Special treatment in Duterte’s drug war

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Protesters burn an effigy of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte during a rally commemorating International Human Rights Day in Manila in December. Duterte has waged a deadly war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives. AFP

Once given the go-signal to launch a ruthless, bloody campaign to go after drug dealers and users, the Philippine National Police (PNP) went at it with horrifying efficiency.

Ever since President Rodrigo Duterte “let loose the dogs of war”, so to speak, police operatives have sown fear and loathing around the country: raiding communities, breaking into homes, chasing after suspects, and then apprehending but – according to numerous reports and investigations by human rights watchdogs – more often shooting outright suspected dealers and users. Among the victims have been innocent folk, many of them children, whose deaths have been cavalierly dismissed as “collateral damage”.

Estimates put the number of those killed in police operations at nearly 4,000, while thousands more have been killed by “unknown suspects” in so-called drug-related incidents.

It’s a different story, though, when the drug suspects happen to be members of the PNP itself, some of whom are fairly prominent officers. Suddenly, police authorities and even Malacanang begin trotting out principles they routinely dismiss with arrogance and scorn. Things like “due process”, “innocent until proven guilty”, even “justice”.

So far, a total of 357 policemen with ranks from patrolman to general are accused of crimes ranging from coddling alleged drug lords and pushers to extortion and illegal gambling. They are included in a drugs watchlist commissioned and approved by no less than the president.

Among the listed police officers is a brigadier general who is said to hold office right under the noses of the PNP’s top officials in the national headquarters in Camp Crame.

But the most interesting tidbit is the inclusion of Duterte’s “poster boy” in the war on illegal drugs, no less than Lt Col Jovie Espenido. In the last four years of the Duterte administration, Espenido’s name has surfaced prominently in reports of drug operations, two of which resulted in the killing of mayors who landed in an earlier drug list.

Both PNP chief Gen Archie Gamboa and Malacanang have gone out of their way to smooth over Espenido’s problematic presence in the watchlist, which only reinforces perceptions that the drug war is or has become a sham.

Earlier, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the Palace would still have to “validate” Espenido’s reported inclusion. But following Interior secretary Eduardo Ano’s confirmation that Espenido’s name was indeed in the narcolist, Panelo forthwith cleared the police officer, declaring: “President Rodrigo Roa Duterte believes that Police Lt Col Jovie Espenido is clean . . . that the reports of his alleged involvement in prohibited drugs are untrue.”

Lucky Espenido – absolutely no investigation necessary for him to earn the Palace’s assurance that he “continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of the president.” Gamboa, on the other hand, chose to play coy, telling reporters that he would neither “confirm nor deny” Espenido’s presence in the list and all other police officers who figure in it.

It isn’t only Espenido who enjoys special treatment. Gamboa said the police have been given a month to “validate if the police officers had indeed been in cahoots with drug traders.” Well, that’s much more time than the cops have extended to the thousands they have killed, maimed and arrested in the name of the war on drugs.

Indeed, ever since the presence of police in a drugs watchlist was revealed, Gamboa and the Office of the President have been bending over backward to lend comfort and succor to the uniformed personnel.

Gamboa has revealed, without a hint of embarrassment, that “several policemen” in the list are now considering optional retirement, adding that “if they don’t want to embarrass themselves” and if they know they are guilty, they should leave the force. But they will be allowed to retire with benefits intact and no administrative case against them.

Malacanang agreed, despite the fire and brimstone from the president whenever he mentions drugs or corruption in government.

Sources from within the PNP also note that some of the 357 police on the list have even been promoted to higher ranks and positions in recent years. At the same time, Gamboa is refusing to comment further on the police’s damning presence in the list, saying the policemen deserve “respect” and that he “had made a promise” to the 357 that he would “observe confidentiality” on the matter.

Again, may we point out the stark contrast in the way the police are handling the case of their fellow cops in the list, and the way they have gone hammer and tongs against drug suspects, most of them poor and powerless. In this country, there is one law for the poor, another for the police.

PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK