Philippines

Islamist Separatists are Joining the Philippines' Bloody Drug War

What could go wrong?
July 4, 2017, 9:42am
Photo by Keith Kristoffer Bacongco/ Wikimedia Commons License

The Philippines "Punisher" Rodrigo Duterte has recruited an unlikely ally in his brutal war on drugs: Islamist separatists. Duterte's government inked a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) last last week with the goal of eradicating drugs from the restive Mindanao region.

"There was an offer by the MILF to help [in anti-drug operations] in MILF-influenced areas so we have to involve them," Isidro Lapeña, the director of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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It's the latest sign of cooperation between Duterte's government and MILF rebels. MILF, which ended its decades-long insurgency in 2014, previously agreed to aid security forces in their fight to retake Marawi from rival Islamist rebels by providing fleeing residents with a "peace corridor" through its territory. MILF officials now say they are interested in helping the government tackle drug trafficking in the southern Philippines.

"With the election of Duterte as president of this country, and his hardline policy on drugs, the campaign of the MILF against drugs finds comfort," the group wrote in a statement posted to their website.

Under the agreement, MILF will expand existing anti-drug programs in its communities while also coordinating with government security forces, providing the names of suspected drug traffickers and placing drug dealers under citizens arrest.

Any additional cooperation, or the involvement of MILF combatants in direct police actions against drug traffickers, was still under discussion, explained a lawyer representing the group. The main goal, the attorney said, was limiting "misencounters," between police and MILF forces.

The agreement is not without its issues. Today, MILF are vocally opposed to drug use, going as far as declaring the use, sale, or production of shabu "haram" in 2015.

But the group has been implicated in drug trafficking in the past. Islamist militants have long funded their operations with the sale of illegal drugs. Abu Sayyaf has been accused of running a protection racket for narco syndicates. The ISIS-linked Maute clan who seized Marawi were allegedly selling huge amounts of shabu on the side. And areas of Mindanao under MILF control were littered with meth labs for years.

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MILF seemed to turn a corner on drug trafficking after the 2014 peace agreement, when the group realized that it might have to help govern an autonomous region full of powerful, and well-connected, drug syndicates.

According to one estimate, more than 70 percent of Mindanao's villages were rife with drug use. And police have been reluctant to stage any large-scale anti-drug raids in the region, out of fear that one of these "misencounters" could damage the ceasefire.

"We do not have a problem before with the conduct of anti-illegal drugs in other areas, but [there are] many difficulties in MILF-controlled areas," Earl Baliao, the chairman of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, told Rappler.

Then there's the human rights issue. Duterte's war on drugs has left more than 7,000 dead in a wave of state-sponsored carnage that threatens to shake the very foundations of the country's legal system. Duterte already faced allegations that he had committed crimes against humanity and a failed call for his impeachment within his first year in office.

But on the streets, Duterte's popularity continues to soar, with as much as 70 percent of the population viewing him favorably, according to recent polls.

Meanwhile, there's a growing body of evidence that these extra-judicial drug killings are being used to mask murders over personal grudges. And now, as police ask MILF militants for a whole new list of names, it remains to be seen who, exactly, will end up on the so-called "kill list," next.