I find it ironic that while President Duterte has made his campaign against illegal drugs and corruption the landmark agenda of his administration, the most damaging scandals that have rocked his reign are the ones involving illegal drugs and corruption. And while he often takes pride in his policemen, to whom he has bestowed all kinds of incentives and praise, it is the law enforcement agencies that have given his administration the most headaches.
During his campaign and in the first few days of his presidency, Duterte said he could not allow those who are involved in the trade of illegal drugs to destroy the country and the youth, and threatened to eliminate them and throw them into the Manila Bay as feed for sharks. He egged on policemen to do what they have to do to fight illegal drugs and promised to protect them from prosecution of their actions if they were done on the line of duty.
Under the command of then PNP chief Director General and now the Honorable Senator Bato dela Rosa, the policemen went to work. In a matter of days, hundreds of mostly young people from the country’s slums lay dead on alleys, streets and even in their homes as the dreaded “Operation Tokhang” turned what could have been a great mission to rid the country of the drug menace into a deadly drug war. As the days wore on, the number of drug-related deaths grew to thousands, and tens of thousands more of drug users surrendered to the police for fear of suffering the same fate.
Although the number of those murdered on the streets—either by policemen for allegedly violently resisting arrest or by alleged vigilantes—dissipated in the last two years as public outcry and global protest heightened, many more deaths are reported in relation to the drug war.
Despite all these deaths and continued threats by the feisty former Davao City mayor, the drug war has apparently not caused a dent in the illegal drug trade. Because for every thousand drug users eliminated, only one or two known drug lords were taken off the streets. Not a single one, in my knowledge, has been prosecuted and convicted since. Even those drug lords jailed before Duterte’s term have reportedly continued to practice their trade from the confines of the Bilibid prison.
More importantly, the drug war was based on the wrong premise that illegal drug use is more of a criminal than a health issue.
Two successive scandals involving billions of pesos of shabu shipments rocked the administration in April and August last year. The first one, a P6.4-billion shabu shipment, broke out in April after Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency personnel discovered the illegal drugs in a Bulacan warehouse. Despite telling testimonies from self-confessed Customs fixer Mark Taguba that told of the collusion between high-ranking Customs officials and what he called the “Davao Group” in the P6.4-billion shabu shipment in April and in many other smuggling cases in the Customs bureau, all 12 key Customs and six NBI officials implicated in the smuggling scandal and six officers of the Hong Fei Logistics warehouse where the shabu was found were cleared by the Department of Justice.
In a tragic turn of events, the whistleblower—who implicated presidential son then Davao City Vice Mayor and now Rep. Paolo Duterte, a Davao City councilor, and nine other private individuals—was left holding the bag with various charges. Most of the ranking Customs officials were eventually re-appointed by the President to other key government posts, while others went on to reassume their posts.
In August, another report surfaced that P6.8 billion worth of that illegal drug had again entered the country through the Customs bureau. PDEA agents seized 355 kilos of shabu sitting in the Manila International Container Port, which were waiting to be claimed by the consignee. The drugs were hidden in large magnetic lifters that arrived from Malaysia in a shipping container. Shortly after, PDEA agents raided a warehouse in Cavite where similar magnetic lifters were found but without the shabu. Drug-sniffing dogs of the PDEA, however, reportedly found traces of shabu in the lifters, leading PDEA chief Aaron Aquino to conclude that about a ton of shabu might have already been released into the streets and that certain Customs officials were involved in the illicit drug trade.
But even before the PDEA could pursue its investigation, the President dismissed Aquino’s report as “pure speculation.” He even cautioned government officials not to be speculative as he was not convinced that another drug shipment was smuggled into the country.
The shabu scandals not only showed that the administration’s drug war was ineffective, they also showed that despite Duterte’s repeated threats and avowals of going thongs and hammers against corrupt government officials, especially those in what he described as the most corrupt government agency, the Bureau of Customs, his campaign against corruption has hit a solid wall.
While the President was quick to fire some government officials without the benefit of hearings or investigations for relatively minor offenses, he kept his silence when it came to his longtime allies. For example, there was no further investigation of the Department of Tourism after quietly accepting Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo, a fellow Davaoeño, despite a report by the Commission on Audit questioning the payment of P60 million by the DOT to a production outfit owned by her brothers Ben and Erwin Tulfo for ad placements made on a TV produced by Ben and hosted by Erwin on GTV-4.
As to this day, no investigation nor prosecution has been made. Patay mali na lang.
Another corruption scandal erupted just recently involving the Bureau of Corrections, headed by former military colonel Nick Faeldon, who was the same official linked to the two shabu scandals as Customs chief, when it was reported by Senator Ping Lacson that thousands of convicted criminals were released in exchange for unreported amounts of money under the pretense that they were qualified for freedom under the good conduct law.
And then there was the case of “illegal parking of pork” as exposed, again, by Senator Lacson whereby huge amounts of funds were included in the proposed National Expenditure Program for projects of favored congressmen before it is submitted to Congress. Just recently, another expose by Lacson revealed billions of pork barrel funds inserted by the House in the proposed budget.
Despite claims by the administration that the government is on the road to being corrupt-free, the Philippines remains high on the list of corruption-ridden countries. And despite threats of death and incarceration to both users and pushers, the illegal drugs trade remains rampant in the country.
Obviously, strong man rule is only effective if there is sincerity and consistency in enforcing the laws, which this administration has not shown so far.
Mr. Abelgas is a former editor of Manila Standard. He now lives in the United States.