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The Narco- and Necro-Politics of the Philippine Drug War

February 22, 2018

By Shannon Bush

One of the questions from the audience following Vince Rafael’s February 13th talk, “Humanizing the Inhuman: Photographing the Philippine Drug War,” concerned allegations that Duterte and his inner circle profit from collaboration with Chinese narcotics syndicates, using their position to allow the importation of methamphetamine into the country.  Clandestine meth labs operate on ships anchored offshore; the finished product is then transported to land by smaller vessels and transferred to trucks that offload at casinos serving as the first point of distribution.  Casinos are exempt from the Philippines’ money-laundering laws, providing protection for owners complicit in drug trafficking and offering a plausible way to account for and process large amounts of cash.  Duterte’s demeanor toward China, hospitable even when the countries’ interests conflict, is viewed with suspicion, similar to Trump’s unwillingness to stand up to Russia.

In the mid- to late-1990s, when most methamphetamine being imported into the US was coming in to California, one source of supply for Mexican drug cartels of the chief raw ingredient ephedrine was China where Ephedra sinica grows native in the north.  Although other varieties grow throughout the world, China’s lax enforcement made harvesting and shipping enormous quantities possible.  As addicts in the US quickly learned, pseudoephedrine is a perfectly viable substitute and China’s approximately 80,000 chemical producers are able to supply it as well. Today, China has become the world’s largest producer of pseudoephedrine and is still producing raw ephedrine, with 31.6 tons seized in 2014. Also in 2014, members of the Sinaloa cartel were arrested in a drug raid in Manila in which Chinese affiliates were implicated, indicating that the connections between Chinese syndicates (the Triad groups) and Mexican cartels are still in place.  The raid came within days of the seizure of three tons of methamphetamine in Guangdong province where 14 local officials were among the 182 arrested.

Students of East and Southeast Asian history are aware of the profits that colonial governments made through the drug trade.  The Dutch made a monopoly out of their importation and distribution of opium in Java for almost three-hundred years; by the mid-nineteenth century, the opium monopoly dominated all other revenue farms and concessions.  “Opium underwrote a significant portion of Holland’s colonial enterprise (from 15 to 20 percent annually).” [1]  But it’s not just the direct consequences of addiction that comprise the greatest danger to a society whose governing officials are complicit in the drug trade.  In Java an underworld grew up around the opium trade that bred violence, corruption, and ethnic division.  At the same time, Dutch colonial officials were more and more willing to turn a blind eye as opium revenue poured in.  To those in command, “opium revenues reflected general prosperity and … general prosperity was a reflection of prudent and wise administration.”[2]

Duterte denies all allegations that he has conspired with narcotics syndicates, but multiple arrests of local officials in drug raids prove that government acquiescence exists at some level.  Whether or not connections are present at the highest levels of his administration, the damage to society is pervasive and complete.  The extreme violence of Duterte’s “war on drugs” is the most conspicuous manifestation (as Dr. Rafael put it, Duterte’s “narco- and necro-politics”), but as Adrian Alarilla described in his account of a recent trip to Manila, the Duterte regime has divided Filipino society by creating an Other that is so reviled that death with impunity is permissible.  The Guardian article referenced above points out that the vast majority of users are young men working long hours but unable to climb out of poverty.  Duterte endows the murders with an overall meaning that obscures the country’s considerable economic inequality and shifts blame to the poorest and most marginalized.  That a sizeable portion of the populace needs to believe that it’s somehow protected from falling into the same straits is well illustrated by Adrian’s cab driver’s angry outburst.  Duterte is peddling hatred over despair.


[1] James R. Rush, “Social Control and Influence in Nineteenth Century Indonesia: Opium Farms and the Chinese of Java,” Indonesia, vol. 35, no. 35 (1983), p. 61.

[2] Ibid., pp. 61-62.