President Arroyo’s order for an intensified campaign against the trade in illegal drugs in the next three months is likely to be popular. Drug abuse has become one of the country’s biggest problems, with the number of drug users estimated by the government at 3.4 million–or about 4 percent of the Philippine population of 78 million.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency also says that there are at least 13 transnational drug syndicates operating in the country, 175 local drug rings, and 45,000 pushers.

Drug abuse destroys users, divides and ruins families, and has been linked to crime, not all of them as petty as cell-phone snatching. The “drug-crazed” lower class criminal who kills for his habit and terrorizes entire neighborhoods has become only too familiar a figure in crime reports, and the police say that a growing number of people in prison, now 25 percent, are there for drug-related offenses.

In more respectable circles, among the middle class and the wealthy, as well as in the entertainment industries, where it’s regarded by some as chic, and by others as a necessity, drug use is also increasing and wreaking havoc on individual, family and community lives.

Most Filipinos know how illegal drugs have been proliferating. They know the damage drug abuse is inflicting on their lives and on their communities. They also know that the police are involved in the drug trade as protectors and even as members of drug syndicates. They would thus welcome real efforts to combat the drug trade and illegal drug use.

By “real efforts” they mean getting to the drug lords themselves, the policemen who protect them, and the government officials who, thanks to drug money, have managed to get themselves elected to local and—this from the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines—even national office.

President Arroyo’s June 18 announcement that she had ordered a three-month campaign against drugs was conspicuous for its focus on the latter. In a prepared statement, she referred to the need to expose and hunt down drug lords, “however high (sic) in the corridors of power they may be.”

The theme of “hunting down” those in government involved in the drug trade was echoed by Interior Secretary Jose Lina Jr., and later by ISAFP chief Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus. Both had attended the meeting on the drug problem with President Arroyo.

Lina said the police are in the process of amassing evidence against politicians involved in the drug trade. Corpus for his part warned that drug lords can capture government institutions and win positions in government, in an echo of his 2002 charges against Sen. Panfilo Lacson. Corpus, in fact, referred to a “national figure” as involved in the drug trade.

If this emphasis was conspicuous, so was the lack of any reference to the need to address police involvement in the drug trade as a critical factor in its continuing growth. Police Director General Hermogenes Ebdane limited his comments to the need for more and bigger prisons, since, he said, the country’s jails are already full and Mrs. Arroyo’s call for the three-month campaign, if successful, would mean a flood of prisoners.

It would be overly cynical to accuse President Arroyo and company of launching this campaign for the narrow political purpose of defaming Senator Lacson to prevent his election to the presidency in 2004.

Assuming they will take place, the 2004 elections are fast approaching, however. Within the next few months almost every act, policy, announcement, out-of-town trip, etc., of President Arroyo is likely to be construed as politically motivated. This is not only to be expected; it is also likely to be true.

The political angle in this announced campaign against drugs cannot be entirely dismissed. But it might serve some purpose useful to the long-suffering people of this country in that whatever links politicians, whether at the local or national level, have with the drug trade could be exposed and eventually cut, thus denying the drug lords the political protection everyone knows they enjoy. It is in the possibility of Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign’s indeed turning into a clone of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s own campaign against drugs in his country where a cautionary note is needed.

Mrs. Arroyo cited the supposed success of Premier Thaksin and, in fact, pointed out that the P1 billion she had allocated for the antidrug campaign was much less than the amount Thaksin had when he began the campaign.

The Thaksin campaign was indeed successful—if one accepts the Thai government’s claim that the 2,300 people killed during the campaign from February 1 to April 30 were all drug dealers, and if it has resulted in the destruction of the drug networks and the arrest of Thailand’s own drug lords.

The Thai drug campaign has, in fact, been described as “murderous” and “brutal” and the killing of the 2,300 as the doing of the police and the military. Most of those killed were ordinary people and were killed on mere suspicion on the streets, in their homes, and even while in police custody.

Thaksin has denied that his campaign was focused on killing suspected drug pushers, but he nevertheless described the killings as “a victory” in the antidrug campaign, which he launched on February 1 this year.

Observers have pointed out that many of those killed, if at all involved in drugs, were mere users and small-time dealers. They included children, as well as cases of mistaken identity. But in many instances, being identified as a dealer on the mere say so of anyone resulted in the “suspect’s” being killed.

What about the real drug lords with police, military and political connections? For the most part they received scant attention from the Thai police, and are still free to rebuild their networks, if these have been damaged at all, and to continue their trade.

The killing of the 2,300 people over three months, in a country where there are 400 murders a month, has been described as a gross human rights violation by much of the Thai press, as well as by human rights groups including Amnesty International.

Leading Thai journalists meeting with their Philippine, Indonesian and other Southeast Asian colleagues in a conference in Bali, Indonesia, in late February this year described the campaign as a distressing reversal of the human rights gains that had been achieved in Thailand over several decades of struggle against authoritarian rule.

One Thai journalist from Bangkok’s English-language daily The Nation said the brutality of the campaign was an indication of Thaksin’s own authoritarian instincts, and boded ill for the future of democracy in Thailand.

“Doing a Thaksin” in the anti-drug campaign thus means the usual recourse to “salvaging” or killing drug users and small-time dealers, handling the big drug lords with kid gloves, and ignoring the involvement of police officials in the drug trade. Only incidentally is there likely to be a difference in the Philippine version, and it’s because this happens to be the eve of an election year. That difference is the possibility that nonadministration politicians could eventually be prosecuted for involvement in the drug trade.

That possibility could mean some, but very limited, success for the campaign. It will not outweigh the evils of the probability that in the Philippine context, where there are the same problems with a weak justice system and a tradition of police and military “shortcuts” as in Thailand, “doing a Thaksin” will mean the killing of thousands of people on the streets, in their homes, and in police stations.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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