, March 8, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacańang vowed yesterday to dismantle drug syndicates and eliminate the country’s "serious drug problem" following a US report that the Philippines was becoming a haven for drug smugglers.

"We recognize that much more needs to be done in curbing the illegal drug trade, but calling the Philippines a drug smugglers’ haven is stretching it too far," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in a statement yesterday.

Bunye said authorities continued to dismantle drug laboratories, arrest and convict drug traffickers and have "heavily constricted the supply of illegal drugs on the streets."

"Our anti-narcotics agents are deeply committed and focused on getting the job done; we have worked closely with allies, including the United States, in checking drug smugglers and their deadly contraband," he said.

"A drug-free Philippines is still our goal," Bunye said, adding that the government was taking decisive steps to attain it.

On the other hand, Sen. Manuel Villar Jr., Senate committee on public order and illegal drugs chairman, said yesterday the US government report on international narcotics control should serve as a wakeup call for Filipino authorities that the problem of illegal drugs exists in the country.

"They need to be more vigilant and aggressive if they want to achieve a drug-free Philippines by 2010," he said.

Villar said there is still an urgent need for Filipino authorities to step up their campaign against drug addiction and drug trafficking.

"We don’t need other countries or international agencies to tell us that our country’s drug situation continues to worsen," he said. "We should treat such negative reports about us as a challenge to continue our anti-drugs campaign and programs."

Villar said the US State Department’s report confirms his belief that drug addiction was connected with criminality.

But Sen. Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. said the US report was unfair, considering the recent accomplishments of authorities in fighting drug syndicates.

"The statement is very disappointing because it will definitely have an impact on our economy," he said. "Well-meaning investors might shy away from the country."

But Revilla said authorities should take the report seriously and "begin introspecting on their performances."

"Our government should put more premium on the anti-illegal drug campaign and pour in more resources and logistics," he said.

In its 2006 International Narcotics Control Report, the US State Department said the illegal drug trade in the Philippines had evolved into a billion-dollar industry.

The annual report, a requirement of the US Congress, assesses efforts of other countries to combat the illegal drugs trade.

"The Philippines is a narcotics source and transshipment country," the report said.

"Illegal drugs enter the country through seaports, economic zones, and airports. With over 36,200 kilometers of coastline and 7,000 islands, the Philippine archipelago is a drug smuggler’s paradise."

The Philippines also continues to experience an increase in foreign organized criminal activities from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the US State Department report added.

It said rebel groups source part of their funding from trafficking narcotics and arms, as well as money laundering through alleged ties to organized crime.

"There is little cash and negligible amounts of US dollars used in the transactions, except for the small amounts of narcotics that make it all the way to the United States for street sale," the report said. "Drugs circulated within the Philippines are usually exchanged for local currency."

The report referred to the Philippines as a regional financial center where most narcotics trafficking through the country is done through letters of credit. — With Marvin Sy

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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