MANILA, Philippines – As Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo stepped into her new role as the fresh face of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, one of the biggest questions she tried to answer had been written in blood—will the killings stop?
While Robredo made it clear she was accepting the new position because she hoped to end the bloodshed, it wasn’t as clear yet how.
The official she would share the position with, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Aaron Aquino, said Robredo would handle clusters that would not require the use of guns and bullets – rehabilitation, reintegration and advocacy, the soft side of the anti-drug campaign.
Aquino was quick to add, though, that Robredo would have a say on the other clusters of ICAD which involved pulling the trigger if needed, the part where blood flows.
When she explained her reasons for accepting the post, Robredo said her other key objective was to bring to justice scalawags in uniform responsible for recycling drugs and those behind the smuggling of tons of meth through the Customs bureau.
She made no reference, though, to suspicions, dismissed in a Senate investigation as such, that members of the President’s family were involved in the drug smuggling.
To even start discussing an end to the killings, however, Robredo might have to first reconcile two sets of casualty figures in the war on drugs or make sense of those.
Police acknowledged 6,600 deaths, mainly of suspects, in the anti-drug campaign as a result of what they insisted were legitimate operations. But human rights groups counted a much higher death toll, 20,000, which they said did not yet include killings that went unreported and were mostly cases of extrajudicial executions.
Her challenge to Duterte and his men, “are you ready for me?” evoked images of someone ready not only to butt heads but also drop into the sewers to remove what’s clogging these.
The Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) is composed of at least 20 government agencies, each one certain to have its own view of how to slay the drug monster. Syncing these into harmony would be akin to the work of an orchestra conductor but with more than half of your assembly wielding guns, not musical instruments.
While she shares the chairmanship of the committee with PDEA’s Aquino, the spotlight is on Robredo and how her carefully worded criticisms of Duterte’s campaign against drugs would translate into action and make a difference.
Independence in the Cabinet
With no direct participation in the campaign against drugs previous to her appointment, Robredo had been free to protest the killings, complain about summary executions and air the fear of families of those killed. She did this, however, in words that did not directly attack Duterte, who had insulted his next-in-line as someone incapable of governing.
At the press conference announcing her acceptance of the job, Robredo uttered tough words to reinforce her belief that, now being a key player in the war on drugs, it would be a mistake, especially of Duterte’s, to think she would simply be a silent cooperator.
“The President is aware of my position on the drug war. I am against the killing of innocents, against the abuse of officials,” Robredo said at her press conference.
“He knows of my criticisms. He knows of my plans. So if he thinks that I am already in agreement and that I will be silent, they are mistaken,” she added.
Sen. Bong Go wondered aloud about how Robredo would fare as an anti-narcotic enforcer, sounding off what could be a warning to the Vice President of the dark alleys that await her in the fight against drugs.
“Let’s see if she can still get sleep,” Go said.
Another Duterte main man, Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, the President’s first Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, had his own testy piece of advice for Robredo.
“This is war. You can’t play cute here,” said Dela Rosa, creator of Oplan Tokhang (Oplan Knock and Plead), a component of Oplan Double Barrel which is now being tagged as responsible for the blood trail left by Duterte’s war on drugs.
Robredo’s cheering squad in what Duterte condescendingly refers to as “Yellows”, or the Liberal Party which adopted the color associated with the late democracy icon Corazon Aquino, were both cautiously and festively celebrating the Vice President’s decision.
“VP Leni does not play high politics with the lives of our people. We know that her sincerity overcame her own doubts, and it overcomes ours,” said Quezon City Rep. Jose Christopher Belmonte, an LP stalwart.
“She will never shirk any responsibility to do what she can to make our people’s lives better,” Belmonte said.
Through Robredo, the congressman added, the war on drugs “can be part of the war on poverty, not on poor people.”
The drama and brouhaha that built up into the big announcement that, though doubtful at first, Robredo is accepting the job of ICAD co-chair further buried into short memories a document released by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) in November 2018–the Philippine Anti-illegal Drug Strategy or PADS.
It was a well-researched and highly detailed 89-page blueprint on ending the drug menace and turning all villages in the country drug-free by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022, a target that Duterte had admitted several times may not even be realistic.
PADS, or the brains behind it, quietly disagreed with Duterte’s assessment of the Philippine drug menace and in many instances outrightly countered the President’s personal beliefs on drugs, like addicts being beyond redemption.
First, it was not hyperbolic on numbers. While Duterte confidently proclaimed repeatedly that there are 8 million drug users in the Philippines, PADS said it was actually just half of it, or 4 million, citing figures from PDEA.
PADS is science while Duterte is bravado. While the President condemned addicts as incurable creatures that deserved no mercy, the action plan prepared by the DDB defined drug dependence as a very human disease.
PADS, the DDB paper said, “recognizes drug dependence as a treatable chronic disease, which frequently co-occurs with one or more other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.”
While Duterte would be happy to slaughter millions of drug users and pushers as Nazis did to Jews, in a rant he later apologized for, PADS said there’s actually a science-based cure to addiction.
“Recent advances in the understanding of addiction have led to improved treatments such as cognitive-behavioral counseling interventions for stimulant dependence,” PADS said.
Logic, common sense
The blueprint advocates a two-pronged approach to ending the drug menace—cut supply and cut demand.
PADS seeks to accomplish these targets by “suppressing the flow of drugs through sustained law enforcement operations and reducing consumer demand for drugs and other substances through drug rehabilitation and massive preventive education and awareness programs.”
No mention of killings although critics would say it is implicit.
The document also painted the character of an average Filipino drug user, which could help enforcers, like Robredo now, know what they’re dealing with.
According to PADS, the mean age of an average drug user in the Philippines is 31 years old. Nine out of 10 are males. More than half, or 53.52 percent, are single. Nearly half, or 45.96 percent, are jobless. Almost a third, or 27.32 percent, are in high school. At least 43.31 percent live in the National Capital Region (NCR).
As of November 2018, the date the report was published online by the DDB, the average duration of drug use is 6 years and the top three drugs of choice are meth, or shabu, marijuana and rugby.
Pitstop for syndicates
Transnational drug syndicates—Chinese, African and Mexican—have a presence in the Philippines, according to the DDB paper.
As of that period, 24,424 villages, or 58.1 percent (more than half) are plagued by drugs.
The situation is worst in NCR which had 95.37 percent, or 1,706, of its villages teeming with drugs. The Zamboanga Peninsula followed with 93.47 percent of villages, Central Visayas with 88.78 percent of villages, Central Luzon with 84 percent of villages and Caraga with 82.38 percent of villages menaced by drugs.
African syndicates use Filipinos as drug mules while the Chinese gangs “dominate the country’s illegal drug trade by smuggling and manufacturing drugs in bulk.”
At least 66 percent of suspects arrested during operations to dismantle shabu labs are Chinese citizens, PADS said.
Matched against 4 million drug users, the number of Department of Health-accredited rehab facilities would be obviously more than overwhelmed—only 53 as of December 2017.
The numbers continue—262 doctors and psychiatrists accredited for rehab work, 2,212 health workers trained for the same purpose.
These are just some of the figures, data and tasks that Robredo would have to be familiar with.
But, according to Representative Belmonte, “given the tools and empowered by the administration,” the Vice President may yet make a difference in the drug war, help it succeed and even turn it into a war on poverty.
In comments made shortly after Robredo announced that she was accepting her new role, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the Vice President must not fail because it would be a failure not only by Robredo but the entire government.
“How can she fail?” said Guevarra. “She cannot fail on her own.”
As Robredo sets on her new task as a key player in Duterte’s war on drugs and swims in unfamiliar waters, the words of someone who knew the drug trade so well and died clinging to it may well ring some truth to them:
“In modern business, it is not the crook who is feared most. It is the honest man who knows not what he is doing”—Pablo Escobar.
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