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Time was when the illicit drug use in the Philippines was mainly an indulgence of the fringe literati, the burgis, the artists and entertainment circle, far removed from the masa and rural culture with its isolated social pockets of marijuana users. None of the hard drugs and the intravenous drug users; none of varied countercultural movements that was requisite or fuel to the growth of the drug culture. It seemed almost possible that while the drug problem raged in most developed countries, the Philippines would be saved from the scourge of illicit drugs. But, alas, slowly and surely, the illicit drug market has successfully gained inroads into subcultures of users, into collegiate life, and deep into the bowels of Philippine rural life, burgeoning into a raging epidemic of drug addiction.

Today, "Shabu" poses a problem as serious, as frightening, as formidable, as any present day issue confronting the Filipino society. How can a country and a system mired in corruption fare against the commerce of drug trade so empowered by its bottomless coffers and consequent political clout? Many powerful nations have succumbed; the fanfares of their drug wars drug muffled, their policies inevitably compromised, shifting from prevention into containment.

Sadly, I think the Filipino society confronts an impossible task. The problem is past prevention. Is containment still possible?


i wrote that more than 10 years ago
from the boondocks of tiaong
when shabu was starting to metastasize.  
          cheap, the poor man’s cocaine
          the affordable masa drug
          when a hundred pesos bought a high.
whenever i could, i counseled and warned
young men caught in its addictive allure.
my advice easily countered with
          hindi totoo ang sinasabi ninyo,
          ok naman ang shabu.
          nakakatrabaho ako ng dalawang araw,
          nakakapagmaneho nang 24 oras,
          walang tulog, walang pagod, walang antok.

a wonder drug—ephemeral panacea
to the hopeless treadmill of rural life.
a powerfully addictive stimulant
with its promise of pleasure and euphoria.

the scourge swelled and raged on
brought stories of despair, violence and deaths
ho-hum stories of day-to-day life.
          thousands of sons and daughters
          trapped in the quagmire of addiction
          countless petty crimes to buy the high.
          drugs paid for by sex favors.
          the violent turf wars
          the salvaging of drug pushers.
there was frustration among the tanods,
the police and local folk who cared.
          di pa tapos ang barangay report,
          naka-piyansa na.

as the drug cancer continued to spread
the powers that be turned a blind eye
government wore blinders
as drug syndicates came to our shores,
from nearby and faraway,
setting up shop in our gated communities
and countless small towns across the land
under the guise of legal commerce,
cooking shabu to feed the addicts of the world
while they fed the greed and filled the coffers
of the corrupt and the powerful
          who provided protection
          who for the price of a million or ten or fifty
          would turn a blind eye
          would provide sanctuary and deliverance.
          make evidence disappear.
          provide passage on the next boat to china.
the masa watched helpless
as the drug commerce prospered.
          emboldened by decades
          of government apathy
          impotence and corruptibility
the masa resigned in collective sadness
at the ruination of their communities.
it was a sad commentary, often heard
          kay marcos, di mangyayari iyan.

so in the boondocks, town folks
take ephemeral delight when they hear
          of drug pushers dead in a ditch,
          a drug dealer shot in the back of the head
          it matters not
          if it was a salvage
          a local doing a charles bronson
          rural vigilantism
          rural extrajudicial
because in the boondocks
it is a familiar recourse for justice
for some measure of satisfaction
for lives emptied of hope.

then came duterte.
like others, when i first heard him talk,
          i cringed and told my friend
          if he wins i’m out of here.
          a one-way ticket to somewhere, anywhere.

he was the hesitant candidate.
he campaigned on a simple platform
he vowed to stop the scourge of drugs.
he vowed to stop the plague of corruption.
the masa listened—vows that resonated
          no matter that he cussed the pope.
          no matter that he looked so unpresidential.
          no matter the horrible rape comments.
          no matter that he didn’t have a political machinery.
          no matter that his god is allah.
and hope was reborn.

the masa didn’t care much about the other issues.
          abu sayyaf, federalism
          taxes, the china sea,
          or the traffic.
they cared about drugs and corruption.
and when he did his signature swearing
          anak ng _____!
people laughed, forgave
and, perhaps, felt
that behind the curse
from this salt of the earth
was anger, resolve, and commitment
to keep his promises.
collective hope grew.
          Siya lang sa lahat ang kayang
          magdala, magbigay ng pagbabago.

and, he won. a true blue un-trapo.
and i’m still here—and, actually cheering him on
together with the masa who voted him into office
to put an end to the culture of corruption
to raze the machineries of drug commerce
that have destroyed thousands of communities
and hundreds of thousands of lives.
and on his vows
on his war against drugs and corruption
          he staked his honor,
          presidency, and life

that, boys and girls, is political balls.

we all knew it would be a war
waged in unfamiliar ways.
the way he cleaned up davao
where the populace turned their blind eye.
we were forewarned
          of a war to be waged duterte’s way
          any which way
          or whatever name we choose to call
          his war on drugs.

fearing for their lives
tens of thousands surrendered
before he stepped into office.
since the aegis of his edict to search out
barons, pushers, dealers and addicts,
to kill them if they resist,
hundreds of suspects have died,
in real or staged resistance,
assets, pushers, runners and mules
some say, eliminated by order of drug bosses,
corrupt public officials and colluding police,
desperate to expunge their connections
to the drug commerce.
          many died by the vigilante’s way
          guilt assigned by a cardboard sign
          that says “pusher” or “addict”
          and a tucked sachet of shabu.

now priests and bishops spew their fiery sermons
preaching the value of human life
as politicians spout their cries of righteousness
ranting and raging for human rights.
all of them oblivious of the wasteland
of countless towns and lives ravaged by drugs.
          one had rather
          better that a thousand guilty go free
          than one wrongful death.

war suffers the unavoidable deaths.
collateral damage. . .to borrow a euphemism
from the lexicon of modern wars.
but this is not real collateral damage,
many are pushers, runners,
mules and addicts being killed,
low in the hierarchy of the drug trade
sacrificial expendable potential snitches.
or murders and liquidations,
opportunities to settle old scores
done under the guise of the drug war.
and, yes, there will be wrongful deaths
some truly innocent caught in the crossfire
their deaths must burden us
in collective grief and guilt.

i am saddened by the wrongful deaths.
but i’m still cheering him on.
because what’s the alternative?
          prayers? the gods won’t listen.
          more laws? . . . we have enough.
          return to apathy of the pre-duterte days?
          the impotence of past administrations
          who paid no heed, paid no mind
          who wore blinders, turned a blind eye
          to the unfolding drug scourge?

i cast some censure on duterte’s war
and his siga-siga politics.
it is no longer the small battleground of davao
but thousands of battlefields
in big and small cities,
countless towns and barangays.
jails crammed and overflowed by
thousands who feared for their lives,
the assets, mules, runners, and pushers.
and except for a token few—
most of drug barons, dealers and manufacturers,
the corrupted officials, military and policemen
still walk free.

and what of the hundreds of thousands of addicts?
while many addicts are pushers
many are hapless victims of curiosity
and experimentation gone awry.
the country’s medical system lacks the
capability for a true drug rehabilitation program.
the government has failed
on social and health problems of lesser scale.
what more, in an epidemic of this magnitude.
of a drug addiction with 92% recidivism.

the war on drugs has just started
but we have crossed the rubicon.
there is no turning back.
lest we go back to the old days
of hopelessness and helplessness
when the empire of drugs ruled
and razed through countless lives.
lest the drug lords dance with the devil anew
emboldened, once again
by the apathy and greed
of the powers that be.

it will be long long war
not a three-month war or six or a year.
shabu is a gold mine of immeasurable riches
to fuel the needs of power and greed.
shabu will merely recede into the shadows
selling clandestine highs
while kingpins and drug lords
figure out their next moves
patiently waiting and reassured
at their chosen sanctuaries
that duterte will not win his war
or that he will not last the war
or that six years is an easy wait
for them to reclaim the land.
          unless we see kingpins
          dangling on a noose
          or strapped on a chair
          unless we hear
          the cracking of firing squads.

we are all spectators in this war
flashing daily images and stories of death
one image records a casualty of war
the same image evokes the pieta.
some rave and cheer
some rant and rage
many sit on the fence, out of harm's way
hopeful, wondering where it goes.
we stand conflicted at this crucial crossroad
but we have seen an alternative to apathy
and the possibility of change.
i pray, hope duterte survives the bounty on his head,
and i dream, wish for his victory on his war on drugs.

august 5, 2016

Also read:
Epilogue: Failed War on Drugs (Oct 2017)
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