cling onto the two pillars of the colonial period: a fondness for rampant corruption and despotic laws that favour criminalisation over rehabilitation, both of which have kept the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime despairing. So while the Philippines has comparatively softer laws for major narcotic crimes compared with its neighbours, what it lacks in capital punishment it makes up for with almost awe-inspiring levels of drug-related corruption. And it is corruption that goes above and beyond sticky-fingered police officers, and into its own much murkier world of Filipino narco-politics.
Local news reports of politicians found to be directly funded by drug money are so frequent, widespread and often absurd it’s hard to know where to begin. One mayor, from Quezon, was convicted for using a local ambulance to transport 500kg of methamphetamine to Manila. And then there was the local official who stored meth in town halls and churches.
In 2015, an exasperated Ch Insp Roque Merdegia of the Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force, who headed up the worrying arrest of a suspected Sinaloa cartel member in Manila, said with no uncertainty that many of the elected officials going into the 2016 presidential elections would be doing so on drug-money dollar. Even the fervour with which so many of the Philippine police carried out extrajudicial killings is suspect. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority were not driven by a desire to crack down on drugs, but rather racing to silence those that might expose them or their politician pals as drug pushers themselves.
So while Duterte’s reprimanding of and promise to cleanse the country of crooked cops and officials will only add to his popularity among common Filipino people, I wonder if this is a fight he will stand by as firmly as his ferocious war on drugs. The deaths of more than 7,000 addicts and low-level dealers is one thing, but ruffling the feathers and incomes of the country’s most powerful? That’s an entirely different battle, and one Duterte should make sure he is squeaky clean for, because the most sinister thing about the Philippines’ drug problem is not wild addiction statistics, but that there could be proof that corruption is endemic.
Joanna Fuertes-Knight is a British-Filipina filmmaker and journalist. She has produced documentaries for VICE and BBC, with a focus on race, women’s health and the politics of South East Asia.