Law enforcement scandals strip bare fatal flaws in Philippines’ drug war

A police officer stands guard over suspected drug users and peddlers in Manila. Photo: UCAN/Vincent Go

The resignation on October 14 of the Philippines’ national police chief, Oscar Albayalde, after facing withering fire over his role in the alleged recycling of seized narcotics comes too little too late for critics of the drug war of president, Rodrigo Duterte.

They view the much-belated exposure of events between 2013 and 2016 as a diversion from a more serious current scandal involving Duterte’s hand-picked people and alleged collusion with convicted drug lords in the capital’s national penitentiary.

“After careful thought and deliberation, I have come to the decision to relinquish my post … and go on non-duty status,” read Albayalde’s resignation statement.

He relinquished his post after a national survey firm said a Senate investigation that has run for weeks had pushed down Duterte’s trust and approval ratings.

The president’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, said there was no pressure put to bear on the police chief. But Bong Go, a senator and Duterte’s trusted ally, said the president wanted the general to take a “terminal leave.”

Carmelite Father Gilbert Billena, who serves in a community that has lost scores of residents to masked executioners, said the investigation showed that while thousands of poor drug suspects were killed with no shred of evidence, the same enforcers tasked to carry out the president’s orders benefited from the illegal drug trade.

The allegations, while damning, did not surprise those who work with families affected by the anti-narcotics crackdown.

“People on the ground, the small-time drug users and pushers, already knew this a long time ago, that the police recycle their loot,” Father Danny Pilario of the Congregation of Mission (Vincentians).

“From day one, they already (knew) this war on drug is senseless,” said the priest, adding that the families of the victims have been crying out for justice.

Father Pilario is familiar with the lay of the kill zones. He is guest minister of the Mother of the Promised Land parish which, despite its name, has suffered more than 300 killings since the start of Duterte’s rule in 2016.

In the sprawling slum, 21 kilometres northeast of the seat of power in Malacañang, Manila, and three kilometres from Congress, the Catholic Church trains widows and orphans of victims of the so-called drug war in livelihood projects.

Only a few of the families Father Pilario helps want to pursue justice. Many of the slain were breadwinners. Those left behind find it hard to juggle daily needs with the challenges of a justice system where cases can languish for decades.

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The survivors also fear reprisals by officers emboldened by Duterte’s promise to protect them if they are hauled in front of a court for following his orders.

The priest greeted Albayalde’s resignation with wariness. He said the Senate probe into the police general’s alleged coddling of officers accused of diverting interdicted drugs and returning these to the streets was “scripted from the start.”

As a long-time town mayor, Duterte is known to micro-manage affairs that directly impact on his interests, Father Pilario said.

“It is hard to imagine that he does not know these moves … (The senators) must have already known how (Albayalde) should act, where he will go, and what is next for his career,” the priest said.

Rage of victims’ families

“I hope Albayalde is filled with guilt and kills himself,” said Normita Lopez, whose 23-year-old son Djastin was killed on 18 May 2017.

“Maybe it’s wrong for me to think that; they say suicide is a sin. But I cannot stop from raging because they killed my innocent son, even as he pleaded for his life, but all these police officers involved in drugs get away with it,” she said.

Albayalde’s resignation is not enough, Father Billena said.

“He should answer not only for this drug recycling scandal but for the carnage during his tenure at the national capital region police office and when he rose to the top of the police organisation,” the priest said.

Government records show that at least 6,000 people have died in police anti-narcotics operations since 2016. Law enforcers insist all killings were in self-defense.

But Lopez’s case has prompted the Office of the Ombudsman, the prosecuting agency for erring government personnel, to fire the police officer who killed her son. The criminal case moves slowly in the court system.

In November 2018, a court convicted three officers for the August 2017 slaying of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos.

Father Billena said accountability should go all the way up to the president.

At best, the chief executive failed to undertake due diligence on Albayalde before promoting him to head the national police. At worst, Duterte knew about the ninja cops, the colloquial term for officers who enforce the law while moonlighting with crime syndicates.

Father Billena did not elaborate, but investigative journalists and human rights groups have traced many vigilante killings—more than triple the number in official operations—back to law enforcers.

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“That Duterte promoted Albayalde despite all those allegations against him is proof that narco-politics exists and it goes all the way to the top levels of this government,” said Nardy Sabino of the group Rise Up for Life and Rights.

“There will be no end to this, no reforms in the police or the armed forces, because Duterte has only strengthened patronage politics,” he said.

Golden exit

Duterte refused to fire Albayalde despite calls by senators.

The president, who has frequently jeered at calls for due process, invoked the same for the country’s top cop. Albayalde will also receive the full benefits of a four-star general when he retires on November 8.

The police officer insists he is innocent and was framed by rivals. He also threatened to file charges against his detractors.

“This is a remorseless, ‘graceful exit’ but a pyrrhic victory for him, at best,” said lawyer, Edre Olalia, of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which handles cases filed by kin of drug war victims.

“It was the only choice left. He is damaged goods,” the lawyer said, adding, “To stay any longer would aggravate an already discredited institution and the bloody carnage yet dubious war against drugs.” 

Retired police officers, led by former police officer, Benjamin Magalong, accused Albayalde of protecting officers linked to the drug trade.

“We now see the fatal flaws of the president’s quick-fix draconian approach to the drug scourge,” Olalia said.

“This unscrupulous practice of recycling drugs irreparably casts a pitch-dark shadow of doubt on the fake drug war worsened by the brutality, inhumanity, illegality, and pretensions of the authors, actors and supporters,” he added. UCAN

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