Leni Robredo

The gamble of Leni Robredo

Mara Cepeda

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The gamble of Leni Robredo


Vice President Leni Robredo is thrust into a world run by men as she helms the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs. She would risk everything just to save a life.

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MANILA, Philippines – Beads of sweat trickled down the temples of Vice President Leni Robredo.

It was midday in Macantog, a small mountain village in Tanay, Rizal reachable only by trekking through a steep trail for an hour. The soles of Robredo’s black rubber shoes had a thick layer of mud, pebbles and leaves sticking out underneath. Her maong pants were caked with dirt. Robredo’s hair, which she usually hangs loose during formal events, was tied in a ponytail. 

It was the 7th of November. It was the day Robredo visited the 60 families who no longer need to spend their nights in pitch-black darkness after the Vice President’s Angat Buhay program gave them solar kits.  

It was also just a day after Robredo accepted President Rodrigo Duterte’s offer for her to be co-chairperson of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD).

But being thrust into the fight against narcotics still did not stop the Vice President from going up Sitio Macantog.  

“Iyong mga provincial visits kagaya nito, hindi ko iyon babawasan, kasi commitment ko iyon since 2016. Maraming mga communities na umaasa sa amin,” Robredo told reporters who climbed the mountain with her. “So kung kailangan magtrabaho 8 days a week, gagawin natin.”

(But the provincial visits like this one, I cannot lessen them, because this has been my commitment since 2016. A lot of communities are relying on us. So if I need to work 8 days a week, I will.) 

Robredo knew she took on a tremendous job as ICAD co-chair, a move that raised the eyebrows of her harshest critics and her most loyal allies alike.  

It was nothing but a trap, her advisers said, designed to make her accountable for the failures of the President in waging his bloody war on drugs. But the Vice President – the woman who was a pro-bono human rights lawyer before she won the second highest position in the land – said she still had to do it.

“Dahil kung mayroon akong maililigtas na kahit isang inosenteng buhay, ang sinasabi ng prinsipyo at puso ko ay kailangan ko itong subukan,” Robredo said in accepting the post.

(Because if I would be able to save even just one life, my principles and my heart tell me I have to try.)

The stakes are high, the room for error too narrow. This is the gamble of Leni Robredo.  

Political capital vs morals

Almost everyone told the Vice President not to take the chance. 

After all, it was a spiteful Duterte who first said he would make Robredo his “drug czar” for 6 months. In a span of a week, this offer turned into a supposed Cabinet post, then finally, co-chair of ICAD, which did not exist in Duterte’s Executive Order that created the anti-drugs body in the first place.

Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez even scoffed at the final offer, calling it an “empty” post that would leave Robredo with no control over the government’s battle against drugs.  

The Vice President’s party mates in the Liberal Party (LP) were just as wary. Party president and Senator Francis Pangilinan found Duterte’s offer “uncanny.” Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman suspected foul play over the “diluted” post. LP vice president for external affairs Erin Tañada said Robredo would say no to being a “puppet” of a drug war that kills.

LP stalwart Edgar Erice even went as far as saying that he doesn’t think Robredo, the party chairperson, would be an effective head of a drug enforcement agency. 

“Iyong pinakamahirap talaga, dahil almost all naga-advise sa akin na huwag kong tanggapin. Hindi ko [sila] mabe-blame, kasi iyong mistrust sa sincerity ng pag-alok sa akin,” said the Vice President in Tanay. 

(What’s most challenging is that all of those who advised me told me not to accept it. I couldn’t blame them, given our mistrust of the sincerity of the offer.)

Her decision was finalized within the halls of the Quezon City Reception House, Robredo’s headquarters. For two days, the Vice President dived into meetings with her most trusted aides and advisers from her office, among them Gutierrez, her chief of staff Undersecretary Philip Dy, and her political adviser and ex-Quezon City congressman Bolet Banal. 

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. Robredo is all smiles as she enters the conference hall where she announces her acceptance of the ICAD co-chair post. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

Gutierrez told Rappler that Robredo had many devil’s advocates.

“Paano kung sineset-up ka? Paano kung pag-upo mo diyan, ‘di ka na mapapakinggan? Papaano kung pag-upo mo diyan, wala ka naman talagang kapangyarihan?” said Gutierrez, laying out scenarios they presented to the opposition leader. 

(What if you’re being set-up? What if once you take office, they wouldn’t listen to you? What if you accept the post but it turns out you don’t really have any powers?) 

Even with the deluge of warnings, however, the Vice President was willing to ignore all the risks. Accepting Duterte’s offer to be ICAD co-chair was Robredo’s inclination since the beginning.

“Pero sa dulo, ang tingin ko pinanghawakan ni VP talaga was her moral clarity. Malinaw sa kanya ito ang tamang bagay na gawin,” said Gutierrez.  

(But in the end, I think VP held on to her moral clarity. It was very clear to her that this was the right thing to do.) 

Female leader in a world of men

That she is no expert on drug enforcement is not lost on Robredo. 

As soon as she announced her acceptance of the ICAD co-chair post, the Vice President asked former officials of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the Philippine National Police, and the National  Bureau of Investigation to give her a briefing on law enforcement on November 6.  

Two days later, the Vice President invited the chiefs of the ICAD member agencies to brief her about their anti-illegal drug operations. Facing a roomful of active and retired military and police generals, Robredo said she was there to listen. But she did not flinch when she said the drug war they are running has “reached a certain level of notoriety” that has made it a “war against the poor.”

CO-CHAIRS. Robredo and PDEA chief Aquino hold their first joint press conference as ICAD co-chairs on November 8, 2019. OVP photo

The tension was already palpable between the Vice President and her co-chair, PDEA chief Aaron Aquino, the man who said she would surely “fail” if Robredo leads the drug war. 

Sitting side by side with Robredo on November 8, Aquino said the Vice President “somehow came to understand many things” about law enforcement after meeting with the ICAD. He defended his “bound to fail” remark once again, saying it’s due to her lack of experience in dealing with law enforcers. 

The Vice President pursed her lips in silence, her left hand massaging her right arm. When Aquino asked her to join PDEA’s drug operations, the Vice President smiled and said she would.  

“In a way, you see some sexist undertones,” said Ela Atienza, head of the University of the Philippines-Diliman political science department. “Many of these agencies in the drug war are mostly male-dominated. This is an issue on how they perceive her as a woman even if she is the Vice President.”

Not the game she plays

But Robredo knew she’s in for a tough ride. 

She knows that by agreeing to be ICAD co-chair, she was giving Duterte and her detractors more ammunition to attack her. She was accepting a job she did not train for. One wrong move and any chance for Robredo to win the 2022 presidential race – if she even decides to run at all – may disappear forever.

The elections, however, are simply far from Robredo’s mind. 

“Ako, kung siguro inisip ko iyong 2022, hindi ko ito tatanggapin kasi too much of a risk,” the Vice President said as she stood inside Sitio Macantog. “Kapag inisip ko iyong 2022, aakyat ba ako dito sa bundok na kakaunti iyong tao? Bakit ko sasayangin iyong oras ko dito, na sobrang hirap umakyat, para lang makausap iyong kaunting tao?”

(Perhaps if I had considered 2022, I wouldn’t have accepted because it’s too much of a risk. If I were thinking of 2022, would I even go up this mountain where only a few people live? Why would I waste my time, trek this difficult route, just to talk to a few?) 

VP FOR THE POOR. Robredo waves as she is welcomed by residents of Sitio Macantog on November 7, 2019. Photo by Jay Ganzon/OVP

For now, it’s clear the Vice President simply wants to be there for the poor – whether it be through her Angat Buhay program or by doing what she can to reform the drug war that has so far killed thousands. 

Some say it’s heroic, others believe it is nothing but a honeytrap. If it is political suicide to seize the chance to save even just one innocent Filipino, then so be it, the Vice President tells them. 

Leni Robredo just doesn’t play the game. – Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: THE ACCEPTANCE. Vice President Leni Robredo faces the media on Novembeer 6, 2019 to announce she is accepting the post as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.