The Long View

‘Tokhang’ like Vietnam

Sadly, it took almost 24 hours for the Vice President’s office to release the report she submitted to the coordinating committee on antidrug efforts, for the period she was cochairperson of that body, which she discussed in her Monday press conference. This means the public and media were deprived of a chance to digest her full report, even as her critics went to town skewering a report no one had even had time to read. Yesterday, her report was finally released and it makes for interesting reading (I’ve studied the origins of the so-called “war on drugs” in 2001 to the present, and looked at official data from 2009-2015, as well as more recent US and Philippine government reports).

In broad strokes, she has five findings. My comments follow each one.


1. “The creation of the Icad is a step in the right direction but its potential has not been maximized because of unequal participation by the member agencies and lack of strategic leadership.”

The Vice President believes the chairperson of the Icad should be the head of the Dangerous Drugs Board and not the PDEA chief, as the former has the broader policymaking mandate.


2. “There is no common and reliable baseline data on the number of drug dependents in the country. Moreover, a uniform process for tracking all subsequent actions and interventions regarding those who surrendered or were arrested is not in place.”

It might surprise people to know that the basis for estimates on illegal drug users in our country comes from a survey put out on a regular basis by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB). The DDB figures are an estimate of drug users (meaning, including casual users), and not addicts. To confuse things further, taking the DDB estimate for 2015 (released Sept. 19, 2016) of 1.8 million, the same report had the DBB estimating the number of Filipinos aged 10-69 years old who used illegal drugs at least once in their lives at 4.8 million. A careless politician or one cherry-picking figures could easily insist on the more alarming 4.8 million instead of the smaller 1.8 million — both of which come from self-reports from survey respondents. It bears repeating: the DBB figures are all-inclusive, from the most minimal, occasional, use to outright addiction.

A similar problem exists with PDEA’s definition of “drug-affected barangays,” which essentially counts a barangay as affected if there is one reported user in the area.

The next two are related, so presented side-by-side:

3. “Attention and resources were disproportionately focused on street-level enforcement, at the cost of largely de-emphasizing prevention, detention, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration.”

And, 4. “Tokhang, which has become synonymous with drug-related killings, must be abandoned in favor of a reinvigorated policy on anti-illegal drug enforcement that strongly promotes and ensures accountability and transparency.”

During the Vietnam War, the US military’s obsession over the body count of slain Viet Cong infamously led to their being unable to tell the forest from the trees, which led to ever-escalating number of troops and ordinance being committed, while leaving the North Vietnamese cause all the stronger for it. The American defeat has long served as a continuing warning against simply using kills as the measure of success in an effort that requires “hearts and minds” being won over.


In a Nov. 14, 2019 meeting, a kind of Vietnam-style mentality was evident: “PDEA Director Maharani Tosoc, Icad Head Secretariat, mentioned that targets set are in terms of barangays cleared, high value targets arrested, and high-impact operations conducted; volume of illegal drugs seized is not one of them.”

Note the glaring absence of treatments or other interventions to make more illegal drug-resistant communities, or to rehabilitate drug abusers.

Finally, 5. “Supply constriction, as an aspect of the overall strategy against illegal drugs, has been a massive failure.”

In 2019 alone, for the period January-October, an Enforcement Cluster Presentation (during a meeting with the Enforcement Cluster of the Icad, on Nov. 14, 2019) reported that 1,344 kilograms of crystal meth was seized, in contrast to 156,000 kilograms of crystal meth consumed by drug users (“Computed based on PNP DEG’s estimated shabu consumption in the country of 3,000 kilograms per week multiplied by 52 weeks in a year”), which was the basis for the headline-grabbing assertion by the Vice President that supply constriction efforts have been a “massive failure.”

The Veep’s report noted that PDEA does not analyze the amounts confiscated in relation to estimates of total consumption. That figure had to come from the PNP’s DEG. A glaring question: How can you gauge success, if you don’t know the size of the market you’re trying to close down?

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