Lately, the Philippines has been in the news as a result of Duterte’s campaign against the country’s drug cartels.
Unfortunately, the western media’s biased reporting of the campaign to root out corruption, exploitation, and terror, is a gross misrepresentation of the real situation. We are not simply talking about your neighborhood drug dealer here.
Manila is not New York. The drug cartels in the Philippines prey on society as a whole, engaging in assassinations, human trafficking, slavery, exploitation, and nearly every lucrative criminal enterprise imaginable. Their enormous wealth and influence allows them to buy policemen, judges, and politicians. Even the highest levels of government have been infiltrated, giving the cartels carte blanche to terrorize and exploit the most vulnerable members of Filipino society.
What the western media fails to understand is that Duterte does not seek to undermine the rule of law, he wants to restore it. Because of the drug cartels, there has been no rule of law for a long time. Many of the judges and politicians are bought, and the judicial system is broken.
It may be hard for the average westerner to understand just how bad the situation is in the Philippines as a result of the criminal cartels. To help put the situation in perspective, I wanted to share some of my personal experiences, and my discussions with Filipinos.
The street vendors of Makati
A few months ago, I was taking an afternoon stroll along the streets of Manila. The traffic was calm that day, and the February weather was unseasonably mild. I was walking home from a delicious lunch, enjoying the scenery. It was one of those rare moments of serenity, even in the heart of the one of the world’s busiest cities.
Suddenly, a couple of street vendors noticed me and tried to sell me roses. I usually try to ignore street vendors, as often whatever they’re selling is way overpriced. I politely declined:
“Hindi po.” (No thank you)
They continued to follow me longer than usual. Out of the corner of my eye I began to observe more details about them.
Starving street children
They looked gaunt, perhaps having gone without food for days. The vendors were little girls who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, and already they were forced to sell random trinkets so they could eat. Their faces were slightly dirty from the polluted streets of metro Manila. I was saddened thinking about their unfortunate situation.
They must have picked up on what was running through my head, as they started rubbing their stomachs and lifted the roses closer to eye level.
“Please.. Need food”
The look on their faces was one of pure sadness and hopelessness. I stopped for a moment to ponder what to do.
Could I help? But I didn’t know how. I suppose I could have simply bought some roses, but something about it didn’t sit right with me, I don’t know why. Only later would I get confirmation of my gut feeling.
Finally I noticed I’d been holding the leftovers of a half eaten pizza the whole time without consciously realizing it. Thinking they could use it more than I could, I gave the food to them. I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
An Unexpected Reaction
Their expressions of sadness instantly transformed into pure happiness. A smile shot across their face from ear to ear and they started jumping for joy. It must have been one of the rare moments of joy for someone struggling to survive in such a cutthroat environment.
“Thank you thank you thank you!!”
They handed their remaining roses to my friend, and as we walked away, I noticed they no longer walked sullenly, but were now skipping joyfully. I never expected a reaction like that, and I was still in a state of shock. But it was a moment that always stuck in my memory.
It was humbling to realize how much I take for granted, and how fortunate my life has been. I never imagined a simple half eaten pizza could produce such pure joy and gratitude. I wondered how the young street vendors got to their situation. Where were their parents? What caused them to end up in such a desperate reality?
The Drug Cartels’ ruthless exploitation of the Philippines
I asked some of my Filipino friends about it, and received some unsettling answers. According to them, child street vendors and pickpockets are pretty common, and they’re run by the criminal cartels. Whatever money they make is taken from them. The children are kept starving so that they look pitiful, and make easier sales to gullible tourists.
To control and exploit the children more easily, the drug cartels forcefully hook them on industrial solvents known as “Rugby”. The solvents temporarily relieve their hunger pains, and drive them to desperation and criminality to feed their addiction. Addiction and inhalation of industrial solvents causes permanent, irreversible damage. Continued use leads to problems with the heart, liver, kidneys, brain, and can be fatal.
The problem is so widespread, there is even a wikipedia entry about the “rugby boys”.
Those capable of subjecting helpless, vulnerable children to such cruel inhumanity can only be described as evil. Unfortunately, they’ve been operating in the Philippines for a long time.
Rule of Law?
The drug cartels will stop at nothing to achieve material power and wealth. There is no system of morality or law that can possibly contain such psychopathic ruthlessness. The cartels do not operate within the law, and will take any and all measures to achieve power and wealth. Assassinations, bribes, torture, and terrorism are all part of their toolbox.
Through systematic corruption, they have operated with impunity while millions of Filipinos suffer their wrath. Their influence in the judicial system is far too entrenched to provide any hope of bringing them to justice.
Is there any hope?
Millions of Filipinos feel frustrated and hopeless. They’ve suffered under a regime of crumbling infrastructure, systematic inequality, and political indifference.
The current system is not working. Exploitation of the country continues with no hope for an end in sight, and no political will to stop it. Many whistle-blowers and reformers who’ve tried have been assassinated.
Any politician willing to take on such a ruthless, all pervasive network would have to make enormous sacrifices and take tremendous personal risk. For a long time, it seemed like such a man would never arrive.
But on the island of Mindanao in the city of Davao, there were whispers of hope. Mindanao is home to a Muslim insurgency and many dangerous areas. Therefore, the chance of a haven of stability and security emerging in such an environment would seem unlikely. Yet over the course of a few years, Davao’s mayor was able to transform it into one of the safest countries in the world.
The mayor’s name? Rodrigo Duterte.