Sui Generis

Robredo: 18 days as ‘drug czar’

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Robredo: 18 days as ‘drug czar’

Vice President Leni Robredo meets with the law enforcement cluster of the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs on November 14, 2019. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

Comprehensive policy review

Last week, I wrote about an insider’s account on the drug-related killings in Davao, based on retired policeman Arthur Lascañas’ testimony submitted to the International Criminal Court.

I thought I’d do a follow-up, this time on what can be done to really address the use of illicit drugs in the Philippines, beyond the killings and the violence perpetrated by President Duterte’s drug war.

The most comprehensive policy review of Duterte’s centerpiece program may yet be Vice President Leni Robredo’s report on her 18-day stint as “drug czar” in November 2019. In all of 40 pages, she laid out the yawning gaps in the drug war, discussed each of these, and recommended concrete steps to take.

These she arrived at after presiding over the operations of the anti-drug body she headed, complete with briefings and access to official data. In addition, she held extensive consultations with government agencies, international organizations, civil society groups, local government officials, and community representatives.

At the end of her 18 days, the police announced that there was not a single drug-war death when Robredo was at the helm.

The Vice President cast a wide net, went out of the usual law-enforcement circle, and listened to what other sectors had to say and learn from other countries’ best practices in reducing drug use. She examined the government’s drug war numbers, the targeted goals and the existing modus operandi – and proposed urgent reforms.


You’re fired!

Let’s backtrack a bit.

In November 2019, Duterte, in one of his impulsive decisions, appointed Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Illegal Drugs or ICAD, a body the President created to implement his centerpiece program. He appeared to be piqued by the Vice President, who is also the opposition leader, when she said in an interview with Reuters that the deadly drug war was a failure.

ICAD was created by Duterte in 2017. It is headed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and is composed of more than 40 government agencies, including the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), and the Department of Health.

Apparently, Duterte thought that Robredo would not accept the job – and he would then go on the offensive and attack her as someone only capable of criticizing the government but unable to lead an agency. Contrary to expectations, however, Robredo said yes and took on the challenge.

From the quiet of her office in Quezon City, Robredo was thrust into the media spotlight. She was given the mantle to lead the President’s favorite program and she took the work seriously, saying she may be able to save even just one life.

Remember that, as early as December 2016, Robredo had been sidelined. Duterte had banned her from attending Cabinet meetings because he didn’t trust her. Robredo then immediately resigned from her post as chairperson of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council because it was becoming difficult for her to be effective in her job.

As ICAD co-chair, she got a platform to air her ideas. Journalists dutifully reported on her activities and statements, giving her unprecedented media coverage since she became vice-president. Duterte cut this short, firing her after only 18 days in office.

Failed program

Robredo gave the public the real picture on the fight against drugs: Duterte’s flagship program was a failure.

Using official data, she found that “the shabu supply seized and the drug money recovered did not even breach 1%” in the first three years of Duterte.

Data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) Drug Enforcement Group, Robredo said, showed that drug users consumed 3,000 kilos of shabu every week across the country, or equal to about 156,000 kilos every year. But the PDEA was able to seize a paltry 1,344 kilos of shabu from January to October 2019. In 2018, the PDEA was able to recover only 785 kilos of shabu out of 1,053 kilos in 2017.

What to do

It is helpful to go over Robredo’s key findings and recommendations so that they become part of the campaign season talking points:

1. ICAD lacks strategic leadership and the participation of member agencies is unequal.

  • The DDB should chair the ICAD because it has a broader mandate.
  • Representatives from local government leagues should sit in ICAD as well as those from relevant civil society organizations.

2. There is no common and reliable baseline data on the number of drug dependents. A uniform process to track subsequent actions for those who surrendered or were arrested is non-existent.

  • Establish accurate and updated baseline data.
  • Separate users from pushers in processing arrests and surrenders for proper reporting.

3. Attention and resources are disproportionately focused on street-level enforcement, de-emphasizing prevention, detention, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration.

  • Realign funds to support the entire campaign against illegal drugs.

4. Tokhang (synonymous with drug-related killings) should be abandoned and a policy on anti-illegal drug enforcement that promotes and ensures accountability and transparency should be adopted.

  • Revoke the PNP circular on Project: Double Barrel (an escalated version of Tokhang) and provide clear operational guidelines.
  • Prescribe mandatory use of body cameras for all anti-illegal drug operating units.
  • Initiate actions against abusive members of the PNP through accountability mechanisms.

5. Constricting drug supply has been a massive failure.

  • Work closely with foreign governments of identified sources and trafficking markets to neutralize transnational syndicates.
  • Strengthen the role of the AMLC.

What Robredo found out is valuable for policy-makers as well as for those involved in the operations to defeat drug use. However, these have not yet been fully addressed by the Duterte government.

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.