The impossibility of the drug war: This week’s outlook

Glenda M. Gloria

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The impossibility of the drug war: This week’s outlook
At this stage in the drug war, is the PNP ready to be tamed or is it more anxious to cover its ass?

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In case you missed my newsletter last week on China and Manolo Ebora, here it is.

Have you also been inundated with those “Ok, boomer” posts the past few days? I’m strictly not a boomer, but I grew up with the values and worldview of that generation before me. We’re Gen X. The Gen Xers among us journalists became reporters in the dying months of the Marcos dictatorship – which means we’ve seen presidents come and go, governments rise and fall, wars waged and lost.

Yet, I have never seen a war as impossible to win as the one launched by President Rodrigo Duterte after assuming the presidency in June 2016. I got reminded of its impossibilities 7 months ago, when I sat down with veteran anti-drug operator police colonel Eduardo “Jojo” Acierto, who blew the whistle on the alleged drug links of Duterte’s Chinese friend, Michael Yang.

Just in the thinking alone, it’s messy both at the top and in the field. 

Acierto said he’s never believed in “station-level” approaches that target the petty dealers and the back-alley trades, which were the core of the administration’s anti-drug campaign in the last 3 years. “Protection money is already paid at the highest levels, so by the time drugs reach the users, the drug lords and their protectors had already earned money. Why would any government not focus on those who pay protection money,” Acierto said in a clandestine interview in April. 

But the President wanted blood – the “small-time” type that’s been the easiest to spill, and, as it turned out, the quickest to spread to other battlefields that got mayors, vice mayors, lawyers, activists, and journalists killed.

In light of Vice President Leni Robredo’s gamble, I have spent the last days trying to argue with my own jaded belief that the last 3 years of uncalibrated violence cannot be undone by any pretense at calibration in the next 3 years.


Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what sort of irreparable damage Generation Z has to bear following the street violence under this government that smashed shanties but spared gated communities where the drug lords hide. (Recommended read: Where the drug war began)

The deaths – from a conservative government count of over 5,500 to independent groups’ estimate of more than 20,000 – have reached the “threshold of crimes against humanity,” according to Amnesty International. Now this is not just some slogan that administration critics can latch on to. For those deaths to happen in clockwork precision, a price had to be paid.

It’s a price similar to what the armed forces paid as an institution when it turned into a torture and killing machine under Marcos in the guise of counter-insurgency. It’s a price similar to what the student movement paid as it lost its brightest minds to Marcos’ killing fields. It’s a price akin to what villages in Mindanao back in the day had to pay when vigilantes started shooting at anyone who quacked like a Muslim or a commie. (Recommended read: The police outsource the killings)

The Duterte-approved killings drastically changed the PNP, its processes, its habits, its choices, and decisions. This went beyond the PNP,  because while cops were raiding the slums, senior generals were conniving with civilian officials in the justice department and the prisons agency to get convicted drug dealers to testify against a lady senator who’s now in jail.

This went beyond Camp Crame, because while cops were slaying drug pushers, the well-connected managed to smuggle tons of shabu under the noses of Customs bosses, local and port authorities, and international airport security

Recall that once upon a time under this government, a band of cops barged into a Leyte provincial jail and shot dead a detained mayor. After lying low for a while, the man behind that raid has been promoted. Other officers with blood on their hands have gone unpunished and remain deeply embedded in the system.

And so it bears asking every single day as this administration enters its last phase: At this stage in the drug war, is the PNP ready to be tamed or is it more anxious to cover its ass?


The war on drugs, as former Colombia president Cesar Gaviria advised Duterte, is a futile war, and “essentially a war on people.”

Gaviria, and Colombia, realized the hard way that by the time reports had reached decision-makers and had been presented for public consumption, the facts would already have been massaged – stripped of the ugliness that has allowed illegal drugs to become the world’s undefeated enemy.

Acierto’s anecdote comes to mind. I asked him about rumors he was on the take. “Whatever I have now, I did not steal from government. I did not sell drugs, did not recycle them.” But if “my men seize cash from a raid of a Chinese drug lord, do we report them?” He shook his head. “I’m just being practical.”

This is the same “practical” sense that made the so-called ninja cops do what they had to do, and which made our leaders turn the other way when – after putting him in the freezer for being lenient toward those cops – they appointed Oscar Albayalde PNP chief.

In the bloodied streets of Tondo or Cebu or Central Luzon, this war as we know it does not need a makeover. It needs to be shut down first so that institutions and society are given sufficient time to rethink, rehabilitate, and reeducate themselves about an old problem that has grown far more complex than the old-school minds of those tasked to address it.

To reboot and rethink, however, requires real power.

Can Vice President Leni Robredo make a dent? It’s complicated, but we wish her well, as we wrote in our Rappler editorial Monday, November 11.


Another death shocked the business community early Monday, November 11, with the passing of Lucio “Bong” Tan Jr, president of Philippine Airlines Holdings. Over the weekend, the community also lost one of its most influential figures, John Gokongwei Jr, a man who built a massive empire from scratch. Masses will be held every 7 pm starting Monday, November 11. He will be laid to rest on Friday, November 15, at the Heritage Park in Taguig.

In our neighborhood, Cambodia’s top opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, ended years of exile and arrived in Malaysia on Saturday, November 9 en route to his home country.

It’s another packed week for the United States, too. 

Tuesday, November 12, is a big day for young migrants in the United States, as the Supreme Court holds oral arguments on US President Donald Trump’s bid to end the Obama-era Dreamers’ immigration program.

Wednesday, November 13, is the first public hearing on the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Rappler will be in Bacolod on Saturday, November 16, for its series of workshops on social media. Our investigative head, Chay Hofileña, and Negros correspondent Marchel Espina will be joining local journalists in tackling disinformation, social media, and democracy. Check event details here

Here are the other key events this week:

Monday, November 11. It’s sales galore as the capitalist world celebrates 11/11 or Singles Day. Check this online frenzy.

Tuesday, November 12. The House of Representatives will be holding hearings on traffic plans for Christmas.

Wednesday, November 13. It’s the send-off of the Philippine team delegation to the Southeast Asian Games, which the Philippines is hosting.
The UST Growling Tigers aim for a repeat against the UP Fighting Maroons in a bid to face Ateneo in the UAAP finals. See schedule here.

Thursday, November 14. 4th National Simultaneous earthquake drill
YouTube Music launch in Manila

Friday, November 15. The anti-ISIS coalition meets after US troop pullout from Syria

Saturday, November 16. UAAP Finals at the Araneta Coliseum 
Sri Lanka presidential election

Sunday, November 17. Czech Republic’s ’Velvet Revolution’ anniversary

First anniversary of “yellow vest” protests in France 

Pope Francis presides over a Mass to mark World Poverty Day

Have a productive week ahead! Please feel free to email me at–


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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.