Since the Philippines’ vice president, Maria Leonor Robredo, accepted the challenge to take over the government’s anti-narcotics campaign, she has been under attack.
The country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his top aides have treated Robredo more as an enemy than an ally in the president’s pet program.
The attacks against Robredo culminated last week with a withdrawal of the early invitation to sit in Cabinet meetings.
Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, blamed Robredo’s “missteps” for the change of heart.
The vice president’s alleged sins included consulting with individuals and groups known to be critical of the anti-narcotics campaign that has so far killed about 6,000 street dealers in police operations.
Panelo cited the vice president’s request for information on targets and results of anti-drug enforcement operations and a “tendency” to share confidential information.
“But they invited her, supposedly to initiate reforms, and all the people she is consulting with have alternatives to the killings,” said Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena.
Father Billena is among the founders of Rise Up for Life and Rights, a multi-faith network of people who help families of victims and survivors in Duterte’s drug “war.”
In the priest’s parish alone, at least 50 suspected drug peddlers have been killed.
“Most people support the vice president in her new role, although we are also scared for her,” admitted Father Billena.
“She does not stop with the call to ‘stop the killings.’ She is actually finding alternatives to the killings,” said the priest.
Alternatives to the killings
Father Billena said Robredo has been helping community rehabilitation efforts for more two years now.
“Quietly, her office has sponsored scholars in courses run by a society of psychologists to replicate rehabilitation programs in communities,” he said.
The vice president, he added, has also provided food for the participants in the rehabilitation program.
“When they treat her this way, you wonder, who are they serving?” said the priest.
In his parish, people die if they do not respond to the state’s invitation for drug users to surrender.
Father Billena also said even those who undergo rehabilitation are often dragged back to drug use by the police.
“They forced someone who had already tested clean several times to become an asset in the drug war. He didn’t want to, but they threatened him,” said the priest.
Robredo’s appointment as the country’s anti-drug “czarina” came after she angered Duterte in October by speaking on the failures of his three-year campaign.
The president then challenged her to take over the anti-narcotics program. Within two weeks, he signed an order appointing her to head the inter-agency body tasked to solve the country’s narcotics problem.
As he pondered the move, his top law enforcers and spokesmen engaged in a contest listing down reasons why Robredo was not fit for the post.
But Robredo accepted the challenge. “Are you ready for me?” she asked, smiling.
Since then, the attacks and sneers have come daily, the most vociferous by Duterte’s closest aide, newly-elected senator Bong Go, who continues to play the role of minder for the president.
“Let’s see if you can kill drug lords,” Go said.
Former national police chief and now senator Ronald de la Rosa accused Robredo of being soft on drug lords.
The country’s Constitution and many laws mandate due process in the anti-criminality and anti-insurgency campaigns.
When Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, called for prayers for Robredo, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin dubbed the prelate a “moron in a white mu-mu.”
Robredo has had few opportunities to show flashes of brilliance. But she is dogged and unflappable and a quick learner.
Responding to supporters’ fears of a new working landscape pockmarked by trip mines, Robredo said she accepted the post because her “mother instinct” to save even just one life can make a difference.
She then sent jitters up and down the government hierarchy by launching a review of the methods used in the anti-drug campaign and its results.
She also accepted the challenge to join police raids to understand the reality on the ground.
“It seems they threw challenges to see the vice president duck,” said Rubelyn Litao of the group Rise Up. “But she didn’t and now, they don’t know what to do.”
Litao said many mothers of victims of drug-related killings shed tears when they heard Robredo repeat their call to “stop the killings.”
“We have written to her because the mothers want to see her and talk to her,” said Litao.
Their most urgent need is help in easing the police barriers that have made it very hard to get documents on the killings of drug war victims.
“Without those documents, they cannot even start the search for justice,” Litao said, adding that some mothers have spent so much money to visit police stations in the past two years.
The hysteria among government officials peaked when Robredo sought a list of big targets — drug lords — from the government.
While she made the request in a letter, the head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency voiced his opposition to journalists.
He also urged Robredo to limit her role to rehabilitation and advocacy. Within the next two days, several other officials accused the vice president — falsely — of speaking out of turn.
The president’s office accused her of betraying the government by inviting international critics to the country. She didn’t.
Robredo actually told supporters she would first review the entire program before tackling requests for impartial and independent probes into the drug war killings.
The request for the list of drug lord suspects hit a nerve in a government.
Duterte for three years has carried a thick folder that he describes as a list of drug lords and protectors, including generals and law enforcers, legislators, local government executives and judges.
Nobody knows the veracity of the list. The president has been caught in mistakes several times, only to have security officials bowing to his all-knowing “intelligence” sources.
Yet the government has yet to prosecute a narcotics kingpin. Less than a handful of big suspects have been killed under circumstances that raised calls for probes into possible “rubouts.”
Another handful, mostly local government officials, have been allowed to flee after diatribes by Duterte.
In a few names bared by government agencies, the president’s office staged “photo ops” with the suspects — who are now safe from the clutches of local law.
Father Billena noted that the attacks peaked after Robredo bared that American officials had supplied her a list of big drug suspects in the country.
“Even if they put up all kinds of stumbling blocks,” the priest said, “the only thing it will prove is that government is unwilling to change.”
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.