THE immediate trigger of the Maute Group-led attack on Marawi City last May 23 was the military’s attempt to arrest Abu Sayyaf Basilan leader Isnilon Hapilon. Heeding the call for help from Isnilon—the anointed leader of Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia— hundreds of heavily armed men, Filipino and foreign, attacked the city. One of the leaders of the attack, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star, was Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian university lecturer who before fleeing Malaysia for Basilan, had been recruiting fighters for IS in Syria. In Basilan, he had been training Isnilon’s men until forced to flee to Lanao del Sur where he continued to recruit foreign jihadists to fight in Mindanao.
President Rodrigo Duterte accused the Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, of being in cahoots with drug lords from Luzon. While the President’s information that the brothers had been Manila policemen involved in illegal drugs turned out to be incorrect— the two had studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, and are considered educated, according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict—at least some Maute group members are or have been, involved in the drug business. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), indeed, the Maute Group has been protecting drug lords.
Drugs in Marawi City and Lanao del Sur is in fact old news. According to a 2013 research study, “Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao,” Marawi City was suspected by the US government as early as 2006 of being the center of the drug business in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Rufa Cagoco-Guiam and Steven Schoofs wrote the “Out of the Shadows”’ chapter on illegal drugs which like the illicit gun trade and kidnapping constitute informal enterprises providing livelihood to many an unemployed or underemployed person in ARMM. The authors described how high-grade shabu is bought in Manila, then transported in expensive vehicles, purchased by the drug lords for the purpose, from Luzon to Mindanao. In Mindanao, the shabu is delivered to laboratories in Lanao del Sur and Ozamis City, among others. Here the high-grade shabu is diluted with, for example talcum powder, before it is sold.
The driver who dares to embark on the drive from Manila with a car stuffed with shabu, usually gets to keep the car, aside from being paid for the job. Marawi City is said to have an unusual number of luxury vehicles despite the fact that it is one of the poorest cities in the Philippines.
The report describes how an Iligan City-based businessman is (or was) a financier of the criminal activities of seven municipal mayors of Lanao del Sur. These criminal activities include drugs, carnapping, robbery and kidnapping. The mayors are known as the Lucky Seven Club. Corrupt policemen, prosecutors and judges have seen to it that no one goes to jail. Well, until last year, at least. The Duterte administration’s war on drugs could have disrupted the production and distribution chain, and corrupt local officials are probably no longer able to provide protection.
Last August, the mayor of Maguing and a former mayor of Marantao—both towns in Lanao del Sur—surrendered after President Duterte named them as narco-politicians. They identified a former Maguing mayor, who was arrested a month earlier, as their supplier of shabu. Last March, the police conducted a drug raid in Maguing. One of the suspects was the vice mayor of the town but he was able to get away (Philippine Star). Maguing, with a population of about 24,500 and adjacent to Talakag and Kalilangan towns in Bukidnon, is a town where narco-politics has been the name of the game.
“Poverty, violent conflict and weak governance have an impact on economic life in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur (the focus areas of the study on the illegal drug business). There are not enough economic opportunities for people to generate a sufficient and stable income,” Guiam and Schoofs explain. “Even regularly employed people find it hard to make ends meet. It is not hard to see why earning easy money with drug pushing can eventually become an attractive option for impoverished individuals.”
While poverty incidence in the Philippines went down from 26.6 percent in 2006 to 21.5 percent in 2015, Lanao del Sur saw its poverty incidence climb from 44.7 percent to an outrageous 71.9 percent during the same period (Philippine Statistics Office). And now, 176,920 of Marawi City’s estimated 201,785 population (2015) have been displaced by the ongoing fighting.
While we fight the wars on drugs and terror, we should keep in mind that we are unlikely to defeat these enemies for good unless we win the war on poverty. The fight doesn’t end with the retaking of Marawi City.