5 fatal obstacles in Robredo’s target of a deathless drug war

MANILA, Philippines – For Vice President Leni Robredo, the decision to accept President Rodrigo Duterte’s offer of a leadership position in his popular but bloody “drug war” hinged on one thing: saving a life, even just one.

“A lot of people were worried that this offer was not sincere, that it is a trap aimed to destroy and humiliate me...But in the end, the most important consideration for me was simple: if this is a chance for the killing of the innocent to stop and to hold the perpetrators responsible, I will take this on,” Robredo said on November 6 after accepting the proposal.

But as she started to ease into the job as co-head of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), Robredo has seen more than ever that changing, let alone implementing the anti-drug campaign according to law, would be a back-breaking task.

In her quest to reduce the killings, if not completely eradicate them, Robredo faces various challenges in solving a problem that the President himself could not end in the first half of his term.

1. Unclear authority

For Robredo's every act, the question of whether she is allowed to do it will be asked.

Robredo was appointed by the President with undefined powers.Without a clear order, Robredo’s role remains nebulous to the other agencies supposed to be under her, resulting in unclear parameters of her authority.

What’s clear so far is she works in a department with direct oversight by the President. Under his executive order that created the agency, Robredo should ensure that the anti-drug campaign is enforced in an “integrated and synchronized manner.”

But the statements from Malacañang have changed – from requiring her to seek Duterte’s approval before moving forward, to allowing her to overhaul the campaign entirely.

The Vice President’s spokesman Barry Gutierrez even earlier described the position of ICAD co-chairman as "empty," "powerless," and “non-existent.”

As she seeks to reduce killings, Robredo would have to step into the work of law enforcers. But law enforcers have, so far, said that she should confine herself to the realm of rehabilitation and advocacy campaigns.

Robredo was dared to join anti-illegal drugs operations by her co-leader Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Director General Aaron Aquino, then advised to do otherwise by the Philippine National Police (PNP) officer-in-charge Lieutenant General Archie Gamboa.

One leader wanted her to work on the ground, much like how she has approached her campaigns that advocated for Filipinos living at the “fringes” of society, while another told her that not even police generals go on the ground, so why should she?

“Really, there is a need to define. Or they can agree [on] how to go about it. It’s beyond the comprehension of the PNP,” said Gamboa in a Camp Crame press briefing on Monday, November 11.

Without a document that spells specific guidelines and powers, the Vice President’s authority will continue to be undefined, continuously questioned, and resisted as she pursues radical changes in her new territory.

2. Police leadership

Vice President Leni Robredo chose to become part of the anti-illegal drugs campaign at a time of crisis among law enforcers. The PNP, the most powerful implementer of the war she inherited, just lost its top general to a drug-related controversy.

Allegations about involvement in drugs upset the President so much that he fumed at top police generals during a Malacañang command conference. With even less control over the police, Robredo is expected to work with the same men who frustrated the President.

The police’s current leader, Lieutenant General Archie Gamboa is leading the organization in an officer-in-charge capacity, and top police generals had frowned upon his leadership, especially after he uprooted and moved around 20 generals from their posts to send a message to the public that the police force wishes to begin with a clean slate.

Gamboa is one of the generals recommended by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año to be the next police chief, along with Lieutenant General Camilo Cascolan and Major General Guillermo Eleazar, but President Duterte has continued to stall his selection, saying that he has “other officers in mind.”

As the President continues to mull over his choice of the next top cop, Robredo will have to consider that Gamboa is seeking to regain public trust – more especially Duterte's trust – in the PNP.

Just on Monday, November 11, Gamboa announced that owing to alleged corruption of bids and awards committee officers, the procurement of body cameras, their promised solution to reduce, if not end, questionable killings in the anti-drug campaign, has been delayed for over a year already.

In the same briefing, he said he was open to making some tweaks in the war against drugs, as earlier proposed by Robredo.

“Personally…if there is a need to recalibrate and maybe touch a few points, to study it, then the PNP is open to it,” Gamboa added.

3. Real battle against drugs is beyond the streets

The streets are not the real frontlines in the so-called war on drugs, but the country’s borders. Robredo said this much in a statement in October 2018.

“The policy we should follow is simple: if there is no drug supply, there will be no drug addicts,” Robredo said. Her comment came after the PDEA, PNP, and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) failed to stop billions' worth of methamphetamine (shabu) from slipping through Manila ports into the country inside magnetic lifters.

Ironically, all 3 agencies had men involved in the illegal shipment: a Customs intelligence officer who has availed of the government’s witness protection program, a veteran anti-drugs cop now in hiding, and the PDEA’s own deputy chief who is also on the run.

Just like the PNP, the BOC is also trying to clean up its ranks under the leadership of former Armed Forces chief Rey Leonardo Guerrero.

The continuous flow of drugs is being managed by big-time drug lords from plush condominiums down to the prison system. While the PDEA and the PNP have reported the capture of hundreds of high-value targets, they have failed in their pursuit of high-profile drug lords like Peter Lim.

Recent Senate hearings also directed attention at the continuing control of the drug trade from inside the New Bilibid Prison and its hospital – an ongoing controversy that caused the removal of Bureau of Corrections chief Nicanor Faeldon.

Robredo will now be in a position to recommend comprehensive policy changes to concretize what she earlier referred to as a “simple” solution.

4. Rehabilitation troubles

The law enforcement side of the campaign has become so muddled that Robredo has been advised to limit herself to rehabilitation efforts. But rehabilitation itself has been chaotic.

In this front, she would have to work closely with the Department of Health and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), an agency that used to be led by her late husband Jesse Robredo.

The DOH, however, has been spread thin, given its own problems: back-to-back polio and measles outbreaks and a dengue epidemic, corruption allegations against its own secretary, and the implementation of the universal health care program.

The mega drug rehab centers supposed to house hundreds of drug surrenderers have not been put to full use for various reasons. (READ: No more 'mega' drug rehab centers after Nueva Ecija facility?)

In addition, government has yet to produce a solid and reliable number of drug surrenderers who have completed recovery programs. (READ: No 'real number' on drug rehab: Here's why)

The DILG, meanwhile, indirectly controls rehabilitation as it orders local government units to implement community-based rehab programs. The DILG's information system had a soft launch on November 7 to "consolidate" numbers, but the data remains incomplete, and their count excludes casualties of the campaign.

In this setup, ideally, drug users who need to be confined would go to the DOH, while those who only need to attend weekly sessions go to the barangay, municipality, and city halls. Robredo has been advocating for these rehabilitation programs since the start of the campaign.

“When a person gets addicted, it's not just a problem of the family; it's a complicated problem that each of us must take responsibility for,” she said in a November 2018 speech in Nueva Ecija.

5. Politics 

At the end of the day, Robredo’s critics and political enemies could still accuse her of positioning for 2022. After all, whether or not she cooperates with the administration, she remains the highest official of the opposition.

On November 11, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano took an early jab at her, saying that she has so far only been pursuing “Oplan All Talk.”

Dapat tanggalin ang politics whether from the opposition or the administration when it comes to the drug war (Politics should be removed, whether from the opposition or the administration),” Cayetano said.

But as the past 3 years have demonstrated, the anti-illegal drug campaign is every inch political. For starters, it was during an election campaign when the promise to clear the country of drugs and crime was made by then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte.

Dealing with the drug menace also means running after politicians who have benefited from drug money, even if they are allies. In the 2019 elections, for example, Duterte published a list of local chief executives who were supposedly involved in the illegal drug trade. Eight of them were members of the President’s party PDP-Laban.

When Robredo accepted Duterte’s offer, she already expected to meet resistance from executive agencies. This, on top of battling an electoral protest that seeks to dislodge her.

She said in Filipino: “Even if they say this offer is nothing but politics, that the agencies would not really follow me, and that they would do everything for me to fail, I am ready to endure all of that. Because if I would be able to save even just one life, my principles and my heart tell me I have to try.”

Will this be enough? – 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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