Commentary: How drug cartels fight back

First of 2 parts

A FEW weeks after Duterte was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential elections, the image of someone wrapped so exquisitely like a mummy with a packaging tape shocked our country. Found on May 30, 2016 in San Fernando, Cebu, the body came with a handwritten note: “Tulisan ko! DU30 (I am a thief! DU30).”

When it was found that the body belonged to a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, anti-Duterte LGBT folks used this picture to nag the conscience of their pro-Duterte peers. As a pro-Duterte transsexual woman, I was not moved by their antics. I was actually fascinated by how the person was killed.

According to my research in July 2016, there was someone executed in a similar style at least as early as 2008. On June 21, 2008, an unidentified man was found “along the road in Barangay Sto. Niño, Paombong, Bulacan…[His] head was wrapped with packaging tape and has two gunshot wounds in the body” (Northern Philippine Times, “5 salvage victims surface in Ecija”).

Even during the Aquino administration, there were already dead people wrapped in packaging tape. The earliest I could find online was February 16, 2011: two men were found in R-10 bridge in Navotas; one of them had his face covered with tape (ABS-CBN, “2 salvage victims dumped in Navotas City”). And on April 9, 2016, in different areas in Manila, two dead men, heads wrapped in packaging tape (ABS-CBN, “2 salvage victims natagpuan sa Maynila”).

News was replete with these incidents in the past, but the outrage against them only surfaced during the Duterte administration. Some even accuse Duterte of being behind these incidents. Yet they are most probably the work of drug syndicates. At least one incident could lend support to this angle.

Last year, Las Piñas police apprehended a vehicle that refused to stop at their checkpoint. They gave chase and shot it out with the men riding in the car. The police found in the car “the corpse of a suspected summary-execution victim, whose face and hands were wrapped in packaging tape.” (GMA News Online, “3 killed in Las Piñas shootout; summary-execution victim’s body recovered,” September 4, 2016). If it were Duterte who ordered this execution, he should have given protection to these hit men rather than let them be killed by the police.

The body found in Cebu intrigued me. Not just his head, but his whole body was wrapped in packaging tape. In Mexico, this execution style is called “encintado.” The handwritten note accompanying it, a “narcomensaje.” Search Google images for “encintado Mexico” and you would find links to news reports in Mexico about bodies wrapped like the one in Cebu. In fact, a week after that body was found in Cebu, a similarly mummified body was found in Guanajuato, Mexico (Provincia, “Localizan cuerpo embolsado y con un mensaje en Pénjamo,” June 10, 2016).

In The Narcomedia: A Reader’s Guide, anthropologist Paul K. Eiss analyzed how drug cartels utilize the media in order to send their message of terror to their rivals, the society, and the government. Often accompanied by brutally killed bodies, the narcomensaje “is a handwritten sign, crudely scrawled on paper or cardboard, it bears menacing though often opaque messages from the drug traffickers…Sometimes they identify the violence as a punishment meted out to informers, extortionists, kidnappers, or competing dealers,” Eiss explained.

The note accompanying the body in Cebu was addressed to Duterte. Anti-Duterte forces had interpreted this as a foretaste of what Duterte would do when he finally assumed office.

For me, it was more like a warning message to Duterte, just like what Caballeros Templarios did to Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Significantly less gruesome than what Duterte got, the message Caballeros Templarios sent to Nieto was written in a banner. It warned Nieto to fulfil his campaign promise to change the drug war policy of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon; otherwise, they would continue defending their turf (Proceso, “En narcomantas, Caballeros Templarios dan la bienvenida a Peña,” December 19, 2012).

With a mission to destroy the apparatus of the narco-trade, Duterte promised to be harsh against drug syndicates — from their street-level pushers to their government protectors. The body in Cebu was most probably a drug syndicate’s response to this promise. The message: If Duterte would not hesitate to use violence against them, they would not also shrink from using it to defend their business and unleash terror in society.

In Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican “Drug War”: An Anthropological Perspective, anthropologist Howard Campbell called drug syndicates’ unleashing of terror “a spectacle of symbolic/orchestrated violence for public view.” This spectacle involves dreadful public display of brutally murdered bodies, bearing handwritten messages, which are “frequently calculated for maximum propagandistic impact,” Campbell explained. “The victims of drug killings are deliberately dumped in open view…The appearance of murdered corpses or the deposition of bodies is often timed in order for them to be covered in specific time slots on local television shows.”

This violent propaganda is one of the tactics used by drug syndicates to execute their chosen strategy to fight back at a government committed to suppress to the hilt their operations. In the second part of this column, I will focus on unpacking that strategy.

(Published in The Manila Times on 14 September 2017)

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