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Murderous times

“He said only a few lines. But I kept track of the number of times he used the word ‘pumatay.’ I counted nine,” Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan wrote on his Facebook account. Pumatay means in English ‘to kill’.

The bishop was not talking about some ordinary netizen going ballistic over imagined or real slights.

The post referred to Senator Bong Go, the former long-time aide of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Even as a senator, Go spends much of his time breaking announcements for Duterte. He travels regularly with the president. He acts as adviser, gatekeeper and interpreter of his patron’s garbled gospel of death.

The bishop’s disquiet emerged as Go unleashed vicious attacks against Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo after Duterte fired her as head of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs.

It was a short-lived position, and Robredo knew that from the start.

The job was offered as a challenge after she criticized the bloodbath that has gripped poor urban communities since Duterte assumed power in 2016.

The president appointed her on Nov. 5 and fired her on Nov. 24.  Robredo accepted the job despite all the warning bells to “save even just one life,” referring to some 6,000 killings during police operations and thrice that number in attacks by unknown parties.

The president and assorted aides threw verbal rocks daily. Robredo wasn’t qualified, she didn’t know realities on the ground; she should just stick to revamping rehabilitation programs.

Philippine Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

All the hot air from Duterte’s men couldn’t hide the panic that ensued when the vice president met with representatives of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime and a U.S. government inter-agency working-level delegation.

The latter came with a promise of intelligence sharing on top drug cartels operating in the Philippines.

Robredo pointed out the obvious: the bloodbath wasn’t stopping the entry of distribution of drugs because the powerful cartels were not being touched. When she sought the government’s list of high-profile targets, hell broke loose.

Duterte practically accused her of treason, falsely claiming she met with U.N. experts seeking a probe of killings linked to his pet program. He disinvited Robredo from the Cabinet before she attended a single meeting.

Senior law enforcers hinted at what made them nervous: the possibility of additional exposure of possible collusion between some government officials and drug cartels.

Some of Duterte’s aides are known for mad spins as they try to interpret Duterte’s whimsical decisions.

Not Go. The man closest to Duterte, so close that even the president’s children have to go through him, has always been deliberate in his attacks.

“Let’s see if you can kill drug lords,” Go said before Robredo accepted the offer, practically stomping on the most basic of constitutional principles.

After her firing, Go pointed out that she hadn’t killed a drug lord in two weeks of heading the anti-drug body.

“That’s what the people want, that you kill drug lords. If you don’t kill them, they won’t stop. The only way to stop the drug trade is to kill,” he said.

That’s a lie. Survey after survey, a majority of Filipinos — even those who support the drug war in principle — have expressed fear about summary killings and stressed that they want drug suspects arrested alive.

Nine mentions of kill in one short riff. Go didn’t even proffer the trademark police excuse for killing suspects — that they fought back. His message laid bare murder as a policy of the regime.

It wasn’t just to insult Robredo. Rights defenders see it as a threat — more killings to stop the truth from coming out.

“That is the problem with the government solution: the ‘kill, kill, kill’ mindset to solve all our woes,” said lawyer Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers who handles cases filed by families of drug war victims.

“It is quite odd that such views are articulated casually by those who are expected to craft responsive laws, thoroughly interpellate to defend positions and conduct productive inquiries,” said the lawyer.

Police operations have offed a few drug lords.

A handful of local government officials named by Duterte have fled their home turfs, leaving some governance vacuum.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with national police chief Oscar Albayalde (center) during the anniversary of the nation’s police service in 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)

The president often refers to a list of drug lords and their coddlers. It has never been vetted by other agencies or groups, no major drug lord has been arrested and brought to trial.

A mayor charged as one of the top drug lords in the central part of the country was killed in jail in a police raid that had all the hallmarks of execution. The lead officers were re-appointed by the president despite facing charges.

In the aftermath of the killing, the president promised them pardon if the new charge went to trial.

Duterte has also defended top police officers and other senior officials dragged into allegations of recycling seized narcotics back into the streets or allowing in two shipments of methamphetamine, each valued at over US$100 million.

Legislators have not probed deeper into the claims of a former police officer who tagged some of Duterte’s friends — including a Chinese national appointed as economic adviser — as drug lords.

That ex-officer has now gone into hiding. Members of the president’s family have also cropped up in photos showing their cozy relations with suspected big drug dealers.

“They fired her for this — she has gone too close to home and the sanctuary of their drug lord friends,” said Vincentian priest Danny Pilario who ministers to a slum community that has reeled from hundreds of killings in the last three years.

The signals from the president’s closest friend have rights groups bracing for more killings. The government isn’t going to bring fat cats of the narcotics trade to trial. Dead men tell no tales.

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.

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