Bloody week for drug war, corrupt Customs, fears of impunity cast doubts over President's campaign

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 18) — Deep-seated corruption in the Bureau of Customs  (BOC) is uncovered in congressional hearings over the unhampered entry of a P6-billion shipment of shabu. Fifty-eight drug suspects, including a 17-year-old, are killed in a two-night "big time" anti-crime sweep.

The Justice Department denies knowledge of sting operations in the illegal drug trade inside the national penitentiary. A police official is honored for his achievements in the drug war following the killing of two alleged drug lord-mayors.

All these events in just this week alone have cast a long shadow of doubt over the war against drugs of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has declared the Philippines a narco-state in need of purging.

President: 'I was wrong' about time frame

Duterte, who once vowed to fix the country's drug problem in six months from the time he took office in July 2016, made a candid admission on Thursday that he was wrong about his time frame.

"Alam ko na nagkamali ako. Nagkamali talaga ako. Hindi ko naman talaga akalain, iyang Bureau of Customs na iyan, akala ko kaalyado ko," Duterte said in a speech before police officers in Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental. (Translation: "I know I was wrong. I was really wrong. I did not expect, the Bureau of Customs, I thought they were my allies.")

"How can I control it in three to six months? The generals and policemen are involved. The Bureau of Customs, an agency I am relying on, son of a bitch, is into drugs. How will I succeed," Duterte added.

Related: Duterte: I was wrong to put 6-month deadline on drug war

A few days earlier on August 14, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee in its third hearing, uncovered further proof of corruption at the BOC. The hearings arose after it was discovered that Customs officials in May allowed five huge cylinders containing 604 kilos of metamphetamine hydrochloride worth P6.4 billion to pass unimpeded through an express lane at the Manila port.  The cylinders were allowed through even though the broker had no track record of transactions with the bureau.

"The BOC incident is a (striking) example of how well-entrenched  these drugs lords are in government. For many years, these illegal drug operators have perfected the production and smuggling of illegal drugs in the country," said Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, a member of the Blue Ribbon committee. "I'm afraid we are nearing that narco-state level."

Senators, even those in the so-called supermajority who generally support President Duterte's policies, have sounded the alarm that the 14-month-old "Oplan Tokhang" needs reassessment.

"All the things he is saying are what I have been saying for the past 25 years. Very few listened," said Senator Tito Sotto. "Drug-free Philippines is no longer possible. What we can try to achieve is (a) drug-resistant Philippines."

Worries over police impunity

But the place where the President made the candid admission,

was a symbolic venue for him to herald a victory in the anti-drugs campaign.  It was the grounds of the Ozamiz City Hall, once the turf of long-term mayor and alleged drug lord Reynaldo Parojinog Sr. who was killed with 15 others in a bloody police raid on July 30.

At the same occasion, Duterte awarded the Medalya ng Kadakilaan to police officers of the city and Northern Mindanao for their efforts to curb illegal drugs. Among the awardees were Ozamiz police chief Jovie Espenido, who led the police operations that brought down the Parojinog family.

Prior to his assignment in Ozamiz, Espenido headed the police in the town of Albuera in Leyte. Albuera was the bailiwick of another alleged drug lord-town mayor, Rolando Espinosa. A year ago, Espenido led raids on the mayor's house, which yielded supplies of shabu and high-powered firearms.

Espinosa had sought refuge in the Albuera jail where he was killed in November 2016 in a supposed shootout with police serving a search warrant of his jail cell. Amid protests that the killing was a rubout, the senate conducted a hearing which determined that the mayor was murdered, and ordered the suspension of 19 police officers. However, their murder charges were downgraded to homicide, and they have since returned to active duty.

Senator JV Ejercito warned of impunity for police officers, who know they have the President's staunch backing to pursue the drug war.

"While I support the effort to fight international drug syndicates making the Philippines a hub for drug trade, I am just worried that these intensified killings are being used by some rogue police officers, knowing that the President has vouched to protect them," Ejercito said.

"One living proof of this abuse is Police Inspector Jovie Espenido, whose sheer arrogance should be a cause for concern. Issuing a warning to suspected narco-politicians that they will be next after the Parojinogs is a display of misplaced bravado and abuse," he added.

In a budget hearing of the Senate Committee on Finance on Thursday, a prison official said the transfer of high-profile inmates from maximum to medium security in the New Bilibid Prison in January 2017 was part of a plan to nab accomplices operating outside the prison and bringing drugs inside.

However, Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre disavowed the sting operations, telling the committee he had no knowledge of it.

Senator Bam Aquino expressed his frustration over the continued flow of drugs into the country despite the anti-drugs campaign.

"Our Customs allows billions of pesos worth of shabu in the country and BuCor allows the drug trade in Bilibid to continue," said Aquino, vice chairman of the senate committee on finance.

58 drug suspects killed this week

Fueling fears of impunity is a rash of killings on two consecutive nights this week.  Some 58 drug suspects were killed and hundreds more arrest  in police raids on August 15 in Bulacan and on August 16 in Manila and Caloocan City.

The alleged murder of a 17-year-old student Kian Loyd De Los Santos in Caloocan City on the pretext of anti-drug operations caused an uproar Friday, prompting senators to call for a hearing on the incident.

Police said the student took aim at the cops with a firearm. But CCTV footage shows him being dragged away from a basketball court on the evening of August 16 by two policemen in civilian clothes as others looked on.  Then, gunshots.

Related: 17-year-old student gunned down by cops in anti-drug operations

Senators criticized the speed with which small-time suspects were killed, while high-ranking BOC officials remained free, after being tagged in the P6.4 billion shabu shipment.

"Sa ilang sachet ng shabu, patay ka kaagad. Pero sa kilo-kilong shabu, tikom ang bibig. Nakakabahala na ang mga mahihirap at mga small-time pusher at user ang mga nabibiktima ng war on drugs," said Senator Risa Hontiveros. (Translation: "for just a few sachets of shabu, you are killed. But for huge kilos of shabu, they are silent. The poor and small-time pushers and users are victimized by the war on drugs.")

This was echoed by Senator Kiko Pangilinan.

"Hindi solusyon sa problema ng droga ang kaliwa't kanan na patayan ng mga maliliit at mahihirap, habang tone-toneladang shabu ang pinapalusot sa BoC," he said. (Translation: "The rash of killings of poor people is not the solution to the drug problem, while tons of shabu are slipping through the Bureau of Customs.")

Philippine National Police chief Ronald De La Rosa denied that the police were on a mission to kill suspects. He said the Manila, Caloocan, and Bulacan operations, known as "one time big time," were legitimate and that police only fire back if they meet with resistance.

"Magtataka siguro kayo kung patay lahat. Walang nahuling buhay," De La Rosa said. While there were 58 drug suspects killed in the three operations, more than 250 suspects were arrested for various crimes including drug possession.

The war on drugs has seen 3,400 deaths of drug suspects in police operations since July last year. Local and international human rights groups claim more than 9,000 have been killed.

Inquiry on drug suspects' deaths demanded

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a fierce Duterte critic, is calling for an "all-Senators caucus on Tuesday to bring this issue to the fore."

"Sobra na. Maling mali na talaga to. I cannot, in conscience, let this pass. The Senators should have a united stand to stop this," he urged.

Gatchalian expressed support for the government's campaign against drugs, but said steps had to be taken against "police impunity."

"I am calling for a Senate investigation into the killing of Kian Loyd. Based on the video evidence presented so far in the media, it is quite possible that he was murdered by the policemen who accosted him. A Senate investigation is therefore necessary to establish the true facts, and to ensure that the integrity of the PNP remains intact," he said.

"While I continue to support the government's campaign against drugs, it is imperative that we take all necessary steps to ensure that police impunity will never become the status quo in the Philippines," Gatchalian added.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, also expressed concern.

"It's worrisome, to say the least, coming even from somebody who in his previous lifetime as a law enforcer was a natural suspect in violating human rights of crime suspects that we used to pursue," said Lacson, who chairs the senate committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs.

"I want to remind them to be very fair and objective in conducting their probe to save whatever credibility is left in them," Lacson said.

Senator Ejercito called on the police not to alienate communities with "senseless loss of lives" in their anti-drug operations.

"I have always supported legitimate law enforcement operations to further the President's war against drugs. But we need to protect innocent civilians and avoid senseless loss of lives," Ejercito said.

"Communities should be partners, not collateral damage, in the war against drugs," he added.

Senator Sonny Angara said due attention must be given to reforming the criminal justice system, which many perceive to be stacked against the poor.

"The body count is reaching alarming levels. We need to ensure that we are not creating killing machines. We need speedy justice machines, and ensure that we are strengthening our institutions like the courts, the police, the prosecutors. We need our people to believe in the justice system," said Angara.

Senator Leila de Lima called Duterte a "deranged man" for lauding the killing of the 32 suspects in Bulacan and reiterated that government pursued the wrong approach in the war on drugs.

"Ilan pa po ang papatayin niya? Na kahit ilan ang patayin nila, hindi po maso-solve 'yung droga na 'yan kasi maling approach," said De Lima, who is in jail on charges that she abetted the illegal drug trade in the Bilibid prison during her term as Justice Secretary. (Translation: "How many more must he kill? No matter how many he kills, the drug problem will not be solved because it's a wrong approach.")

Related: De Lima: Duterte is a 'deranged man'

Pangilinan urged government to find a long-term solution to the drug problem.

"Itrato bilang health issue at problema din ng kahirapan at hindi lang problema ng kapulisan ang drug addiction," he said. (Translation: "Treat the drug addiction as a health and poverty issue and not just as a police problem."

The National Youth Commission on Friday called on authorities to investigate De Los Santos's death, citing the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act that protects the rights and interests of children in conflict with the law.

"We want to curb the drug menace; however, we are alarmed by the deaths and injury of minors in the process," Aiza Seguerra, youth commission chairperson said.

Urban poor groups and human rights activists decried the deaths and accused government of "fostering panic" in a protest ion Friday.

"We are all targets. From drugs to terrorism, the Duterte administration is fostering panic instead of security to push their genocidal agenda," Gloria Arellano, spokesperson of urban poor group Kadamay.

"We must defend our localities from attacks by the police, organize ourselves and help those in need, whether it be struggling with drug addiction or being vulnerable to involvement in the illegal drug trade," said Arellano.