A weak society

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

When did the controversial methods in the war on drugs begin taking root?

No one can say when the idea germinated in the mind of Rodrigo Duterte. But a talk with one of the candidates for the Senate race in May gives a fascinating insight on when Duterte might have begun believing that the methods may be employed in this country.

In 1992 when Fidel Ramos was president, his secretary of the interior and local government, Rafael Alunan III, picked Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, as head of the peace and order council for Region XI or the Davao Region.

Davao City in the 1980s, Alunan recalls, was a “killing field,” with communists, gangsters and other threat groups committing murder with impunity. There was so much armed violence in the village of Agdao that it was dubbed “Nicaragdao.” In 1984, a barangay captain organized the vigilante group Alsa Masa against communist rebels. After he was assassinated reportedly by the communists, a man who claimed to be a disillusioned rebel reorganized Alsa Masa in 1986, with the backing of Lt. Col. Franco Calida, chief of the Davao City Metropolitan Command. The late broadcaster Jun Pala was seen to be a supporter.

Then president Corazon Aquino, according to some reports, supported the anti-communist campaign of Alsa Masa. So did the US government.

Duterte, a socialist sympathizer in his youth, reportedly didn’t support the vigilante group. The communist-related violence was easing when he became mayor, but he acknowledged that his city had a serious crime problem that needed to be addressed if it were to see development.

When Ramos assumed power, Alunan, who because of his Cabinet post chaired the national peace and order council, asked Duterte what he needed to fight continuing violent crime in the Davao region.

Duterte reportedly sighed that he could not depend on the criminal justice system. Alunan recalls urging Duterte to set up a band similar to the “Untouchables” in the US. This team could use force when dealing with lawbreakers, as long as the rules of engagement were followed.

*      *      *

What were the rules? One, there must be a so-called order of battle, with targets verified as lawbreakers. Two, make sure you get the right target. Three, the target must be given a chance to surrender.

Four, Alunan told Duterte that if the target fights back but the lawman’s life is not threatened, the cop could employ armed force to disable, maim or “neutralize” the target. (Many law enforcers, however, have a different interpretation of “neutralizing” a suspect.)

“But if your life is in danger, you better come out alive,” Alunan told The Chiefs on One News / Cignal TV earlier this week.

Duterte surely already knew the drill, having worked as a city fiscal before entering politics. He went to work, bringing peace and order to his city.

There is jurisprudence stating that for self-defense, lawmen can employ force that is one level higher than the threat they face. Assessing levels of threat, of course, can be highly subjective.

Duterte the mayor was accused of employing excessive force to bring peace and order to his city and the region.

Alunan admits hearing about death squads in Davao at the time. He said they tried to find out if the stories were true or merely black propaganda against Duterte, but verification was complicated. “We could only speculate,” Alunan told us on The Chiefs.

“No, we didn’t create a monster during our time,” he stressed.

*      *      *

Talking to Alunan gives you an idea of why Duterte continues to enjoy strong support across social sectors and income classes.

I asked Alunan if he is happy with the way today’s war on drugs is being carried out. “There are rogue policemen,” he acknowledged. “But it doesn’t mean everyone is doing it wrong.”

He won’t concede that Duterte has gone “overboard” or that the President’s public statements may be “enabling” lawmen to resort to extrajudicial killings. Duterte, Alunan said, “does have a communication problem,” but “he knows the line between lawful and unlawful.”

The campaign against illegal drugs, Alunan pointed out, calls for a “whole of nation approach” – one that addresses both supply and demand.

He said the government can deal with the supply, but the rest of society must do its part especially in reducing the demand. This isn’t happening, however. As Duterte pointed out when he was mayor, we have a failed criminal justice system.

“Government is overwhelmed,” Alunan told us. “First things first. Clean up the criminal justice system. Then you get quality law enforcement. Then you get quality justice.”

Because of the broken criminal justice system, Filipinos are taking the easy way out, he observes, “preferring to choose wrong over right.”

*      *      *

If elected, Alunan plans to push for legislation that will rid four of the five pillars of the criminal justice system of rogue elements, perhaps through a combination of voluntary retirement schemes or outright purges. The four are the police, prosecution, judiciary and penology services (the fifth is civil society).

Alunan also wants to introduce educational reforms, restoring to the curriculum subjects on good manners and right conduct and emphasizing values formation.

How does he square this thrust with his support for a president who is seen to be the country’s rudest ever and most prone to the use of violence by the state?

Alunan, who is presenting himself as a unifying candidate, stresses that while he is not the President’s spokesman or apologist, he supports Duterte’s policies.

Even back in 1995, during a visit to the United States, Alunan said US officials had already told him that they were monitoring the Philippines as “a narco state in the making.”

“We’re a weak society,” Alunan said, “and we have to strengthen it.”

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