It started like a drug-war police thriller. Now it’s playing like a farce, with bumbling agents pointing fingers at each other and an exasperated President Rodrigo Duterte looking hapless, sacking officials and calling in the army.

The plot includes shady operatives, whistle-blowers, X-ray scanners, sniffer dogs – and a colossal shipment of drugs with a value beggaring belief.

At the heart of the story are magnetic lifters, the massive, circular steel plates attached to cranes to move scrap metal.

On August 7, law enforcement officers acting on a tip converged on a container van at the Manila International Container Terminal. Inside the container, which was declared to be a shipment of door frames, were two magnetic lifters. Hidden inside them was 355kg of shabu, the local term for crystal meth, with a street value of at least 2.4 billion Philippine pesos (US$44.77 million). It was a jackpot – and agents of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) had reason to congratulate themselves.

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Unbeknown to the team, however, a far bigger prize had eluded them. Someone who saw a television report on the raid reported that, weeks previously, he had helped bring four similar-looking magnetic lifters to a warehouse in Cavite City, south of Manila. But when operatives raced to the location on August 10, they were too late. In the deserted warehouse were four abandoned magnetic lifters, each with a neat square cut into the flat surface. Trained sniffer dogs found traces of shabu in the cavities. They had been emptied on July 15, more than three weeks before they were discovered by agents.

The PDEA initially estimated the lifters contained one tonne of shabu, valued at 6.8 billion pesos. A closer look revealed they had been specially modified to carry drugs and the actual load was 1.68 tonnes – or 11 billion pesos. So much shabu entered the market that prices in Manila fell – on television, PDEA director general Aaron Aquino said shabu, which used to cost 6,600 pesos per gramme, now went for 1,600 to 2,000 pesos per gram. “The shabu is now on the streets, being used,” he said.

The four lifters had arrived from Vietnam and had been X-rayed by customs inspectors who then waved them through. The finger-pointing started almost immediately. Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña blamed the PDEA for not alerting his staff, claimed the scans had found nothing suspicious and denied the lifters contained drugs. For his part, the PDEA’s Aquino told local media that people within the BOC were helping the drug smugglers, and was not shy in expressing his frustration: “We seize around five grams in [a buy-bust] operation, but the drugs entering are by the tonne, so what’s the use of our efforts?”

The shabu’s easy entry into the Philippines made a mockery of President Duterte’s war on drugs, the central plank of his 2016 election campaign. The president has repeatedly declared his willingness to shed blood in the war, saying last year that he “will kill more if only to get rid of drugs”. The Philippine National Police says 4,854 “drug suspects” have died since 2016; according to Human Rights Watch, at least 12,000 have been summarily killed by police and death squads. Other human rights groups claim the number is closer to 20,000.

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Yet when the story of the magnetic lifters broke, Duterte’s response was tepid. Rather than go into one of his infamous tirades, the president was uninterested, even lackadaisical. It seemed he was more determined to protect Lapeña, a former police general with whom he has close ties, than get at the truth. On August 15, Duterte went so far as to say reports the lifters contained drugs were “pure speculation”, apparently belittling the abilities of the drug-sniffing dogs. “There was nothing there”, he said.

On October 25 Duterte was forced to eat his words. He relieved Lapeña (affecting to “promote” him to a cabinet position as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) as well as all the senior officers of the BOC. “Everyone out. To the last man, out,” Duterte said. Three days later the president announced he was turning the BOC over to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

What might have changed his mind was that Lapeña had finally admitted the lifters contained shabu. He did so grudgingly, after a Customs whistle-blower revealed the X-ray scans had indeed found something suspicious, and the BOC was covering it up. The whistle-blower claimed Lapeña had been warned as early as May that large shipments of shabu were coming in.

All this happened in a Congressional hearing. While Duterte declined to investigate the magnetic-lifters affair, it was immediately snapped up by the legislature, with parallel televised hearings conducted by Congress and the Senate. When summoned to testify, PDEA and customs officials revealed strange goings-on at the BOC.

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The man who had tipped off authorities about the first shipment was a now-resigned Customs intelligence agent, Jimmy Guban. He claimed he got his information in turn from a dismissed anti-narcotics police superintendent, Eduardo Acierto. Guban knew exactly which container – among hundreds – to look for, what to find inside and how to open the magnetic lifters. Congressman Ruffy Biazon said the first container seized was actually abandoned, as nobody had stepped forward to claim it: “My theory is [the criminals] couldn’t come to an agreement, so it was left there, and those who knew about it passed on the information to the PDEA.” During the hearings, another congressman suggested Guban had given up the first container to make himself look good, and also to distract attention from the much bigger shipment.

But Guban and Acierto did more than share intelligence – they facilitated the release of the second, larger shipment. Guban had fake identification cards printed, and located a shadowy company to act as a consignee – a front to receive the cargo. Acierto denied everything, saying in a hearing that he was “just trying to help” authorities. He metaphorically threw up his hands in horror at the insinuation he was involved in dirty dealings: “That is not true. I will never do that. I have been in the police service for 18 years. I served our country well.” This from a policeman dismissed for issuing fake permits for 1,000 AK-47 assault rifles that ended up in the hands of communist rebels.

The hearings painted a depressing picture: international syndicates (in this case, an organisation identified by the PDEA as the Golden Triangle from China) have no difficulty shipping shabu to the Philippines. Manufactured in China, the drugs are smuggled to the Philippines via transshipment points in Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Concealment inside magnetic lifters is a new wrinkle: Congressman Biazon, a former Customs chief, said it was the first time he’d heard of the trick. “I never encountered that [in Customs], what I remember was they would make false compartments within container vans,” he told the This Week in Asia . He said he had asked the BOC to backtrack imports of any other magnetic lifters, but he had yet to receive a reply.

Still, concealing the drugs is only half the effort. The key to a successful shipment lies in the participation of a network of Philippine officials who facilitate the arrival, clearance and distribution of shabu.

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Ironically, these dirty officials are the very ones supposed to be leading the war on drugs. According to a secret report recently released on Duterte’s orders, the government created numerous organisations under the Philippine National Police to fight the war on drugs.

Unfortunately, according to the report, the “people being appointed and recruited into these organisations were the same personalities, creating a pool of agents and personnel who are mostly corrupt and have already created networks with different drug lords across the country and abroad”. It identified Guban, Acierto and PDEA director Ismael Fajardo Jnr as three such personalities.

The BOC seems to be the weakest link. Last year, 6.4 billion pesos worth of shabu, shipped from China and packed in cylindrical roller printing machines, slipped past customs inspectors. The cargo was subsequently recovered in a raid, but Customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon was forced to resign.

Now Duterte says he will put the BOC completely under the military, something which violates the country’s constitution. At any rate the president has appointed a former Armed Forces chief, Rey Guerrero, to head the BOC. Whether he’ll do any better is an open question.

One congressman, Lito Atienza, distrusts the BOC so much he proposes the inspection of imports at the country of origin itself. He said of the BOC: “We’ve thrown everything at the problem of endemic Customs corruption. We’ve offered them rewards. We’ve provided them with all the equipment and technology to detect contraband. We’ve even assigned our toughest retired generals there. The BOC is simply beyond repair and redemption.”