OPINION: Duterte's choices: Why we can't beat drug scourge

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Feb 17 2020 12:02 PM

Candidate Rodrigo Duterte campaigned in 2016 to rid the Philippines of drugs in six months. After almost four years of painting urban alleys red, with thousands of poor drug suspects dead in police operations and "vigilante" executions, Duterte’s program is a failure.

Months back, the President admitted his successor will inherit the US$8 billion illegal narcotics industry.

You would think failure would prompt soul-searching. Yet in two speeches last week, Duterte just reiterated his favorite problem-solving techniques: slapping people, kicking people, or killing people.

The ties that bind the corrupt, the criminal and their protectors in the Philippine government are deep and complex. Duterte blames everyone but himself. 

In fact, Duterte is the problem.

The President is Pavlovian in his responses. Say human rights and he spits outrage. Any person or entity that speaks up or acts on the issue of rights is automatically Duterte’s enemy.

He tags those who question his data as friends of narcotics gangs. Or he shows them the door. Early on, the police learned to take any information he dangles as gospel truth. Everybody is suspect unless Duterte says they’re not. 

Increasingly, his choices push the nation deeper into a trap that may take generations to untangle.

This doesn’t even include his order to terminate the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, a move that prompted plenty of hand-wringing among his closest allies over the loss of US$1 billion in military aid that came in from 2016 to 2019.

Duterte's pique stemmed from the United States’ move to cancel the visa of former national police chief, Sen. Ronald de la Rosa, reportedly under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. That law allows the US government to impose sanctions on foreign government officials for human rights abuses.


Rights groups now worry about an uptick on extra-judicial killings, with more than dozen recorded since the last week of January.

Duterte’s critics have braced for a new bloodbath since November last year when he fired Vice President Leni Robredo just weeks after appointing her co-chair of a government committee that oversees the campaign against illegal drugs. 

Robredo angered the President by noting the contrast between the thousands of slain poor suspects and the minuscule number of arrested drug lords. Officials erupted into hysterics when she asked for a list of the country’s biggest drug lords.

After she left, Senator Bong Go fired off, a “your-vacation-is- over” warning at drug lords.

But Duterte’s long-time aide was just using braggadocio to hide the truth: Suspects and enablers linked to Duterte officialdom receive a free pass.

For instance, the President went out of his way to dispute allegations, eventually proven true, that officials had allowed two huge shipments of shabu, each worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The implicated chief of Customs got to head another important gateway post and then the national penitentiary, where he promptly signed early release papers for hundreds of convicts, including Chinese drug lords.

Fired thrice, Nicanor Faeldon remained an object of praise for Duterte.


Duterte also stood by former national police chief Oscar Albayalde during a Senate probe on the latter’s efforts to protect subordinates accused of holding back three-fourths of a 160-kilo drug haul in 2013.

Even after Albayalde was forced to step down a few months short of the end of his term, the President insisted he was innocent. The deal allowed the top cop to waltz away with full retirement benefits.

Now another Duterte pet is in trouble.

His favorite gunslinger, Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido, was relieved on February 12 as deputy chief of operations in Bacolod, on the central Philippine island of Negros.

Espenido’s relief came as the national police chief, Gen. Archie Gamboa recalled 300 police officials and personnel suspected of coddling alleged drug lords, extortionists, or illegal gambling operators.

Gamboa announced the move by referencing Duterte’s list, a mysterious roster the President wields as a bludgeon against critics or politicians who resist groveling on their knees.

Several times since Duterte assumed the presidency, top law enforcers expressed surprised at his claims, only to kowtow and allude to the President’s “superior intelligence”.

Now that vaunted intelligence list has thrown out the name of Espenido.


Duterte assigned the police officer to Bacolod in October 2019, with a mandate to “kill everybody”.

Espenido had tracked a trail of red in previous assignments. He was police chief of Albuera, Leyte when Mayor Rolando Espinosa and another inmate were killed in November 2016 during a pre-dawn police “raid” of their jail cell.

Rights groups and legislators called the operation an execution but Duterte reinstated the officers involved, insisting no one would face jail time.

Espenido also led the July 2017 raid that killed Ozamiz Mayor Reynaldo "Aldong" Parojinog and 14 others. He admitted ordering cops to shut off the compound’s CCTV cameras from recording proceedings.

Espenido calls himself “God’s instrument”. His version of the gospel: If people die, it is God’s will. If God doesn't want it, all the planning would be in vain.


Espenido's power flowed from Duterte’s patronage. His privilege was such that he could order operations without informing the city police chief.

His relief raises the question: Who protects us from our protectors?

Gamboa did not release the Espenido’s name. Following a leak, he accused reporters and their sources of wanting to embarrass the President.

Now the principal author of the list says reports of Espenido’s links to drugs are "untrue."

"President Rodrigo Roa Duterte believes that Police Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido is clean," said his spokesman and legal adviser Salvador Panelo.

The police chief says all relieved officers are innocent until proven guilty. This makes them privileged individuals in a country where whispers and fabricated reports lead to executions.

There are two important questions no one wants to answer: What are the bases of Duterte’s policies and actions? Who exactly are the enemy?

The police call it internal cleansing. Yet Gamboa urged the relieved cops to avail of early retirement so as to dodge administrative sanctions and preserve benefits.

It is a scheme taints the innocent and rewards the corrupt. But it is Duterte’s favorite modus, whether as mayor or President: Get out or die.

All that drug lords have to give up are their territories. Who takes over the abandoned turfs?

Duterte’s harshest critics say his promises were lies, that ending the drug scourge was never a goal. The most generous thing one can say is that his tyrannical bent taints even the best intentions.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.