[OPINION] What is missing in Duterte’s war on drugs?

Jay Tristan Tarriela

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[OPINION] What is missing in Duterte’s war on drugs?
The main elements of the methamphetamine pass through unguarded seas. The Philippine Coast Guard should be in action as much as the PNP and PDEA.


 In his third State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte warned the Filipino people that his war against drugs will still be “relentless and chilling as the day it began.” Despite thousands of people dead and several drug laboratories closed down, Duterte thinks that his fight against illegal drugs is far from over.

Knowing that the main elements of the methamphetamine pass through unguarded seas, it is worth asking if the police operations were enough to put a stop to illegal drugs. 

The Philippines is an archipelagic country that has numerous government and private ports — not to mention shores that can serve as concealed anchorage areas for pleasure yachts. It is about time the Duterte administration changed its approach to once and for all put a stop to the proliferation and massive production of drugs in the Philippines. The failure to cut the shipment of these chemicals despite continuous police operations in land is akin to cutting the branches but not uprooting the tree.

Duterte should share the burden of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency with the Philippine Coast Guard. It is reasonable to tap the PCG because the latter has the authority to board and inspect all merchant ships and watercraft that enter the Philippine territory.

The PCG is also one of the few national government agencies that have stations from the most northern island of Batanes to the southernmost island of Tawi Tawi, thus, tapping it to spearhead the drug interdiction at sea is a rational decision.   

In 2017, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade issued an order designating PCG as the “Captain of the Port,” with the primary role of controlling the movement of vessels and port security management following the provisions of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code.

Such arrangement resulted in the interception of P32.8 million at a port in Mindanao, which was alleged to be transported by UCPB from Cagayan De Oro to Cebu City. It also resulted in the capture of 3 Maute members who rode the passenger ship bound to Iloilo City to escape capture by the military in July 2017.

Container vans had also been used as a means to smuggle drugs into the Philippines. In 2014, Duterte, who was then mayor of Davao City, had seized nearly P130-million worth of cocaine hidden in a container van. It should not be discounted either that the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the expected gatekeeper for the entry and exit of all containers in the Philippines, also had its share of controversies related to P6.4-billion worth of shabu, which was smuggled from China in 2017.

If the PCG would be given more explicit authority in port security management, the ambiguous mandates of the Office of Transportation Security (OTS), the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), and even the BOC would be clarified.

Ironically, the PCG shore offices and units afloat nationwide are given little consideration by the PPA. PCG vessels berthed inside PPA-managed ports are even asked to leave to accommodate commercial ships that would be a source of income, disregarding the safety and security of an expensive government asset and prioritizing berth fees instead. 

It is also worth noting that the 10 PCG ships from Japan have been delivered, and they can strengthen PCG’s capability in interdicting ships that are possibly smuggling prohibited drugs into Philippine waters.

Moreover, the 10 Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ships which are being manned by the PCG can also be used in intercepting foreign fishing vessels appearing to be engaged in fishing but are used as a transport vessel for drugs.

The United States Coast Guard vessels have been performing drug interdiction for the past decades already, and it had interdicted more than half of all US government seizures of cocaine annually. Such operation is being adopted by the Japan Coast Guard to carry out its anti-drug campaign as well.

Although the PCG boasts its 2016 accomplishment – boarding a “floating shabu laboratory” in Subic Bay that resulted in the arrest of Chinese nationals – it is still a meager accomplishment compared to what it can undertake if it will be tapped by the national government and supported with credible intelligence reports not just from the police but even from the military.  

While the Philippine Navy is in no doubt a high-caliber military service that can help the PCG in interdicting those foreign ships and fishing vessels that are suspected to be carrying drugs, it would still be safer for the Philippines to use white hulls in law enforcement. Using gray ships for law enforcement in Scarborough Shoal in 2012 resulted in an adverse outcome.  

Though the PCG has a smaller number of personnel compared with Armed Forces of the Philippines and the PNP, it has a total of 389 coast guard units strategically dispersed in different parts of the country that are often located inside the port facilities. This is one of the most rational reasons why PCG can be entrusted with much authority to implement port security arrangement nationwide. 

Another interesting capability of the PCG is that it has reliable Coast Guard K-9 units that are recognized to have the competence in detecting narcotics and explosives. Due to their accomplishments, CG K-9s have been deployed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the Department of Transportation offices, and even the Supreme Court. If the PCG’s budget is given a significant boost to procure additional K-9 units and training requirements, and if it is given the authority to run the show in all ports nationwide, drug traffickers will hesitate to use ports in smuggling drugs.

Police operations alone cannot end drug trafficking in the Philippines. The supply lines of those main components to produce methamphetamine have to be closed. There are two possible ways to cut the supplies: through drug interdiction operations at sea, and by establishing a secured port facility arrangement nationwide.

The drug interdiction operations can be effectively carried out by the PCG vessels and PCG-manned BFAR vessels with the right intelligence reports, combined with strengthened mandates in carrying out maritime patrols.

The National Coast Watch Center being operated by the PCG with regional coordinating centers in the Visayas and Palawan could be a useful apparatus to have a much clearer maritime domain awareness for the PCG units operating in the area. However, it is still necessary for the PCG to have additional aircraft that can serve as its eye in the sky should the drug smugglers hastily escaped from arrest.

President Duterte should strengthen the security arrangement of the Philippine port facilities following the ISPS Code. The mandates of OTS and PPA need to be revisited vis-à-vis the provisions set forth by the International Maritime Organization guidelines and their capabilities to do such roles.

It is no doubt that the PCG has the competence to be the security manager in the ports nationwide. The ambiguity of roles and the turf wars between the agencies claiming to have the power in security arrangement in the port do not just create confusion among the maritime stakeholders; they also serve as an opportunity for drug syndicates to bypass unreliable port security measures. Such a role may undoubtedly be a big plate for the PCG to fill, but its performance in Mindanao may serve as a measuring tool as to how this organization can prove its expertise in maritime security and law enforcement. – Rappler.com  

Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. student at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu. All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of the Philippine Coast Guard.

*Philippine Coast Guard by Inoue Jaena/Rappler; drugs photos courtesy of the Philippine National Police and the Bureau of Customs; police search photo by Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse 


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