Government News Analysis

The politics of drugs

Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch on Philippines War on Drugs and killing of Ozamiz Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog

Reynaldo Parojinog, the mayor of Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental province in the southern island of Mindanao, has become the third Philippine mayor to be killed by anti-narcotics police. His life along with that of his wife and those of two brothers and 11 body guards came to an end in a pre-dawn raid at his home on Sunday.

Now, Human Rights Watch (HRW), which in the past has complained that the drugs war of President Rodrigo Duterte only targets addicts and low-level criminals, is casting doubt on the legality of the operation. It’s concerned that the human rights of this alleged drugs king pin – a man with a private army at his disposal – were violated.

Phelim Kine (photo), HRW’s Deputy Director, Asian Division – a persistent critic of Duterte – says “there are already questions about the reliability of the police account of the incident”. His source of those questions is Liberal Party senator – and another persistent critic of Duterte – Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan.

The lawmaker asks why the raid was carried out at 2:30 am and why police had disabled CCTV cameras at the compound. All we can say to that is that Pangilinan should stick to the day job at the Senate; it’s far less cerebral than having to plan and execute a police raid on a potential drug lord in a fortified compound.

He’d probably have scheduled it for around lunchtime, when the streets were warm and the whole town could inform the mayor what was going on. He’d probably also have instructed his officers to leave the CCTV running so those inside the house could get a good view of what was unfolding.

Meanwhile, Liberal Party former chairman, Franklin Drilon – the Minority Floor Leader of the Senate and yet another persistent critic of Duterte – is adding his voice to the doubt stories. Maybe that’s just politics – any excuse to belittle the president’s efforts to restore law and order in the country; it’s the one thing the Liberals are good at – or maybe it’s something more.

Drilon is the cousin of another civic leader – Liberal Party supporter and Mayor of Iloilo City, Jed Patrick Mabilog – who could also be in the firing line. His high-profile backing of the Liberal Party’s Mar Roxas/Leni Robredo ticket in last year’s presidential elections was recorded right across the Internet. “Ilonggos (the people of the Western Visayas) unite for Roxas-Robredo …” Mabilog urged on his Facebook page. Iloilo is firm Liberal territory. Mabilog had fully backed Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino when he made his successful run for the presidency in 2010.

At one election rally in the city in 2016, Drilon enumerated the improvements that had gone into the city under the Liberal administration, and said this: “We have more coming, but we need continuity for Iloilo to prosper even further. Without Mar Roxas, I will be useless in the Senate”. Well, he was right about that at least. Iloilo – of which Drilon is a native son – received billions of pesos for infrastructure and other works projects during Aquino’s term.

And sure enough, the Liberal Party got Iloilo’s support again in 2016, as it did from Misamis Occidental, which received some PHP5 billion worth of development projects from the Aquino government – having returned “Noynoy” in 2010.

Drilon’s cousin, like Parojinog, was among some 35 mayors and former mayors from across the country whom Duterte named as drug personalities last year, They were on a list of around 170 officials – including judges, civic leaders and police officers – all of whose names he made public.

Also on that list were the two other slain mayors. Rolando Espinosa, Mayor of Albuera, Leyte, was killed at Baybay City Provincial Jail by members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) on 5 November last year while being detained for illegal drug possession. CIDG officers had gone to the jail to serve a search warrant and were allegedly fired on by Espinosa and another drugs detainee. Samsudin Dimaukom, Mayor of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao was shot dead along with nine of his body guards at Makilala, North Cotabato on 29 October. Both were believed to be heavily involved with the crystal-meth trade in Mindanao.

Drilon may be concerned that his cousin, a key member of the Liberals’ regional power base, will be next. Certainly, Mabilog has questions to answer. In March, the Ombudsman of the Visayas approved charges filed against him under the Unexplained Wealth Act. Those charges claimed that Mabilog had accumulated assets “manifestly out of proportion” to his mayoral income.

Kine, Pangilinan and Drilon, however, might be missing the point where most Filipinos are concerned. They voted Duterte into office to rid their country of crime.

Reynaldo Parojinog headed one of the most notorious criminal organisations in the history of criminal organisations in the Philippines – the Kuratong Baleleng. Started as a Mindanao-based anti-communist militia with the government’s backing in the early 1980s, it evolved into a criminal enterprise whose interests stretched across the archipelago.

Specialising in bank robberies and hold-ups, they did business from General Santos City in the south of Mindanao to Cebu City in the Central Visayas to Manila and Pampanga province in Luzon. The PHP12 million Traders Royal Bank robbery in Buendia, Metro Manila in 1991 and the 1990, PHP12 million Monte de Piedad armoured-van robbery on Roxas Boulevard, Manila, were among a number of heists attributed to them.

Herbert Colangco – a high-profile triad boss presently serving time in New Bilibid Prison – was a Kuratong Baleleng leader. Perhaps not coincidentally, he’s romantically involved with Parojinog’s daughter – Nova Princess Parojinog Echavez, the vice mayor of Ozamiz City; a relationship which her father claimed he was not happy about.

Be that as it may, drugs supplies for Ozamiz are believed to come from New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – the country’s largest and most corrupt penitentiary. NBP is a major source of crystal meth, or shabu as it’s known locally, and Colangco is one of the main drug lords within the prison who’ve been able to continue operating. The drugs trade there had been rampant for years before Duterte started his crackdown.

Last September, Colangco told a House of Representatives justice committee inquiry that proceeds from his drug sales at the prison had gone to Liberal Party senator and Aquino justice secretary, Leila De Lima. He told the inquiry that on one occasion he’d phoned De Lima to tell her that he’d raised PHP3 million from drug sales for her. The suggestion is that De Lima’s run for the Senate was funded by drug money. He also claimed that the senator had a PHP1 million share in the prison’s maximum security compound – an area that became fondly known as “Little Vegas”.

Here, concerts were staged with “truckloads of beer”. High-price call girls were shipped in; cells were converted into ‘no-tell-motel’ rooms; concert acts included top-line performers Freddie Aguilar, Sharon Cuneta, and Ethel Booba. De Lima even sang karaoke there.

There was no secret about any of this; the concerts – staged regularly – were promoted; cash from ticket sales, booze and the hostesses – some costing as much as PHP75,000 – ran into millions. Colangco, said his living quarters resembled a suite at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel in Makati. Even by Philippine-scandal standards, this was off the scale.

De Lima, who was arrested in February, is now being detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters at Camp Crame as she awaits trial on charges of profiteering from the sale of illegal drugs.

This is all part of the context of the Philippine drugs trade – a milieu that’s ignored by the likes of Kine, Pangilinan and Drilon. It doesn’t fit their political narrative. The killing by law officers of three mayors also flies in the face of their accusations that the wealthy kingpins are left untouched while down-at-heel addicts are made the main target of Duterte’s war.

Nor will they have been happy to hear what PNP Director-General, Ronald dela Rosa, had to say about Sunday’s killing of Parojinog, which was this: “This should serve as a warning to everyone, that the PNP does not make exemptions when it comes to law enforcement. We have no fear or favour. If there is an operation set for you, it will push through”.

Mayors in the Philippines are powerful people with clan influence that can determine the political direction of the country – their support is always sought at election time. Many have considerable physical muscle; like Parojinog they have actual armies at their disposal. Philippine politics has always had this element, and certainly in the past votes have been won at the barrel of a gun.

There are thought to be over 100 private armies – or private armed groups – currently operating in the Philippines with a total estimated strength upwards of 10,000 men. And all armed. So far, no one’s had the political will to tackle this issue – like so many issues over the years politicians just talk about it – and the reason for that is the politicians need them. Patronage of the warlords they feel is a price worth paying for political power.

It’s an incestuous relationship by which certain favours are exchanged for political backing. Consequently, criminality on the part of the clansmen is often overlooked. In fact, the closest the problem ever came to being addressed was following what’s become known as the Maguindanao massacre which occurred on 23 November 2009.

On that day, 58 people – among them some 34 journalists – were kidnapped and brutally killed by members of the Ampatuan clan; one of Mindanao’s most powerful Muslim clans and a major ally of then president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Those killed were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy in an upcoming mayoral election. The Amputans are thought to control an army of several hundred men.

Following the butchery, Arroyo put Maguindanao under a state of emergency. Calls for the disarming of private militias followed; the Independent Commission Against Private Armies (ICAPA) was established; Congressmen spoke at length on TV about what needed to be done. There was an initial flurry of activity by the ICAPA and by March 2010, some 24 private armies had been disbanded through joint operations by the PNP and the Philippine army.

But since then very little has happened. Politicians rarely talk about it. It just never seems to come up. Instead of dealing with that, we get the likes of Pangilinan and Drilon questioning police operational etiquette.

There’s no question that there are mayors in the Philippines who are heavily involved in the drugs trade – whether they’re distributors or protecting those that distribute. There’s also no question that such individuals have plenty of their own security and that that security is well armed. So when anti-narcotics agents go to serve warrants on these individuals or arrest them, there’s an even-money chance they’ll be attacked. That’s how it works nearly everywhere. If Pangilinan and Drilon – and Kine for that matter – want to dispute that, maybe the next time the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency goes after a mayor they could tag along.

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