OPINION: Duterte's nightmare—Access to information on drug war

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Nov 27 2019 12:54 AM

President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to fire Vice President Leni Robredo as head of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) invites national and international spotlights to focus on the black holes in a pet program that has snuffed out thousands of lives over 3 years.

The first black hole is the lack of transparency and accountability in law enforcement operations. The police are mandated to probe any operation that leads to the killings of suspects or law enforcers. But there have been only few disclosures on authorized operations that have killed 6,000 Filipinos and hardly any on investigations into nearly 20,000 murders by vigilantes.

It is the second black hole threatens to implode Duterte’s anti-narcotics program: the inability or unwillingness of his government to rein in drug lords that manufacture and distribute illegal drugs.

“The Vice President wanted to give the campaign a different direction,” said Father Daniel Pilario of the Congregation of Mission, popularly known as the Vincentians.

Pilario, a trained sociologist and dean of the Saint Vincent School of Theology, is guest minister in the parish named "Mother of the Promised Land,” where more than 300 have died in 3 years.

“Drugs still flood in Payatas after 3 years of killings,” said Pilario of the sprawling slum and former dump site that hosts the parish. While police and masked men have killed hundreds of street peddlers, “known drug suppliers still continue to distribute,” the priest added.

“The vice president’s request for the list of high-value targets strikes at the heart of this problem. But they fired her for this - she has gone too close to home and the sanctuary of their drug lord friends,” the outspoken priest said.

HELTER SKELTER

Duterte is known for bandying a list of drug lords and coddlers, ranging from judges, to police generals, lawmakers, local government officials and private individuals. He selects and picks targets to attack.

A few have ended up dead under circumstances that raise suspicions of rub-outs. Several local executives abandoned their posts, fleeing to safer ground.There have hardly been any prosecution of high-profile targets or of incumbent officials dragged into big shabu-smuggling cases.

In short, too many suspected users and penny-ante dealers are dead but the supply side origins remain safe.

Since Duterte offered Robredo the anti-drug committee post, the country’s leader and aides engaged in a contest to taunt and insult Robredo. All they have really exposed, however, are the government’s fear buttons.

Duterte challenged Robredo on Oct. 28. He appointed her on Nov. 5 and fired her on Nov. 24.

Officials first pooh-poohed the capacity of Robredo, a lawyer and former public attorney. The attacks became more strident when she accepted the position, with a quip, “Are you ready for me?”

Her co-chair in the interagency body, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency director-general Aaron Aquino, advised her to concentrate on rehabilitation and advocacy. When Robredo bared her desire to “stop the killings,” he challenged her to join police operations. She accepted. Law enforcers never followed up on the offer though one could chalk that up to the fast pace of events.

Malacanang, the President’s office, initially invited Robredo to re-join the Cabinet. Duterte took back the offer on Nov. 19 saying he did not trust Robredo.

The President accused Robredo of betraying his government by talking to UN officials who want to probe extrajudicial killings. He was wrong. Robredo limited meetings to just the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and a US government inter-agency working-level delegation.

Duterte apologized for accusing Robredo falsely. A few hours later, he fired there.

STENCH OF FEAR

A review of the event in the last month shows Robredo’s requests for documents on police probes, the meeting with US officials and subsequent citing of Chinese crime gangs and the request for the government’s list of “high-value targets” fanned the government hysteria.

Before Robredo met US officials, she mentioned the possibility of cooperation in areas of intelligence on big drug lords.

Representatives of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of State and US Agency for International Development were at the meeting.

The press release on the meeting was studiously bloodless in tone but mentioned the supply side of the drug trade. The next day, Robredo said she would seek a meeting with Chinese officials, citing China as the prime source of illegal drugs.

Her co-chair Aquino swiftly contradicted her, claiming a crackdown in 2017 and 2018 by Beijing had forced drug syndicates to “outsource” shabu manufacturing to the Golden Triangle, the lawless border areas of Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. But the drugs manufactured there are brought back to China where overlords dictate distribution to various countries, including the Philippines, he admitted.

When Robredo requested for the list of high-value targets, Duterte aides said she was not cleared for the information. Panelo claimed giving Robredo the information would "imperil the welfare of the Filipino people and the security of the state."

DIRTY FRIENDS

If “state” is synonymous with administration, access to information could indeed be a nightmare for Duterte.

Twice, his appointees allowed in shabu shipments, each estimated to be worth US$130 million. In the second case, the President went out of his way to refute law enforcers’ claim of a successful try. Later, drug arrests in Mindanao, Duterte’s home island, traced the shabu supply back to the shipment smuggled in through magnetic lifters.

Nicanor Faeldon, Customs head during the first drug smuggling scandal stepped down. But Duterte later appointed him to an equally important gateway position and, later, to the Bureau of Corrections. There, Faeldon approved the “early release for good behavior” of at least 4 convicted Chinese drug lords.

Bato’s successor, PNP director-general Oscar Albayalde, faced charges from retired police officials, including superiors, who said he had sought lenient treatment for former subordinates accused of keeping three-fourths of a big shabu seizure and then sending this back to the streets.

Both Albayalde and Faeldon, and the latter's Customs bureau successor stepped down from their posts but face no charges. Duterte was silent on Faeldon’s cryptic claim about just following orders. Senate probers also refused to take the bait. That chamber, of course, now includes former national police and corrections chief Ronald dela Rosa and the President’s closest assistant, Bong Go.

Robredo had urged a review of the drug war at this point, prompting the Duterte’s challenge. Now the fired Vice President says she hasn’t started yet and will soon release her own findings into a mad war that hasn’t made a dent in the narcotics trade.

Go, in a series of vicious attacks at Robredo, insists drug lords should be killed. He doesn't even tack on the possibility of "nanlaban" (of suspects fighting back). He just says kill. Not to kill, he says, emboldens drug lords.

Go also proffers a blatant lie, claiming Filipinos want drug lords killed. In survey after survey, people may support the war on drugs. But they have also consistently stressed the preference to seeing suspects arrested alive.

All the macho, fascist bluster only displays the regime's fear of inconvenient truths. The silence of the graveyard it seeks to impose won't stop the entry of drugs or close its Philippine market. But in that silence new lords cometh.

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