Inviting more lapses

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2021 - 12:00am

It has long been the lament of drugbuster Rodrigo Duterte: the country’s laws against illegal drugs, tough as they are, still have many holes that allow big fish and minnows alike to slip through the net.

The drug kingpins know enough not to keep their contraband in their possession. They know how to stay away from their foot soldiers when drug deals are carried out. Drug money buys tip-offs that ensure the big fish are outside the premises when shabu laboratories are raided. And the kingpins are tech-savvy enough to make their phone calls and electronic messages untraceable.

Even smaller scale and penny-ante neighborhood drug pushers know enough to dispose of the evidence ASAP when the cops come swooping down.

What’s a drugbuster to do? Especially when a drug baron has become so successful he has corrupted every aspect of the criminal justice system to ensure that his business continues to thrive? Or when he has parlayed his drug money into politics – whether as a campaign financier and kingmaker or as an elected official himself, with the power to protect his dirty business?

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We have seen some of the ways by which the Duterte administration has dealt with such problems in fighting the drug menace. There’s Oplan Tokhang, mostly targeting the small-time pushers including barangay captains, followed by Double Barrel, which focused on the organized traffickers including clans such as the Parojinogs of Ozamiz as well as local government officials.

As of Nov. 4 last year, the Philippine National Police counted 7,987 drug suspects killed in 234,036 operations conducted since Duterte launched his drug war in 2016. Most of the fatalities were alleged to have resisted arrest or nanlaban. The PNP also reported 357,069 suspects arrested and 1,290,768 who surrendered.

Suspects are usually entrapped in a sting or “buy-bust.” A former chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, however, said in an interview, after that shootout between PDEA agents and members of the Quezon City Police District, that anti-narcotics agents also resort to “sell-bust” just to put illegal drugs in the hands of slippery drug dealers. But this is inducement to commit a crime and is illegal.

The current head of the PDEA, who was grilled about this possibility during his joint press briefing with the PNP chief, heatedly denied that his agents had engaged in a “sell-bust” before the shootout.

In storytelling, the QC cops had beaten the PDEA agents to the draw, immediately saying that they had staged a “buy-bust.” The two agencies couldn’t have possibly been trying to buy shabu from each other; there had to be a buyer and a seller.

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Perhaps the shootout, which left two cops, a PDEA member and a civilian alleged to be a PDEA informant dead, inspired the House of Representatives to pass a measure tightening the screws on the narco traffickers.

This is House Bill 7814, approved by an overwhelming 188 congressmen, which critics say overturns the principle of presumption of innocence enshrined in the Constitution.

One of HB 7814’s authors, Ruffy Biazon of Muntinlupa, has withdrawn his support for the measure. Its principal proponent, Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte, of course defends the provisions that presume guilt in an arrested drug suspect until he proves his innocence.

Looking at the issue from the perspective of Barbers and his 187 colleagues, they do have a point: suspicion is presumption; a person is arrested because guilt is presumed.

The presumption, however, is usually based on a formal accusation or evidence such as CCTV footage, incriminating personal items or documents. Barbers points to malice in libel to stress his point about presumption of guilt that leads to an indictment and arrest.

Applying this principle, as embodied in HB 7814, however, can lead to even more abuses in an already brutal war on drugs.

To penetrate the drug traffickers’ layers of protection in financing and operation, the presumption of guilt will apply to those who are in the premises, or who own or operate the premises where a drug deal is conducted, and to those whose financial networks are used for the production, sale and distribution of prohibited drugs.

This means that if the law had already been in place some years ago, a taipan’s family, which owned a house in an exclusive subdivision that was raided by the PDEA, could have been implicated in the activities of the drug trafficking ring that leased the house. The taipan and his family, as far as everyone knows, are not into drug deals.

Or if the law had been in place during that shootout in Quezon City, the manager of the fast-food outlet plus the servers and janitorial staff might have also been apprehended.

If you have a regular hangout such as a bar, and the place turned out to have a hidden shabu lab that was raided while you were there, you could be arrested with the suspects and tossed into jail, presumed guilty until you prove your innocence.

It’s guilt by association, from which it can be impossible for an innocent person to extricate himself.

The biggest danger, as we know from events of the past five years, is that anyone presumed guilty of drug offenses in this country could end up dead.

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There’s another option. It worked on gangster Al Capone, and it could work not only on drug dealers but on anyone else who amasses wealth illegally. But since these crooks can include persons in high office in our country, I might never see a sweeping law against racketeering passed in my lifetime.

What lawmakers have allowed are measures that allow the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to freeze the assets of drug dealers and look into their bank accounts.

The PDEA has been working with the AMLC in going after the assets of drug traffickers, mostly still suspects, but a few already convicted. Since last month alone, three couples in three separate drug trafficking cases have seen their assets frozen, in Manila, Cagayan de Oro, Misamis Oriental and Cebu.

The state has not even fully used the power of the revenue examiners to go after the hidden wealth of notorious but slippery drug dealers.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra recently admitted before the United Nations Human Rights Council that there were lapses in the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs. Guevarra indicated that the lapses were individual acts of abusive law enforcers, rather than part of a systematic campaign sanctioned by the national leadership. Some quarters see this as the start of laglagan and hugas-kamay in the drug war.

HB 7814 broadens the opportunities for more lapses and nanlaban killings.

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