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By: Michael Anthony E. Onato, RCrim, PGDip-AC

Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Criminology

Area: Drugs, Crime and Terrorism


Illegal drug use not only encourages violent crimes, but also fuels terrorism in the Philippines. Some personalities associated with terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were accused of either being drug addicts or drug dealers. Lawless elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and rouge members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were also accused of involvements in illegal drugs. It will not be surprising if other personalities associated with other armed groups like the Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP), the Maute Group, and the Al Khobar Group (AKG) are also involved in the same illegal activities.

Conflict-affected regions in the Philippines, especially in Central Mindanao, were afflicted with drug problems. The International Alert, a human rights organization, already warned that involvements of some armed groups in illicit drugs in Mindanao could adversely affect any peace operation. For instance, it said, the illicit drug economy should be regarded as a strategic concern in the peace process between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Left unchecked, the compounding of drug-related corruption and violence is probable to suffer an adverse impression on the governance institutions of the future Bangsamoro. Stakeholders in the peace process therefore need to turn their attention to the drug economy and use the implementation of the peace agreement as an opportunity to address the drug problem. Priorities for action include using drug enforcement as a confidence-building measure, insulating the new Bangsamoro police from corruption, providing alternative economic opportunities for poor communities, challenging the sense of impunity among drug criminals, preventing money laundering, and cutting the links between criminals and politicians.

Narcoterrorism, Concept and Definition

The term Narcoterrorism is oftentimes associated with the nexus of drugs and terrorism. It also pertains to the interplay and convergence of narcotics syndicates and terrorist organizations. Despite its common usage, it is very lamenting to underscore that there has been no common acceptable definition of narcoterrorism.

As indicated by a scholar specializing in the topic, many experts agreed that former Peruvian President Belaunde Terry originally coined the said term in 1983 to describe terrorist attacks on his counter-narcotics police forces by rebel military groups. These rebels belonged to the Sendero Luminoso, more known as the Shining Path, a virulent communist party in Peru. Eventually, the term narcoterrorism referred to the violent activities of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Latin American authorities blamed the FARC and the Shining Path for perpetrating terrorism and trafficking of prohibited drugs in the Latin American area. In the 1990s, especially after the remainder of the cold war, the definition of narcoterrorism expanded to include violent activities of both drug syndicates and rebel groups.

At the turn of the 21st century, scholars and experts used the concept of narcoterrorism to grapple with the involvement of terrorist groups in drug trafficking, particularly those associated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Drug Money Financed the Marawi City Siege

The Marawi siege of 2017 illustrates the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the illegal drug trade. With drug money, terrorists gathered a motley assortment of well-armed extremists, criminals, mercenaries, and foreign terrorist fighters to take control of Marawi. Narco-politicians supported the local terrorist groups with personnel, funds and firearms that helped sustain the siege that followed the government’s counter offensive. Intensive military and law enforcement operations allowed the Philippine government to recapture Marawi in six months; less than the six years it took the West to recapture Raqqa.

Beyond law enforcement and military operations, a comprehensive approach is needed to address the linkages between terrorism-organized crime. On the political level, we now have the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which gives autonomy to Muslim Mindanao and is intended to end the decades-long conflict in that region that has been used by the Abu Sayyaf and local terrorist groups as a freedom struggle. It was anything but that. We are also amending our Human Security Act to make it more responsive to these linkages.

Drug trafficking offers a profitable illicit revenue stream. The drug trade weakens social resistance and corrupts political response. It is known that local terrorist group members are both narcotics distributors or dealers and consumers. Shabu is frequently used for recruitment. And the shabu trade is primarily run by organized crime groups, illustrating the cooperation between terrorist groups and local and transnational criminal organizations. They have learned the lesson of the Opium Trade whereby Britain subdued a once-proud continent-sized country to its will. Hence our anti-drug operations target the trade.

Since money is the main driver of these linkages, identifying and curtailing the sources of finance and tracking the flow are essential. Financial intelligence units, law enforcement agencies, the prosecution service and local government units must work together, share information with each other, and raise awareness. The public sector, as appropriate, must also work closely with the private sector.

Policy Options and Alternatives for the Government

There is no doubt that combating drugs and terrorism has become the flagship program of the government. The intention is right as the current campaign aims to address criminal violence and other social issues associated with the use of illegal drugs and the concomitant threats of terrorism in the Philippines.

But given global lessons learned in combating narcoterrorism and the current state of narcoterrorism in the Philippines, what are the policy options and alternatives for the government? The Transform Drug Policy Foundation, an independent international charitable organization, published the second edition of The Alternative World Drug Report. This report laments that for the past 50 years, the approach adopted by many countries to fight illegal drugs has not been changed. The dominant approach against illegal drugs has been law enforcement heavy that is “predicated upon policy and military enforcement against producers, suppliers and users – a war on drugs in popular discourse.”

While law enforcement is important to address the criminal aspects and implications of illegal drug use, there is now a growing demand for a more balanced and comprehensive evaluation of the wider impacts of current drug law enforcement strategies, and also for evidence-based exploration of possible alternative approaches. Fighting the war on drugs with increased ferocity – through increasing the level of resources for enforcement and handing down harsher punishments – with the aim of significantly reducing or eliminating drug use.

A Reorientation to a Health-Based Approach and Decriminalization

Incremental reforms to enforcement and public health and treatment interventions (within the existing prohibitionist legal framework) to improve policy outcomes. Adequate investment in evidence-based prevention, treatment and harm reduction should form a key pillar of drug policy under any legal framework. However, current enforcement approaches can undermine, rather than support, effective health interventions. Reforms to enforcement practices can also target some of the most harmful elements of the criminal market to reduce key crime costs, such as violence, from their current levels.

Evidence on health-based approach and decriminalization suggests that if implemented intelligently, as part of a wider health reorientation, decriminalization can deliver criminal justice savings, and positive outcomes on a range of health indicators, without increasing drug use.

The legal regulation of drug markets offers the potential to dramatically reduce the costs associated with the illegal trade, but requires negotiating the obstacle of the inflexible UN drug conventions, and managing the risks of over-commercialization. Drawing on experiences from alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical regulation, increasingly sophisticated models have now been proposed for regulating different aspects of the market - such as production, vendors, outlets, marketing and promotion, and availability - for a range of products in different environments.

Final Thought

Illegal drug use is a global menace. Its nexus with terrorism further exacerbates the problem it causes to citizens of the world. Narcoterrorism has become a security problem that, if not quickly abated, can undermine world peace and stability. Thus, many countries have adopted various measures to counter the virulent threat of narcoterrorism.

The Philippines is not spared from narcoterrorism. The President has recognized the gravity of this problem. From a war against drugs, the government has launched a war against drugs and terrorism. The Davao City bombing of September 2, 2016 provided the current government a strong justification to pursue this war.

A war against narcoterrorism warrants a hard approach that needs strong law enforcement actions. But not all users are engaged in crime and terrorism. Thus, needs a soft approach through treatment, rehabilitation and care.

Based on global lessons learned and solid scientific findings of experts, the government must adopt a more comprehensive strategy against drugs that applies both hard and soft approaches.


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