‘An unfortunate incident’

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2021 - 12:00am

Who’s the target of the drug bust; where are the drugs; where’s the money for the payoff (and was the money marked)?

Nearly a full day after an appalling shootout erupted between an anti-narcotics team of the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the fog over what happened is getting heavier rather than lifting.

Both claim that there was coordination. That must be one awful system of coordination between the two principal agencies in charge of waging the Duterte administration’s war on drugs.

Now you have an idea why this war has been unusually bloody and brutal, characterized by a standard procedure of shooting first and asking questions later.

It was frustrating to listen to the media trying to pry details at the joint press briefing yesterday of Philippine National Police chief Debold Sinas and PDEA chief Wilkins Villanueva. But it was Villanueva who came off as defensive and less forthcoming.

That was probably because when the smoke had cleared after that gunfight, the PDEA members, bruised and bloodied, were the ones who were led out of the battleground one by one, arms on their heads, and then made to lie face down on the ground by the cops.

Villanueva hinted that drug traffickers had engineered the “unfortunate incident.” If this is true, those must be scary, highly accomplished traffickers who managed to trick both the PNP and PDEA into killing each other.

The PNP lost two of its members at the scene; their killing reportedly triggered the firefight.

Villanueva said the PDEA lost an agent and a civilian whom he described as an informant. Based on video and photos, however, those PDEA members, some in uniform as they were led out of the parking lot, behaved like suspects who were caught in the act rather than law enforcers indignant over their wrongful arrest.

*      *      *

The gunfire was so intense and the battle so prolonged it was hard to believe it was happening in a public parking lot in Metro Manila on a Wednesday afternoon.

An initial police report said the gunfight erupted when the PDEA agents realized they had been entrapped in a police drug sting. Two of the cops who introduced themselves and announced the arrest were shot dead, according to the initial police report.

By law, the PDEA is the lead agency in the campaign against drug trafficking. An initial police report said the QCPD had set up a sting in Pasay City last Tuesday, but it was reset to Wednesday in Quezon City. The cops claim they gave the PDEA a heads-up on the QC operation, unaware that they were in fact dealing with rogue PDEA agents.

If the PNP version is accurate, this is such a disappointing turn of events. In the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, I considered the PDEA to be the more reasonable in the use of force in carrying out its mission.

While the PDEA has had its share of drug killings, its record has been far less bloody than that of the PNP. When the PDEA took back the lead in drug war enforcement from the PNP, after the scandal over the execution of teenage drug suspects, the number of killings dropped. We stopped seeing “mummies” – those cadavers with bound wrists and ankles, their heads wrapped in plastic and packing tape.

Instead of eradicating the penny-ante impoverished pushers like gnats, the PDEA under Aaron Aquino went after the large-scale traffickers who brought shabu into the country by the ton, right through the Bureau of Customs.

The PDEA also led the way in using body cameras in its operations, to bring transparency to the campaign. Its officials talked about a whole of nation approach to the drug problem, addressing the roots of drug abuse and treating it as a social and health problem while siccing the lawmen on the traffickers.

And now this. What a letdown.

It’s hard to buy that story about a “misencounter” between two agencies engaged in a “buy-bust.” In a drug sting, it’s the buyer that does the entrapment. If it’s the seller, that’s no entrapment; a “sell-bust” is an inducement to commit a crime and it’s illegal. Villanueva says his men claimed they were conducting a “buy-bust.”

*      *      *

The amount of drugs involved in the QC sting was initially reported to be P1.1 million. That’s too small to draw 20 PDEA operatives into the picture, unless it was just one part of several sales over a certain period.

Were the drugs recycled by PDEA “ninjas”? PDEA officials had previously reassured us on OneNews’ “The Chiefs” of strict record keeping and blanket CCTV coverage of their storage area for seized drugs.

Critics of the brutal drug war will point to this gunfight as proof that the killing of thousands of drug suspects – from the hampaslupa neighborhood pushers in the slums to the Parojinogs of Ozamiz plus other local politicians and police officers – failed to serve as a deterrent to the illegal drug trade.

The Duterte administration, on the other hand, can present this as proof of the seriousness of the drug menace in this country, which calls for tough action.

In fact drug abuse has been a problem around the world for ages. As we are seeing in our country, mass extermination of drug personalities isn’t ending the scourge.

The urge to escape reality, deaden pain or enjoy a drug-induced high has been around since the time of our ancestors. The demand has kept alive the supply. And the greater the risk in meeting the demand, the bigger the profits for the suppliers.

In our country, the lure of big money in an illegal trade has been aggravated by government corruption, the weak rule of law, and the absence of capital punishment. This was according to arrested Chinese drug dealers, as narrated to us by officials of…  the PDEA.

Wrongdoing of foot soldiers reflects on the quality of leadership, and it’s understandable that the PDEA chief will want the complete picture of what happened involving his agency’s personnel.

But if there are rotten apples in the PDEA, the sooner they are tossed out, the better for the agency. They are a disgrace to their uniform and could spread their rot.

The most unfortunate outcome of this shootout would be a whitewash.

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