ALTHOUGH rightly scathing in his indictment of the Bureau of Customs (BoC), Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson was being disingenuous when he described the nature of drug smuggling in the Philippines as a “partner-in-crime relationship” between “Chinese nationals” and “our corrupt government officials”. One suspects he knows so much more. Illicit drug imports, as facilitated by Chinese networks operating in Manila and other cities around the country, does not only feed the venality of individual government officials and promote the corruption of government agencies. Drug racketeering is deeply entrenched in Philippine politics and essential to presidential power. Lacson knows this only too well. He should tell us about the involvement of police and politicians.
The links between shabu smuggling, the criminal underworld, and Malacañang Palace have long been established. In his magisterial work Policing America’s Empire (2009), US historian Alfred W. McCoy recalls the colorful career of Martial Law-era drug kingpin “Don Pepe” Oyson. A one-time college basketball star, Oyson branched out into gambling and petty smuggling, quickly becoming known as a small-time crime boss in the Manila Bay area. He didn’t stop there. As luck would have it, one of his Chinese partners was a currency smuggler in cahoots with Ferdinand Marcos’ security chief and righthand man, Gen. Fabian Ver. Through this connection and under the protection of Ver, Don Pepe significantly expanded his business interests. In particular, McCoy credits him with taking control of the illegal importation of shabu in the early 1980s. “A decade of martial rule,” McCoy writes, “had not eradicated the vice rackets but instead fostered a more sophisticated syndication complete with national police protection.”
Don Pepe met a sticky end when he was gunned down, execution style, by a team led by Gen. Alfredo Lim, chief of the National Bureau of Investigation. Lim had been handpicked for the job by Marcos’ successor, Cory Aquino, who ordered a crackdown on crime. Under Cory however, the Police Constabulary’s Narcotics Command was intimately entwined with criminal syndicates trafficking in shabu. Thus, as one syndicate collapsed, others took their place. By the early 1990s, under President Ramos, shabu spread widely across the country’s slums. Ramos formed the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC) and appointed Vice President Joseph Estrada to head it. In words that now sound horribly familiar, Estrada promised to end criminality in six months, threatening to personally shoot criminals. Should he fail, he vowed to resign. His tough talk on crime notwithstanding, Estrada took the opportunity of enlarging his presidential campaign war chest using funds taken from vice syndicates.
Ping Lacson has been in the orbit of power for four decades. Graduating from the Philippine Military Academy in 1971, he was recruited into the Metrocom Intelligence Service Group (MISG), Marcos’ elite anti-subversion squad that gained a reputation for ruthlessness, corruption and impunity. Empowered and massively funded, MISG cops established a deadly reputation for implementing state terror and acting as the regime’s brutal operatives. “These top police,” writes McCoy, “engaged in systemic human rights abuses and syndicated gambling, drugs, or smuggling.”
Protected by powerful military patrons, Lacson survived the Aquino presidency and became a member of Ramos’ elite anticrime squads commanded by Estrada. Known popularly as the “super cops” and portrayed by the local press as the frontline force battling against bank robbers and kidnappers that were the scourge of the country’s rich during Ramos’ tenure, Estrada’s police made a mockery of due process, torturing, killing, enriching themselves, and getting rid of rivals and witnesses to corruption by murder or “salvaging”. By 1997, as Ramos’ presidency neared the end, over 1,000 of the country’s human rights violations were attributable to police actions.
As a senator, Lacson behaves with the kind of quiet calculation and control that is both chilling and intriguing to watch. While those around him get embroiled in emotionally heated wrangles during the Senate hearings, Lacson is a portrait of composure. His gestures, tone, and facial comportment are restrained, economical, and blank. He emanates a lethal and knowledgeable aura. While his notorious past maybe well known, those he chooses to attack, how he shields himself and his family from those who come at him, and what he may reveal in the future, could very well have game-changing consequences.