‘Chinese-looking’ divers may be searching for cocaine at sea – PDEA

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The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency is monitoring several "Chinese-looking" persons spotted diving in Bicol and CARAGA regions, possibly in search for cocaine left at sea.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 12) — The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) said it is monitoring several "Chinese-looking" divers suddenly exploring the waters of Bicol and Caraga regions, possibly in search of floating cocaine.

PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino said the agency received reports of some divers suddenly taking interest in the waters in these two regions even if these spots are not known to be diving sites.

"We are now conducting investigations because marami tayong nakikitang mga Chinese-looking persons na nagco-conduct ng diving diyan sa mga areas na 'yan kung saan ang discoveries ng cocaine pero hindi naman diving sites [We're seeing a number of Chinese-looking persons going diving in those areas where cocaine has been discovered, even though those are not diving sites]," Aquino said in a press briefing in Malacañang on Thursday.

"It will be a cover-up na kunwari nagda-dive sila, but maybe they are trying to search other cocaine in that particular waters."

Since last year, authorities have recovered multiple blocks of cocaine found floating at sea or washed ashore in Camarines Norte and Dinagat Islands which are said to be cumulatively worth nearly ₱1 billion. Other hauls were found in Siargao island, Surigao del Norte, and Quezon.

"These discoveries of cocaine is not intended locally, it's not being consumed by our country. It's for the consumption of other countries such as Australia, Japan, and China," the PDEA chief said. "We are being used as a transshipment point."

TIMELINE: Floating cocaine blocks in PH waters

Some 20 samples of cocaine were sent to the United States Department of Agriculture for testing. Aquino said 19 of these were traced to come from Colombia, while one came from Peru.

He explained that cocaine is shipped through cargo ships and are later on picked up by smaller vessels but strong currents or problems at sea stopped these drug smugglers from recovering the illegal substances. Aquino again asked for the help of the Coast Guard, Navy, and maritime police to keep illegal drugs out, as he shared that PDEA has been in touch with foreign counterparts for information sharing.

READ: Fisherman arrested for keeping 6 out of 40 cocaine blocks he found in Surigao waters

He cited the recent capture of alleged drug lord Hong Liangyi, the supposed head of the Dragon Wu International Syndicate behind the biggest drug laboratories in the Philippines.

Aquino said PDEA is coordinating with the Narcotics Board of China to "neutralize and arrest" members of the Dragon Wu group. He added that authorities in Mexico and Colombia have also provided information on drug syndicates.

PDEA earlier said Dragon Wu traces its roots to the so-called "Golden Triangle” area which is notorious for being the world's foremost drug-producing region. He added that the Chinese national ran the drug laboratories discovered in Ibaan, Batangas; Tagaytay; and Malabon.

Fewer deaths

Meanwhile, the government again revised its data on killings related on the war on drugs.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Assistant Secretary Marie Rafael said deaths from anti-drug operations totaled 5,552 since 2016, lower than the 6,700 figure announced earlier this year by resigned Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Oscar Albayalde. She said data has been harmonized, which showed that the over 1,000 deaths previously counted resulted from police operations rather than anti-drug initiatives.

Aquino also revealed that the PDEA and the Dangerous Drugs Board are working on a survey of drug users in the Philippines due early 2020, as he admitted that the initial estimate of 4 million was "not accurate" or "scientific."

'Open up'

Aquino added that he is anticipating what Vice President Leni Robredo will reveal about the Duterte government's anti-drug operations following her two-week stint as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD).

"I urge her to open up. Hindi kailangang itago [There's no need to hide]. Kung ano 'yung discoveries na nakita niya, whether it's good or bad for the administration, go," Aquino said, as he criticized Robredo's "missteps" as ICAD chief for meeting foreign groups instead of the body's units.

Both PDEA and PNP said they welcome Robredo's tell-all report, adding they hope to use her recommendations to improve the crackdown on illegal drugs. President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Robredo as anti-drug czar last month, only to fire her two weeks later.

Aquino said there are about 186 local drug groups and 12,000 high-value targets that PDEA is after.