The War on Drugs & Amongst Ourselves

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Everybody these days harbor an opinion about the Philippines’ current drug eradication program. Whether it is on social media or daily political conversations, Filipinos can’t help it. Sides are taken. Vociferous disagreements abound. Rarely though, do Filipinos engage in a healthy discussion. Fanatics on either side of the spectrum rabidly defend but seldom listen to merits. Sadly, that’s what we’ve become. Fanatics. The voices of the moderate few are drowned by the noise of personalities. We are so stan as a nation that we are overzealous to the point of belligerent, unrelenting to the extent of manic and unforgiving to the degree that we’re bullies to one other.

One can’t help but think that this goes beyond the war on drugs. It is a war within ourselves, amongst ourselves. A nation so divided by fanaticism and misplaced idealism that we fail to listen to each other. And in belittling each other, our nation fails to progress.

It may sound cynical but there is a telling truth to how we Filipinos regard an issue. We take it as a personal upfront, an assault to our very core. Of those we disagree, we regard with malice. We resort to unfounded speculation with emotional passion. We are a sensitive lot. Marge and i often chide each other with this quote:

Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence.

The Senate hearing on the so-called extrajudicial killings comes to mind. When you listen and make careful research, all of the police misgivings is less about malice but more about the lack of logistical support, the absence of a well-rounded police intelligence training, the lack of procedural transparency and the total lack of integrated, consistent data. All of which are indicative of a massive infrastructural incompetence within our public agencies — whether they are the PNP, DOJ, DILG, NBI, PDEA, BOC, DTI, not to mention our own legislative bodies who take on Senate inquiries that are anything but in aid of legislation.

After reading Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan, I’ve realized how at times we can’t blame our local enforcers. The PNP Generals as well as DILG Secretaries throughout the years have lacked the leadership wherewithal to build our police force as the nation’s finest. The Rizal Park bus hostage-taking was perhaps one of the lowest points of really bad police training and the lack of psychological support for our very own decorated but mentally tortured enforcers. Rolando Mendoza could’ve been provided venue to air his grievance without having to resort to the crime.

The lack of detailed & consistent data on the drug war is telling. The President, the PNP & DDB keep scrambling their numbers. In his State of the Nation address, the President claimed that there are 3.7 million drug users in the country. The Dangerous Drug Board (DDB), the executing arm of PDEA, has its official count to 1.8 million. Did the President inflate the numbers to justify the war on drugs? Perhaps. However, the DDB figures were based on a 2015 survey. Given that much is self-reported, those numbers may also be understated. During the Senate inquiry, the PNP Chief announced that there were 1,506 deaths from legitimate police operations. They later corrected this to 1,105 deaths in a Sept 14 news tweet from Rappler. It begs the question is there really a unified summary that the PNP releases to the media or does the media misreport? Because one can’t seem to find an official tally from the PNP on its website — all the numbers we have are from what media tracks. Again, no malice. Just plain, frustrating incompetence.

Media outlets vary in their reports as well. Take into account the differences in tallies by Rappler and GMA Network in the table below. The coverage is from July 1 to September 23. Both claim that their sources stem from the PNP. GMA News reporters need to understand basic math as their total of 19,935 can’t be derived by adding 18,873 arrested and 1,216 kills by the police. Are they saying that 154 people were killed by the police who were not on the suspect list? In Rappler’s case, while the number of suspects minus those who were arrested equal to the number of deaths killed by legitimate police operations, are they also saying that all of the suspects in the PNP watch list have been accounted for? If that is the case, the 2,140 vigilante kills are worth looking at. If it is a growing suspects list, then how many of the 2,140 are included in the overall drug watch list by PDEA? With the lack of police investigators, how long before all these vigilante cases are resolved?

I abstain from saying that all these numbers are cover-ups either by the administration or the news agencies. Maybe it’s the lack of reporting due diligence by the PNP or by the reporters. Maybe because we don’t have real time integrated tracking as the PNP tends to tally numbers by district office, where people still rely on paper-based reports.

So don’t blame it on malice. Blame it on infrastructural incompetence. Or sheer stupidity. Even laziness.

The Senate inquiry on the war on drugs smacks of grandstanding by key personalities. Leila De Lima is an example. Despite the valid reasons for looking into vigilante killings related to the drug war, one wonders about her motives. Her line of questioning, for someone with legal experience, is often misleading, if not vindictive. Karen Jimeno, lawyer and former member of CJ Corona’s legal team expressed that it was good that the Senate hearing did not follow Rules of Court because De Lima’s queries goaded witnesses to a slanted answer. If the pursuit of truth was really at the core of the hearing so that the Senate can legislate better, then a more objective Chairperson would’ve been best. Richard Gordon would’ve fit the bill all along. Alas, it took 16 votes from the Senate to oust her as Chair of the Committee for Justice and Human Rights — a spectacle that was not needed had the Senate chosen someone more objective in the first place.

Her press conferences are not helping either. Putting herself out there as a hapless victim of bullying and harassment places the spotlight on her and not on the issues at hand. She falls into the same category as the President. Pikon to a fault. (Same can be said for the former President Benigno Aquino.) Pot calling the kettle black. The hypocrisy is outstanding. How is the inquiry helping legislation? The answer is elusive.

For a political leader who once headed the DOJ, you’d expect that she is used to the landscape and has the political courage to stay true to the her stated objectives. Remember the feisty Miriam Defensor-Santiago who once said:

I eat death threats for breakfast! Death is only a state of thermodynamic equilibrium.

Yet De Lima is not Santiago — who for all her intelligence resorts to honest if not infuriating blusters herself. If Leila De Lima had the firebrand chops she is known for, then the relentless pursuit of objective evidence and solutions building should be the crux of her media appearances. Alas, we are witnesses to a soap opera that is full of drama, but lacks resolution. Grand theatrics that we are paying for with our taxes.

President Duterte’s tirades is not helping put focus on the causes of the issue. The cowboy-style comments and bombastic pronouncements is indicative of the lack of planning by his staff. Thus, the extension of the drug war for another 18 months. It was one of those BHAGs in his State of the Nation. Big Hairy Audacious Goals. A great vision but lacks practical planning. Because the drug war cannot be simply a war of attrition. It needs to be strategic and cultural as well.

The hypocrisy on either side of the argument still won’t help our police force and the larger humanitarian goal of sparing innocents from working together to create a safe public enforcement against drugs. The President’s cult of personality & damn-everyone-to-hell tactics are not helping either. It tends to inflame an already burning yet unnecessary sidebar. Distractions all from the heart of the issue. This is not an issue that needs to conveniently assign blame and point fingers. This is an issue that needs a near-term and long-term solution.

The real answers elude the public. Perhaps they elude our Senators as well when a good number of them posit questions as if they are neophytes.

Senator Drilon was drilling the PNP Chief about a memo an exclusive village circulated to its residents. The memo stated that police may go “house to house” on “all” homes within the community to conduct preliminary questions. Drilon painted this as a “chilling effect” on police tactics to secure information. Now, there is something wrong with this line of questioning by Drilon. The PNP chief is not accountable to how a village’s homeowners association communicates its message to its residents. Bato Dela Rosa corrected the esteemed senator by saying that the command order should be the basis and it did not state all households but only those who are on the PNP watchlist. This distortion of facts puts us away from the real issue of how we can help the PNP conduct data-driven and targeted intelligence. Given that the PNP Chief was scrambling for figures when asked pointedly, i attribute this more to our lack of readily accessible numbers.

A large majority of our elected senators are either naive, colored with political bias or simply need Gov 101. Grace Poe kept asking foreign intelligence questions on the Chinese triads from the PNP Chief when those questions are more for our PDEA and DTI officials. Zubiri inserted a personal plea and confused the objective of AMLA and Bank Secrecy. Perhaps it was only Ralph Recto who asked factual data-driven questions.

The lack of cars, ammunition, training, rigorous assessment, profiling, sensitivity & human rights awareness in the PNP, effectiveness of our jails and correction facilities, the lack of support for drug rehabilitation — all these have taken a backseat discussion in the midst of political maneuvering and media exposé. Forgotten by the soundbytes of the day.

Marge and i fear that our legislators confuse our laws on money laundering and bank secrecy. They may be related but their purposes are distinct. Remember when former BIR Commissioner Kim Henares was proposing lifting our bank secrecy laws? A large part of her reasoning was to force people to pay the rightful withholding taxes in addition to the ones declared in your annual filing — in other words, spotting tax evasion.

I have never been fond of unnecessary blanket intrusion by government entities on people. For illicit funding, revamping our AMLA controls should suffice. Lifting bank secrecy for private individuals is giving the government blanket authority to tax you. If the sole purpose is to catch illicit offshore originating funds, then our anti-money laundering provisos should be followed to the letter. If the law is not enough, then the legislators need to amend the law. But lifting bank secrecy act is like throwing the baby together with the bath water. Singapore is great with enticing foreign investments because of their bank secrecy regulations balanced with reporting due diligence.

What is the cost of rehabilitation versus outright killing? With our overflowing jail cells, our prisoners are rendered inhuman, sick, undeveloped with a high propensity to return to prison.

The DOH is proposing to build four drug rehabilitation centers with a cost of PHP 674 million. This is on top of the existing 15 government-owned rehab centers in the country. This is in a tie-up with TESDA for an after-care program so that recovering drug addicts can have a livelihood. Imagine a total of 19 facilities, with say an average of 500 drug dependents cared for per facility. Is it enough to cater those who have surrendered to the authorities? The 723,108 people cannot even be housed even if you tack on the 27 private rehabilitation centers in the country. This needs to be a broad community based approach that needs to include NGOs, parishes, barangays, local government agencies, etc.

But the greater question is how can we prevent the use of drugs — especially amongst our young and our women? According to data from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, there are nearly 21,000 minors who surrendered for Project Tokhang, of which 45% are in high school while 43% are out of school youth. Of the 20,860 women who surrendered, 71% are jobless. Is there an effect if mothers and fathers are drug users? Does it naturally translate that their children are prone to the same addiction as well? Poverty, the lack of education, the lack of meaningful livelihood are indicatives for the greater majority of drug dependents in the country. Drug lords perhaps tend to sell low-level market drugs better to people in this demographic. So what are we doing? Is this even being tackled during the Senate inquiry? For all of the Senators who run on youth and women-oriented platforms — where the hell is this conversation?

In the end, all these senate inquiries, fear-mongering media tactics, the social media crowd bullying — they are not alleviating our fight to have a safe and humane Philippines. It just puts more noise into our heads. I had hoped that issues like these raise the quality of discourse in the country. Alas, that is not the case. We are being lulled into a false sense of debate but without the resolving dialogue. We are pitted against each other because of the personalities we chose to side with. But we are not held together by looking at our fellow Filipinos as brothers and sisters while we rally each other to do good, follow the way of kindness, question passionately not disparagingly, because we are one nation moving forward.

So i urge all of my fellow countrymen — look at this in a wider perspective. Forget about personalities because that child you see along P.Tuazon holding a bag of glue, or the woman in Ermita who sleeps in a dark alley, or the teenager who whiles away his hunger by pushing drugs — is not the enemy. Nor is the hapless policeman who is not trained to correctly hold or shoot his gun and is filled with nerves in a drug bust operation. With all this debate you see and hear — what have we really done for them?

This is a war amongst ourselves and within ourselves. Unless we look at this at a different set of lens, with compassion and kind-justice and meaningful action — we are all giving in to the illusion that politics is the answer.

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