It was what authorities in Manila call a 'routine' operation. In the early hours of September 21, undercover agents from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) clinched a deal to buy 60 Ecstasy tablets from two alleged dealers inside an affluent gated community south of the capital. When the suspects tried to escape by car, the agents shot out the tyres. The agency also said that cocaine and marijuana were found inside the car. As the agents hauled the two young men away, one of them is said to have informed on a third suspect, leading to his arrest. But the prize the agents snared may have been bigger than the government bargained for. The case has touched off a string of allegations of bribery in high places, a congressional investigation and two disbarment cases. The three suspected drug pushers - Richard Brodett, 25, Jorge Joseph, 22, and Joseph Tecson, 27 - are scions of wealthy and influential families. Brodett is the nephew of a close aide to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Mrs Arroyo owns a condominium unit in a building which, unknown to her, was constructed by a property firm in which the Brodett family has a stake. The PDEA is a special agency created by Congress in 2002 and attached to the Office of the President. But, despite her connections to the Brodetts, Mrs Arroyo personally ordered PDEA chief Dionisio Santiago not to release the three, nicknamed the 'Alabang boys' after the exclusive suburb where they were arrested. 'Don't release them, no matter what, don't let the influential interfere in this case,' Mr Santiago quoted her as telling him on January 20, during an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post. 'That shows you she's hanging tough against illegal drugs,' he added. The authorities have conceded that the men were small fry in the drug world but the arrests were part of a bigger, and ongoing, operation. Mr Santiago said that Mrs Arroyo also ordered a review of 12 high-profile cases, all involving Chinese nationals, which had earlier been dismissed by state prosecutors. Small fry or not, the Alabang boys case has cast a light on a sordid network that has turned the country into a major hub for drug trafficking and made narcotics into a local sunrise industry worth up to US$8.4 billion annually. 'The drug situation in the Philippines could be considered a national security threat,' warned Mr Santiago, a former chief of staff of the armed forces. During the interview, he named prominent personalities allegedly involved in drugs, including members of Congress. 'There is narco-politics all over the country [with] politicians at all levels' involved as financiers or protectors of drug syndicates, he said. The Philippines was identified by the UN 2008 World Drug Report as a major producer, transit country and consumer of crystal methamphetamine, known locally as shabu. Drugs and raw materials smuggled into the country travel a circuitous route, the report said. Originating mostly from Yunnan province in China, they passed through Guangxi , Fujian and Guangdong before being shipped to Manila, often through Hong Kong. After the raw materials are processed in clandestine labs outside Manila, the produce is exported to other parts of east Asia, Australasia and North America. Philippines authorities are pursuing seven transnational drug syndicates, all with links to the Chinese mainland, Mr Santiago said. The same report said the Philippines in 2006 had 'the world's highest' number of methamphetamine users (6 per cent of residents aged 15 to 64). The figure for Hong Kong was 0.2 per cent. A separate report on drugs, issued last year by the US State Department, praised both the PDEA and the police for dismantling nine clandestine mega laboratories in 2007. However, it went on to criticise the low conviction rate, which it blamed on corruption and inadequate funding of the law-enforcement and justice systems. The possible scale of such problems was laid bare when Felisberto Verano Jnr, a lawyer for the Alabang boys, admitted he prepared an order to get their case dismissed, using official Justice Department stationery. Using connections, he got this document placed on Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez's desk on December 23, awaiting his signature. Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor, whose office had relayed the order to his boss' desk, is under investigation. He denies giving Mr Verano, a law school fraternity friend, undue privilege. He also denied receiving a 2.6-million-peso (HK$432,000) payoff. As for Mr Verano, a disbarment suit was recently filed against him before the Supreme Court. He merely shrugs it off. 'A lot of lawyers get disbarment cases. This is my third,' he told the Post. 'I don't see anything wrong [with my action] because I just prepared the order and it's up to the secretary ... to sign. It would be a different matter if I had forged his signature.' Besides, he said, he was merely making sure that a resolution dismissing the case, which State Prosecutor John Resado had issued on December 2, was carried out. Mr Verano's plan failed. The justice secretary refused to sign the order because it had misspelled his name and he did not want to be smeared by payoff allegations. Days earlier, the PDEA's head of Special Enforcement Services, Major Ferdinand Marcelino, who supervised the arrest of the Alabang boys, had gone public with an admission that he had three times rejected bribes to release them. His agency also warned, without offering proof, that 'money was changing hands' inside the Justice Department for the same reason. The PDEA blames Mr Resado for the mess. His controversial resolution dismissing the case is under intense scrutiny before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee on Dangerous Drugs. Last week, several lawmakers noted that it overwhelmingly favoured the suspects over the arresting team. In his 23-page resolution, which the Post obtained, Mr Resado adopted in entirety the arguments made by the suspects' lawyer, his former law professor. He argued that the suspects were not selling drugs but were about to party when arrested. Brodett fled in his car because he mistook the armed agents for kidnappers, because they never identified themselves. He was mauled and nearly killed. Mr Resado also wrote that the agents had failed to co-ordinate with the police before the operation. According to police, the PDEA is not required to do so. Lawmaker Darlene Custodio said during the congressional hearing that Mr Resado was able to dismiss the case by discarding key evidence - the PDEA chemists' report confirming that what was sold to the agents were Ecstasy tablets. To Mr Resado, the suspects' lawyer was right in concluding the evidence was planted because the chemists noted receiving the evidence even before the drug bust. The chemists blamed human error for writing 12.15am instead of 12.15pm. But Mr Resado said the explanation was filed too late and was 'incredible and shows gross and inexcusable negligence'. His insistence, that he had decided the case based on its merits, was undermined by an anonymous tipster who claimed that 1.6 million pesos were deposited in the bank accounts of Mr Resado and his wife on December 2, the day he issued his resolution. Under oath before lawmakers, Mr Resado confirmed cash had been deposited in his account that day but it was 'only 800,000 pesos' and not bribe money. He had personally deposited the sum, which came from earnings from his 'informal' money-lending business, he said. He refused to sign a waiver to allow the Anti-Money-Laundering Council to probe his bank accounts after lawmakers told him he could face charges of graft, illicit money lending and tax evasion. Mr Resado made the counterclaim that the PDEA's chief lawyer, Alvaro Lazaro, had three times tried to bribe him to drop the case. Unlike Major Marcelino, he never reported this to his superiors because Mr Lazaro was 'his friend'. Mr Lazaro denied the charge and a disbarment case has been filed against Mr Resado. If nothing else, the Alabang boys case has unmasked the simmering feud between prosecutors and the narcotics agents. The former, who threatened a mass walkout in support of their beleaguered colleague, claimed that the agents had undermined numerous cases through serious procedural lapses during operations and failing to appear as vital witnesses during trials. The agents claim prosecutors drop or lose cases for a fee. In the case of the Alabang boys, it is basically Mr Resado's word against Major Marcelino's. If Beijing anti-drug authorities were consulted, they would probably take the major at his word. In 2006, Beijing tipped off Manila that Southeast Asia's biggest transnational drug network was setting up shop there. Major Marcelino followed up the lead, which resulted in the arrests of 16 people, including three Chinese. Among those arrested was Cesar Santos, owner of the building where the shabu lab was located. He turned out to be a public prosecutor. The Justice Department absolved him because 'as a public prosecutor, respondent Santos could not have countenanced ... a shabu laboratory'. 'Beijing was aghast at that,' said Mr Santiago, from the PDEA.