Grassroots & Governance

Although I have met Vice-President Leni Robredo a few times, I have never had a lengthy conversation with her. Nevertheless, she has always struck me as having a strong backbone. Her uncanny ability to make bold but well-considered decisions and to stick to them was demonstrated when, after giving it a few days of thought and reflection, she accepted the Liberal Party’s left-field offer to run for vice-president. She then worked herself to the bone all over the country, and amazingly won the post and got confirmed by the Comelec. I guess her daughter had solid basis for saying that we should not underestimate their mother’s influence on their late father, Jesse Robredo, who had been my choice for next president after PNoy.

Now, having read through her ICAD Co-chair’s report on the war on drugs, I have come to the conclusion that she certainly has what it takes to be a statesman and leader of our beleaguered country. Don’t hesitate to read through the 40 pages. It has an executive summary, is thorough and well organized, and cites sources/bases for the numbers that it refers to.

The difference between Leni Robredo and Rodrigo Roa Duterte is that she is a strategic thinker, and he is a shoot-from-the-hip and gut talker. And he is not acting like a president. He seems to be just repeating himself as the tough-talking, crime-fighting mayor of Davao.

It is hard to disagree with VP Leni’s assessment of the “war on drugs.” Although she was Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) co-chair for only 18 days, she gathered enough information and listened to drug war partners and representatives of various government agencies, as well as civil society and international agency representatives during that time. Her consultations enabled her to arrive at a clearheaded assessment and make recommendations on what should be done to makes things better for illegal drug victims and their families and communities.

First of all, she cites many common sense insights that the current administration obviously missed. Because the “war on drugs,” led by no less than the President, was focused on “law enforcement,” it began with aggressive street-level action led by the police. Naturally, the targets were drug users and drug pushers (no distinctions seem to have been made between the two) that caused thousands of deaths by policemen and unidentified armed vigilante on motorcycles. The estimate on the number of deaths range from over 6,000 to over 20,000 depending on the source. The Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) ran a survey in 2016 that came up with an estimate of 1.8 million drug users nationwide. The Philippine National Police (PNP) gave a figure of 4 million. The President, no less, in a speech in Laguna said it had reached 6 million. If the PNP and the President’s numbers are to be believed, the drug war has indeed failed. The next DDB survey findings are due early this year.

Some of the VP’s recommendations make a lot of sense. Operation Tokhang should be abolished. Leadership of the ICAD should be transferred to the DDB, which, under EO 15, is supposed to be the “policy-making and strategy formulating body in the planning and formulation of policies of drug prevention and control.” The current Chair of ICAD is the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) which has a narrow mandate that focuses on enforcement. A more holistic view would include prevention and rehabilitation. The administration’s emphasis on enforcement is manifest in the budget allocations under the General Appropriations Act. For 2019, the allocation for enforcement (PDEA, PNP, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine Coast Guard) was P11.4 billion. For rehabilitation (the Departments of Health, and the Interior and Local Government), it was P1.24 billion.

She also cites the need for representatives of the local government unit leagues (mayors, governors, barangays) to be part of ICAD since an effective “war on drugs” should be community based. The ICAD report cites the excellent community-based example in Quezon City that promotes Community-based Rehabilitation programs. This makes sense because the Department of Health estimates that over 90% of drug users are mild users and can be rehabilitated. Moderate users are estimated at only 4-6%, and heavy users at less than 2%. Only heavy users should be detained for at least six months. Behavioral scientists I have spoken to say that rehabilitation in closed quarters do not work as well as those in open fields. I have sat in on a successful barangay level rehab program run by an NGO in cooperation with the barangay leadership and the Archdiocese of Cebu. The venue was a large garden.

The notorious Operation Tokhang which was supposed to be short for the Visayan “Tuktok Hangyo”(“knock on doors of homes with suspected drug users or pushers and try to persuade them to drop the habit”) ended up as a license to kill or arrest by the police, many of whom abused their powers. This happened because there were no clear-cut protocols on how this was to be done. And what the next steps would be.

The drug war aspect of constricting supply was set aside as a priority in favor of street level “enforcement.” This was clearly a strategic misjudgment. Based on various estimates by different sources, supply has increased, and law enforcement agencies have barely scratched the surface, having confiscated less than 1% of shabu volume estimates.

Certainly constricting supply is difficult but necessary. The President himself had publicly identified “drug lords” whom he would “kill,” include Peter Lim (missing?) and Benjamin Loot (still mayor of Daanbantayan, Cebu?). VP Leni’s sources reveal that the international sources of illegal drugs are China, Laos-Myanmar-Thailand, and the Mexico-Sinaloa cartel. It seems the top source is China. Perhaps President Duterte can whisper in the ear of his good friend Xi Jinping to help reduce their exports to our country. A little bird reminds me of the 19th Century Opium Trade during which Great Britain pressured China to allow them to sell opium sourced by them from their colony India. This opium trade is believed by some historians to have weakened the will of China’s leaders to the point of weakening their government. I am getting some really naughty ideas from this.

The VP’s ICAD report also recommends strengthening the Anti-Money Laundering Council to enable it to contribute to tracking and preventing illegal drug money from being used to continue and expand operations.

I think the President really made a “colossal blunder” in appointing VP Leni Robredo to co-chair the ICAD. He underestimated her ability to come up with a thorough assessment of the situation, and to come up with strategic and holistic recommendations on how to improve the campaign for the benefit of our people. He also blundered into enabling her to demonstrate her preparedness for the leadership of this country.

For this reason, the Presidential Electoral Tribunal should stop dilly dallying on their decision. They should just dismiss BongBong Marcos’ protest. He has already been defeated by an even larger margin in the pilot provinces chosen by him for a recount. He should just accept his defeat.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.