Nearly 200 drug syndicates operate in the Philippines, the head of the country’s drug enforcement agency said Thursday as he pushed for stronger efforts to combat the menace.
Among those involved in the illegal drug trade are local officials, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Aaron Aquino said.
“Some governors, many of them are village chairmen, village leaders,” Aquino told reporters in Manila, transcripts of which were officially made available. “They are running the business, others are in cahoots (with operators of) the business.”
He said drug enforcement agency officials were monitoring “high-value targets” that include local and international groups.
“Based on our report, I think we have about 186 local drug groups in the Philippines,” Aquino said, without naming most of the groups or the local officials involved.
He said a man identified as Lianyi Hong was an alleged Chinese drug lord who operated secret laboratories in four suburbs near Manila before being caught recently. Hong has been identified as an associate of Dragon Wu, another alleged drug lord who operates out of China and is called Wu Ping Cheng.
Hong was captured as he was about to leave the country for Istanbul, Aquino said.
“So far, we have arrested 10 members of the Dragon Wu international drug group,” he said.
In addition, drug enforcement agents are monitoring several people believed to be divers for cocaine shipments dropped from passing ships off the eastern shores of the country.
“They are disguised as divers but they may be trying to search for cocaine in that particular water,” Aquino said.
Blocks of cocaine have been found floating at sea or washed ashore in several islands in the area.
“We are being used as a transshipment point. Drugs are dropped in the high seas by big ships that are then are picked up by small boats,” he said.
“But because of ocean currents and other problems, despite them being equipped with GPS or homing devices, they fail to get all these floating cocaine blocks. That is why we have discovered many of them,” Aquino said.
The disclosure comes 3½ years after President Rodrigo Duterte launched a bloody crackdown on illegal drugs that has led to the deaths of about 6,000 suspects according to official government figures.
Rights groups and families of those killed claim police had not followed proper procedures and in some cases murdered suspects. Last year, a local court convicted three police officers on a murder charge related to the killing of a 17-year-old boy after mistakenly identifying him as a drug suspect.
Duterte has urged police to continue with their violent crackdown and recently said he had ordered the failed ambush of a politician he accused of being involved in drugs.
The president’s spokesman subsequently said that he misspoke.
Duterte is facing two separate murder charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body that he does not recognize.
On Thursday, Aquino said the country’s anti-drug campaign would continue without let up, emphasizing that 17,000 villages across the archipelago needed to be cleaned of illegal drugs.
“We are over halfway on our target,” he said. “And we are still crossing our fingers (that) by 2022 we can accomplish clearing all villages of drugs.”
He said 12,000 “high-value targets” were listed on the agency’s list of drug dealers and traffickers, but 8,700 others have already been caught. In addition, his agency has coordinated with officials in the United States, China, Mexico and Colombia in trying to combat drug syndicates.
Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution on Wednesday calling on the Philippine government to release from prison Sen. Leila de Lima, a leading critic of Duterte’s war on drugs.
The resolution, which is to move to the full senate for consideration, states that the senate “considers Sen. de Lima to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely on account of her political views and legitimate exercise of her freedom of expression.”
De Lima, a former rights commissioner who questioned Duterte’s record when he was mayor of southern Davao City before winning the presidential election, has been in jail since 2017. She has defended herself on what she said were trumped-up charges of profiting from the drug trade.
The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), condemned the Philippine government “for its role in state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings by police and other armed individuals as part of the ‘war on drugs.’”
The U.S. senate committee also called on the Philippine government to guarantee freedom of the press and drop all criminal charges against Maria Ressa, the founder of online news portal Rappler.
Ressa and Rappler have been critical in reporting on Duterte’s drug war. She has been arrested on charges linked to misrepresentation of tax returns and foreign ownership of Philippine media.
Luis Liwanag in Manila contributed to this report.