Yellow Pad


Constructing life stories is an extremely useful technique in investigating messy and often unintelligible social phenomena for which information is typically fragmented, uneven, piecemeal, hidden, and often inconsistent. It was a practice I learned from the Philippine popular education community, particularly the six-week community leadership seminars run for years by the Education for Life Foundation led by Girlie Villariba and Ed de la Torre. A closer examination of life stories not only offers ways of unpacking puzzles but is also a source of rich, localized knowledge needed for developing inferences on how problems can be restated, and solutions may be created and done differently.

Political scientists Kathleen Thelen and Sven Steinmo said that life stories could illuminate on how “branching processes” evolve and get consolidated, like, for example, the points of departure from established patterns that lead to outcomes that are ultimately shaped and mediated, constrained and refracted, though never solely, by institutions designed and chosen by people. To Filipinos, such constrained and refracted outcomes are captured by the phrase “kapit sa patalim” (literally, hang tight on the knife) and its implied connotations of unorthodox forms of resilience. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm once used the phrase “the ancient politics of Robin Hood” to illustrate how someone officially regarded as a terrorist or criminal may be some other people’s hero.

I once used life stories to find explanations for the kidnapping phenomenon in southern Philippines from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. In the chapter I wrote for Pancho Lara’s book on the shadow economies of Mindanao, I pieced together the life stories of Lanao warlord Ali Dimaporo; Cotabato-based Moro rebels Abogado Bago, Faisal Marohombsar, and Alonto Tahir; and Basilan-based Moro rebel Julhani Jillang, to draw the inferences that kidnappings were used as a political weapon, to build popular Robin Hood images, and as a criminal enterprise. It is uncanny that I found many parallels with these Mindanao cases when I started compiling and comparing the life stories of drug lords in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Bolivia, and Colombia. To illustrate:

Myanmar’s Lo Hsing Han (1934-2013) was an expert in striking deals. His success lay in carefully balancing relationships with state authorities, whether Burmese, Thai, or Chinese. He turned himself into a resource that they needed. A drug lord just making a profit would simply be hunted down. But a drug lord serving a useful political and financial purpose could become an ally and receive protection. Over time, Lo had a huge impact on the local economy in Myanmar’s opium-producing rural northeast. While often seen as a warlord and armed actor — he was also substantially an agent of capitalism who played a role in monetizing the rural economy and enabling certain rural areas to be connected directly to outside markets. When he died, The Economist called him a “heroin king and pillar of the economy.”

Afghanistan’s Lal Jan Ishaqzai found out how the protection that drug lords receive, despite their deep pockets and leverages, is contingent on many issues that can quickly shift in a constantly changing context. Born in Sangin, Helmand, the most strife-torn district, he controlled the district’s bazaar and levied taxes until he was ousted in 2003 by a tribal competitor who was the main American ally. He retreated to Quetta, Pakistan, but eventually moved to Kandahar under the protection of Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother. But Wali Karzai was assassinated in July 2011, leading to Ishaqzai’s arrest, conviction, and incarceration at the high-security Pul-e-Charkhi prison funded by the Americans. Embarrassingly for Kabul and the US government, Ishaqzai escaped back to Quetta in June 2013 with the help of his allies in government.

Bolivia’s El Rey de la Cocaina (King of Cocaine), Roberto Suarez Gomez (1932-2000), used his legitimate cattle business and his fleet of small aircraft as the infrastructure for his drug business. Then, he carefully constructed its profitability by being a useful intermediary between key actors while engaging in “ostentatious philanthropy” — he paid for church repairs, paved streets in poor villages, built soccer fields, and sponsored scholars. Suarez’s operations show that the illicit drug trade is much larger than its “big men,” it has vast production, processing, and distribution networks that do not dissolve simply by eliminating those at the top.

The Castaño brothers of northern Colombia — Fidel, Vicente, and Carlos — were the most feared anti-communist vigilantes who not only succeeded in ousting leftist rebels in the Uraba region but started a national paramilitary movement that transformed criminal entrepreneurs into political actors demanding to be heard in peace negotiations. Differences between Vicente and Carlos ultimately led to their downfall, but they can be collectively credited for playing a key role in the consolidation of agricultural commercialization and land speculation in the northern regions.

Lo Hsing Han’s case reminded me of the Remullas of Cavite and the Duranos of Cebu in John Sidel’s classic study on Capital, Coercion, and Crime — local bosses who become tycoons. Ishaqzai reminded me of Norberto Manero, Jr. (Kumander Bucay), who had many unseen protectors in government and who, after his conviction for a most gruesome killing, went almost in and out of prison at will and settled at the prison of his choice — the Davao Penal Colony. Suarez reminded me of tobacco magnate Lucio Tan and the various licit and illicit means he used to build his vast empire. And the Castaño brothers reminded me of the Alsa Masa vigilantes of Davao City.

Three conclusions may be drawn from the life stories of these drug lords. First, they may be considered pioneers of capital, a narco-bourgeoisie, as scholars Nazih Richani and Kendra McSweeney call them, because they are the principal enforcers of a model of local capitalist accumulation in a rural setting. They link rural peasantries to market circuits, provide them with credit, sell their products, and are the force that enables local rural economies to transform into principal illicit crop producers.

Second, they are intermediaries, i.e. brokers and middlemen in economic transactions who display a remarkable ability to switch status — for example, from feared outlaw to beloved patron, or from greedy exploiter to generous investor or employer in collapsing local economies.

And third, they are what academics Ariel Ahram and Charles King call “arbitrageurs” who manage politics and order at the margins of the state and market. To quote Braudel, these authors state how arbitrageurs are creatures of the borderlands where states and empires had difficulty extending their own power. They were “uniquely gifted boundary-crossers, conducting both violent and non-violent transactions across political, economic, and cultural dividing lines.

“The most successful ones turned [out] to have something that everyone else wanted: the ability to serve as middlemen across uncertain boundaries while, in the process, reaping some of the profits for themselves.”

Collectively, these men may be called criminals-without-borders. They come in all shapes and life stories from many countries.

The full discussion of the life stories of these drug lords is in the forthcoming book Rethinking Illicit Economies in Opium and Cocaine: Policy Responses to Drug Crops in the Global South.


Eric D. U. Gutierrez has written on corruption, governance, political families, and the conflict in the Muslim areas of Mindanao. Since 2000, he has worked for three international NGOs running programs and policy advocacy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.