Philippines poll 'hit by drugs trade'

Narcotics taints politics in midst of election campaign after US state department report warns of a 'significant national threat'.

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MANILA // Narco-politics has become a major issue in the Philippine election campaign following the release of a US state department report in which it expressed concern that the illicit drug trade may influence the outcome of the May 10 poll.

The state department's 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, made public March 1, said the illegal narcotics trade "continues to pose a significant national threat, especially in view of the coming national elections". According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the illegal drugs trade in the country totals US$6 billion to $8bn (Dh22bn to 29bn) annually and is growing.

The PDEA has said it is investigating a number of drugs-related cases involving local politicians and has given a list of politicians under investigation to the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The names have not been made public. The acting defence secretary and the president's national security advisory, Norberto Gonzales, said the allegations were "serious". He said the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency had received a number of reports linking some congressmen, councillors and local government officials with drug syndicates or drug lords.

"Narco-politics is a serious concern in our country and is growing," he said. Gilbert Teodoro, a presidential candidate and former defence secretary, said he was aware of the claims made in the state department report but added: "the problem does not involve politicians at the national level". "The problem is at the local and provincial levels especially in some parts of Mindanao," he told the Manila Overseas Press Club on March 5.

The former chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Vicente Sotto, who is running for a Senate seat, said some candidates' campaigns had "probably already been infiltrated" by drug lords but were unaware of it. He said the best advice for local politicians is not to accept campaign contributions from unknown sources. The Commission on Elections, which oversees the electoral process, said the reports were "quite alarming" and asked the PDEA to name those candidates who are alleged to be receiving drugs money from traffickers for their campaign.

In a recent editorial, the Philippine Daily Inquirer said: "The good news is no presidential candidate seems to be funded by drug money. The bad news: at the local level, in certain areas, illegal drugs continue to be the gift that keeps on giving - the influence of drug money is real; it makes business sense for operators to place or keep friendly politicians in office, and during elections not too many politicians bother to return cash donations."

According to the 2009 UN World Drug Report, the Philippines ranks fifth in the world in seizures of crystal methamphetamine and remains a significant source country for the drug in East and South-east Asia and Oceania. The archipelago nation of 7,000 islands with 36,289km of coastline is difficult to police at the best of times because of the country's poorly equipped navy, air force and coastguard.

A report last year by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based economic and political risk consultancy firm, said the Philippines "is not only a transshipment point, but also a key producer of synthetic drugs for all of Asia". Last year the PDEA accused politicians across the country of dipping their hands into the multibillion-dollar illicit drugs trade to raise money for the May 10 elections. But as yet no arrests have been made.

The biggest drug bust involving a politician was in 2001 when the Quezon Town mayor, Ronnie Mitra, was arrested for using city ambulances to ferry shabu, the local name for crystal methamphetamine, worth more than $21 million. Sentenced to life in 2007, he has remained tight-lipped about who his partners were. Senator Richard Gordon, who is running for president, said he had received reports that shabu was being shipped into the Visayas, central Philippines, as part of rice consignments.

"It could be fund-raising for elections so I suspect narco-politics, but I have no proof. But I have been hearing a lot of rumours. Some are even saying everybody knows who's behind it," Mr Gordon said recently. "I am expressing alarm," he said. "The stories I've heard are that these are wholesale deliveries. Even the PDEA guy who briefed me said there are a lot of drugs in Iloilo and Capiz [Visayas]."

Paul Ledesma, the PDEA director in Western Visayas, said six candidates in the region had been monitored since last year for links to the drugs trade. "We have established their links with known personalities and groups involved in the drug trade," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Mr Ledesma said some of the candidates had served as legal counsel for drug dealers and groups, and that others had been monitored because they regularly met with these groups.

He told the paper the candidates were running for various positions, from councillor to congressman in the provinces of Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Antique and Capiz. "The drug groups and personalities had expanded their operations from bribing and influencing law enforcers, members of the judiciary and of the prosecution system to infiltrating the legislative and policymaking bodies," Mr Ledesma told the paper.

He said officials who had friendly relations with drug groups could use their position to protect the operations of the traffickers. "It is common knowledge who these candidates are. But as yet we have no proof to hold water in court. As soon as we have enough evidence, we will file cases against them," Mr Ledesma said. According to PDEA, two candidates - one running for councillor in Cebu City and the other for board member in Bohol - are also being investigated.