war on drugs

In Davao Region, Dutertes’ city remains nexus of drug trade

Inday Espina-Varona
In Davao Region, Dutertes’ city remains nexus of drug trade

CLOSE ENOUGH. Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte's aide Jefry Tupas (left) got an invitation to the beach party of 'high-value' drug target Revsan Ethelbert Elizalde.

PDEA's raid on a beach party on November 6 also exposes the ties between one of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte’s closest aides and high-value drug personalities

President Rodrigo Duterte uprooted his bloody Davao City war against suspected drug users, pushers, and big dealers in 2016, ordering enforcers to hunt down targets in the national capital and almost all major urban centers of the Philippines.

Around 6,000 have died in police operations since Duterte assumed the presidency, while human rights groups estimate up to 30,000 deaths to include drug suspects killed by vigilantes.

Yet with the end of Duterte’s term in sight, a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) buy-bust operation on November 6 at a beach party in Barangay Pindasan, Mabini town, Davao de Oro, shows that his home city remains a nexus of the illegal drug trade in southern Philippines.

The raid also exposed the ties between one of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte’s closest aides and high-value drug personalities, including a builder and pharmaceutical company owner billed as a key player in the illegal drug trade.

Many of the 17 individuals arrested at the Sea Eagle resort in Barangay Pindasan were Davao City residents, entrepreneurs, and young professionals, according to PDEA Davao Region Director Aileen Lovitos.

The PDEA bannered the raid as an achievement, a blow to a network of party-drug dealers and a big step in saving their “victims.” 

Lovitos said that the main target of the November 6 operation, 33-year-old Davao City resident Revsan Ethelbert Elizalde, is a known source of party drugs across Southern Mindanao and other regions.

But more than Elizalde, the focus of news stories was Jefry Tupas, Mayor Duterte’s chief information officer at the time of the PDEA operation. 

It was Tupas’ presence at the by-invitation-only party – a two-hour drive from Davao City – that triggered a social media explosion that weekend of the raid. Photos showing Tupas at Elizalde’s birthday party swirled on Facebook and were passed around in chat groups. In at least one photo, she is shown together with Elizalde.

Sara Duterte said she fired Tupas the day after the raid. But she has not answered the question of why Tupas was in the company of the government’s “high-value” drug targets. The mayor’s information officer was close enough to Elizalde to get an invitation to his exclusive party. 

Lovitos had described the targets as hard to penetrate because of their “elite and discreet” nature. 

Tupas claimed she left the party an hour before the raid. But some of those arrested disputed this, telling the Davao-based Newsline Philippines that she was there, and that her name was in fact the first one mentioned by operatives after they had gathered all the partygoers in one area.

But law enforcers eventually separated Tupas from other partygoers after she introduced herself as Sara Duterte’s aide, her detained companions told Newsline. 

They also identified Tupas as the real owner of the items seized by the raiding team.

Who is Elizalde?

Tupas acknowledged that Elizalde was a friend in an interview with Rappler. She described him as “a builder; in construction.”

Elizalde has locked his Instagram and Facebook accounts.

His Twitter account is still up but only shows sporadic posts since he joined in June 2012. His last publicly visible post was in October 2013. From Twitter photos and those taken at his party, Elizalde has bulked up and taken on a more sophisticated look since 2012.

Elizalde isn’t just a builder. His Twitter account says he is a registered nurse and professional healthcare representative. 

However, he has since moved on from the pharmaceutical firm he identifies on the Twitter account and another that he listed in his 2016 application for a medical representative license from the Professional Regulatory Commission Board of Pharmacy.

Elizalde is now a licensed owner of his own pharma company.

Elizalde’s Instagram account, which is locked and only available to select connections, has “Prism Med/Prism Builders Inc.” right under his name and photo.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists him as a drug wholesaler and owner of PRISMMED PHARMACEUTICAL TRADING, with license number LTO-3000006015249. 

The company address is listed as Door 6 San Building, Bajada, Barangay Wilfredo C. Aquino, Agdao District, Davao City, Davao del Sur. The FDA issued Elizalde’s license for this company only on March 8, 2020, and it will expire on May 8, 2022.

The Newsline Philippines report on November 10 said the arrested targets claimed doctors were among the other partygoers allowed to leave by PDEA agents. That would fit in with Elizalde’s public profile. 

The PDEA’s press release on the raid said Elizalde is a resident of Catalunan Pequeño, Davao City. There is a June 11, 2021, letter to the Davao Light & Aboitiz Company asking for a permanent connection to his residence in Ciudad Verde Subdivision, a still relatively open new development in Ma-a, Davao City. 

Elizalde’s now deactivated Facebook account still appears on search engines, mentioning Prism Med Pharmaceutical. The same account also pops up as having been on Facebook’s Swahili language service. His construction firm has a now-deleted account on Facebook’s German language service.

Incidentally, Lovitos said party drugs in Southern Mindanao have been traced to Germany. 

The PDEA regional chief said months of monitoring and surveillance of Elizalde stemmed from a February 2021 interdiction of a package of drugs from two Davao City residents. 

That operation led to a pair of cousins detained and charged after a controlled-delivery sting in Bacaca, Davao City. They were caught receiving a package of the party drug ecstasy, some tablets of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and a packet of marijuana, with a combined value of just a little less than P1 million.

The drugs from the February raid, Lovitos said, came as mail packets from Germany. There is hardly any manufacturing of party drugs in the Philippines, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). These are mostly imported from Europe. 

Cracking open that case led the PDEA to Elizalde.

“He (Elizalde) has been our target for quite some time. Even in other regions, talagang matunog ang pangalan (his name is known); he has been the one that’s peddling party drugs in our area and neighboring regions,” Lovitos said.

She described the other arrested individuals as “young professionals, some of them in business enterprises and some of them privately employed.” 

“Sila talaga ang circle ng ating subject of operations,” Lovitos stressed. (They really are part of the circle of our subject of operations.)

This only makes her silence on Tupas, a name she could hardly utter, an intriguing puzzle to Davao residents and critics of the Duterte family.

Striking gold in Davao

Tupas and Elizalde share some common traits. They are non-Davao natives who have made it big in Mindanao’s premier city and international gateway.

Sara Duterte’s aide comes from a farming family. She was born in Kapalong, Davao del Norte, but grew up in Kabacan, Cotabato, amid rice farms. She graduated from the University of Southern Mindanao, with a degree in Development Communication.

Elizalde grew up in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur. Contrary to some news reports, his family was and remains middle-class. He attended the Jacinto Elpa National High School in Tandag and grew up in very different surroundings from the world of the famous clan that has vast holdings in sugar, shipping, insurance, mining, and media operations.

Tupas and Elizalde were considered bright pupils. Tupas, in an interview with the Daily Tribune, said she grew up interested in the arts. 

“I was into music. I was a natural when it came to dancing. I also developed my reading skills. I was in grade two when a grade five teacher would bring me to her class to demonstrate how to read to her pupils,” Tupas recalled.

A former high school classmate of Elizalde said he was in the star class, and pretty near the top of that class. 

Both were prone to slack off from studies but were bright enough to get high grades.

Elizalde’s classmate said they would sometimes cut classes, but that never affected his grades.

Tupas said in college, her love of reading and writing allowed her to get 1.5 or 1.25 grades even when she did not study the way teachers wanted her to.

Elizalde’s friend described a mild-mannered young man. Even in her younger years, Tupas was known for her feisty personality.

Elizalde’s classmate said they parted ways after high school but recalled vague news over the years of a stint as a flight attendant and then his work as a medical representative.

He remembered Elizalde as being low-key but always having an entrepreneurial streak.

“There was nothing back then that could foretell this,” Elizalde’s classmate said in Filipino. 

He recalled seeing Elizalde posting some luxury items on his Facebook page. “So you could tell may negosyo siya, maganda ang kita (he had a business and was earning well), but there was nothing exceptionally lavish.”

One of Tupas’ former friends said it was Jed Wong, her boyfriend, who introduced her to Elizalde.

In her interview with Tribune, Tupas said Wong worked in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. 

At least three of the arrested persons – all identified as “high-value” targets – have important positions in the city’s thriving BPO industry, jobs where they exercise authority over many young professionals.

In your backyard

Lovitos harped a few times on how party drug peddlers prey on “young professionals,” and called some of those arrested “victims” of drugs.

But when asked if her office had coordinated with the Davao City police, she said law enforcement agencies keep projects to themselves and coordinate only when they are about to launch an operation.

On November 9, Davao City police chief Colonel Kirby John Kraft told Rappler he knew nothing about any illegal activities involving Elizalde or Tupas.

Kraft claimed that the police in Davao City were intolerant of illegal drug activities, making drug possession and sale in the city become high-risk undertakings.

“Mahigpit kami sa Davao. Kaya ang sobrang mahal ng shabu dito,” Kraft told Rappler. (We’re very strict in Davao. That’s why the price of shabu here is very high.)

This is the same line that then-mayor Rodrigo Duterte spouted years back, saying he told pushers and users to get out of his city, or else. 

It is the same argument raised by Duterte family supporters, who note that the arrest, done outside of Davao City, is proof that their city remains safe.

Kraft and Lovitos skirt around the most important aspects of this scandal. 

The February arrests show that Davao City remains an important entry point of illegal drugs in Mindanao. The November 6 operation also shows both alleged traders and users as residents of the city. The latest operation also highlights how close raid personalities have come to the seat of power. – Rappler.com