CEBU, Philippines — Most children his age are at school, learning how to read, write, add, and subtract. Before dusk, they’re out in the streets playing dakup-dakup, siyatong, or hide and seek.
But when he was eight years old, Stephen Dano never had much time for games. He was a drug mule.
Growing up in a squatter’s area in Barangay Quiot-Pardo, Cebu City, Stephen was no stranger to the daily struggles of an impoverished life. His parents earned meager wages as a construction worker and a carenderia attendant.
Outside, the boy looked frail and small. But deep in him, there was determination to make a living, even if it meant risking his life.
Saying he wanted to relieve his stress and satisfy his physical hunger, Dano turned to sniffing shabu and rugby and drinking alcohol.
Later, he took a more serious risk: selling drugs and robbing people.
“Over the years, it became normal, very normal,” Dano, now 26, told The FREEMAN in an interview.
His parents knew about his vices and illicit job, but they had no choice, he said.
“Wala mi halos gikaon. Na-pressure pa gyud ko kay makakita ko sa riyalidad nga wala’y gikaon akong pamilya. Napugos gyud ko panginabuhi (We barely ate. I was pressured seeing the reality that the family had nothing to eat. I was forced to look for a living),” Dano said.
He started collecting plastics and other junk from the road and creeks. He earned, but it was not enough.
He soon entered the drug trade for “easy money,” thanks to the egging of his fellow drug users.
True enough, it was fast money. He earned at least P5,000 on a good day. He was only nine.
But he would soon be consumed by the very same trade that allowed him to feed himself and his family.
Dano got hooked to drugs. Instead of buying rice, milk, and viand for his family, he spent on drugs the money he earned from being a drug runner or courier.
A sachet of shabu sold at P90 to P150 that time, he said.
He used drugs at least five times a day. “I became addicted to drugs. I injected drugs. I even took large doses of over-the-counter medicines just to get high,” he said in Cebuano.
Aside from peddling drugs, he also hit the streets to snatch phones and jewelry from commuters. He spent the nights on the sidewalk. He was sexually and physically abused by bystanders.
Between nine years old and 15 years old, Stephen was arrested at least 50 times, he recalled. Over petty crimes, he said.
He was first arrested for stealing softdrinks from a delivery truck in Barangay Bulacao. He was with a friend, a street child. They were turned over to the Community Scouts Youth Guidance Center (CSYGC), which provides refuge and rehabilitation for boys who are at risk to be in conflict with the law.
That time, the center housed up to 60 beneficiaries—the oldest being 23 and the youngest six.
Dano, however, escaped from the center. He went back to his old ways, and the vicious cycle began once again.
‘We had no choice’
At 13, Bridgette (not her real name) last year became the youngest child in conflict with the law (CICL) at the Operation Second Chance facility located in Barangay Kalunasan, Cebu City.
Children in conflict with the law (CICL) are those with pending warrants, while children at risk (CAR) are those loitering the streets and prone to perpetrating petty crimes, according to Inspector Mariel Piedad, chief of the Women’s and Children’s Protection Desk in Cebu City.
Just like Dano, Bridgette, now 14, said she resorted to joining the drug trade to support her family.
Her father is bedridden. Her mother is unemployed. Her sister, 16, has congenital heart defect.
“Lisod kaayo. Wala’y choice. (It’s hard. We had no choice),” she said in shriveled voice. “Wa’y lain manginabuhi sa amo (We had no choice. No one else in the family can find a living).”
A neighbor had influenced her to join the pack.
Bridgette was arrested on September 10, 2018 with two and a half packs of shabu. After that, she was brought to the facility.
Recounting the incident, she told The FREEMAN that the drugs did not belong to her. She said they were only left to her care and that someone would claim them from her for distribution.
“Nagmakaluoy ko, niluhod ko sa atubangan sa pulis. Pero giingnan lang ko, ‘Pahawa diha, sipaon tika.’ Gibilin ra to sa balay ang drugs two and a half bulto gikan sa Cebu City Jail. Naa ray tawo nga mohatod sa mga sellers sama nako,” she said. (I begged the police. But they only told me, “Back off. I’ll kick you.” The drugs, two and a half packs, were left in our house. They came from the City Hail. Someone was supposed to take them to the sellers like me.)
Bridgette said she could sell 40 packs of shabu a day worth P100,000. The earnings, she said, would be remitted to the supplier. She would then get at least P500 in return.
“Maayo nga nadakpan ko og sayo kay nakaamgo na ko. Di nako mobalik sa pagbaligya og droga. Di nako mosulod ana,” she said. (It’s only good I was arrested early on. I’m not going back to drugs ever again. I’m not entering that.)
A Family Business
When she was just 14, Mae (not her real name) used to see her stepfather selling illegal drugs to neighbors in Barangay Carreta, Cebu City.
Her mother worked as a masseur but soon joined the trade with her stepfather.
“Wala man unta moduwa akong mama sa una pero pagkaila nila, ni-apil siya (My mother did not sell drugs until she met my stepfather),” Mae said.
Instead of staying in their house in the slums, Mae usually hanged out with friends.
One afternoon in 2017, while walking along a narrow and dark alley in their place, Mae was invited by her friends to a “gig.”
She never knew what the invitation was. When they reached her friend’s house, she was told to sniff, snort, and take shabu.
Mae did not hesitate to do it, saying her mother and stepfather were doing it too.
Besides, she got a sense of euphoria from sniffing shabu, and she never paid a single centavo for the feeling.
In June 2018, when Mae was already 15, her mother was caught selling drugs. With no companion, she eventually yielded to the request of her boyfriend to live together with him in the same barangay.
Her boyfriend, 25, was also a drug mule.
Mae and her boyfriend were arrested during a police operation last December 20. The boyfriend is now languishing at the Cebu City Jail-Male Dormitory while she was committed to Cebu City Operations Second Chance Center.
Lowering Criminal Age
In their tender years, Stephen, Bridgette, and Mae were already involved in doing something illegal.
But under the existing law, Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006, they are not considered criminals.
The present minimum age of criminal liability in the Philippines is 15 years old, which means that those between 15 to 18 years old may only be detained in youth centers.
Youth offenders under 15 years old are exempted from criminal liability and should undergo rehabilitation and intervention program of the local government units.
But to policymakers, this is absurd.
Thus, the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced a bill which aims to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to 12 years old.
After getting approved on third and final reading at the Lower House in January, House Bill 8858 is ready to be transmitted to the Senate.
The initial proposal was actually to lower criminal liability age from 15 to nine years old. After the debates, congressmen agreed to revise the crime liability threshold to 12 years old.
In the approved bill, the word “criminal” responsibility is changed to “social” responsibility. A child below 12 years old, at the time of the commission of the offense, is exempt from liability but will be subjected to an intervention program unless the child has acted with discernment.
As of October last year, the Operation Second Chance facility housed 98 juveniles aged 15 to 17. Most of their cases are non-index crimes such as drugs (64); possession of firearms (6); and index crimes like murder (5), rape (2), robbery (10), and theft (4).
Jenny Zamora, the center’s case management unit head, said that 70 of 91 CICLs are awaiting trials for drug-related cases while 21 others were done with trials and were referred to adult jail or diversion or a center-based or community-based program.
Twenty-six of them, on the other hand, have been released.
Zamora said only one of the 91 CICLs was able to graduate from high school. The rest are only elementary graduates and passers of ladderized Alternative Learning System.
“Majority of the CICLs are products of broken family. They were forced to go out to the street because their parents can’t feed them,” Zamora said.
The three-story center, which sits on a 5,504-square meter lot, started in 2002 with 91 CICLs.
Zamora said the number of drug-related admission significantly increased since President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
Drug-related cases topped the list at 596, followed by theft at 590 and robbery at 556. The figures were based on the center data from 2008 to October 17, 2018.
Under the new measure, the House mandates Department of Social Welfare and Development to establish, fund, and manage a Bahay Pag-asa, a child-caring institution which is currently asked to be exercised by the local government units.
At the upper chamber, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III also filed a bill seeking to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to above 12 years old while Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon wants to lower the age from 15 to 12.
Although the Senate said it will prioritize the passage of its own version of the bill, it failed to pass the legislation before going on a break last February 10.
The break came after the Commission on Elections set the campaign period from February 12 to May 11 for the senatorial and party-list candidates.
After the May 13 elections, the Senate is expected to discuss the legislation as its committee recommended the raising penalty for parents whose child aged from 12 to 18 years old commits heinous crimes.
But is lowering the age of criminal liability really the answer to the rising criminality? Some quarters don’t think so. (To be continued) — Kristine B. Quintas JMD (FREEMAN)