Just getting started
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 27, 2019 - 12:00am

In the 19 days that Vice President Leni Robredo served as anti-drug czar, no report reached our newsroom about suspects being killed in police drug stings or raids for resisting arrest or nanlaban.

Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac, Philippine National Police spokesman, cautiously told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News yesterday that it did look that way.

Banac noted that armed encounters between cops and drug suspects have in fact been slowing down for some time now as the PNP recalibrates its campaign for a “transparent and more humane” approach to the drug menace.

Still, it’s also possible that Robredo’s warning to hold cops accountable and investigate every drug death might have made certain anti-narcotics cops less trigger-happy.

Robredo can claim this as one positive aspect of her brief stint as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs. In accepting the ICAD post, Robredo had said if she could save just one life, she would consider her stint a success.

The other potential win for her, if she plays her cards right, is to continue her advocacy for a more holistic and humane approach to the drug menace. 

*      *      *

Her ICAD posting, even if short-lived, has focused attention on the powers of the second highest official of the land. The principal function is to be the spare tire – to remain healthy, mentally and emotionally fit in case a situation arises wherein she must take on the role of constitutional successor.

But vice presidents can also do a lot of things, without needing a Cabinet position, an order or clearance from Malacañang. Including pursuing programs in drug prevention and control.

It looks like Robredo has seen this as well. In her first response to her firing, she said she was just getting started.

The statement means she would continue fighting the drug menace, in her own way, and within her powers as VP.

What are those powers?

As her activities last Monday showed, she can continue meeting with government officials and groups involved in the social aspects of the drug problem – rehabilitation, counseling, support for youths.

What can she not do?

She’s out of the law enforcement aspect of the drug war. But even as ICAD co-chair, there was resistance anyway from the concerned agencies in allowing her involvement in law enforcement. President Duterte also made it clear she would have access to classified information only on a need-to-know basis – and even then approval for such access was still a big if.

Out of ICAD, it won’t be easy for Robredo to invite for consultations the Cabinet members who attended her first meeting with the committee members, including the secretaries of the interior and trade.

As vice president, however, she can do her own thing in coordinating efforts to deal with the drug problem. And this time, she does not have to answer to anyone including the President.

The only ones to whom she is accountable are the Filipino people she has sworn to serve.

*      *      *

Outside the confines of any presidential executive order, the VP can define the parameters of her own anti-drug campaign.

Only time will tell if this will be good for Malacañang and its political allies, some of whom appeared threatened by Robredo’s sudden high profile.

As the VP has been accused of consorting with enemies of the state, the administration most likely considers her an enemy as well. But there’s also that advice from the wise to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Like it or not, Robredo’s designation created the impression that this war could be waged differently – mainly with less bloodshed, and with additional emphasis on giving certain offenders a second chance, particularly the penny-ante pushers and users on the lower rungs of notoriety.

Thanks to Malacañang, Robredo has become inextricably linked to the anti-drug campaign. That link isn’t going to be easily broken.

*      *      *

As I have written, the VP could in fact have worked on confidence building first. Duterte didn’t have to announce that he didn’t trust her with confidential information on the war on drugs. Surely it has always been plain that he doesn’t trust her, period.

And yet he did appoint her to what could have been one of the most important posts in this country – even if it was offered with a sneer, and administration allies have indicated that no one expected Robredo to accept the post.

Everything is easier in hindsight. Still, it bears asking: what might have happened if the offer had been taken in good faith, at least in public, and the VP had thanked Duterte for the initial trust, however grudgingly given?

What would have happened if her camp had tried to arrange her meeting with Duterte from Day One, instead of waiting for Malacañang to send an invitation?

It didn’t build confidence that among the first groups that she met with were representatives of the United Nations. While the public was informed that it was the Office on Drugs and Crime, it was still the UN, which has two agencies looking into the conduct of Duterte’s drug war.

Inevitably, the administration wondered if it had handed Robredo the rope to be used for its own hanging.

Trust deficit on both sides doomed Robredo’s appointment to the ICAD.

In reality, that trust deficit has been around since Duterte launched his bloody war. It has hobbled a campaign that is best carried out with all sectors on board.

Among officials involved in the anti-drug campaign, the PNP spokesman has struck the most positive note: the VP’s presence was “felt” at ICAD, Banac told us yesterday. Her brief stint had been “good” for furthering the PNP objectives of carrying out a transparent and more humane campaign against illegal drugs, Banac said. He added that the PNP is ready to continue working with the Vice President on worthy projects.

Let’s hope Banac won’t be next on the chopping block.


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