Grassroots & Governance

Early in his presidency, Rodrigo Roa Duterte threatened to “kill” Peter Lim of Cebu whom he identified as a drug lord. Many months later, the PNP in Cebu, then headed by Diebold Sinas of “Mañanita” fame, announced that they were going to arrest Peter Lim. This announcement was made for several days until one day the PNP admitted that Peter Lim had left the country, or at least had disappeared. I considered this an outright insult to our intelligence. What, publicly announcing their plans for days, then failing to nail him?

This case is just one of myriad reasons why a death penalty will not be a deterrent to heinous crimes, in particular, drug trafficking. The justice system is just such a mess in our country, starting with inconsistent enforcement of the laws by the police. When Diebold Sinas was found openly enjoying his birthday party with many of his officers, clearly not observing physical distancing which they were supposed to enforce, his superiors and colleagues made excuses for his carelessness. Worse, the president himself, no less, just dismissed the violation of his own government’s regulations by one of his favorite police officers by saying “sa akin na lang ito” (Let this be on me). The current PNP chief has publicly asked the citizenry to “move on” from this case.

We clearly now have a government of men, and not of laws. The justice system has been politicized under this presidency; and for a long time now, has been commercialized. Lawyers know that you can buy evidence or pay to suppress it on behalf of your clients. A lawyer friend of mine tells me that his son is happily practicing law in New Zealand where, he says, he can really be a lawyer, and not in the business of corrupting policemen, prosecutors, and judges.

How do we determine who is guilty? The police have to investigate and produce evidence. Then, this has to be brought to court by prosecutors and presented to a judge who will conduct hearings, review evidence and testimony before deciding on a verdict. It is public knowledge among lawyers that an honest and fair judge is a rarity in this country. Bong Revilla was acquitted for the crime of plunder for which his senate chief of staff was found guilty! To make the insult even keener, news reports reveal that Bong Revilla was told to return the money (Not peanuts. Hundreds of millions of pesos of taxpayer money)! I wonder if he ever did. He is back in the Senate, thanks to our poorly informed voters.

There is supposed to be no bail for the crime of plunder. But former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile was released from detention by no less than the Supreme Court for “benevolent” reasons being very much a senior. Upon release however, Ponce Enrile displayed mental and physical energy that belied his alleged frailty. Meanwhile, Ponce Enrile’s chief of staff is detained for the same crime of plunder.

Meanwhile too, during the pandemic, a jobless man was jailed for the crime of stealing two cans of Spam so his family could eat. I do not know if he was even allowed due process.

Duly elected Senator Leila de Lima is in her fourth year in detention. She has not been convicted but is not even allowed to participate in online deliberations of the Senate. The witnesses who were to testify in her trial — long term convicts mainly for drug trafficking — are alleged to have died from COVID-19 and immediately cremated. There are all sorts of speculation on exactly where they are and what happened; but the head of the Bilibid prisons has refused to divulge details due, he says, to confidentiality of the information. Meanwhile, no hearings have been conducted on De Lima’s case. Perhaps because there are no witnesses other than the convicts, most of whom had been convicted for being drug lords. Following the Congressional hearings in which they had testified against Senator de Lima, it is said that they were transferred from the congested Bilibid prisons to more cushy quarters at military Camp Bonifacio. If it is true that the detained drug lords died from the COVID-19 virus, then, that perhaps was their death penalty. Nature does provide.

The inequities go all the way to the Supreme Court. With the help of influential lawyer Estelito Mendoza, the late Eduardo Danding Cojuangco won contested shares in San Miguel Corp. that he had acquired using money borrowed from government-owned UCPB of which he was CEO: a clear violation of conflict of interest laws. The ponente, Lucas Bersamin (who later became Chief Justice) stated as rationale for their favorable decision that Cojuangco was not Marcos crony. This led then Justice Conchita Carpio Morales to state in her dissenting opinion that this was “the biggest joke of the century.” Cojuangco, after all, had gone with the Marcoses on the plane to Hawaii during the EDSA Revolution. Estelito Mendoza has also lawyered for PAL’s Lucio Tan. Mendoza was able to reverse a Supreme Court decision in favor of the FASAP (Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines) unfair labor practice case against Philippine Airlines with just a letter to the Supreme Court’s secretariat. Mendoza also lawyered for Juan Ponce Enrile and obtained for him an exemption to the law disallowing bail for cases of plunder.

President Duterte vowed during his campaign that he would end the drug problem in the country within six months. We are in the fifth year of his presidency and the drug problem is still with us.

During the early phase of the “drug war” thousands were killed. And it is well known that the victims were mainly young and poor addicts or suspected small drug retailers. They were clearly not given due process under the laws of the land.

Given these pathetic and dire circumstances, do we really think that the death penalty will be a deterrent to the business of drug lords? Drug lords have plenty of money. They can pay for the most influential lawyers who know how to deal with these problems. Should we allow our legislators to enable the government to decide who should live or die?


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