A recalibrated war
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 26, 2019 - 12:00am

Drug suspects are still being killed under questionable circumstances, and there will always be scalawags in law enforcement.

Yet even some religious leaders and human rights advocates have told me in recent months that they have noted improvements in the way the war on drugs is being carried out by the Philippine National Police.

As of this month, the PNP’s casualty count in the brutal war since July 2016 stands at 6,600. Although the exact figure is still being verified, it reflects the numbers our paper’s reporters have gathered from around the country.

Even one unexplained killing is one death too many, but drug-related killings are truly down.

The numbers, of course, could use a drastic reduction. Still, the killings have been decreasing since the original Tokhang implementer, incoming senator Bato dela Rosa, retired and was replaced as PNP chief by Oscar Albayalde.

Dela Rosa had reportedly endorsed Albayalde as his replacement. But the appointment still came as a bit of a surprise since Albayalde has no connection to Davao City. At the time the Metro Manila police chief, Albayalde was seen to be making a genuine effort to curb the police abuses associated with the war on drugs – potentially risking the ire of President Duterte. Following the killings of teenage drug suspects, for example, Albayalde sacked the entire Caloocan police force except one member, who had to brief the newcomers on the workings of the city police.

Albayalde was our first guest when we launched our talk show “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s also newly launched One News channel a year ago in late May.

How much has changed since then in the war on drugs – the Duterte administration’s priority program?

*      *      *

On Tuesday last week, ex-mayor Ricardo Ramirez of Medellin – not the Colombian drug cartel city but the Cebu town – was shot dead by masked men who barged into his hospital room at the Bogo-Medellin Medical Center in his turf, in what police believe was a drug-related hit.

Ramirez was enjoying hospital refuge from the local jail where he was supposed to be detained on drug charges. His jail custodian was disarmed by the gunmen and hospital personnel were ordered to lie on the floor. The daring execution has stoked suspicion that cops were involved. Police probers say they are facing a blank wall on the murder.

Crime suspects have rights. But those who think “hospital arrest” is a privilege granted by venal judges and jail officials to VIP scoundrels are shrugging off the gangland-style execution of Ramirez.

There is concern over the brazenness of the attack, and what it says about the level of violence in this country. But we’re seeing largely indifference as the war on drugs shows more upper-tier suspects ending up dead rather than the penny-ante neighborhood pushers in the initial phase. Killings targeting such pushers have gone down – as the government promised last year after the “recalibration” of the anti-drug campaign.

Apart from the decrease in the number of ordinary drug killings, we haven’t seen in recent months a return of “mummy” executions – with the victim’s head wrapped in plastic and packing tape and the wrists tied behind the back.

Has the drug menace abated? As there is no reliable point of comparison, we may never know. We have seen that smuggling of massive amounts of shabu through the Bureau of Customs continues despite all the killings. But battling this problem, which is linked to BOC corruption, is not under the PNP.

*      *      *

Albayalde likes to stress the continuing purge of the PNP under his watch – not just of those suspected of committing abuses in the war on drugs, but also those engaged in extortion, which he says remains the biggest offense committed by cops.

He rattles off the statistics since the start of the Duterte administration: nearly 14,000 cops penalized for various offenses, with 2,367 dismissed and 7,867 meted lighter punishment such as reprimands. These are apart from the criminal charges filed where appropriate.

A skeptic told me that a closer scrutiny of the dismissals would show that several are still in the service, perhaps legally challenging the punishment or enjoying the protection of influential individuals.

Albayalde said police extortion has gone down with the salary increase approved by Duterte. But the PNP chief knows there are cops who will always be vulnerable to the temptation of dirty money.

Corruption may taint even other PNP services. Retired middle- and upper-level PNP officers, whose ranks Albayalde will be joining later this year, suspect that the release of their pensions is being deliberately delayed for months on end by the PNP because the money is being used to earn interest – to the great inconvenience of those with no other sources of income and who need the money ASAP for basic items such as medication.

According to previous reports, some officers have complained that they were given a runaround by the PNP and the Commission on Audit when they followed up their pensions. Albayalde may want to check if the delay has turned into a money-making racket for certain rogues in the PNP.

Cops can be vulnerable especially to the lure of the lucrative illegal drug trade.

During Dela Rosa’s time as national police chief, he was publicly seen weeping and wringing his hands in despair over abuses and corruption in the PNP.

Albayalde says during his watch, he is grateful that Duterte, believe it or not, has pretty much left the PNP alone in promotions, assignments and efforts to discipline the police, including those accused of abuses in the war on drugs.

“The key word there is respect (for the police),” Albayalde told us. “That’s what we’re trying to cultivate in the public.”

HUMAN RIGHTS ILLEGAL DRUGS PHILIPPINE NATIONAL POLICE
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