Grassroots & Governance

I guess she caught us all off guard. I had been sharing reactions with friends and associates; and we all seemed to agree that President Rodrigo Duterte’s macho challenge to Vice-President Leni Robredo to take over the “drug war” was really a trap. After all, he was the more seasoned politician. And after all, she was only a girl.

Well, her response in just a few days was to accept the dare. First, it was supposed to be for her to become the “drug czar.” The firm offer in writing, it turns out is a co-chair post in a “committee” (Inter-agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs, or ICAD) not even an agency. It isn’t very clear yet. Is she, or isn’t she now a member of the Cabinet? After all, she had already been eased out of that.

It looks like Duterte himself was caught off guard. He hasn’t been sleeping well and has to take a three-day leave to catch up on lost sleep. So, since he has said that he was giving up the job of solving the drug problem to the vice-president, he will have to work “under cover” now that she has taken on the challenge. He also needs to make himself available for a formal meeting to discuss the terms of the job he has offered verbally and in writing. He is probably figuring out how much leeway to give her without himself losing face.

The Vice-President seems to be clear on how she plans to go about the job. Her goals seem to be modest: save at least one life, improve the lives of victims of drug addiction, punish those guilty of extra judicial killings and those responsible for production and wholesale distribution of illegal drugs, all under the rule of law and respect for human rights. She seems to recognize that the illegal drug problem cannot be totally eradicated. Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who was responsible for the killing of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, had written an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Duterte is repeating the mistakes I made.” Gaviria is now a private citizen but it is well worth reading.

Meanwhile, VP Robredo is moving fast. She has met with former Philippine National Police chief and now Senator Panfilo Lacson who has offered to be one of her advisers, given his experience in dealing with the drug problem and other heinous crimes. She is also meeting with leaders in civil society, behavioral scientists, educators and other stakeholders. Lacson has cautioned her against her announced plan to join police-led operations against drug distributors, despite encouragement to do so by her ICAD Committee co-chair and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) head Aaron Aquino, who does not disguise his bias in favor of Duterte’s positions on the drug issue.

It is clear to see that Vice-President Leni has boldly stuck her physical and political neck out in accepting Duterte’s dare. It is not like her to act without praying and thinking things through. When she accepted President PNoy’s offer to be Mar Roxas’ running mate in the last presidential elections, she took a few days to think, and when she accepted, she went all out to campaign all over the country, and to win, despite all odds.

What she has taken on is daunting but certainly worthwhile. First of all, the “drug war” strategy of tokhang — which primarily targeted drug addicts, killing over 5,000 users, mostly young and poor, with outright and public encouragement by the President to “kill, kill, kill” — has failed to meet its objectives as Duterte himself has admitted. Drug lords such as Peter Lim, who had been identified by Duterte himself as targets, seem to have escaped.

Meanwhile, we can no longer sit on fences on this issue. The Vice-President has entered the lion’s den. This includes not only the drug criminals, but also those who would rather she fail than succeed, which more likely than not includes most of the government bureaucracy (executive, judiciary, and legislature) whose help she certainly needs to accomplish her objectives. We are aware of the corruption that well-funded drug lords can use to obtain protection and support from the local governments, judiciary, and the police.

Leaders in civil society, business, and other taxpayers must mobilize to help the Vice-President, if only to pressure those in government to support rather than get in her way. This is more than an option. We have to consider it an obligation. We have to mobilize a critical mass of vocal and active supporters to demonstrate to the government that the citizenry of this country will ensure that the campaign against illegal drugs and the harm that it is doing to our people is transparent and follows the rule of law. We cannot continue our descent into barbarism. It is time to turn this campaign around. New thinking is needed and we must have all law-abiding hands on deck. We must also be open to technical assistance and cooperation from international development, intelligence, and justice agencies.


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