Lessons from Colombia: Dela Rosa wants 'Search Bloc' in PH
MANILA, Philippines – "You want me to confirm it? So the drug lords begin leaving this country? Go abroad. You drug lords, it's time to flee. I'll make an even stronger version of Colombia's Search Bloc."
Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa may have been laughing when he issued this "warning" during a press conference in Camp Crame on Monday, September 26, but he was dead serious about the possibility of forming a Philippine version of Colombia's Search Bloc as part of the government's efforts to curb the spread of illegal drugs.
The Search Bloc is a special Colombian police force that targets wanted and dangerous personalities or groups. At the height of Colombia's war on drugs in the 90s, the Search Bloc specifically targeted the Medellin drug cartel and its leader, Pablo Escobar. The infamous cartel leader was eventually gunned down in a 1993 shootout with the Search Bloc.
Pressed if he was serious about taking a page from the Search Bloc, Dela Rosa quipped: "Well, I wasn't supposed to say it because if I do, our plans might become ineffective. But since you asked, okay. That's part of it too."
The PNP chief added that his trip to Colombia was "very productive." Dela Rosa visited the South American country for several days for a series of meetings and tours with the country's police force.
Colombia was among the world's top producers of cocaine. At one point in the 90s, the United States and Colombia signed an extradition deal to try and jail Colombian drug lords according to US laws.
Violence in parts of the country escalated as drug cartels fought back against the government's crackdown on their illegal activities. Today, Colombia is among the world's leaders in advocating for a new approach to solving the problem of narcotics.
Colombian President Juan Miguel Santos has called on the United Nations (UN) to reform its international drug policy. After the UN policy summit decided to keep its support of "prohibitionist" drug policy, Santos told The Guardian: "Let me be clear with them: the prohibitionist approach has been a failure."
Experts have tagged Colombia's war on drugs as a failure but Dela Rosa, who spoke to former and current Colombian police chiefs during his visit, said that the failure was because of their inability to address the demand side of the illegal drugs equation.
Among Dela Rosa's key learnings from Colombia, he said, was the "effective legislation" passed by the country's Congress to aid anti-narcotics efforts.
The PNP chief noted that anti-wiretapping laws in Colombia cover anti-narcotics operations and only need the permission of a prosecutor – or a fiscal – and not a court judge like in the Philippines. (READ: Best practices: How other countries dealt with drug problems)
Properties proven to be "fruits of the crime," or properties acquired through drug money, Dela Rosa added, can be seized by government.
"For example, in the case of the Odicta couple. They have a lot of properties. If the police proves that the properties were acquired through their illegal drugs activities, it would be forfeited in favor of the government. That's how effective their laws are," said the PNP chief.
The Philippine Senate is currently holding hearings for possible amendments to the anti-wiretapping law. Currently, the law only exempts wiretapping for anti-terrorism efforts.
Equipment is also where Colombia has a clear edge over the Philippines' police force. "They pour all their resources when it comes to anti-narcotics operations. Their directorate for anti-narcotics has 60 Black Hawk helicopters, they have 50 fixed-wing aircraft for their operations. Their airplanes are like taxis. That's how good the lives of police there are. All support is given to them," Dela Rosa said.
A campaign to curb crime, illegal drugs, and corruption was among President Rodrigo Duterte's main promises during the 2016 elections. Since July 1, law enforcers have been waging an "all-out war" against drug traffickers and users in the country.
As of September 26, police have killed more than 1,200 drug suspects in operations around the country. Another 20,000 or so drug users and pushers have been arrested. At least 13 cops, meanwhile, have been killed during anti-illegal drugs operations. (LOOK: IN PHOTOS: Police take war on drugs to Happyland)
In an interview with ABS-CBN News in Colombia, Dela Rosa noted "similarities" between the problems of Colombia and the Philippines.
"Their experience is the same as ours. They have a drug trafficking problem. They have a problem with the FARC rebellion. Terrorism is a problem, and so is corruption. Those are the problems they faced before they won. So we are trying to [learn from them]. They have been there, they have done that. And the Colombian government was successful," he said.
Colombia's war on drugs has since moved on to fighting "small organized crime groups," after the big drug cartels such as the Medellin and Cali cartels were dismantled.
The PNP and other Philippine law enforcement agencies initially had 6 months to finish their campaign against drugs but Duterte has since asked for an additional 6 months. (READ: Dela Rosa thankful for 'war on drugs' extension) – Rappler.com