Philippine militant group may be using drug money

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ most notorious Islamic militant group may be guarding marijuana plantations and protecting drug lords to finance their operations, the head of the country’s anti-drug agency said on Monday.

“Our latest discoveries of marijuana plantations were on the islands of Basilan and Jolo, indicating the Abu Sayyaf Group may have gotten into the drug business,” said Anselmo Avenido, chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, in an interview with Reuters.

The Abu Sayyaf, which is entrenched on Jolo and Basilan on the southern tip of the Philippines, has been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attack, the bombing of a ferry near Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 100 people.

It traditionally relies on kidnap-for-ransom to fund its operations and is known for decapitating some of its captives.

The Philippines, fighting communist and Muslim insurgencies, has a long history of communist rebel involvement in drug trafficking, according to the latest international narcotics report by the U.S. State Department.

But Avenido, a retired police general, is worried that the communist New People’s Army (NPA) is revving up its traditional marijuana production and Muslim rebels may also be getting in on the act.

Avenido said about 20 new marijuana sites were discovered this year, most of them in highly inaccessible mountainous areas in the north and in the restive south, where Muslim rebels have been fighting for decades for some measure of independence from the Catholic central government.

In 2007, the government identified at least 60 production sites for marijuana.

“We’re alarmed with the presence of clandestine labs and marijuana plantation sites in areas where rebels and militants have been operating actively,” said Avenido.

The NPA, listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group, has been involved in large-scale marijuana cultivation in the Cordillera mountains in the northern Philippines since 1980s.

Avenido said, citing intelligence reports, around 17 percent of proceeds from the production bases were used to fund NPA activities, including buying weapons and training and feeding around 5,000 cadres.