Are you ready for Leni?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 8, 2019 - 12:00am

Look whose star has suddenly risen in the firmament.

Overnight, Vice President Leni Robredo is now being described as one plucky woman, for taking on the challenge of taking over the war on drugs.

I’m one of the few individuals who believed she should accept the offer – if only to redirect or, as she described it, “tweak” the method of waging the war, so that she can minimize the drug killings and other abuses attributed to law enforcers.

Judging from the reactions of certain politicians to her brief but fighting acceptance speech, the VP has caused insecurity among certain individuals who are said to be deep in preparations, this early, for high office in 2022.

It is from these quarters that efforts could emanate, to make her look like a failure in this campaign.

I emphasize “look” because, as I have written, it’s quite difficult to measure success or failure in fighting the drug menace in this country. Will two or three shipments of shabu brought in through the Bureau of Customs (“by the ton,” according to Robredo’s co-chair in the anti-drug body) – as we have seen in the past three years – or the continuing arrest of neighborhood pushers constitute failure? At what point will success or failure be measured? Within a year? Two? At noon of June 30, 2022?

I know people who are not Duterte admirers and who are not in favor of exterminating drug suspects like vermin, but who also concede that their neighborhoods have become more peaceful with the deaths of drug-addled troublemakers.

But because President Duterte himself has admitted that he can’t deliver on his campaign promise of eradicating the drug menace, which he now knows will persist well beyond the end of his term, critics are calling his war on drugs a failure.

This declaration of failure is anchored on the idea that after the killing of about 6,000 drug suspects (as declared by the police, with children among the collateral damage), people are still smuggling, selling, recycling, buying and using shabu, marijuana, ecstasy and other drugs.

Yesterday, the VP set a fighting target of “zero killings” in the anti-drug campaign. That could turn out to be as unrealistic as Duterte’s six-month self-imposed deadline. There will still be killings in this war. But if the deaths can be significantly reduced under Robredo, it will already be a victory for human rights.

*      *      *

Her doubters expect the Veep to wage a relentless campaign against narco traffickers.

Duterte actually succeeded in showing how serious the problem is, how drug money is being used for politics and even terrorism. Barangay captains, councilors, vice mayors, mayors, the Mautes and Abu Sayyaf in Marawi – I think the extent of the problem surprised even Duterte, and eventually forced him to admit that he couldn’t deliver on his main campaign promise.

Having taken on this monumental task, Robredo should temper expectations.

There will still be genuine armed encounters in this war, and people will still be killed. With huge amounts of money involved, those engaged in the drug trade are ready to kill or be killed. When cornered, a number of them truly fight back and shoot to kill, and cops may have to neutralize the threat if only in self-defense.

Drug money can corrupt persons in every pillar of the criminal justice system, all the way to the courts.

Robredo’s doubters say she is naïve to believe that narcos fight nice. Still, abuse of state power in this war can be discouraged. Cops can be reminded, on pain of sanctions, that they are supposed to shoot to disable rather than kill. Every armed encounter in the drug war that results in death must be properly investigated.

Robredo is a lawyer, she knows the proper process: any killing in the course of law enforcement must be subjected to inquest by a prosecutor, to determine if the use of lethal force was warranted, or if there is reason to launch a criminal investigation.

The Philippine National Police Internal Affairs Service, now headed for the first time by a civilian instead of a PNP member, should conduct a parallel probe.

An anti-narcotics cop cannot be the killer, prober, fiscal and judge all rolled into one.

Surveys show that most Filipinos acknowledge the existence of a drug problem and believe the government must fight the threat. But the government can get more public support if it can show that it is making an effort to wage a just war, to minimize collateral damage and spare lives especially of the innocent.

Surveys have also consistently shown that Filipinos aren’t in favor of mass killings in connection with the drug war.

The administration, which believes drug dealers deserve to be permanently neutralized, can instead push for the restoration of capital punishment for serious drug offenses. The move appears to enjoy strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. If they toss in plunder in the coverage, it might enjoy broad public support.

*      *      *

At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo made all the right noises after Robredo announced, to the surprise of many of her supporters, that she was accepting the Cabinet-rank post.

“Her success is our success,” Panelo said. Let’s hope he was truly speaking for his principal and the administration.

The real sentiment of the administration on the issue, however, seems to be what was expressed by the de facto presidential spokesman, Duterte aide-cum-senator Bong Go, who scoffed that Robredo wanted to “baby” drug traffickers.

A similar opinion was previously expressed by Robredo’s co-chair in the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs, director Aaron Aquino of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. PDEA is tasked by law to lead the anti-narcotics effort (which is why, I guess, Robredo had to have the PDEA head as co-chair).

Being outranked, Aquino naturally has to bow to Robredo, but I don’t see problems here. Aquino, whose agency regained the lead in the anti-drug campaign after Bato de la Rosa bowed out of the PNP, is in fact showing that lethal violence can be minimized in battling the drug scourge.

PDEA has focused on large-scale traffickers, seizing massive amounts of shabu, working with the Bureau of Customs to crack down on drug smugglers, and conducting mainly arrests rather than execution of drug suspects.

Transparency is being designed into PDEA raids and stings, with the use of body cameras and the inclusion of civilian witnesses during the operations. The system is not perfect, but the effort is there.

Robredo can take off from this, and “tweak” the war to make it less dirty.

A significant reduction in bloodshed would be success enough.

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