Government News Analysis

Cleansing the barangays

Robert “Ace” Barbers

Illegal drugs in the Philippines is a grass-roots problem with addiction cultivated at the local neighbourhood level. But it’s in the poorer barangays – villages or wards – where the shabu (crystal meth) trade flourishes most. According to government intelligence, some 40% of these districts nationwide are plagued by drugs as well as being swamped by the majority of crime associated with drug use. There were 42,029 barangays throughout the Philippines as of June 2015. That means 16,711 of them have a drug problem.

The barangays, then, are an obvious and essential target for drug-enforcement operations. But there’s a problem; a big one – the drug gangs are often protected by the barangay administrations; worse those same administrations in many cases are themselves involved in the drugs trade.

Furthermore, these local government units – the country’s lowest level of administration – are also largely unsupervised; corruption often goes unchecked. Local government funds and grants – mega-millions of pesos channeled to them from the central government via the Internal Revenue Allotment – are misappropriated, squandered or lost; incidents of graft are far from uncommon.

Petty crime, disputes between neighbours even cases of physical assault are handled internally – sometimes without reference to the law. These districts have their own justice system, the Katarungang Pambarangay, composed of judicial officers who, even though they lack judicial powers, can preside over local cases and arbitrate. They are in many ways a law unto themselves.

Of course, in all that lies the opportunity to scam; cash paid for not pursuing cases; bribes taken for acquiring certain property rights for example; cuts taken from gambling profits for facilitating illegal lotteries such as jueteng and masiao. And, more pertinently here, the chance to take payment for allowing drug sales in these neighbourhoods – not to mention relinquishing authority to the drug lords.

Certainly, there’s been a lot of criticism against barangay administrations for not playing a more active role in the drugs war. In early February, the Director-General of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Isidro Lapeña, said that the campaign to stamp out drug abuse and trafficking needs to be carried out at street level in the barangays.

The PDEA took over from the Philippine National Police (PNP) as the lead agency in the drugs war following the kidnapping-for-ransom and later killing of a Korean national by PNP officers in Angeles City.

Lapeña was also critical of the lack of rehabilitation and drug-care facilities in these neighbourhoods; something that’s required by the Interior Department. “It is imperative that every barangay must have an anti-drug abuse council,” he said.

Heading the barangays, which in many cases amount to private fiefdoms, is the barangay captain – or Kapitan as they like to be addressed. These are people who at the local level wield a lot of power and influence. Elected though they are, to all intends and purposes they are local overlords – in their present form, another hangover from the Spanish era. The captains preside over a seven-member council, the Sangguniang Barangay, and locally their word is law.

It’s not surprising then that plans are being formed to remove the councils and their captains and replace them with appointees. And on 2 May when Congress re-convenes it will consider a Bill that seeks, in effect, to suspend barangay elections until 2020 and hand President Rodrigo Duterte the right to commission his own caretaker administrations for the villages. This will mean replacing 294,203 councillors and 42,029 captains – a total of 336,232 positions.

Proponents of the Bill, however, believe that it’s the only way that drug lords and their proxies can be kept out of this level of local government. After all, to win an election for captain or councillor takes money; and the people with the money, invariably, are the drug bosses. It’s easy to see then how shabu became so entrenched in these places.

The proposed legislation, which if it passes, will place a moratorium on barangay elections – the next ones are scheduled for October – has been drafted by House of Representatives member, Robert “Ace” Barbers (photo), chairman of the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs, and is supported by House Speaker, Pantaleon Alvarez.

It’s also being strongly backed by Ismael “Mike” D. Sueno, Secretary of the Interior and Local Government – under whose office the barangays come. He said that postponing the barangay elections would enable government to “weed out” corrupt captains involved in the drugs trade.

His department has a long list of barangay officials which it’s currently investigating in connection with drug offences. Sueno says he favours replacing the current barangay heads with more competent Officers in Charge. “Appointments are better to replace those who are involved in drugs. There are really many,” he said.

Certainly, such a move will be seen as controversial in some quarters. Duterte’s critics will claim it’s being done to give the president a broader control of local government – not just in terms of policing, but over the executive and legislative briefs of local government. Barber, however, justifies it this way: “Extraordinary times need extraordinary measures”.

For Barbers, closing down the barangay councils and replacing them with handpicked administrations is a necessary measure. As he told Reuters: “We are afraid that 40% of our barangays are controlled, affected or infected by drugs and that will increase. We don’t want to turn into a narco-state; we don’t want to be under the auspices of drug lords”.

And so if it goes ahead – and it’s likely to get a favourable hearing in the House – it will enable Duterte to open up a new front in the War on Drugs; one right in the heartland of shabu country.

But there’s going to be opposition to the measure also – not least from incumbent barangay captains and councillors, some of whom have already said they’ll challenge the Bill. Their efforts will likely be led by the Liga ng mga Barangay sa Pilipinas (the League of Barangays of the Philippines), an association with the largest membership of any local government unit.

The biggest critic so far is Aquilino Pimentel Jr, a former Senate president and author of the 1991 Local Government Code. Referring to the proposed legislation as “a joke” he told a television audience this week, “We cannot do away with the right of the people to elect their own leaders”.

The Liberal Party-led anti-Duterte political coalition is likely to take a different tack in condemning the move. They’ll claim that it’s an attempt by Duterte to further strengthen his base; that by putting his own people in charge of the barangays he will greatly bolster his power at the grassroots local government level.

Doubtless it will, but that’s a very cynical take on what Barbers and Alvarez are attempting to achieve here, which is to crush the drugs industry at ground zero. But of course, as we’ve regularly witnessed both during the last Liberal administration and throughout the current administration, the Liberal Party has little appetite for even recognising that there’s a drugs problem in the Philippines, much less doing anything about it.

Anyway, be that as it may, this government can’t stand by and allow the drugs trade to proliferate with the sanction of barangay captains and their councils – narcopolitikos who put personal greed above community welfare. If it does that then it would be failing the people. But also, it’s high time these private fiefdoms were cleansed of unscrupulous officials in line with Duterte’s pledge to root out corruption at all levels of government. It’s time that the barangay administrations were rewired.

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