So now Senate President Tito Sotto is saying he knew all along that then candidate Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promise of stamping out the drug menace was “not possible.” Which means he, and perhaps many other officials, spent three years indifferently watching the President’s bloody war on drugs unfold, impervious to the idea that the slaughter of tens of thousands of two-bit drug pushers and users was an exercise in futility and that the cries of grief of widows and orphans were of no moment, like tears in the rain.
For shame. Think what Sotto could have said on record against the killings that mark the Duterte administration for all time, and that have made them the subject of a resolution for investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council, as well as grounds for the Philippines’ listing by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project as the world’s fourth most dangerous country in terms of civilian-targeted violence, after India, Syria and Yemen.
Think how Sotto, being a high government official—he became Senate majority leader in July 2016 and Senate president in May 2018—could have given the war machine pause, and, in the process, quite possibly saved even those cavalierly classified as “collateral damage.” (Recall what the former Philippine National Police chief and now rookie senator Bato dela Rosa famously quipped when 3-year-old Myca Ulpina was shot dead in the course of an antidrug operation: “Shit happens.”)
In another time and another place, Daniel Ellsberg—unable to accept the fact that despite their knowledge that the Vietnam War was a losing, pointless enterprise, US presidents continued to send young Americans to their death or maiming, and, in the process, left countless families broken—risked his life and liberty to leak the top-secret Pentagon Papers.
Now the chips are falling where they may. While the President was generally making a spectacle of himself at the Valdai Discussion Club in Russia, with the forum host having to tell him—twice—to in effect shut up already, his war on drugs was taking a beating at the Senate inquiry into the “ninja cops.” While the President was denying being a killer, the chief of the PNP, Gen. Oscar Albayalde, was chafing in the hot seat in the face of an alleged damning misdeed: that he had sought the dismissal of charges against his men who were found to have lied about, recycled and profited from a cache of drugs seized during a raid in Pampanga in 2013.
Albayalde’s reputation as top cop is fraying apace with more damaging revelations at the continuing Senate inquiry. In his remarkable unraveling, a dismaying image is taking shape, suggesting that all this time the administration’s centerpiece war has been a farce, with its chief enforcer its own enemy: a champion of wrongdoing instead of destroyer.
The blood spilled has taken the contours of a river, with Malacañang’s #TheRealNumbersPH pegging the “validated” number of “drug personalities” killed in antidrug ops between July 1, 2016, and June 20, 2019, at 5,526. Previously, the PNP had cited a figure of more than 6,700, and human rights groups had made an estimate of more than 25,000. But disagreement over the figures “could be a distraction,” pointed out Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Conde, who added that rights advocates were now “focused on accountability rather than deaths.”
Indeed, accountability is of urgent importance, with the war on drugs, according to Conde, “targeting the most vulnerable section of the Philippine population—the urban poor, the most marginalized and voiceless people with the least access to justice and redress.”
This is eloquently borne out in a study conducted by the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights) on 118 men shot dead by antidrug enforcers during the period Aug. 15, 2017-July 31, 2019. They were, per PhilRights notes, mostly adults who were residents of urban communities, family breadwinners earning low or inconstant wages from informal-economy jobs, and of low educational attainment.
Their killing resulted in frightened communities, wives unable to sleep nights and afraid for not only the lives of other kin but also their family’s future, children displacing fears through prolonged absence from or aggressive behavior in school, traumatized teenagers seeking solace in early marriage, and more—in effect a shattered, violated society.
And for all that, the tragedy: The war continues. The killers are largely loose. And the trade in illegal drugs shows no sign of flagging.
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