SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In September 2008, Marine Lt. Col. Ferdinand Marcelino rose to national prominence after he and his team from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) busted a group of affluent young men for drug trafficking during a raid on a home in Ayala Alabang.

The case against two of the so-called Alabang Boys was later dismissed by the courts for lack of evidence. This was mainly because the raiders failed to establish the integrity of the evidence they presented – that what was seized in Alabang was the same evidence brought to the PDEA and later presented to prosecutors and in court.

Safeguards in the rules for handling confiscated evidence are designed to protect law-abiding citizens from being framed for “planted” drugs. The PDEA was chided for sloppy work.

Did the court ruling disillusion the arresting officer? Yesterday Marcelino, who has left the PDEA, was arrested together with a former asset of the agency in a raid on a makeshift laboratory in Sta. Cruz, Manila that yielded 64 kilos of shabu with an estimated street value of P256 million.

Marcelino claimed he was engaged in an undercover operation, but couldn’t say who gave him the assignment. The Armed Forces of the Philippines kept its hands off his case, while the Philippine National Police and PDEA were the ones that raided the shabu lab along Felix Huertas street.

* * *

It’s depressing how things stay the same in this country. That area in Manila’s Sta. Cruz district, notably Quiricada and nearby streets including Felix Huertas, have been notorious for drugs since the hippies made drug abuse glamorous in the 1960s.

Martial law failed to stop the drug trade despite the execution (disputed by some sectors) of Chinese heroin dealer Lim Seng in 1973. It was said that he was made a “sample” by the dictatorship because an estimated 90 percent of his merchandise was exported to the United States.

Divisoria and Sta. Cruz are informally divided into sections specializing in particular goods. A Tsinoy told me this was a perpetuation of a centuries-old tradition akin to the European trade guilds. So there are sections devoted to textiles, others to fruits, still others to lighting fixtures, and so on. In Sta. Cruz these days, the tradition lives on; Gonzalo Puyat (formerly Raon street) is still where you get electronics; Ongpin specializes in gold jewelry. Back in the day, Quiricada and neighboring streets were the go-to places for all sorts of drugs.

Growing up in the gritty Sta. Cruz area, I would regularly see dried marijuana leaves piled high on the floor of certain houses in the alleys where the stink of urine often blended with the unmistakable sweetish scent of burning weed. Teenagers were among the couriers who brought to Sta. Cruz bricks of cannabis mostly from the Cordilleras. Sometimes they also brought the hallucinogen from the highlands called talumpunay, the purple flowers of a type of thorn apple. In the alleys, the cannabis was sorted out for quality (those with seeds were top-rated) before they were rolled into reefers.

Lim Seng’s execution dried up the supply of hard drugs such as heroin and morphine. LSD, Steve Jobs’ drug of choice, became increasingly rare. But the streets of Sta. Cruz were full of small drug stores that sold cough syrups and pills with regulated substances that provided a high.

The nuns in my Catholic school warned of eternal damnation for drug abuse. But somehow teenagers knew where to get even “yellow prescriptions” for powerful regulated sedatives and stimulants, including those used in psychiatric wards, like Thorazine. Mischief seemed intuitive for the kids, who also knew the addresses of the licensed physicians in the city willing to perform safe abortions.

Pharmaceutical companies later stopped using substances such as codeine in their cough preparations. They also introduced substances that induced nausea and vomiting if the cough syrups and pills were taken way beyond the safely prescribed dosage.

But drug dealers and their clients are an innovative lot, and it didn’t take long before someone mass marketed the poor man’s cocaine, methamphetamine hydrochloride, better known as shabu. There’s an ongoing debate on whether we sent shabu to Hawaii and subsequently to the continental United States, or whether it was the other way around. But poor man’s ice quickly gained popularity here, and was soon followed by Ecstasy and other mind-altering drugs popular among the rich.

* * *

Today the drug culture is still very much alive. Last year a diplomat complained to me that his young daughter, who was visiting from their country, went to a popular, expensive nightspot in Metro Manila, and was aghast to be offered a plateful of all sorts of pills. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, as the Jefferson Airplane crooned.

Other club personnel went around, offering similar plates to guests, the girl told her dad; the pills were apparently part of the entry package. The club, as far as I know, is still doing brisk business.

Drugs and I don’t go well together, but I had numerous friends who liked the stuff. Several of them overdosed and died before they were 30.

Apart from destroying lives or killing users outright, drugs are a major source of corruption. Drug money has to be the only reason why convicted drug traffickers continue to run their operations even from within the confines of the maximum-security section of the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa. It’s surely no coincidence that drug traffickers are the inmates who enjoy five-star accommodations and VIP treatment wherever they are incarcerated.

Drug dealers are also the ones who are deported under questionable circumstances by immigration officials, who are allowed to post bail by crooked judges, and who escape with little effort even from supposedly maximum-security detention at the National Bureau of Investigation and right inside PNP headquarters at Camp Crame.

The nation should worry that even a former top anti-narcotics officer has just been busted by members of his former agency for large-scale drug dealing.

If this problem isn’t dealt with decisively soon, we could one day see the kind of corruption and deadly violence that rocked Colombia for a long time, and which continues to plague countries such as Mexico.













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