After a forced intermission, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs is set to resume. This time, hopefully, it won’t be compromised by corrupt police officers using it as a cover for their own criminal activities. That’s a big hope, however – sleaze at al levels of the Philippine National Police (PNP) is deeply entrenched; it has been for decades. Bad cops turn up all too often in the PNP.
Lack of manpower though, has left Duterte with little choice but to re-engage the force – and while he’s demanded that the PNP be purged of its career-criminals, he knows that won’t happen overnight. As a first step, however, he’s ruled that all anti-narcotics operations are to be led by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), and every police anti-drug action from now will include a PDEA officer.
Going forward, the aim is to rebuild the anti-narcotics force into a new clean agency. It will be known as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Group (PDEG). According to PNP chief, Ronald dela Rosa, the aim is to attract “men of burning desire”. In other words, the PDEG is seeking recruits who view the work of ridding the country of narcotics, and the gangs that supply them, as a vocation. Those called will be thoroughly vetted to ensure they’re of the right calibre – honest individuals with clean records.
Duterte wants every station to have its own PDEG task force made up of “young men … imbued with the fervour of patriotism”. He added: “they will be selected thoroughly; they should have no cases and no history of corruption”. In a phrase, what he wants is ‘good cops’.
Certainly, Duterte and dela Rosa can’t afford a repeat of the last scandal – the one that suspended the PNP from its involvement in the drugs war. If something like that happens again, the only thing left would be to disband the force and build another one from the ground up.
The War on Drugs was abruptly halted on 30 January after it was found that rogue police officers of the PNP’s Anti-Illegal Drugs Group in Angeles City, Pampanga, had used drug investigations as a pretext to abduct a Korean businessmen from his home and demand a ransom payment from his wife. They took him to police headquarters at Camp Crame where they killed him while securing a PHP5 million payment from his wife for his safe return.
So what these alleged rogue cops managed to do was not just bring their uniforms and their force into disrepute, they turned PNP HQ into a crime scene in its own right – and right under the nose of the Philippines’ most senior lawman; Camp Crame is dela Rosa’s official residence. The disclosures caused international consternation, untold embarrassment for the PNP, threatened Philippine-Korea relations and could yet take a toll on tourism. Koreans are the country’s single-biggest tourist demographic.
Public confidence in the PNP, however, has routinely been low. The force has been continually marred by every form of crime committed by serving officers of all ranks – crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping to extortion and accepting bribes.
Furthermore, the force’s bungled operations – such as the 2010 Manila hostage crisis in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed by a disgruntled cop as one of the worst examples of hostage negotiation played out amid a media circus – have succeeded in giving the force international notoriety.
That particular operation was handled by what was described at the time as a “crack Manila SWAT team”. To those watching around the world, however, it looked more like it was being handled by a reserve unit of the Keystone Cops. Ill-trained in hostage-negotiation and ill-equipped, it’s become the classic study for law enforcement on how not to handle a hostage situation.
On top of that, the image of swaggering cops using their badges and uniforms to portray an air of superiority over the people they’re sworn to serve, has all but removed what vestige of respect remained. More Hollywood than serious police officers, from traffic cops to the top brass the public’s perception of the police is that they’re lazy and corrupt. And, frankly, not very good at their job.
In short, all this adds up to the fact that the PNP has a major image problem with the public both at home and abroad, and if it’s ever gong to become an efficient law-enforcement organisation, it’s going to have to clean up its act. It needs disciplining, professionally training – preferably by an outside force that knows what it’s doing – and it needs better equipping.
It also needs a far more effective internal investigations unit. Presently, cases against allegedly rogue police officers are conducted by the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service, but it’s unclear just how effective and how independent this agency actually is.
For a start, it has just 664 personnel spread across the country’s 18 administrative regions, so it’s hugely understaffed. Secondly, its ability to impartially investigate fellow PNP officers has regularly been called into question. And efforts to appoint a civilian to head the IAS have so far failed, even though the 1998 PNP Reform and Reorganization Act which established the IAS requires that.
In July last year, Senator Grace Poe pushed for that provision to be complied with. Dela Rosa, however, felt that a police officer was better suited to run the agency. His reason: “As of now, I find it necessary to maintain a police officer as the head of the IAS because a lot of police officers and senior police officers are involved in illegal drug trade”.
What a confession! But that begs the question, if that’s the case what has the IAS been doing to allow rogue officers to continue serving in the PNP? Isn’t it their job to ensure the force doesn’t have its officers profiting from illegal drugs?
Dela Rosa’s rationale for that remark was that somehow “a police officer as head of IAS … is capable to thwart any threat offered by these scalawag police officers”. But he wouldn’t be capable if he was also on the take. The IAS is presently headed by Chief Supt. Leo Angelo Leuterio.
He also insists that the next phase of the War on Drugs will be less bloody – “even bloodless”. That’s his aim he says, adding: “We are here to save lives. We are not here to claim lives”. That’s an understandable statement, given the amount of bad publicity the anti-drug effort has attracted over the past eight months.
But this is a dirty war with billions of pesos at stake and transnational cartels from China, Africa and Mexico involved. And in the background, ongoing turf wars between rival drug gangs is unlikely to abate. With the best will in the world, the chances of it being bloodless are somewhere south of zero.
And then there’s that other dimension – the illegal narcotics trade in the Muslim south of the country where a number of Islamic militant groups generate drug profits to fund their terror and extortion campaigns. It’s hard to see how tackling them can be done without the loss of blood.
But in that theatre, the PNP’s role has all but disappeared. The drugs war there will be handled by joint operations of the PDEA and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units with the former leading – unless activities occur in areas of conflict such as terrorist strongholds where the AFP will take the lead. In the field, however, army personnel will only be involved in operations to take down high-value targets.
For this partnership the AFP is expanding its Joint Counterintelligence Task Force NOAH which will help to identify, investigate and neutralise individuals or groups involved in the manufacture, distribution and sale of narcotics. With the PDEA it will also establish an Intelligence Fusion Center to arrest drug lords and disrupt the supply of narcotics as well as their chemical components.
Originally, following the PNP’s suspension, Duterte wanted the army to take over control of the War on Drugs – to make it a military rather than a police campaign. However, it soon became apparent that military resources would be spread too thin, given the army’s demanding counter insurgency operations against the likes of the communist-secessionist New People’s Army and its counter-terrorism efforts to eradicate Islamist rebels such as Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group.
Thus, the PNP is back at the forefront of this war – a decision which Duterte was reluctant to make. But as he’s explained. “I have to do it because I lack manpower”. Meanwhile, the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group units – like the one that created this mess – are gone. Duterte disbanded them following the kidnap and killing of the Korean national.
None of this is ideal, and Duterte and dela Rosa will be among the first to admit it. But the bigger problem is if the government now backs down in its fight against the cartels – among them Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, described by US Intelligence as “the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world”. Then the future of Philippine society, and particularly its youth, will become extremely bleak. The reality is this is a multi-billion dollar industry and the drug lords are not just going to walk away. Worse, more will come.