The Deadliest Drug War in Asia

Drug smugglers are making fast and agile changes to their supply chains in record time.

In a record speed befitting a first-class military operation, drug smugglers in Philippine ports shifted their trafficking to airport channels amid the pandemic, highlighting the tremendous challenge of fighting the well-funded drug trade.

Smugglers of illegal drugs, including crystal meth, made a drastic shift within a relatively short span of months, from port operations to airport mail and parcel channels in 2020, when the global pandemic forced strict lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus.

This recent trend of drug smugglers making fast and agile changes in their supply chains to shift their illegal transactions to air shipments from sea routes during the pandemic shows that they have the entrepreneurial spirit, foresight, capability and financial strength to quickly respond to any crisis.  

This trait makes it so much more difficult for the authority to fight the illegal drug trade.  However, the Duterte administration is determined to mitigate this threat to national security.

Shipments of meth, other drugs remain problematic

Despite its decline last year, the shipment of illegal drug remains a perennial problem for Philippine authorities, with hundreds of millions of pesos worth confiscated annually at the country’s borders and entry points in the last four years.

Aside from crystal meth, smuggling of other illegal drugs such as the “party pill,” Ecstacy, through airport channels surged in 2020, with authorities seizing 36,982 tablets shipped through airport mail and parcel – an increase of more than ten times compared to 2019.

Huge volumes of the anti-anxiety pills Clonazepam and Dizaepam shipped the same way were also seized by the anti-narcotics agency, the first time in four years, impounding 9,170 and 26,160 tablets of the drugs respectively.

Other illegal substances from overseas confiscated by authorities in 2020 include 15 kilograms of kush and four liters of marijuana oil resin.

Challenges of patrolling Philippine seas and ports

Given the vast and porous geographical landscape of the Philippines, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s cited the challenges in guarding the Southeast Asian country’s border, which span some 36,000 kilometers of coast line.

“It does have an implication on the country’s security because the archipelagic nature of our country’s borders makes it challenging for authorities to monitor and safeguard our porous borders,” Derrick Carreon, the spokesperson of the anti-narcotics agency told Maritime Fairtrade, describing their current dilemma.

“This is also why our country is a potential transshipment point for illegal drugs,” he added, saying that border security and control measures are being intensified in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies such as the coast guard.

Commodore Armand Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard, shares the same sentiment with Carreon about the difficulty of monitoring the country’s vast swathes of maritime territory, adding that the country’s relatively small number of ships also compound the problem.

“Our coast line is vast and our ships are just a few,” Balilo said in another interview with Maritime Fairtrade, saying their fleet has about 15 capital ships in rotation tasked to conduct patrols at sea.

Balilo said the coast guard is currently putting up eleven more radar stations in locations across the country where they consider maritime traffic to be high to ramp up monitoring.


coast guard ship with crew on board, Philippines


A coast guard ship preparing for a routine day patrol near Manila port, the bustling, main trade harbor at the Philippine capital.

Duterte’s fixation on the illegal drug trade

Crystal meth is one of the most readily sold substances in the local illegal drugs market and is a frequent haul of law enforcement officers during operations.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described small city mayor from the south who won the popular vote when he ran for office in 2016, has publicly expressed his disdain with the drug trade multiple times, saying it will destroy society someday if left unchecked.

He promised to eradicate the scourge of illegal drugs during his term, stepping up his rhetoric and the government’s anti-drugs campaign to a level not seen before his time.

Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s close and trusted aide who also stands as his chief presidential legal counsel, said that the Philippine leader saw the extent of the problem in his city during his time as mayor and its crippling multiplier effect on the lives of Filipinos.

 “If just one member of the family gets involved with drugs, everyone gets dragged down. That is why we must eradicate the drug menace in this country,” Panelo said in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade.

“If he didn’t declare the war on drugs, we would’ve never known its extent. Many in this generation would’ve died or have their lives ruined,” he added, justifying Duterte’s tough stance on drugs which many critics have characterized as brutal and unforgiving.

According to government estimates, more than 6,000 people involved in some way with the illegal drug trade have been killed in legitimate police sting operations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the other hand, puts the casualties at a conservative estimate of more than 8,600 people, including those killed by police authorities as well as those purportedly murdered by vigilantes.

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