A Meth Dealer Talks About Dodging Death in the Philippines
"Everyone around here is selling; it's just more hush-hush since the new president. We have to be more careful about who we offer it to."
An Al Jazeera image via Flickr user Prachatai
Since July 1 Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs has seen around 2,500 people executed. That's about 38 every day. The Filipino president argues he's weaning the nation off methamphetamines, but a recent visit showed me that's not the full picture.
It started in inner-city Manila where I was trying to convince a street vendor I didn't want Viagra. After a lot of back and forth, Marco (let's call him Marco) gave up, leaned in, and made it clear he could supply me with anything.
Marco was obviously high. His swollen pupils told me he hadn't slept in days, but I was fascinated. On an impulse I offered to take him out to lunch, and over beers and a plate of chicken, the 47-year-old practicing Muslim explained (in pretty good English) how the local drug market struggles on, despite the bloodshed.
VICE: So you sell meth?
Marco: Yes, but we call it shabu.
And you use it yourself?
I have to. I work three or four days in a row without sleeping because if I stop the money stops. I can't let the money stop. I have four children and a wife I need to feed and take care of them. My eldest child is only 13 and three of them are at school.
Is this why you take the risk with dealing, for your family?
Of course. I want them to have the opportunities I didn't have, like education, and this is the only way I can do it. This is why most people are still doing it. We have to take care of our families. I'm a poor man. I sleep on the streets and send what I can back to my family living in the province. I didn't go to school and there aren't many options for people who don't go to school. You just have to do what you can when you can't read or write. It's really hard in the city.
Are there many people like you who are still selling?
You know all those people on the street who are trying to sell you things like watches and sunglasses? All of them will sell you shabu too. Everyone around here is selling; it's just more hush-hush since the new president. We have to be more careful about who we offer it to.
Does everyone know the street vendors are also drug dealers?
All the locals know. All the people working in the hotels, bars, and shops around here—even the local police know. Everyone knows me, they see me every day. I've been in the area for 20 years doing the same thing. But it's hard to know who to trust now. The police in Manila are killing but before some were helping. I don't know about the police around here. I just try to not talk to them anymore.
Where does your shabu come from?
My boss. He is a vendor who works around here too. He has a house nearby and if I get a customer I go to the house to collect the order. Most of the shabu in this country comes from China.
How much has your business changed since President Duterte declared war on drugs?
At first everyone went quiet. We were hearing about people getting killed so everyone got scared and stopped selling. Two months ago I wouldn't have spoken to you but it's starting to get back on the streets now. It's like people have become immune to the fear.
So you're not scared anymore?
I am still scared, everyone is still very scared. But I don't have a choice. There isn't enough money if I don't sell. I just have to be careful.
Has anyone you know been hurt?
Dealers around here haven't really been affected because there are so many tourists and lots of CCTV, which makes it harder for them to take people. I've heard of some suppliers who have disappeared though.
Who do you sell to?
I sell to a lot of tourists but my main customers live in Manila. I have customers from Australia, America, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. They are the best customers because they work in office jobs and have money to buy large amounts. But a lot of my Filipino customers are taxi drivers and other people who work more than 24 hours and need to stay awake to feed their families.
How much profit do you keep from what you sell?
I only get a small amount. I give profit to my boss and he pays his boss and he pays his boss, it goes all the way to the top. This is why the president has it all wrong. If you want to get rid of a problem, you have to dig out the roots. You can't just cut off a tree's leaves and expect the problem to go away. We are just the little guys and the leaves will grow back.
Do you think shabu is harming your country?
I think the real problem is that people have to look for ways to survive. There aren't enough jobs or money for every Filipino. There are 25 million people in Manila and we have to work very long and hard to get by. Shabu makes people feel good and helps them stay awake to work more.
Do you consider yourself a good person?
God didn't give me a lot but I'm lucky he gave me a good brain and heart. All I can do is try to be the best person I can with what I've got. But now I'm even losing even that. The president is taking away the only thing I was good at.
Check out more of Jess' work at comfortisforwimps.com