Children in the war
They felt his pain, but could do nothing but hope other children would not suffer the same fate.” Thus ended an Inquirer special report on the arrest and abuse of children in the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, which narrates harrowing cases of young lives marked by poverty and conflict with the law. Of the more than 7,000 deaths chalked up to the now-resumed war, how many involved children?
There are no confirmed numbers to fully answer that question. According to the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center and the Network Against Killings in the Philippines, at least 29 minors have been killed by unknown assailants or accidentally killed in police activities in July-November 2016. A number has almost certainly gone unreported.
The story of Michael Jayson Diaz, 16, is among those told in the special report by Jodee Agoncillo and Mariejo Ramos: impoverished; fruit of a broken family; caught five times for theft and other offenses; drug user and pusher. His stepmother and grandmother found his broken body, earlier discovered stuffed in a sack, in a funeral home — stabbed with an ice pick 16 times in the head, neck and chest. “They felt his pain but could do nothing…”
There’s Matthew, 13, who dropped out of school to sell shabu in order to survive, and was arrested in August. “The police officer told me to run, so I ran very fast. I thought he was letting me go. But he shot me. I was knocked out,” Matthew said. He was held for days without charges.
Then there were those cut down accidentally in the attempt to neutralize others, such as high school student Emmanuel Lorica, killed in a Pasig evacuation center, or 5-year-old Danica May Garcia, snuffed out when gunmen tried to shoot her grandfather in Dagupan City.
Drug dealers use children because by law they cannot be charged with crimes. How to stop the drug trade that employs children? The startling answer, per Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his lieutenants, is to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9.
Alvarez and Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro are working to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 through the proposed Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility Act, which seeks to do away with “the pampering of youthful offenders who commit crimes knowing they can get away with it.”
Here are figures from the Philippine National Police, Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP): From July 2016—when President Duterte took office—to January 2017, 26,415 minors have surrendered to police in the course of the war on drugs. Only 299 of them have been identified as selling drugs and 131 as delivering drugs. But a stunning 25,985 are users. The majority—8,821—are first-time offenders, and only 557 are repeat offenders. By December 2016, 407 minors had been detained. The PNP Women and Children Protection Unit reported that in January-December 2016, 973 children were charged with drug offenses, with 106 of them caught sniffing rugby.
Experts constantly point out that incarcerating young offenders does not actually turn them into law abiders. And not all jails have facilities to seclude minors, BJMP Director Serafin Barretto has admitted. He adds: “Most often, they are mixed with the others and are given the same interventions. The jail opens children to the idea that drugs could be a bigger illegal trade inside the prison. If before they were mere drug runners, now they realize there’s more money in drugs.”
Chief Insp. Maimona Macasasa, spokesperson of the PNP Women and Children’s Protection Unit, reminds policemen that they are not supposed to harm children, even those in conflict with the law. Young lawbreakers should be considered “rescued individuals” and need to be turned over to social workers within eight hours of arrest, she says. But are all cops aware of this? Or if they are, do they care?
The bottom line is the children’s impoverished conditions. If this crisis is to be solved in the long term, the problem of grinding poverty needs to be seriously addressed. Empower parents by providing them with jobs to keep body and soul together and chances are good that their children will be off the streets and in school. With education and empowerment, and an overhaul of police perspectives, one battle is half-won. Now for the big fish in drugs…