Isko Moreno gives a taste of Manila’s new drug war

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – With wrists bound, 35 men and women were pulled into the vaulted Bulwagang Katipunan of the Manila City Hall on Monday, August 5.

They held their heads down, barely hiding inside the collars of their pulled-up yellow shirts, a human chain of drug suspects forced to face their backs to a firing line of cameras.

Then came the mayor from the side, striding from his office with his entourage towards the immense desk that marked the middle of the hall’s end. Like his previous press briefings, Isko Moreno took his place in the towering black mayoral seat and began his address.

“I hope this is just the beginning,” Moreno paused briefly for his first big drug presentation “that Manila, with the help of God, is cleansed of drugs in every community.”

Then, the announcement of the arrests.

From July 22 to August 5, Manila cops arrested 35 drug suspects, with 9 of them from the notorious Baseco Compound. Their alleged offenses varied from selling and using, to possession.

Just on August 4, Moreno ordered police and anti-drug agents to clear the compound of drugs and illegal firearms in one week, after it has been branded as the most drug-infested village in the country.

He continued: “This is just one good news. Another good news out of the 35 arrested, 35 are alive.”

His presentation marks a new era in the anti-drug campaign in Manila, a hotspot in the Duterte administration's so-called war on drugs where the City Hall under Joseph Estrada has been silent.

PNP stand

Asked to comment on Tuesday, August 6, about Moreno's display of suspects, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Oscar Albayalde sought to distance the police from what happened.

He pointed out that the Manila Police District (MPD) did not lead the presentations but the firebrand mayor. "Hindi naman sila nagpepresent eh, not the MPD. Alam naman ng MPD. (They do not present, not the MPD. The MPD knows it) We have a policy on that," Albayalde said.

The MPD, however, is not completely uninvolved in the presentation of suspects. There were instances when MPD chief Brigadier General Vicente Danao joined the presentation, standing behind Moreno as the mayor interrogates suspects from his chair.

What policy? Since June 2018, the PNP stopped presenting suspects to media to avoid trials by publicity.

PNP officials decided to follow a 2008 memorandum circular written by former PNP chief Jesus Verzosa, which declared the presentation of suspects a violation of human rights. (READ: A rule too late? PNP bans presenting suspects to the media)

"The presentation of the suspects to the media is not only violative of their constitutional rights of presumption of innocence, but also their human rights subjecting them to unwanted publicity," the PNP's memorandum reads.

Moreno's defense: The Manila City Legal Office has maintained that it is well within Moreno's discretion as the local chief executive to order cops in presenting suspects if it fits his own anti-crime strategy.

“As a deputized representative of Napolcom exercising operational supervision and control over the Manila police, and for as long as no law has been violated, the City Mayor has the prerogative to determine how to inform the public of the Manila police’s success stories in solving criminality in the nation’s capital,” the Manila City Legal Office said in a statement.

Albayalde then agreed with Moreno's rationale for presenting suspects, saying, "Sometimes, the people have the right to know, for transparency purposes."

The PNP itself has repeatedly violated the policy ever since its revival.

Just on Thursday, August 1, the PNP presented suspected scammers in a press briefing that they allowed to be taken over by Duterte-aide-turned-senator Bong Go. 

Bold words

During Monday's press briefing, Moreno dropped bold statements against drug suspects, even saying that he does not want them in his city, despite them still being mere accused.

“We don’t tolerate them we don’t like them in our city, the capital of the country. I don’t like them selling and using drugs in the City of Manila,” Moreno said, while gesturing to the detainees.

He then called for a certain Richard Castro, a suspect caught in Quiapo who held up a towel to his face. Unable to see, he was yanked by a cop forward. (READ: How Isko Moreno copied a Duterte anti-crime idea and made it his own)

Ang nakakalungkot itong Richard Castro nahuli nang April, 200 grams, last April. Bushabs.. ‘Di ba magtataka ka nahuli nag-Abril nahuli ulit ngayon (What’s saddening is Richard Castro was caught last April, 200 grams last April. Shabu…Wouldn’t you wonder why he was caught in April and he was caught again now),” Moreno said.

'FOR HUMAN RIGHTS.' The drug suspects are told to hide their faces and turn around during the press conference. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

'FOR HUMAN RIGHTS.' The drug suspects are told to hide their faces and turn around during the press conference.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Moreno suspected that there was something wrong with the suspect being free as 200 grams of shabu would not allow for bail. Moreno then interrogated him.

Paano ka nakalabas? Hindi ko po alam. Paano ka nakalaya? Nagulat na lang po ako. Magkaano ang piyansa mo? Hindi ko po alam, mahirap lang po kami.” (How did you get out? I don’t know. How did you get free? I was just surprised. How much was your fine? I don’t know, we are just poor.)

Malamang technicality na naman ito (Most likely this is another technicality),” Moreno said.

Many of the drug cases that are dismissed – in both the prosecutors and the courts – are due to cops failing to file pieces of evidence adequately. (READ: Supreme Court acquits more drug suspects)

He then said: “Kaya minsan tama rin si Pangulong Duterte eh (This is why sometimes President Duterte is correct). That there must be something wrong with our justice system.”

Why the presentation?

Moreno has been presenting crime suspects in the historic hall since he assumed office – in defiance of the PNP policy. This reporter asked him why he thought it was necessary to continuously doing so.

In interviews during the campaign season, Moreno repeatedly said that he would uphold human rights under his administration. The PNP dropped presenting suspects to respect their rights to due process with halting trials by publicity.

Moreno bared his reason.

“People of Manila should see because they deserve to know, they deserve to know that there is an ongoing fight or war against these bad elements of the community,” Moreno said.

He added in a mix of English and Filipino: “The people deserve to know, and the least thing that we can do is to present a physical body, at the same time we are very careful to cover their faces and to have them turn around.”

His administration has repeatedly argued that Moreno has the discretion to present suspects for his anti-crime strategy.

“As a deputized representative of Napolcom exercising operational supervision and control over the Manila police, and for as long as no law has been violated, the City Mayor has the prerogative to determine how to inform the public of the Manila police’s success stories in solving criminality in the nation’s capital,” the Manila City Legal Office said in a statement.

Moreno then reasoned that the presentation gives comfort to citizens that their government is working.

“I would rather submit myself and give, magbigay ng kapanatagan sa mamamayan ng Lungsod ng Maynila na may nagaganap, nangyayari ang programa upang labanan ang mga bad elements (give peace of mind for residents of the City of Manila that there is something happening, a program that is happening to fight these bad elements),” he said. – Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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