IN the 70s I represented the diplomatic sector in Manila in the fund campaign of the Narcotics Foundation of the Philippines which till now supports rehabilitation centers for drug addicts. With us in the campaign was the late society and fashion icon Chona Recto Kasten. Dressed simply but elegantly with hardly any makeup on, she nonetheless cut a mesmerizing figure as she addressed us softly and resolutely: “Dear fellow workers…” She was a devoted supporter of the foundation. She had lost a beloved son to drug overdose.
I had the impression then that the problem of drug addiction was confined to the kids of the upper classes and showbiz personalities. Decades afterwards, on recall back home after a posting abroad, I was shocked to find this problem had attacked all levels of Philippine society in both urban and rural areas, including the very street in the city I live in and the barrio in Nueva Ecija my mother came from.
Aware of the many lives lost and futures blighted by the drug scourge, the Philippine Catholic Bishops Conference has called on Catholic parishes to wage a campaign against drug addiction and drug trafficking. Since this problem is actually global and transnational, it is significant that Pope Francis has raised the drug scourge as a leading evil the international community must tackle.
The Veloso case recalls to me my experiences with Filipinos arrested and jailed for trying to smuggle illicit drugs through customs in Pakistan. It seems to confirm some conclusions I have arrived at sifting through these experiences in my mind, conclusions with implications on the need for a more concerted international effort to combat the international drug syndicates.
When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, opium production declined. True to their fundamentalist abhorrence of all forms of intoxication, the Taliban ordered the destruction of poppy fields. After the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power, the Taliban reportedly had farmers revive the poppy fields, using the earnings of the opium trade to support their counteroffensives against the US and its NATO allies.
There was a tremendous upsurge in the production and trade of opium and its derivatives. And for trying to carry drugs out of Pakistan to other parts of Asia, several Filipinos, mostly women, were being arrested and jailed in various cities in Pakistan.
The couriers were mostly transferred to drug syndicates by human traffickers disguised as travel and recruitment agencies some all the way from the Philippines. Others abroad were those whose contracts of employment had expired and were looking for a new job. Instead of a factory, office, or household job, they would find out that for a handsome fee their job was to carry a suitcase or package said to contain “jewelry and other valuable items.” At this point any resistance, any suspicion that they were being asked to do something bad, would have already crumbled thanks to all they had received from the syndicate, the plane fare, pocket allowance, the money they had been given to purchase new clothes and accessories.
The gravity of punishment or length of prison time meted to the courier when arrested and sentenced, would be determined as proportionate to the quantity of the drugs the courier was taking out of a country. This appears to me somewhat arbitrary because it is not the courier who has the say on the quantity of drugs he or she is asked to smuggle through customs. It is the drug syndicate that has the say.
The quantity of drugs to be carried might be affected by the ruse chosen by the syndicate to conceal the smuggled items. The courier usually waits for his suitcase or package for some time because it is custom-made: a suitcase with special linings, a book of nursery rhymes whose pages are thick enough to hold drugs, special capsules that will not easily dissolve in the stomach, anything that might elude notice at customs.
One method of concealment has reportedly a good chance of successfully eluding the tracking devices at the airport: oral ingestion of the drugs in special capsules. But it is potentially lethal, if the drugs get dissolved in the body, the courier could die. One airport customs inspector I met has wizened to this ruse. He has a standing arrangement with the hotels in the city whereby the hotel reports to him any guest who skips dinner and breakfast prior to departing for the airport. He invites the guest for an interview and offers him or her a beverage. If it is refused, the guest is escorted to a hospital for an x-ray of the abdomen and subsequently arrested if found positive for carrying illicit drugs.
How much drugs a mule might be arrested for carrying sometimes depended on his or her smartness or alertness. One female carrier boasted to the Embassy team who visited her that she had charmed the customs inspector into reporting a lower volume of drugs than she actually brought in. A male mule the moment the inspector turned his back simply threw the bulk of the drugs into the nearest waste basket, considerably reducing the volume of drugs he was reported to be carrying. He hardly warmed his butt in jail.
There is one notable conclusion I have drawn from my experiences with Filipino mules in Pakistan. The arrest of a mule, to my knowledge, seldom if ever led to the apprehension of the syndicate they were serving. A lawyer would quickly be available to defend the mule arrested. This would prevent or cut short any investigation of the matter. Invariably, the lawyer would advise his client to plead guilty. Most of the mules arrested while I was in Pakistan pleaded guilty to bringing in small amounts of the prohibited drugs and were sentenced to no more than two years in prison. The mules would usually be found by the team from the Embassy to be in high spirits, they might have been told to accept their sentences gladly because foreign prisoners in Pakistan don’t usually serve the full length of their sentences. They get pardons during Ramadan. Or the jailers might want to reduce the population they have to feed and attend to.
An incident aroused in us the suspicion that these lawyers attending to the mules were somehow criminally associated with the syndicates. A team from the Embassy rushed to the detention center once a group of drug couriers were reported to have been arrested. The couriers shooed the team away, expressly telling its members that the syndicate would take care of them.
Under these circumstances, to obtain the cooperation of the courier in an investigation aimed at catching the drug syndicates, very strong incentives would have to be offered, exoneration or immunity from prosecution, a handsome monetary reward for ‘tis all about money, and assurances of the safety of the courier and her or his family and relatives. To these may be added careful, humane treatment by interrogators for the members of the syndicates might not be the rude and cruel villains they are usually depicted in the movies.
After the courier’s incarceration, the Embassy team would pay her or him a visit in jail, bringing with them a gift package of cosmetics and canned goods worth $100 . The women especially appreciated the facial cosmetics as these boosted their morale and facilitated their socialization with the authorities in prison.
But on the basis again of some incidents, it would seem that the Embassy was not the only one visiting the mules or monitoring their activities in jail. People outside the jail other than the Embassy would know that an inmate was about to be released. The Embassy would usually be called to prepare the airline ticket for her or him. But in one case the Embassy was told that it needed not bother about the airline ticket since a mysterious somebody had taken care of it. All the Embassy had to provide was some officer to escort the inmate out of the prison and to her or his plane. And there was one case where the syndicate waited for the courier at the airport and at a prearranged signal, the courier excused himself to go to the bathroom where he got a package of drugs from the syndicate. The courier was again caught and brought back to the prison.
One would think that the arrest of a mule would serve as a loose thread that police authorities could follow to get through the syndicate’s maze spread across borders. But to my knowledge it didn’t usually happen. Even without the courier’s cooperation, there might be clues like the airline ticket or cell phone entries about the provenance and destination of the courier. But there did not appear to be a protocol by which the police authorities of all the countries involved were informed of the arrest. The matter would stop with the arrest and the sentencing of the mule.
There is an obvious need for a closer, stronger international cooperation for the elimination of this scourge of humanity. Police authorities face a wily, resourceful enemy with tentacles reaching across borders and quite possibly under their very noses. It is absolutely vital that they avail of modern communication technologies to establish and maintain a network among themselves whereby they can exchange information and help each other catch the enemy.
So nefarious and powerful is the enemy that the police authorities must have the support of the general public. The latter’s support may start by their praying for divine intervention so that police authorities engaged in this battle be embued with the Holy Spirit.
The writer is a retired Philippine Ambassador who was last posted in Pakistan, with concurrent accreditation to neighboring Afghanistan.