Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed his vice president, Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo, an opposition leader, as co-chairperson of an inter-agency body that oversees the government anti-narcotics campaign.
The unsolicited appointment and the presidential palace’s subsequent touting of Duterte’s “sincerity” impressed no one. Allies of the vice president warned of a trap. They said the move was aimed deflect public anger over exposes linking the president’s men to the narcotics trade.
The vice president’s spokesman, lawyer Barry Gutierrez, said the position of co-chairperson of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs, is non-existent.
Opposition Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed by Duterte for alleged links to the narcotics trade, described Robredo’s appointment as sad and stupid.
Even the president’s aides could not agree on what role the vice president would fill in a harsh crackdown that has killed thousands of suspected drug users and peddlers over three years.
The genesis of Robredo’s appointment, announced on Nov. 5, was an irate tirade by Duterte and weeks of verbal abuse thrown by his top aides and political allies.
Duterte blew up after the vice president urged him to review an anti-narcotics “war” that has withheld due process from the poor but gone easy on drug lords with alleged links to the administration.
The advice came at a bad time for the president, whose trust and approval ratings had dipped following weeks of scandals featuring his hand-picked law enforcers.
A national penitentiary early release program for “good behavior” had included at least three Chinese drug lords.
Senators, meanwhile, heard allegations that the former national police lobbied to protect senior officers who had recycled three-fourths of a 160-kilogram drug seizure back to the streets.
One senator even said authorities even collected almost a million dollars for setting free an arrested Chinese drug lord, who has since re-entered the country using a fake passport.
The real score
Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, claimed Robredo’s appointment was a “ladder to the presidency.”
But the anti-drugs body is largely recommendatory in nature and will still take orders from the president.
Panelo said the president directed various government agencies to extend “full cooperation,” but stonewalling is trademark of the current administration.
The police and the Office of the Solicitor-General responded to a Supreme Court order to provide records of drug war killings with a document dump of “irrelevant non-drug related case files,” according to human rights lawyers who called for contempt of court sanctions.
Robredo’s co-chairperson, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief Aaron Aquino, earlier dismissed the vice president as having no credentials to be drug czarina. Now he says she can handle advocacy and rehabilitation and reintegration of drug victims.
More than 1.3 million drug users have surrendered since Duterte assumed office in 2016. Only about 179,000 drug users, however, have benefitted from 999 community-based rehabilitation programs, according to the Dangerous Drugs Board.
The country’s anti-narcotics law of 2002 mandates the establishment of at least one rehabilitation facility in every province, but at the end of 2018 there were only 24 accredited government treatment and rehabilitation centers and 30 private treatment facilities.
The government slashed 75 percent, or almost US$46 million, of the health department’s drug rehabilitation budget in 2018. However, the proposed 2020 national budget includes a US$4.7 million increase for rehabilitation facilities, with 11 new ones under construction.
It’s hard to believe the avowed commitment to rehabilitation and recovery goals.
Duterte routinely discards science to defend his mad “war,” repeatedly claiming that two years of use of methamphetamine produces vermin with no ability to turn around their lives. He also plays fast and loose with numbers, with his estimate of drug users in the country ranging from three million to eight million.
No one corrects the president. His top law enforcers swat away journalists’ queries by parroting Duterte’s claim to having “wide access of information and unlimited sources of intelligence.”
Designed to fail
That dangerous servility was learned the hard way.
Duterte fired the former chair of the drugs board for disputing his estimate of drug use. The former chairperson of the committee Robredo has been asked to co-lead was also forced out after pointing out that the prison-like mega drug centers endorsed by Duterte — and underwritten by mainland Chinese friends, including those under a cloud of corruption — would hamper recovery by isolating patients from their families.
Nobody believes there is goodwill for Robredo.
On Oct. 31, hours after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake devastated a huge swathe of the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, Duterte seemed oblivious to the misery, preferring to rant against the vice president, warning voters not to vote for her in the next elections two years hence. That’s when he dangled the offer.
But it is the president’s favorite factotum, former aide and now Senator Bong Go, who betrays the biggest trap awaiting Robredo. Challenging the vice president, he jeered at her to “kill all those drug lords.”
Simply put, the only way Robredo could succeed is by succumbing to the bloodlust of the regime.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.