Massive failure?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2020 - 12:00am

Tokhang and Double Barrel will continue. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) will remain as the lead implementer of the campaign against illegal drugs, as stipulated by law.

Scrapping Tokhang and Double Barrel as well as replacing the PDEA with the Dangerous Drugs Board as chair of the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs or ICAD are the recommendations made by Vice President Leni Robredo that were rejected outright by the Duterte administration.

As for the rest of her recommendations, members of the ICAD, which she co-chaired for 18 days, say that many of the proposals were in fact already being implemented or considered by the committee even before she came in, as the war on drugs is recalibrated to focus on high-value targets.

Now Robredo will get the credit for the proposals, one ICAD member groused.

I’m not sure if the VP is interested in credit grabbing. She prepared her report with the aim of making the anti-drug campaign more humane and holistic in its approach.

This change in approach to the conduct of the war on drugs was among her objectives in accepting the offer of President Duterte to co-chair the ICAD. Her declared basic objective was to save even one life from the brutality of the war on drugs.

If ICAD members say their general objectives are actually in sync with those of their former co-chair, then everyone should be happy. It should mean a better campaign against the scourge of prohibited drugs.

*      *      *

Where VP Leni has reaped criticism from the ICAD is in her conclusion that supply constriction has been a “massive failure” because only one percent of illegal drugs in the country had been confiscated.

She based this conclusion on data that she said she got from the Philippine National Police Drug Enforcement Group (DEG) – a claim that was refuted by PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac.

Looking at the figures cited by the VP, Banac told “The Chiefs” last Wednesday on Cignal TV’s One News that these must have come from a meeting of the DEG last year, long before Robredo joined the ICAD, during which guesstimates using several “what ifs” were made.

“That was just an estimate, a wild guess, for purposes of planning,” Banac told us, to assess the extent of the drug problem and establish an accurate baseline. No one said the figures were accurate, he said; he didn’t know how the VP got hold of the figures that were tossed around.

Off camera, Banac told me that establishing an accurate drug baseline “is a work in progress.”

“Nobody can really tell… the quantity of shabu in the market,” Banac said.

It’s a valid observation. Even with tokhang, or the knocking on doors to inform residents that they are being monitored for possible illegal drug activity, how many people will admit that they are abusing or pushing drugs? And how do you determine how much shabu is in the country?

ICAD members are smarting over the VP’s assessment, which they say ignored the scores of PDEA and PNP members who have been killed or wounded in anti-drug operations since 2016. These operations, PDEA spokesman Derrick Carreon said, resulted in the seizure of 5.35 tons of shabu and shutdown of 14 clandestine laboratories with a combined capacity of producing around 96.65 tons of the drug per week.

*      *      *

Setting reliable metrics for the success of an anti-drug campaign is complicated, even in the United States and other advanced economies.

Possible circumstantial metrics are lower levels of drug-related violence and criminality, and fewer reports of drug laboratories and dens that need to be raided.

Both Carreon and Banac claim there are no more large-scale shabu labs in the country, although their agencies are still monitoring smaller operators.

The Philippine government has been testing a grassroots-based method of assessment using the barangays to determine which areas have been cleared of the drug menace. Interior Undersecretary RJ Echiverri himself, however, had previously told The Chiefs that certain barangay officials were found to be fudging the situation to make themselves look good.

Last Wednesday, Echiverri told us that ICAD is finalizing a system of auditing the barangay reports, through verification by other parties. Those found lying would be subjected to administrative penalties for dereliction of duty, until a law is passed institutionalizing the Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Information System.

Without an accurate baseline, it is premature for anyone to declare the success or failure of the drug war, according to Echiverri.

I do remember PDEA director general Aaron Aquino talking about a “whole-of-nation” or holistic approach to the drug problem long before Duterte, in a moment of pique, designated Robredo as the anti-drug czar.

Also, PDEA agents began using body cameras in their operations in an effort to prevent abuses and belie accusations along this line, months before Robredo accepted the ICAD post.

The PNP has taken longer to do this, due to a corruption-related controversy. But Banac says a supplier recently won the bid and cops will be using body cameras by the middle of the year.

*      *      *

Carreon stressed that the PDEA showed its “malasakit” or caring side as early as June last year with the pilot launch of the Sagip Batang Solvent in Novaliches as well as the Balay Silangan drug rehab centers to be set up nationwide.

In interviews with us on The Chiefs months before Robredo joined the ICAD, Aquino and Carreon had also discussed the usefulness of having civilians join anti-drug operations.

Banac had expressed similar views also early on in the case of tokhang. Instead of cops doing the knocking, barangay personnel and even priests could do it, although still backed by a police team, he said.

“We want the Church to be part of this,” Echiverri told us last Wednesday.

Even if several of Robredo’s recommendations are not new, what she did accomplish was to highlight the weaknesses of the anti-drug campaign, and possible remedies.

She has no regrets, she said, in accepting the ICAD post, abbreviated as it was, and despite all the insults publicly heaped on her by Duterte.

And while tokhang has created a fear factor that Echiverri credits for the surrender of 1.3 million drug personalities, Robredo, in her brief stint, also struck fear – in the hearts of those who would have abused state power.

All these developments should lead to a more effective campaign against the drug menace.

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