Inside PH’s ‘most shabulized’ city, former ‘drug users’ wash up

Roberto Dequiña manages Quick Labada laundry shop in La Paz, Iloilo City which was established by graduates of the Community-Based Rehabilitation Program by the national government and supported by the Iloilo City government. (Joseph Bernard A. Marzan photo)

By Joseph Bernard A. Marzan

In a nondescript corner of the bustling neighborhood of La Paz district in Iloilo City, hounded with honking cars and children playing in the nearby barangay gym, 52-year-old Roberto Dequiña tends to the laundry for his customers, monitors his sales for the morning, and looking at pending tasks.

Despite its location and small size, ‘Quick Labada’ is a popular destination for those looking for their laundry fix, getting tub loads of dirty clothing and beddings daily.

Dequiña welcomes an average of around 13 customers, with a minimum load of 5 kilograms priced at ₱140, and because of the rainy season in the city, he has been getting more customers.

Dequiña describes his work at the shop as a “good past-time” compared to his previous life of drugs.

He confessed that he had been using methamphetamine hydrochloride (otherwise known as “shabu”), likening his consumption to daily meals.

“When you wake up in the morning, you look for shabu, [then] in the noontime, and in the afternoon. It goes down [in your system], so you need to follow that up in the evening. At that point, your brain is fixated on shabu, and you look for a way to earn, then you enter into illegal activities,” Dequiña told Daily Guardian.

He and 83 other persons who use drugs (PWUDs) were in the first batch of ‘graduates’ of the city government’s Community-Based Rehabilitation Program (CBRP), which was initiated in 2017 as part of the national crusade against illegal drugs.

Dequiña’s rehabilitation included going to morning sessions for 5 days a week in Lapuz district, for a total of 90 session days over 8 to 9 months.

They were then trained on livelihood programs via the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority for 4 months.

The 84 graduates each received P10,000 from the local government unit and the Department of Social Welfare and Development-Region 6. Instead of spending the money on themselves, they pooled the cash to come up with the P1.6-million capitalization for Quick Labada.

Prior to the award of the capital, they prepared a business plan which they also learned from their TESDA classes. The pooled capital was then used to procure the laundry machines and pay for the rent of the laundromat’s spot.

Dequiña manages the shop alone because his ‘batchmates’ are also currently employed or tending to their respective income sources. But getting them to help was not easy.

“As their [batch] president, I cannot leave [the laundry shop] alone. They are out there making efforts to look for their own sources of living. But sometimes I huff at them because I cannot pressure them into helping,” he said.

“I remember proposing to them setting up laundry stations in every [city] district. No machines, and we’ll just pick up from there. At that time, we were in a bit of a crisis. That built up. It felt awkward with just me tending to [the laundry shop] and I had to push for us to work together,” he recalled.

Despite his cheery disposition, Dequiña said all was not well, as some in the batch became ‘collateral damage’ in the “war on illegal drugs” of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The campaign against illegal drugs got bloodier at the time, and I wanted to make sure because some of us were getting shot. There were some days where I wanted to go to the sites where there were deaths, but I was being stopped by the DSWD and the [City Social Welfare and Development Office],” he said.

Only 52 of the 84 graduates remained active by attending monthly meetings to discuss their monthly income and the shop’s future.

None of the profits go to any of them, as a portion is deposited in the shop’s official bank account and the rest to their expenses. But ₱120,000 from the annual income is distributed among them during Christmas season.

Last year, the laundry shop earned a gross of ₱600,000 and they aim for an annual net income of ₱200,000.

So far, they have been able to buy more equipment for the shop because of the income they saved in the bank, including additional washing machines and a motorcycle used for deliveries.

Dequiña also provides cash loans from the income to his batchmates, under certain terms written down as proof of the loan.

“I tell them that they can borrow [from our income], without any interest, but they must pay. Because this is not my money, but the association’s,” he remarked.

Like any other small business, they were also affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). There were days when they did not have any customers.

Dequiña said the program and the laundry shop had made him feel ‘free as a bird’ and his life, he thinks, remains normal, minus the substances.

“All of our facilitators were psychologists, and I thought that discipline was necessary and unavoidable. You cannot avoid that there would be arguments, but until you adapt, you need to keep pushing until [unwelcome] thoughts,” he said.

“My life remains as normal as it is, but the run of the situation of my life, a theme as I call it, is ‘free as a bird’. I feel good being in a situation that doesn’t involve illegal drugs,” he added.

He said that the future of the laundry shop includes branching out to other areas of the city, not only to expand the business but also to serve as an example to other PWUDs. He even suggested roping them in to work for the shop and possibly change their lives as well.

“My dream really is to branch out. This [laundry shop] is not just mine, and this is for other people who have bad elements in their life to see that there can be an improvement. We can be an example of them to get out of using illegal substances,” he said.


The person in charge of the CBRP, Dr. Rebecca Gregorios of the Barrio Obrero District Health Center, told Daily Guardian that the laundry shop is only one of the examples of ‘successful’ rehabilitation efforts.

The CBRP is managed by the Department of Health (DOH) and supported by the Iloilo City Government. Staffers deployed to handle the rehabilitation process include nurses, psychometricians, peer facilitators, and encoders.

The program involves a 12-step rehabilitation process, family counseling, and sports activities, with the latter slowing down during the pandemic. They also conduct random drug testing to ensure the enrollees’ compliance.

After their “graduation” from the program, they are turned over for training with TESDA, and provided livelihood support by DSWD-6 and the City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) through seed grants.

They are also given the option to enroll at the Technical Institute of Iloilo City for short technical-vocational courses.

Currently, the local CBRP is situated in all seven Iloilo City districts, with Jaro having 2 in its district health centers.

Gregorios was one of the personnel trained under programs that cater to community-level rehabilitation provided by the DOH. They use materials developed by the department as well as manuals by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

“We have basis as to how we process their recovery [and] control their urges to use again. There’s an algorithm we follow, and we studied that, on what to do, how long is the time frame, and the considerations to be made for the rehabilitation program,” she explained.

The program classifies PWUDs into two categories:

– mere PWUDs like Dequiña who volunteered; and

– ‘peddlers’ or those who were identified to be selling illegal substances, apprehended by law enforcement, and have availed of plea bargaining.

Admission to the CBRP is voluntary and involves only those who are considered as ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ risk-level PWUDs.

All of those who volunteer would be profiled by Philippine National Police (PNP) personnel and be placed on a master list, which would then be turned over to the local CBRP.

The PWUDs are then screened for alcohol and other substances and identified under the ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ risk stratifications.

A PWUD under the ‘severe’ risk stratification, the highest among the three, would then be recommended to a facility-based, in-patient rehabilitation program at the Western Visayas Medical Center’s Substance Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Pototan, Iloilo, outside of the city.

“[The CBRP] must be of free will. We cannot push [a PWUD] to join the program. That’s not allowed. They need to volunteer for this because they want their lives to change,” Gregorios said.

Within counselling sessions, PWUDs are advised to form habits that will curb their craving for substance use as well as to try approaches that would discourage them to associate themselves with other PWUDs who have continued use and are even engaged in the sales of these substances.

Enrolled PWUDs are sometimes visited by CBRP staff and are given diaries to record their experiences under the program. It is an outpatient program done ideally within 90 days, and are then enrolled in the ‘aftercare’ livelihood programs and are sometimes subject to random drug testing for compliance.

But the city’s program has only produced 1,709 graduates or 40.36 percent from a total of 4,234 “enrollees” from 11 batches according to their data.

But Gregorios said the main challenges for the CBRP are logistics and the PWUDs’ availability.

“[Many PWUDs] are employed, so it would be difficult for them. They enroll but then they drop out, and they’re unable to complete the 90 days. Since it is free will, we then have to tap barangay officials to encourage them to return and sometimes we even have to do home visits to inquire. Sometimes, they come back, sometimes, they don’t,” she said.

The city government is currently building its own ‘Balay Silangan’ for the rehab program, and future CBRP sessions will be conducted here.

The CBRP is separate from the city government’s mental health program, which is also under the DOH and supported by them, and also helmed by Gregorios.

Unlike the CBRP which involves risk reduction and risk prevention for PWUDs, the mental health program is catered to the general public with various non-medical activities including Zumba, yoga, and arts activities, to name a few, as well as health-related interventions.


Duterte branded Iloilo City in 2016 as the ‘most shabulized’ city, even naming former city mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog as one of the 158 “narco-politicians” or public officials who were allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade.

Drug policies are currently implemented in the city by two major public bodies: the Iloilo City Government, and the Iloilo City Police Office (ICPO).

As a local government unit, the Iloilo City Government follows Republic Act No. 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, as amended), and created its own Dangerous Drugs Advisory Board under City Regulation Ordinance No. 2019-129.

City Hall also conducts regular awareness seminars for employees on the harmful effects of illegal drugs, as well as regular and random testing.

It was reported in February that 13 job-hire employees were terminated after testing positive for drug use, and in March a regular employee was nabbed in an operation in Molo district.

Mayor Jerry Treñas told Daily Guardian in June that only job-hire employees were terminated because this was required in their respective application processes.

Section 36(d) of Rep. Act No. 9165 allows the random drug testing of employees in both the public and private sectors, but not applicants for employment.

Treñas said that the biggest indicator of their success against illegal drugs is the negative results yielded from drug testing as well as the rising prices of substances, which he did not provide bases for.

“I think we are doing alright. We did not kill our employees or residents, unlike certain areas in the Philippines. So far, we are doing successful,” the mayor said.

But the mayor did not close himself to the idea of fresher drug policies, saying that advocates are open to approaching his office.

“If there are new ideas or suggestions which appear to be relevant in our [anti-illegal] drug campaign, we are open,” he remarked.

Prior to the Duterte administration, the ICPO’s data indicated that it arrested 340 persons from 374 operations conducted, and 100 persons from 276 operations during the change in administrations in 2016.

But this number increased from 2017 onward, with 1,566 arrested in 1,121 operations conducted as of May 15, 2023.

Also, 219 persons were arrested from January 1 to May 15, 2023, which was higher than the total arrests made in 2022 (217).

The ICPO’s City Drug Enforcement Unit (CDEU) chief, Police Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Benitez Jr., said arrests in 2023 mainly involved “high-value targets” and not street-level individuals.

Benitez cited the change in presidential administrations as one of the indirect reasons for the rise in substance-related arrests.

“In 2016, in [Duterte’s] time, many illegal drug personalities stopped. Many fled and many were imprisoned. When the new administration came, many returned to the city and many have also engaged in illegal drugs, and we’ve also seen that those who were jailed have been released,” Benitez said.

“We had a whole-of-nation approach during the [Duterte administration] like ‘Oplan Tokhang’ which involved various agencies. We saw at that time law enforcement and communities were aggressive in supporting those programs, but lately many of those imprisoned have been released. The new administration’s approach is also very humane, and that is one point where [offenders] have been confident enough to engage in illegal drugs,” he added.

Benitez touted that they have been wearing body cameras, which he said helped them to defend themselves against allegations of planting and not following legally outlined procedures.

He said that ICPO director Police Colonel Joresty Coronica directed them to “respect human rights” during operations.

He also cited their “extensive” vetting of publicly submitted information as a basis for their buy-bust operations to minimize wrongful arrests.

But Benitez said that they have been partnering with private employers in the city to conduct random drug testing on applicants and employees but declined to mention what these businesses were.

Employees who refused to undergo drug testing are being secretly profiled and verified by the ICPO if they were PWUDs or persons whose lives involve drugs. If a negative result is yielded, their records would be returned to the employer.

Benitez failed to state the legal bases for this strategy and defended that this did not constitute a violation of their privacy.

“We’re not violating anything. We’re just looking if these people were involved with illegal drugs, and if not, we’re not digging deeper and we just let that go. Every law enforcement unit has an intelligence section which ensures that the system runs correctly,” he said.

Benitez also touted the demand reduction program through the Police Community Relations unit, which involves community-level symposia on the individual effects of the use of illegal substances and the social and psychological arrests resulting from violations of Rep. Act No. 9165.

He said that this had led to a decrease in operations and arrests being made and diverted the delivery of drugs to the city, but this was not reflected in the figures they provided.

This story was produced with the help of a grant from the Drug Policy Reform Initiative, a coalition of various organizations that envisions an open and humane society that secures the rights and welfare of persons whose lives include drugs, and advocates for drug policy that features harm reduction, human rights, criminal justice system reform, and social justice.