GIVEN its unique geographical location, the Philippines is not only a lucrative market for illegal drugs but a vital trade route for international drug rings planning to expand their business through joint ventures, anti-narcotics officials said.
In separate interviews, the spokesmen of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Philippine National Police Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force (AID-SOTF) said the country is where “East meets West” in terms of drug sale and transshipment.
“Drug syndicates in Asia and those from Sinaloa thought they could expand their market through joint ventures. The Philippines is not only a potential market for shabu [methamphetamine hydrochloride]but is a vital transshipment point for these drug rings,” AID-SOTF spokesman C/Insp. Roque Merdeguia told The Manila Times.
Sinaloa is a notorious Mexican drug cartel who have linked up with Chinese drug traffickers.
Such “joint ventures,” he said, was confirmed after a team from the PDEA, AID-SOTF and other law enforcement agencies raided a Leviste clan-owned ranch in Lipa City in the province of Batangas on Christmas Day and seized at least 84 kilos of shabu smuggled in by the Sinaloa.
“We believe that their plan was nipped in the bud. The high-grade drugs we seized were part of their initial expansion agreement. Those were just sample products from the Sinaloa drug cartel for marketing in Asia,” Merdeguia said.
“They were just starting their operation,” he added.
PDEA spokesman Derrick Carreon said they were alerted by international drug agencies to the cartel’s expansion plan. Because of the tightening market in the West, the Mexican cartels were looking at markets in the East, particularly China, Carreon said.
“And the Philippines geographically lies at the center of their trade route. They can no longer expand their operations in the West so they look to the East. We are both an attractive market and a potential transshipment point,” he said.
“The idea, for one, is that the Westerners can bring their products to Asia while Chinese drug lords can supply them with opium,” he added.
Both officials said anti-drug authorities are trying to determine the scope of the Sinaloa’s operation here.
Resorts World meeting
Another anti-narcotics official who spoke on condition of anonymity said a man from the Sinaloa met with the top bosses of the Asian drug trade at the Resorts World Hotel and Casino a few months ago.
“They leveled up. The henchman met with big time Chinese drug lords at a room inside [Resorts World]. That was where they sealed the pact to join forces and expand,” the official said.
The hotel is a stone’s throw from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Previous, drug busts were conducted right inside the casino, where incidents of money laundering have also been reported by the PDEA.
Instead of money changing hands, drug deals are done through casino chips. In the process, the dirty money from drugs, illegal gambling and other illicit businesses are “laundered.”
Merdequia confirmed the meeting took place but decline to say where.
“If I say where the meeting was held, chances are they might relocate to another place and that would give investigators a hard time,” he said.
Merdeguia said the Sinaloa contact entered the country on a tourist visa.
He said his men have the names and photos of all Chinese drug traffickers who attended the meeting.
“We know who they are. We have their names and even photos. We are just waiting for the right moment to pounce on them and I tell you it’s near. They are all still here,” he said.
A Filipino-American named Gary Torres and two Mexicans known as “Jaime” and “Joey” were being sought in connection with the seized drugs in the Lipa ranch. The two officials, however, brushed aside allegations that members of the Leviste family, including former Batangas Gov. Antonio Leviste, are connected with the cartel.
Carreon and Merdeguia said there was no indication or clue to link the Levistes to the drug ring, saying the family merely leased the ranch to the group.
Authorities said the arrested Filipino-Chinese, Garry Tan alias Chua, is a big drug trafficker who works with Torres, who has a United States (US) passport. Arrested with Tan were a Filipino couple, Argay and Rochelle Argenos.
Merdeguia said Torres is now in the US and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is hot on his trail.
“They are going to get him soon. I believe he has been located already,” he added.
The Sinaloa is reputed to be the largest source of illegal drugs to the US.
Its leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001. He is now America’s most wanted drug dealer, and was listed by Forbes as the most powerful criminal on the planet.
More than 77,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence since then-president Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide war against the cartels.
Point of entry
Carreon and Merdeguia affirmed that illegal drugs are sneaked in through seaports because it is difficult to smuggle them through the airports, which are closely watched by anti-narcotics agents.
Merdeguia said the 84 kilos of shabu seized in Lipa City were likely smuggled “through Customs.”
“We have long suspected that drugs are smuggled through Customs. They pass through our ports. Usually, they are shipped along with legitimate products from a certain point of origin. This is very difficult to detect,” Merdeguia said.
Carreon confirmed this, adding that drug syndicates are not only into illegal drugs but have also “diversified.”
“Now, they are also into money laundering, smuggling, human trafficking and others. Name it and they have it,” he said.
The traffickers, he added, maintain legitimate businesses as fronts.
Carreon noted that Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon are the favorite “hiding places” of the drug traffickers because they are near Metro Manila.
“The National Capital Region is still the center of gravity of the drug trade. In 2008, a huge drug shipment was seized in Real, Quezon. In Subic, on the other hand, a similar volume of drugs was discovered. Because of their proximity to Metro Manila, that is why they seem to be the favorite places of drug traders,” he pointed out.
92 percent affected
Government records indicated that illegal drugs are present in nine out of 10 villages in Metro Manila. Studies have shown that 92 percent of the towns and cities in the metropolis are “not drug-free.”
“That is true but it depends on varying degrees. We have set our own way of measuring the affliction from manageable to the worst affected,” Carreon said.
“Despite this, suffice it to say that PDEA, under the leadership of DG [Dir. Gen. Arturo] Cacdac, is ready to face the challenges ahead. All [anti-drug] agencies, for that matter, are ready to face these threats,” he said.
Carreon said the agency is now focused on high-value targets, leaving street-level drug crimes to policemen.
“Because we are still undermanned, DG Cacdac thought of just concentrating on high-value ones. Imagine if we arrest each drug pusher caught with just a gram of shabu, then we would need 1,000 agents to attend the cases of a thousand suspects caught with a gram of shabu each. So DG Cacdac had this bright idea of concentrating on cases such as the Lipa City drug bust,” he said.
The PDEA agents who participated in the Lipa City raid were fresh graduates of the PDEA Academy who were on on-the-job training. The agents, totaling 73, graduated only in September last year and were divided into two groups.
Twenty-three were assigned to AID-SOTF, while 40 were sent to train with the PNP Special Action Force’s Special Weapons and Tactics team.
While the PDEA and AID-SOTF were credited for the Lipa City bust, Carreon said the 23 agents were the ones who did the stake out, monitor the movements of the personalities involved and those inside the ranch.
Cacdac “ordered them to keep an eye on the suspects all the time. The agents on OJT were on 24-hour duty. They were there on the field. They did not see their family for weeks,” Carreon said.
Cacdac said PDEA and other law enforcement agencies posted an unprecedented increase in the amount of confiscated drugs in 2013.
He said that the agency, being the premiere organization against illegal drugs, confiscated 834 kilos of shabu worth approximately P4.6 billion from January to December 2013, seven times more than the shabu seizures in the previous year and the combined volume of confiscated shabu in the last four years.
“The 834 kilos of seized shabu in 2013 easily surpassed the 112 kilos seizure in 2012, a remarkable increase of 643 percent. The figures also bested the combined output of 578 kilos of shabu seized from 2009 to 2012,” Cacdac said.
The consolidated figures were the result of the high volume seizures made by the AIDSOTF during the interdiction operation in Subic, Zambales province where 432 kilos of shabu worth over P2 billion were confiscated on August 11, 2013; NBI raid in Tondo, Manila where 62 kilos of shabu worth P314 million were discovered; 45 kilos seized by the PDEA Special Enforcement Service (SES) in Las Piñas City on September 13, 2013; and the PDEA and PNP raid in Lipa on December 25 where 84 kilos of shabu worth P420 million was confiscated.
“The PDEA’s foremost mission is to suppress the supply and neutralize the source of dangerous drugs,” Cacdac said.
Just last December 20, PDEA found and dismantled a shabu laboratory in Sta. Rita, Guiguinto in the province of Bulacan.
Last year, there were 16,144 anti-drug operations which where 8,674 suspects were arrested and P5.3 billion worth of dangerous drugs, and controlled precursors and essential chemicals (CPECs) were seized.
Of those arrested, 73 are foreign nationals who are either involved in the selling, possession, trafficking and manufacturing of illegal drugs.
The Ninoy Aquino International Airport Inter-Agency Drug Interdiction Task Group (NAIA-IADITG), an inter-agency team led by the PDEA, arrested four drug couriers carrying a total of P103 million worth of shabu and cocaine.
Cacdac said 419 marijuana plantations were raided, a big jump from the 188 planations found and destroyed in 2012.
Marijuana plants and seedlings worth P471 million were seized.
For the period, 10,000 drug cases were filed in court.
WITH A REPORT FROM JING VILLAMENTE