Government News Analysis

The enemy within

For the time being the Philippines’ War on Drugs has been suspended. That’s on the order of President Rodrigo Duterte. This will come as great news for the anti-Duterte lobby, the civil liberties groups – along with the drug lords and the Philippine narcotics trade which they control. They all have reason to celebrate; the rest of the country doesn’t.

This development is a major blow to the effort to clean-up Philippine society and, despite the gains that have been made over the past seven months, the danger now is that it could quickly slide back into the hands of the criminals. Duterte and his Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Ronald Dela Rosa, know that, but frankly, right now they have little choice.

The kidnapping for ransom and killing of a foreign national under the pretext of a drugs investigation, allegedly by a police unit, has left them in an invidious position. They simply cannot trust their own police officers; they’re all tainted. The entire force right now is under a cloud of suspicion. And they can’t fight a drugs war while accommodating the enemy within.

For those unfamiliar with the Philippines it might come as a shock to learn that the national police force is institutionally corrupt. For Filipinos and those who know the country well, police corruption – at all levels of the service – has defined the PNP for as long as anyone can remember.

As an organised crime syndicate, the PNP is no different – other than in its structure – to the Sicilian Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza. It’s in exactly the same rackets: prostitution, protection, robbery, blackmail, kidnapping, extortion – and drugs. It has kingpins and foot soldiers that roughly correspond with police rank; though not always.

And what’s made it successful is its perfect cover – its police uniform; a guise as disarming as the vestments of a pedophile priest. This has allowed it not just to cover its tracks by destroying evidence and eliminating witnesses – under the appearance of resisting arrest, for example – it has opened the doors for criminal enterprises as it did at a private residence in the red-light city of Angeles, Pampanga on 18 October last year; the incident that stopped the War on Drugs dead in its tracks.

Eight armed PNP officers – allegedly part of the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group – had gone to the home of South Korean businessman, Jee Ick-Joo, to arrest him, along with his maid, on suspicion of involvement in the illegal-drugs trade. They were taken to PNP headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City, Metro Manila, where three days later the maid was released. By then, Jee’s wife had already received a ransom demand of PHP5 million for the safe return of her husband which she paid. That was followed by a second PHP5 million demand which she refused to pay until she had proof that Jee was alive.

He wasn’t; he’d been strangled the day of his kidnapping – most likely at Camp Crame – and his body taken to a funeral parlour in Caloocan City in another part of the capital where it was located by officers of the National Bureau of Investigation, earlier this month.

But this is not the first time that Angeles City police officers have been involved in extorting money from South Korean nationals. Last December, in the same subdivision from which Jee was snatched, seven officers assigned to the city force entered a house using the cover story of investigating illegal gambling. They had neither an arrest warrant nor a search warrant. They removed jewelry, laptops, shoes and golf equipment from the house before taking three Koreans to a police station. They were later released after paying PHP300,000 and handing over the contents of their wallets.

Angeles City has a large Korean population as well as one of the most flourishing sex gardens in the Philippines. Prostitution, under-age sex, drugs and crime are part of the fabric of this place. And the local police are known to be involved in these rackets. In fact, they exist and prosper because of that involvement. If they didn’t they would have been closed down years ago. Indeed, Angeles City would be a good place to start the War on Police Corruption.

But the Jee killing has really put this administration on the back foot. For although the South Korean Foreign Minister has accepted Duterte’s sincere regret that he was unable to protect one of their citizens, there is now a mood of fear within the Philippines’ South Korean communities – an expat population of around 90,000. Koreans form the largest group of foreign nationals living in the Philippines.

There’s also a good chance that tourism numbers from South Korea will be badly affected. And as this story has gone global, there’s likely to be a fall-off in visitors from other countries.

Koreans are the Philippines’ biggest tourist-arrivals demographic; they accounted for 24.71% of all visitors in 2016. Some 1,331,701 made trips to the archipelago’s cities and resorts last year, spending more than any other group by a long way. In November alone, Korean tourists left behind PHP5.65 billion in the Philippines. So important is this burgeoning trade that there are frequent daily flights between a number of cities in the two countries.

In their bilateral relations, from trade to people-to-people exchanges, the two countries are very close and there are a number of agreements in the works to further consolidate those ties. Among others, market access for Philippine agricultural products such as duck meat and fruits are under review, as is expanding South Korean involvement in the manufacturing-development sector.

But while all that is likely to go ahead, the nervousness which the killing of Jee has unleashed could certainly damage private-sector investment from South Korea. As we know, at the top of every investor’s tick list is safety and security concerns. Without reassurance of those investment prospects diminish.

Given the fact that this crime was committed under the guise of prosecuting the War on Drugs, the Duterte administration has been left with little option but to suspend all anti-drug operations until the police force and its associated units can be cleansed. But that’s no small task – in many ways this will be a bigger battle than the drugs war itself. For a start it’s far more deeply entrenched. It’s been going on forever.

Police corruption in the Philippines is systemic. It permeates all levels of the force and so the big question is, who is going to investigate it? In other words, who can be trusted to carry out the monumental task of cleansing the PNP? There have been internal investigations before – and many of them – but few have succeeded in breaking down the walls of resistance; the multiple glazing of lies and deceit and connectivity that has traditionally insulated rogue cops from prosecution. This isn’t about investigating a single case; this is seeking the purgation of the PNP in its entirety. It could take years.

Just to give some idea, in February 1974 the British governor of Hong Kong, Sir Murray MacLehose, established the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). He did it to tackle widespread criminality across branches of government and within the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (RHKPF). In short, the police couldn’t be trusted to do this work. For one thing, many had links to the large Chinese triads that operated throughout the city. Furthermore, the ICAC’s forerunner, the RHKPF’s Anti-Corruption Branch, was also known to be complicit in crime.

Leading up to the ICAC’s establishment, 80% of all graft complaints involved public officials, and many of these were against the police. Hong Kong – today, one of the cleanest jurisdictions on Earth (endorsed as such by Transparency International, the World Bank and others) – back then was mired in official corruption. Like the Philippines now, it was everywhere.

Four years after being set up, ICAC investigators had managed to breakdown enough of the protective barriers that for so long had kept corrupt officials safe – despite police resistance and running battles between them and ICAC officers. In 1976, it mounted a purge that resulted in 119 officials – police and others – being sacked from their posts, while 24 more were arrested on conspiracy charges.

But the Philippines doesn’t have an ICAC. It doesn’t actually have any law-enforcement agency that it can fully trust. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) – the logical choice – is already viewed with suspicion by many after Congressional hearings into the drug trade being conducted within New Bilibid Prison, the country’s largest penitentiary, revealed that two NBI members, a deputy director and an intelligence officer, testified that they had delivered drug payoffs to the home of Leila De Lima, a member of the Philippine Senate.

In 2012, NBI Director, Magtanggol Gatdula, was sacked for his role in the kidnap and extortion of a 32-year-old Japanese woman. Six NBI officials were involved in the kidnap and demanded a ransom of PHP6 million.

In short if Duterte wants to cleanse the PNP by handing the assignment over to the NBI, he first needs to cleanse the NBI. The other alternative is to build from the ground up a whole new internal police investigations agency, something along the lines of Hong Kong’s ICAC – a PICAC. In this there should be no nepotism – another enduring problem in Philippine officialdom – no old-boy networks carved from the likes of the Philippine Military Academy, the source for most of the PNP’s top brass; no old favours paid back; no buying of positions. This agency should be well-funded and better trained.

The PNP’s motto reads, “To serve and protect”. It doesn’t read, “To serve ourselves and protect our rackets”. Sadly, for so long so many within the PNP have been observing the latter rendering of this dictum. And that’s why we are where we are now, and why everyone from former US president, Barack Obama – a fierce critic of Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign – to the narco bosses in China and the Philippines and their sales forces across the archipelago will be quietly toasting the end of the war.