APRIL - JUNE 2002
VOL. VIII   NO. 2

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Blood for Shabu

Shabu addicts abound in Tondo's narrow alleys. [Photo by RICK ROCAMORA] by Howie G. Severino

IN THE shanty neighborhoods along the rubbish-strewn esteros here, goods are not normally delivered. Except for one: shabu.

You need not have a phone to order. You can stand on one side of the estero and just clap your hands twice, like the way comedy shows parody the rich demanding service. In a few moments, a scrawny delivery man will appear on the other side, get on an improvised raft of discarded styrofoam packaging tied together, and row to your side with the merchandise in his pocket.

No matter how bad the economy gets, it will always be boom times for shabu, in even the poorest neighborhoods like this one. Sold in tiny amounts easy to conceal and craved by countless addicts, trade in this drug - metamphetamine hydrochloride - has flourished since the 1980s, despite numerous crackdowns and government pronouncements that shabu is one of the biggest threats to society.

The sensational allegations last year by government intelligence chief Victor Corpus even portrayed a state virtually held captive by "narcopolitics," with its alleged chief mastermind, Senator Panfilo Lacson, a likely candidate for president in the coming decade. No matter the truth of these allegations, shabu does seem to have some powerful patrons; otherwise, it won't be so commonplace.

Long before mass marketing made shabu available on the street, shabu addiction had been rife among showbiz celebrities and the upper class. In some rural towns in war-torn Mindanao, shabu is the only profitable business, with rivals shooting it out for control of the trade.

In most of these places, there is at least the general recognition that shabu addiction is a scourge from which its victims need saving. Yet here in this part of Tondo, the drug seems to have been embedded as part of normal society.

The addicts here are matter-of-fact, not proud, of what they call their bisyo (vice). They are proud, though, that unlike other addicts, they do not steal to satisfy their cravings. Instead, they sell their blood to commercial blood banks, making P220 for every 500-cubic-centimeter bag.

Shared with friends, that buys enough shabu for a daylong high. The crystal-like drug comes in foil packets called piso, which are really worth P100 each; a piso packet contains two rice-grain-sized pebbles of shabu.

"It's better to inconvenience ourselves than to take from others," says Dodong, not the real name of a Tondo addict, speaking in the rapid-fire Tagalog of Manila's inner city.

Rare are the honest means for the unemployed to get quick cash. So every morning, men in shorts, sandos and slippers line up outside the nearly two dozen commercial blood banks concentrated in downtown Manila. When asked, most would insist they need the money to buy food. But Dodong and his friends say they recognize more than a few as fellow addicts.

The law requires commercial blood banks to test blood donors for a range of diseases, including HIV, hepatitis, and malaria. Those with recent tattoos are prohibited from donating or selling their blood. But there are no drug tests at these blood banks. And while little is known about the effects of receiving transfusions with blood containing shabu, doctors are sure the effects cannot be positive.

Donors are not supposed to give blood more than once every three months for the sake of their own health, but the Tondo addicts admit to selling their blood as often as once a month. Technically, of course, they aren't donors, who are motivated by a desire to help society. They are vendors of their own body fluids, driven by an irresistably powerful vice. Selling their blood is a convenient source of instant money, and it also poses little obvious risk to them. Since it is not illegal, trading in your own blood cannot land you in jail, even if you are found to have a deadly virus in your blood.

A 1994 law ordered the phase-out of commercial blood banks. But a Temporary Restraining Order by the Supreme Court and a lack of voluntary blood donors have prevented the government from abolishing the commercial blood industry, despite official declarations that it is a danger to the public. Even public health officials admit there would be a drastic shortage of blood nationwide without commercial supplies.

A desperate need for this life-saving fluid and a craving for a shabu high can conspire to give a perfectly innocent member of society - a baby or grandmother perhaps - tainted blood. But this may be lost to the likes of Dodong, who lives in a community where shabu addiction no longer seems to be something to be ashamed of.

In fact, in a group interview for television with four admitted shabu users (among them Dodong), many in the neighborhood, including a mob of giddy children, gathered to watch, as if it were a movie shoot. But what was most striking was how the addicts, all in their twenties but looking much older, acted. Instead of feeling shame at being exposed as addicts, they seemed to revel in the attention. They did ask that their faces not be shown on television, but they exhibited little discomfort talking about their addiction in the presence of neighbors. Perhaps, however, they were thinking that in their dead-end lives (they are stevedores whenever they have a chance to work) an interview about their addiction was the only recognition they might ever get.

Dodong the Tondo addict/blood vendor is proud of another fact: he has the relatively rare AB blood type, which can command a higher price in cases of emergency. This occurs when a fixer approaches him while he is lined up in front of a blood bank. A family badly needs AB blood, and Dodong is taken to a hospital and introduced to the laboratory staff as a family member.

Through the nation's woefully inadequate blood supply, the booming shabu trade has found yet another horrific way to enter society's mainstream.



Copyright 2002 All rights reserved.
PHILIPPINE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM