Drug problem in Philippine town reflects nationwide struggle

7 Sep

This news feature piece was published last August 31 at Asian Correspondent. It was re-submitted on Sept. 13. The article can be found here

How I came across this story was serendipitous. Our househelp actually gave me ‘Rhena’s’ contact details, since she was her grade school friend. I visited her when we went to the province, and voila, a story!

This article was also quite well-received by the class. Sir Arao said the story was well-written and there were no glaring errors. The structure and flow of the story was also appropriate to a news feature. Some constructive criticism I received for this was that there were some missing links, although all in all the links I gave were relevant. Sir Arao also told me that instead of linking to Lingayen, Pangasinan, I should indicate instead the distance relative to Manila to make it more relatable to foreign audiences.

Vehicles coming in from Manila have to pass through the idyllic, little barangay of Buer, Aguilar before reaching the capital of Lingayen in Pangasinan. Thriving mainly on farming products such as corn and rice, it looks to be a simple place ideal for escape from urban frivolities.

However, something sinister lurks in the corners of the town’s dusty roads. Electric posts and bus stops are plastered with cardboard signs bearing anti-drug sentiments like “Yes to God, No to Drugs” and “Pag-iwas sa droga ay paglapit sa Diyos (To avoid drugs is to get closer to God).”

A young woman living in a nipa hut close the field snorts derisively when asked what she thought of the slogans: “It’s a waste of money. The addicts don’t take them seriously so it doesn’t help at all.”

The woman is Rhena (not her real name), a 23-year-old housewife. Her husband, Jerry (also not his real name), works as one of the many farmers tending to the nearby field.

“If these signs really worked, then they should have saved my brother,” she adds.

Rhena’s 17-year-old brother Allan (also not his real name) is addicted to methamphetamine, commonly referred to in the Philippine vernacular as ‘shabu.’

Last year, Allan was supposed to start working as a carrier of chicken feeds, but on August, he ran away to Manila.

She says that just before he left for good, he used to visit her at odd times. She remembers him talking rapidly and sweating heavily even during chilly nights.

She even recalls a time when Allan came to her asking for money. He became aggressive when she refused; her husband threw him out and he never visited again.

“My parents don’t know either where he got the money to go to Manila. It’s been seven months and we don’t know if he’s still there,” she adds.

When asked why she thinks Allan took drugs in the first place, her answer is straightforward: “We’re poor. Doesn’t shabu numb your hunger?”

As one of the most potent forms of amphetamine, short-term effects of ‘shabu’ include feelings of euphoria, heightened alertness, heart palpitations and reduced hunger. The long-term effects, however, are far more gruesome: malnutrition, skin disorders, permanent pyschological problems and possible brain damage are only some of the repercussions waiting at the end of the road for ‘shabu’ addicts.

A Commonplace Case

Allan is only one of the many youths falling victim to the dangerous allure of drugs in Aguilar.

According to Buer resident Teresita Paragas, drug use especially among the youth has been a problem since time immemorial.

“[Allan’s] case is nothing new. There are many unreported drug cases not only here in the barangay, but for the entire town.”

The Philippine Standard Geographic Code (PSGC), a feature found on the National Statistical Board Coordination (NSDC) website, identified Aguilar as a 3rd class municipality. This places the annual income at P 35 M or more but less than P 45 M.

Despite being a relatively well-off municipality, according to a 2009 State of Local Development Report of Aguilar, the state of health, education and housing is far from commendable.

Add to this the fact that there are no big businesses apart from farming, the lands of which are owned by only a select few out of the 37,000 people residing in the municipality.

This is why, according to Paragas, Aguilar and the 16 barangays under its jurisdiction including Buer, are fighting a long and drawn-out battle against drugs.

“The drug addicts are exactly like [the townspeople] – they do drugs to forget about the hardships they’re going through. They don’t care if they lose the roof, if they don’t have toilets or if they can’t feed their family,” Paragas says, referring to the men and women loudly singing on a communal karaoke machine a few blocks away from her house.

Belen Prado, 57, another longtime resident of Buer, agrees that the situation is worse than what everybody lets on.

She says that during fiestas when security is concentrated inside the area of festivities, teenagers would start fistfights in the street and end up sending someone to the hospital.

“We’d later find out that they’re addicts,” she says.

She also claims that she heard from a neighbor whose friend’s son had been an addict how the drug trade was done in schools. Usually a fellow student would peddle the drugs for free the first few times, slowly building dependency among his or her customers.

“If these peddlers are kids and the parents think they’re close to getting caught, then the parents also send them away. They’d rather see them escape than get them into rehabilitation,” she says, her words echoing Allan’s situation.

According to former Aguilar Police Chief Hilario Toledo, the police force tries to curb if not completely stop drug trade in the town. It isn’t easy, he admits, since it’s very likely that there are powerful people backing up the industry.

He adds that if the drugs come in from Manila, it would be even harder to track.

“Hopefully, with the help of the Pangasinan Anti-Drug Abuse Council (PADAC) and the local branch of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the force would be able to apprehend those at fault,” he says.

A Nationwide Obstacle

They certainly have their job cut out for them as the problem runs deep not only in the community but also throughout the country.

According to data gathered by the Dangerous Drugs Board: In 1972, there were about 20,000 drug users in the country, but in 1999 the number shot up to 3.4 million drug users; 1.8 million are regular users, while another 1.6 million are occasional users. Of the 3.4 million users, 1.2 million are youths.

This is why the drug problem is hard to eliminate. Profits from any of the country’s top corporations are no match to enormous profits earned from the drug trade.

A sprinkle of its earnings could entice corruption and undermine the moral resolve of any government who wishes to engage the problem head-on.

The social costs are even higher. Rape, murder and robberies are only some of the heinous crimes committed by drug addicts.

In remote rural areas such as Aguilar where the national government cannot lend immediate help, any deterrent eases the situation, even if it’s only in the form of a slogan, or a number of concerned citizens.

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