The shakedown state

Print edition : January 06, 2001
The mafia as government in the Philippines.

THE televised drama of the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada has transfixed the Philippines in the last few weeks. The trial and the events leading up to it have, in fact, been a veritable course in the realities of Philippine politics - even for Filipinos themselves. Ever since a close political ally of President Joseph Estrada, a powerful provincial politician named Chavit Singson, alleged over two months ago that he had delivered to the President 400 million pesos (about Rs.375 million) w orth of the take from the illegal numbers game called jueteng, the nation has been forced to absorb one lesson after another, most of them rather unpleasant.

President Joseph Estrada.-AARON FAVILA/AP

One of the most important lessons was driven home to me by a friend from Colombia who has been following the events unfolding in Manila. "In Colombia, the mafia is stronger than the government," he told me. "But you know, we still are luckier than you Fi lipinos." When I asked why, he said, "Because the mafia is the government in your country."

The great German sociologist Max Weber once defined the state as the institution that has a legitimate monopoly over the use of force. This definition is inadequate when it comes to the Philippines, where the state maintains as well a monopoly or near mo nopoly over illegitimate services. Crime and corruption are prominent features of governments the world over, but in the normal state, the sources of corruption are forces that subvert the machinery of government from without. The mafia is not indigenous to the government; it corrupts and subverts public officials from the outside.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, organised crime external to the government apparatus has been rare. Of course, small-time crooks and gangsters have always existed outside the officialdom. Syndicates are, however, another thing. Syndicates - whethe r in gambling, drugs, or kidnapping - are unthinkable without the central organising role played by government officials and politicians.

Even before the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-86), the pattern was for local or regional politicians to absorb petty criminals or toughs into their warlord bands, to be used to muscle into, control, and expand lucrative sub rosa activitie s such as illegal gambling, prostitution, or protection rackets, which served as additional mechanisms to squeeze the economic surplus from the citizenry that could be deployed for increasingly expensive electoral struggles.

The reign of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and early 1980s was another important step in the "mafiasation" of government. The loss of competitive politics at the national, regional, and local levels led to the erosion of the already inadequate checks tha t the government machinery posed to regional and local political clans bent on expanding their access to the social surplus via criminal methods. Marcos-linked political clans were able to bring to a new level - the provincial and in some cases the regio nal - the organisation and control of activities like jueteng, prostitution, and drugs.

AT the same time, the expansion and centralisation of the central administrative machinery that marked the Marcos years opened up tremendous opportunities for economic mobility for middle-class or lower-middle-class bureaucrats. With the traditional elit es maintaining tight control over land and the private sector, the state became the choice arena for entrepreneurship by restive and ambitious elements from the more modest classes. Syndicates or Sindicatos not only flourished in the traditional c esspools of corruption like the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Department of Public Works and Highways but emerged in other agencies such as those on top of agrarian reform, energy, education, and natural resources.

The economic crisis that brought economic growth to virtually zero from 1983 to 1993 made the government's position even more attractive as a site of private capital accumulation, despite the personal probity of the top people in government like Presiden ts Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. Indeed, it was under Aquino that a government reorganisation was undertaken that, unwittingly, created a massive new site of graft. The agency promoting the exploitation of the country's natural resources was joined to that responsible for protecting the environment to form the new Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. The upshot was the creation of tremendous opportunities for money-making via the sale of environmental permits and timber licences to log gers, mining firms, and other private sector entities that had no intention of complying with environmental laws. Solidly entrenched, the mafia was able to thwart efforts at reform by progressive officials until, under the Estrada administration, it fina lly secured the top leadership posts in the agency.

Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda during their exilic life in Honolulu, United States, in 1987, nearly two years after a popular uprising dethroned him as the President of the Philippines.-DAVID HUME KENNERLY/GAMMA

THE consequences of the massive expansion of the security forces under Marcos were similarly explosive. Many in the uniformed elite either lent themselves out as enforcers for local or national cronies of the dictator or carved out new illegal sources of income to supplement salaries that, more often than not, failed to match their new political role and status. By the time the Marcos regime ended, not a few officers had discovered that their command over men and firepower could be translated into succe ssful entepreneurship in the form of kidnapping the rich - especially rich Chinese - for ransom. Why, they reasoned, should this extremely profitable business be left to petty gangsters? With the perquisites of command and payoffs from politicians dimini shing after the 1986 People Power Revolution that dislodged Marcos, and with the economic crisis deepening under the succeeding Aquino administration, the organisation of kidnappings moved higher and higher up the chain of command of the military and the police. Ordinary gangsters could never mount the sophisticated operations that involved getting inside knowledge of the net worth of prospective targets from within the banking system. Indeed, when regular gangsters sought to organise independently of t he military and the police, they found out the hard way that the men in uniform would brook no competition. Some observers contend that this was the significance of the total rub-out of the upstart Kuratong Baleleng Gang a few years back, an operation ca rried out by security elites closely associated with the then Vice-President Estrada, like Panfilo Lacson, now the country's top police officer.

FROM a sociological point of view, the most interesting item to come out of the revelations about the division of the spoils of the jueteng gambling racket is that the main project of the Estrada administration was to centralise crime under the pr esidency. Under Estrada, the most profitable criminal activities like jueteng were to be rationalised, with a sub rosa bureaucracy stretching from the President to the smallest jueteng collector paralleling and intertwining at key points wi th the formal hierarchy of government. What was exposed in the jueteng scandal was probably only the tip of the iceberg. Were the worlds of prostitution, drugs, and kidnapping also on the way to becoming equally centralised under Estrada? Many Fil ipinos are convinced they were, and are awaiting revelations about the drug-related financial take of the now-impeached President that might surface in the Senate trial.

Had the Estrada project not been disrupted, the President would have become the apex of both the state and the underworld. This was the real Estrada Revolution - and Filipinos had thought the man was stupid!

Removing Estrada from office will probably be only the first step in decriminalising the Philippine state. For what Filipinos are up against is a disease that is far advanced and in varying degrees of being institutionalised centrally. Which is why it is important that the next chief executive must be above suspicion when it comes to the question of ties to the underworld. The main reason many people are apprehensive about Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assuming office is that she is the godmoth er of the child of a man, Bong Pineda, who has been tagged one of the country's top illegal gambling lords. Ritual kinship bespeaks extremely close personal ties, and we Filipinos know that we cannot kick out Estrada only to make way for somebody who mig ht complete the 'mafiasation' of the Philippine state.

Dr. Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South, a research, analysis, and advocacy programme of the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute, and Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines.

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