Just Cause

I grew up on ninja films featuring those secretive, stealthy and skillful operatives that hide their faces. They are also killers and assassins. The Japanese characters actually mean the “one who perseveres,” probably because they train hard and long to be who they are. They honor a code unto themselves and to their principals.

It is easy to relate this to the urban terminology used in the country today — the specter of “ninja cops.” Old school as we are, cops are policemen, sworn to protect the citizenry and uphold the rule of law, drawing from state funds and armed with authority and guns. It is a simple task but a challenging vocation.

But “ninja cops” are not only a bastardization of whatever is romanticized in ninja the warrior. It is a corruption of the heart and soul of the police force, the men and women who serve the community with honor and pride.

“Ninja cops” lead double lives — in the day they are be-medaled officers in uniform but at night or in the cover of the dark, they are the worst form of criminals. They are the worst because they violate institutional regulations, ethical norms, and the laws of the land using their positions to commit their crimes. They are the worst because drugs that are meant to be destroyed are trafficked multiple times. They are the worst because the drug criminals become the prey to a more powerful syndicate.

There are many ways to analyze this evil. The underlying legal problem lies in the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. It created the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency or the PDEA patterned as usual after the American’s Drug Enforcement Agency by adding the letter “P” to the acronym. The PDEA through the years has seen its share of controversies. But a major issue is that while the PDEA is now the law enforcement agency that is responsible for the implementation of the law, there are other narcotics units out there that operate against drugs. These may be the “ninja narcotic units.”

In Section 86 of the law, it mandated the “transfer, absorption, and integration of all operating units on illegal drugs into the PDEA” and directed that the Narcotics Group of the PNP, the Narcotics Division of the NBI, and the Customs Narcotics Interdiction Unit all be abolished.

Almost two decades after the clear directive of the law, what is the reality on the ground? If the PDEA is the lead and sole agency for anti-drug enforcement, why are there cops tagged as ninjas?

Recycling confiscated dangerous drugs is highly rewarding because it counts as a successful operation for the raiders, and is very lucrative because they can then profit themselves from the easy access to the drugs that are on paper destroyed and obliterated.

As a reaction to this problem, Section 21 of the law outlines a strict eight-step procedure on the “Custody and Disposition of Confiscated, Seized, and/or Surrendered Dangerous Drugs, Plant Sources of Dangerous Drugs, Controlled Precursors and Essential Chemicals, Instruments/Paraphernalia and/or Laboratory Equipment.” In law, this is part of the “chain of custody” whose links must remain unbroken for the evidence to be admissible in court.

There are two issues that follow. One, the non-observance of the chain of custody is among the most frequent causes for the technical dismissal of drug cases. This means that even with the perpetrators caught red-handed with the drugs, drugs paraphernalia, dirty money, and other sorts of evidence, in the eyes of the law — that is the judge who is not a ninja — there is no evidence to speak of because the contraband cannot be traced back to the accused. It is, of course, a different story if it is a ninja court.

Second, the procedure is cumbersome and impractical. We know by experience and common sense that just by making rules tight does not make the rules work. On the contrary, it results in a system full of holes. It frustrates the good police officers who may not be fully trained in the intricacies of evidence custodianship and who may not be adequately resourced in the tagging, bagging, transport, and testing of drugs. This becomes acute when the amount seized is in the hundreds of kilos, or when there is a host of ninja defense lawyers that question each and every turn of evidence keeping.

And the PDEA and its governing body, the 12-person Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) are tied up and down with the procedure that is enshrined in law. It is a bad practice to ordain operational details that require legislative amendments for every change to improve the implementation of the law. The better way is to set the principles and the parameters to guide the agency in the formulation of the technical documents. Then it is for legislature to exercise oversight to ensure faithful compliance. The courts can act as the regular check in the way our criminal justice system is designed to work.

“Investigations in aid of legislation” can truly mean what it is and acquire the proactive nature of law-making instead of the endless cycle of media fanfare, the waste of scare resources, with no utility at the end. “Ninja cops” will be gone in a few episodes but they will still be among us.