There are so many drugs washing up in the Philippines that police are offering bags of rice to locals who hand in bricks of cocaine. Seven packages were found bobbing around in the waters just off Mauban, in Quezon province, on Sunday—all of them containing coke, with a collective street value of about 35 million pesos ($970,000 AUD). Earlier this year, more than 100 kilograms of cocaine was similarly discovered floating off the country’s east coast. And between February and April the Philippine National Police (PNP) seized more than 200 kilograms of the stuff in those same waters, the ABC reports.
It’s not clear where the drugs are coming from, or who exactly is responsible for the rising influx, but authorities suspect the packages were most probably intended to reach Australia's shores. Police have previously suggested at least some of the cocaine that’s been showing up in the Philippines might be part of a larger shipment that was intercepted near Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands at the end of last year—potentially cast overboard while the smugglers were being pursued by the PNG navy.
"Way back in September they [local authorities] found around 500 kilograms of cocaine on the Solomon Islands through the help of the Australian Federal Police, with the same packaging, so we think these may have drifted to us," PNP director-general Oscar Albayalde told CNN Philippines in February. "The probability is that they were supposed to be delivered to Australia because the market is good there for cocaine."
The South Pacific drug trafficking route has become popular in recent years, most likely for this very reason: the cocaine industry is booming in Australia and New Zealand, and the quickest and easiest way for South American cultivators to get their product into that lucrative market is for smugglers to sail straight through the oceanic archipelago.
The Philippines isn’t the first country to be hit with the strange dilemma of pre-packaged drugs washing up on their tropical beaches, either. Last year, some 120 parcels of cocaine were found on the shores of Fijian islands within the space of a few months, and similarly-marked packages also turned up in Tonga a short while before that. At one point, a 20 kilogram brick of coke was found floating in the waters off the east coast of Australia.
In places like Fiji and Tonga, this inundation of narcotics has started to have a profound impact on local communities. The Guardian recently reported that, in the year 2017-18, arrests for drug-related crimes in Fiji nearly doubled from 685 to 1,061. St Giles psychiatric hospital in Suva, the nation’s capital, reported that close to 20 percent of its patients between May 2017 and April 2018 had substance abuse issues. In Tonga, doctors are starting to see a sharp increase in the number of patients presenting with addictions to methamphetamines—another so-called “white drug” that is commonly ferried along the South Pacific drug highway.
In the Philippines, authorities don’t seem to be quite so concerned. Speaking to CNN in February, Albayalde insisted the packages of the drug could not have been intended for Filipino communities as there’s no local market for cocaine there. And indeed, police’s “rice-for-coke” strategy speaks volumes about the amount of faith they have in local do-gooders.
Police in the Caraga region started offering the sacks of rice in February as an incentive for people to hand cocaine over to local authorities. It’s not clear whether a single person has been tempted by that offer.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.