Aquino: 'Significant effort' to curb illegal drugs during my term

MANILA, Philippines – A year after President Rodrigo Duterte launched a popular but controversial war on drugs, his predecessor defended his own administration’s work in curbing the illegal narcotics industry.

“If you notice the peak was way, way [up], 6.7 million. We got in, [it was] 1.7 [million], dropped to 1.3 [million] and in the tail end, 2015, became 1.8 [million]. I think the drop from 1.7 to 1.3 [million] says that we really had significant effort,” said former president Benigno Aquino III in an interview with Rappler’s Maria Ressa, more than a year after he stepped down from office.

Aquino was referring to the estimated number of drug users in the country according to the Dangerous Drugs Board. (READ: DDB: Philippines has 1.8 million current drug users)

The Aquino administration has been repeatedly blamed – either directly or indirectly – for supposedly allowing the illegal drug trade to flourish. Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa, while refusing to fully blame the last administration, said there was a “lack of emphasis” for 6 years.

A war on drugs was among Duterte’s key campaign promises during the 2016 elections. That, and the promise of change, propelled a Duterte win. The former Davao mayor edged out Aquino’s anointed candidate Manuel Roxas II by more than 6 million votes.

The former president said that when they took over, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), which by law leads all anti-illegal drug efforts, was lacking in drug-sniffing dogs.

Aquino also said that at the beginning, a one- or two-kilo seizure was considered a “big haul.”

Towards the end, he said, the PDEA reported “double-digit interceptions.” “It’s a complex problem and our methodology really made a serious demand on adhering to the procedures embodied in the law,” he said.

Since July 1, 2016, the PNP has led an all-out effort to curb the spread of illegal drugs. Tens of thousands of suspects have been arrested in various police operations nationwide. Thousands have also died during police operations or at the hands of alleged vigilante groups.

Millions of suspected drug personalities have also surrendered under Oplan Tokhang.

Duterte, who initially promised to end illegal drugs by 6 months, has since extended the campaign until 2022 or the end of his term. He says it’s because he did not realize the extent of the drug problem until he was elected president.

Duterte has repeatedly claimed that there are over 4 million drug users in the country, despite a DDB survey estimating it to be much lower at 1.8 million. Duterte recently sacked the DDB chairman because of the supposedly wrong numbers.  

Help from China, Mexico

Aquino also said that the Philippines during his administration reached out to several countries for help in curbing illegal drugs. He mentioned at least two – Mexico, after the Sinaloa carter allegedly tried to set camp here and China, for information exchange.

“We asked China to help us by sharing information given the fact that most of the foreigners arrested were of Chinese descent. Major source of component for methamphethamine… and a natural source is supposed to be China; the artificial is elsewhere,” said Aquino.

He also noted that the spike in users according to the DDB happened in 2015, the same year “the heat from the forthcoming arbitral decision was most pronounced.” He was referring to the ruling of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, on the Philippines' case against China in their dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which the Philippines eventually won.

The same trend continues. Officials of the Duterte administration admit most of the supply comes from China and that many of those arrested are Chinese nationals.

When asked, Aquino said his administration addressed the drug problem alongside other national concerns.

“And of course, drugs is just one aspect. The other aspect is: how do you grow the economy to fund the resources for education, health, and infrastructure?” said Aquino.

Despite the high death toll and allegations that police are committing human rights violations in the name of the drugs war, Duterte remains very popular in the Philippines. He has shunned all foreign criticism of the drug war. –