Trying to reassert control over cops
Writing in the Asia Sentinel, veteran observer Viswa Nathan has an interesting frame for recent moves by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Benhur Abalos against police top brass. It is part, he suggests, of a gradual effort by the President to distance himself from the bloodthirsty ways of his predecessor, while avoiding an open rupture. While the President is paying the maintenance costs for the ruling coalition (keeping former senator Leila de Lima unjustly detained and keeping International Criminal Court investigators out of the country), he also wants to invite investments, particularly from Europe, discouraged by the country’s dismal human rights record. And so Nathan frames court-martial proceedings against Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III (implicated in the murder of a businesswoman in Davao), the investigation of Gerald Bantag for the liquidation of newsman Percy Lapid and various inmates connected with that slaying, as well as the tightening investigative noose around Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr., as signs of a modest but tangible rehabilitation of the country’s dismal human rights record.
Nathan includes tweaking the so-called war on drugs in this frame and picked an interesting September 2022 quote from the President: “I’m not interested in the kid who makes P100 a week selling weed. That’s not the person that I want you to go after.” Nathan points to Philippine National Police Lt. Gen. Benjamin Santos being made to go on leave while 49 other cops from Santos’ police drug enforcement group are investigated, as further proof of a slow pivot to an investor-friendly atmosphere. The government’s own Philippine News Agency trumpeted the new era as one marked by a “less bloody, more holistic drug war.” Changes to pampered institutions aren’t something to be done lightly. The armed forces calmed down only after the fixed terms for the top brass were acknowledged to be a bad idea, with Congress on track to repeal them. Still, after six years of blunt force trauma under Rodrigo Duterte, it’s still surprising to realize there is more than one way to skin a cat. Nathan sees logic in one observer’s claim, that the mass suspension of senior police officers by Abalos is an old-style face-saving exercise to spare bogging down the government in agonizingly slow investigations while accomplishing the main purpose of purging the top ranks of compromised cops.
Almost audible was the President’s sigh of relief over appointing a new top cop, Police Maj. Gen. Benjamin Acorda Jr. The President quipped Acorda would “calm the situation,” saying he’s “very steady” and that “we really need to appoint someone who we can trust as a commander.” His predecessor, Rodolfo Azurin Jr., had retired weeks after publicly advising his superior, the DILG secretary, to beware of people giving him the wrong information. He was reacting to Abalos saying there was a massive cover-up to protect Police Master Sgt. Rodolfo Mayo, who’d been apprehended in an anti-drug raid. Azurin vouched for Brig. Gen. Narciso Domingo and Lt. Gen. Benjamin Santos Jr., who were told to go on leave by Abalos.
Ana Marie Pamintuan tartly classified Azurin as being able to “claim honorary membership in the new ‘naghaharing uri,’ the GI or Genuine Ilocano.” The new PNP top cop actually is a GI. A sign of the way things are is that aside from loyalty, brief tenures are the name of the game. Azurin retired after nine months as top cop; his successor will serve even less time, retiring in December. But of at least equal importance to the selection of a PNP chief are the officials backstopping the President in selecting these essentially temporary hires. Recall that in the initial reconfiguration of the President’s office, a position for a presidential adviser on military and police affairs was recreated (because it had already existed since the time of Presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos in 1963 and 1967, respectively). This “new” post was placed under the purview of the special assistant to the president. In August 2022, PNP Brig. Gen. Roman Felix (ret.) was given the job, along with Maj. Gen. Ariel Caculitan (former Marines commandant, ret.) and PNP Maj. Gen. Isagani Nerez (ret.) as undersecretaries—all Philippine Military Academy alumni. Felix had served as Ilocos Norte police director when the President was still governor and campaigned for Marcos in 2022. Nerez forms part of the five-member panel tasked with reviewing courtesy resignations to decide by May, who will be retained.
It’s the unenviable mission of these advisers to help navigate a way back to asserting command and control because of the looming specter of cops and soldiers, both active and retired, turning into guns-for-hire. This is a troubling phenomenon made truly alarming by the Mexican-style possibility of police and military brass eventually figuring out they can be more efficient mafia-style kingpins than the existing mafiosi that hire them. Put another way, since it seems the authority of the national (and local) government ends where the enticement of having Pogo operations begins, and since the so-called war on drugs of Duterte had the effect of liquidating old networks, it would be unsurprising if at least some cops didn’t decide to become apex predators themselves, then an inevitable confrontation between these new players and old ones, including politicians, was inevitable.
Observers are taking notice. Back in January, writing in Foreign Affairs, Margaret Simons headlined “The Philippines Is Losing Its ‘War on Drugs’” while in February, writing in The Monthly, she reported that, “The deaths continue, but the operation has gone underground. Many killings go unreported. Increasingly, the media reports what the police tell them, uncritically. And there is evidence that, six years after the so-called war began, the situation has slid out of the control of government and become part of a miasma of profit, corruption, and contract killing.” A chilling detail from her report: “But one piece of information circulates freely across Manila. We asked several people in the slums how much it cost to have someone killed these days. The answer was consistent: P30,000 (about $800). More if it is someone prominent, when there might be a fuss.”
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