Anti-drug czarina
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 4, 2019 - 12:00am

She has already brushed aside the offer as a veiled insult.

On the other hand, Vice President Leni Robredo may want to see opportunity in adversity, in assessing the challenge hurled at her by President Duterte to take over his war on drugs.

As anti-drug czarina, what can Robredo do that Duterte can’t – or won’t?

One critical thing – if she will be given the full authority to carry it out: she can end Tokhang, Double Barrel and the brutality of the anti-drug campaign.

Overnight, she could put an end to the killing of drug suspects who ostensibly resist arrest or nanlaban.

This has always been the main issue Robredo has raised against the controversial war. Presumably, ending the killings is also what she means when she says the war needs “tweaking.”

Duterte, for the past three years, has been trying to show that narcos fight dirty and eradicating the drug menace calls for a dirty war. Robredo, if she accepts the challenge, can prove him wrong.

*      *      *

Before leaving for Thailand for the ASEAN summit last Friday, Duterte said he was prepared to give Robredo a Cabinet designation and the authority she needs to carry out the campaign. He promised that she would keep the post until the end of their term in 2022, unlike her previous Cabinet posting as housing chief.

It wouldn’t be the first time that an anti-crime portfolio has been offered to a vice president. Fidel Ramos, during his presidency, made his VP Joseph Estrada his anti-crime czar, tasked to put an end to what seemed like an intractable ransom kidnapping spree at the time that targeted the Chinese-Filipino community.

Erap, always gung-ho, accepted the challenge, with impressive results. His success boosted not only his popularity but also of his trusted cop named Panfilo Lacson, who also employed controversial methods similar to those attributed to an alleged death squad in Davao.

It is, of course, easier to gauge the success of a campaign against kidnapping for ransom than drug trafficking.

Duterte, who campaigned on a platform of wiping out the drug problem within six months of assuming power, eventually acknowledged that he had set an impossible target. Recently, he also admitted that the drug menace would outlive his presidency.

While small-scale neighborhood drug pushing appears to have abated, critics have pounced on Duterte’s admissions to describe his drug war as a failure. They have also pointed to the continued smuggling of shabu right through the Bureau of Customs – and by the ton, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Robredo’s camp is concerned that in being offered the post of anti-drug czarina, she is being set up for failure.

*      *      *

The parameters for success or failure in this war, however, can be vague. Colombia and Mexico achieved some measure of success with the cocaine cartels, based on dramatic reductions in drug-related violent incidents. But no one would dare declare the war over in the two countries.

Colombia and Mexico also employed brutal methods in battling the cartels.

Duterte had taken a similar iron-fisted approach to criminality in his home city of Davao. People say it worked and the city became one of the safest in this country of violent crime. Critics dispute this and point to crime statistics belying the claim.

But Duterte apparently thought it was effective enough to be replicated nationwide: several months of shock and awe, to instill the fear if not of God then of the graveyard into the hearts of criminals. Give him six months, he vowed during the 2016 campaign.

I can’t think of anyone who believed he could meet his self-imposed deadline. But his record left no doubt that he intended to carry out his campaign promise to kill. It says a lot about the national mood that he won by a landslide.

Earl Parreño, who has written an unauthorized biography of Duterte, isn’t sure what made the drug war the defining program of his administration.

Perhaps Duterte encountered the evils of illegal drugs when he was a city prosecutor, says Earl, who conducted extensive interviews and research for his book, “Beyond Will and Power.”

Being a Cebuano helped Earl gain access to Duterte even before the decision to run for president was reached. Duterte, Earl recently told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News, is a wide reader. During the 2016 campaign, his favorite book was English writer Ioan Grillo’s “Gangster Warlords,” about the brutal world of South American narco traffickers.

No one can say if the book inspired the bloody methods employed under Tokhang and Double Barrel. Drug violence in the Philippines pales in comparison with those in the countries included in the book. And the problem in the Philippines does not call for such brutal responses by the state.

Following Duterte’s victory, Grillo visited him at Malacañang for an interview. “Gangster Warlords” is one of the two books that Duterte publicly touts as must-reads. The other is the late Aries Rufo’s “Altar of Secrets,” about the transgressions of certain members of the Philippine Catholic clergy.

*      *      *

Around the world, the drug menace has been around for ages. I can’t think of any society that has completely eradicated the problem. China has had an opium problem for centuries. The United States has spent billions fighting the drug menace abroad and domestically. One recent remedy, which is gaining popularity in other countries: marijuana has been legalized, even for recreational use in some states.

Like many other crimes such as homicide, rape and thievery, the war against drug trafficking may never be over. As long as there are people who want substances that alter the mind and mood, there will be suppliers.

You have to manage expectations. Battles can be won – against notorious narcos and their henchmen, their money laundering and corruption, and drug addiction. But the war will continue.

Where a measure of victory is possible is in the campaign against egregious rights abuses in carrying out the war on drugs.

In such a campaign, someone like Leni Robredo – if she will truly get full support from the administration – might be able to make a difference.

LENI ROBREDO RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE
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