Commentary: Hide or fight? Strategic options of drug cartels

Last of 2 parts
DISCUSSED in the first part of this series (“How drug cartels fight back,” September 14, 2017) are some of the tactics used by drug syndicates to fight back at the government. That includes forms of violent propaganda, such as public display of brutally killed bodies, meant to frighten their target audience—rivals, communities, the government. As promised, this part will unpack the strategic choices that guides the tactics carried out by drug syndicates.

Key to this are the 2012 PhD dissertation on logics of violence in criminal war of political scientist Brian Lessing at the University of California, Berkeley, and its 2015 version in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

The insights that Lessing distilled from the drug wars in three Latin American states (Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil) could help elucidate what drug syndicates have been doing in our country during the Aquino and Duterte administrations. After all, drug syndicates anywhere in the world face the same strategic contexts; hence, they aim to do the same thing: influence policy.

Drug syndicates operate in the face of state repression. Lessing argued that drug cartels’ choice of strategy is conditioned by the intensity of repressive force that the government uses to enforce its anti-narcotics law.

This repression can either be conditional or unconditional. Repression is unconditional if “the state simply tries to ‘put the drug trade out of business,’ by neutralizing as many drug dealers and interdicting as much drugs as possible,” Lessing explained. It is conditional if the government shows some kind of leniency towards drug syndicates, such as less crackdowns.

In the face of conditional state repression, drug syndicates resort to “hiding” strategies; to “fighting” strategies when state repression increasingly becomes more unconditional.

Hiding strategy entails relying “overwhelmingly on material inducements” to influence policy, Lessing said. Hiding strategies are corruption, i.e. bribing the police and judges; and lobbying, i.e. buying off politicians by providing campaign funds, which is the essence of narco-politics.

Meanwhile, fighting strategies influence policy with the aid of violence. Corruption becomes violent when law enforcers are threatened with being killed if they do not accept the bribe. A choice between bullet or bribe. Lobbying turns violent if drug syndicates employ terrorist tactics, such as unleashing public display of brutally killed bodies. Rather rare, “violent lobbying…are carried out by means of terror tactics calculated to generate a sense of crisis and attendant political costs for leaders,” Lessing explained.

By looking at the number of crackdowns, we could surmise which strategies were most probably employed by drug syndicates during the Aquino and Duterte administrations.

According to the annual reports of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), during the Aquino administration the number of anti-illegal drugs operations from 2011 to 2015 was around 75,608. In its first year, the Duterte administration has already reached 93.7 percent of that number: from July 2016 to August 2017, there are already 70,854 anti-illegal drugs operations.

In the previous administration, drug syndicates most probably employed hiding strategies as crackdowns against them were considerably lower.

Bribing police officers and engaging in narco-politics seemed to have been what were done by the Parojinogs, who were both illegal drug trade operators and politicians in Ozamiz City. As could be inferred from what Chief Insp. Jovie Espenido said, the Parojinogs attempted to bribe him the moment he was assigned there. This indicates that they could have been doing it already with previous police officers, hence “past police chiefs haven’t performed well,” Espenido said (Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 2, 2017).

Sure, drug syndicates did employ violence during the Aquino administration. But it seems they were mostly targeting their people who could not remit; rivals in turf wars, just like in Dumaguete City and Caloocan City in 2014 and Pasay/Makati City in 2015; and their members who got caught, just like the Sinaloa cartel’s plot to assassinate their alleged members who were caught in the Philippines in 2014. There was also at least one instance of drug syndicates threatening journalists who expose them, such as how the Ovictas attacked a radio station in Iloilo in February 2016.

Now that drug syndicates face unconditional repression, is it not reasonable to believe that they are resorting to violent lobbying techniques to tame the Duterte administration’s agenda to destroy their organizational apparatus—from their street-level pushers to their government protectors?

Violent lobbying intends to harm physically the leader, through assassination, or “inflict indirect, political costs by using violence to sow social and economic disruption,” Lessing explained. “Violence,” he continued, “is likely to be clustered in time to foment a crisis.” The goal is to shape public opinion to favor a more lenient policy towards the drug trade.

Right before and after Duterte became President, our country got bombarded by a public spectacle of killings committed by a lot of unknown assailants. The images and stories of the victims rend hearts and nag one’s conscience. The consequence: international outrage against the policy of Duterte against drug syndicates, a clamor for Duterte to stop the killings.

The bleeding hearts see the dead bodies but ignore the context where they emerged: cartel-state conflict.

The result: drug syndicates are rendered invisible, the government becomes the only belligerent in this war.

(Published in The Manila Times on 19 September 2017)

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