Trust issues
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 20, 2019 - 12:00am

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems there has been no drug-related killing by lawmen in the past week.

Instead the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which is tasked by law to lead the anti-narcotics drive, and the Philippine National Police have reported the arrest of suspects and seizure of prohibited drugs. PNP and PDEA officials said yesterday they were still collating the exact data.

Not a bad start for the new anti-drug czar, whose goal in accepting the post that was offered to her with a condescending sneer was to stop the bloodshed.

With the threat of an investigation promised by Vice President Leni Robredo which by law should be the standard operating procedure for any killing – anti-drug units appear to be curbing their trigger-happy tendencies.

The PDEA campaign in fact can be Robredo’s template for her less bloody or, ideally, bloodless drug war. The agency has caught several large-scale traffickers and seized billions of pesos worth of shabu since being designated to take the lead from the PNP in the war on drugs.

It must be stressed that the PDEA has also gunned down drug suspects in what it describes as legitimate law enforcement operations. PDEA spokesman Derrick Carreon counts 63 such killings since 2016 – still a far cry from the nearly 6,000 reported by the PNP – while emphasizing that the agency has also lost 10 men. Ten is still significant for an organization with only 1,900 personnel.

Five of the 10 men, Carreon told “The Chiefs” yesterday on Cignal TV’s One News, were ambushed in Lanao del Sur on Oct. 5 last year as they were leaving a ceremony for drug personalities who had surrendered. The eight suspects were reportedly led by a barangay captain whose younger brother was killed in a police drug sting in Marawi in August last year.

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It would be useful for Robredo to appreciate such genuine security risks faced by anti-narcotics agents when assessing the methods employed in this war.

The illegal drug trade is hugely profitable, and traffickers are ready to kill – brutally, if the fear factor is needed – to protect their business. Carreon noted that the killers in Lanao were armed with machine guns and even a powerful .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle whose impact can mangle flesh. The semi-automatic rifle was used by Islamic separatists against police commandos in Mamasapano in 2015.

Drug money has also allowed traffickers to buy politicians (some have entered politics themselves) and infiltrate law enforcement agencies.

This is why there is such a thing as security levels for access to classified information, typically released on a need-to-know basis. Information in the wrong hands not only can compromise ongoing operations, which can take weeks or months from the start of intel gathering, but can also lead to the death of lawmen, especially undercover agents, as well as their civilian assets.

The so-called narco list, for example, can be accessed even by PDEA and PNP members only on a need-to-know basis.

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Robredo’s co-chair in the Inter-Agency Committee Against Illegal Drugs (ICAD), PDEA director general Aaron Aquino, has expressed willingness to let the VP browse through the narco list, but only behind closed doors, and with every person present at the briefing vetted for proper security clearance.

Carreon told us that the narco list includes some 11,000 names, including about 4,000 “high-value targets” or HVTs, some of whom have been publicly identified by President Duterte.

At this point, it looks like the PDEA – and the administration – may be unwilling to allow the VP to keep her own copy of the narco list. She can look, but not keep it on file.

Unless Robredo intends to be directly involved in the law enforcement aspect of this war, it might be better – and safer for her and those around her – to just leave the list with the PDEA.

It will go a long way in confidence building, which is a critical component of the success of her involvement in the most controversial program of the Duterte administration.

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Interior Undersecretary RJ Echiverri bluntly told The Chiefs in another interview that distrust of the VP is inevitable, considering that she is the leader of the opposition.

Robredo has tried to allay such concerns with reassuring statements. But the concerns even intensified after she met with representatives of the United Nations last week. Never mind if it was the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC), which Robredo said shared best practices in the global war against prohibited drugs. It was still the UN, which has two agencies looking into reports of gross abuses in the conduct of the war on drugs in the Philippines.

After that meeting, officials of agencies that are part of ICAD began openly expressing concerns about sharing classified information with their new co-chair. With whom might she share such sensitive information?

Again by way of confidence building and transparency within the team, Robredo might want to brief ICAD members on her meetings with such bodies. Carreon told us he was unsure if the VP shared with the ICAD what was discussed at the meeting with the UN ODC.

Yesterday, Malacañang announced that because of the meeting with the UN, President Duterte could no longer trust Robredo with classified information and would no longer appoint her to the Cabinet. He had earlier said that if Robredo accepted his offer to serve as anti-drug czar, she would have Cabinet rank and could keep the post until the end of their term in 2022.

Duterte has also stressed that Robredo could be fired any time, if she ever leaks classified information.

I can see some politicians, furious over the surge in national exposure of the VP as drug czar, jumping up and down and urging Duterte, “Fire her, fire her, fire her now.”

Robredo’s appointment, however, has become like toothpaste squeezed out of the tube. It’s possible to put it back, contrary to the popular saying, but it’s going to be messy.

At this point, the better option is for both sides to move to overcome distrust, invest in confidence building, and show that everything is being done with good intentions.

No one wants the narcos to win this war. It cannot be won by the state if those tasked to wage the war are busy fighting each other.

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