By: Our Correspondent

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo appears to be taking the biggest gamble of her career by accepting President Rodrigo Duterte’s challenge to become co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) – Duterte’s murderous drug war. In doing so, she dares taking on a role that she has slim chance of succeeding at. 

Robredo, arguably the biggest still-free critic of the drug war, announced her decision at a press conference in Quezon City with a statement in Tagalog that “The most important consideration for me is simple: If this is the chance to stop the slaughter of the innocent and answer the demands, I will bear it. I accept the job provided by the President. ” 

Duterte’s drug war, in which he has urged police, supplemented by vigilante squads, to “neutralize illegal drug personalities nationwide,” has taken the lives of up to 20,000 mostly poor and powerless drug users since it began in 2016, although police put the figure at around 6,000.

Robredo, elected separately from Duterte in 2016, has emerged as one of the president’s most persistent critics of the drug program. He has done his best to neutralize her, cutting her out of cabinet meetings and making other moves to limit her power. 

He originally offered her the position as “drug czar” for six months after she criticized the campaign, saying it needs reassessment following the deaths of thousands of suspects in extrajudicial killings, although he has since extended her term as co-chair, a cabinet position, until the end of his term in 2022. 

“She has been a critic of the anti-drug policy for quite some time and so now the president has essentially taken the line of: ‘Hey, if you think you can do better by all means, please try,’ said an analyst for a Manila-based country risk firm. “At this point, she has limited capacity to move because the intricacies of this will not necessarily be well understood by the voting public.”

Robredo, who was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives in 2013 after her husband was killed in an aircraft crash, would have little or no control over policy direction, which is set by Duterte himself, and would only be responsible for implementation as set by the president. In the words of one observer, “It appears they are trying to put her into a position of being guilty or culpable by association, which sets her up to fail.”

But, said another observer, “In fact I think he deliberately offered it to Leni – yes, most likely to taro (trap) her – because he has essentially failed. His campaign promise was to end the drug problem in six months. He’s been in office for three and a half years. By saying she wants innocent lives spared, people brought to Justice, she’s taking the high moral ground. She really has nothing to lose simply because she’s not politically ambitious. She’s going to do what she can regardless of public perception and what is public perception anyway in this age of fake News?”

From the beginning, Robredo told local media, “my desire was to stop killing innocent people, hold abusive officers such as ninja cops and smugglers in tons of shabu, give justice and voice to the families of innocent victims, chase after big drug lords, not just the little ones pushing the corners. Even if we say that this offer is political, and that the agencies will not follow me, and they will do everything I can to succeed, I will be willing to endure it all.” 

The problem is that the drug war remains wildly popular with a bloodthirsty public long frustrated with rampant street crime, although that may be softening as abuses pile up. In September, the polling group Social Weather Stations found an 82 percent satisfaction rating and put Duterte’s own satisfaction rating at 78 percent.

A realistic anti-drug campaign in the most successful of countries, arguably centered around legalization and rehabilitation, is liable to take years, if not decades to have an impact. The Philippines doesn’t have years. The wellsprings of its drug problem stem from a substandard education system, a spiraling birthrate – the highest in the region by far and endorsed by the Catholic Church – as well as lack of opportunity which has driven a full 10 percent of the 106 million population overseas. There is little to do in the barangays besides ingest cheap shabu – methamphetamine – and, for the more criminally minded, commit street crime, a category in which the Philippines also ranks worst in Asia by far.

There is also the problem of deep corruption in the police. National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde, the country’s top law enforcement official, was forced to resign his position in October over accusations that he allowed 13 police officers to resell confiscated drugs when he was a provincial commander in 2013. Nor is he alone. Police are far too often complicit in burglaries, house invasions and robberies. The justice system is also among the poorest in Asia, with criminal cases taking years to adjudicate, if they are adjudicated at all.

Duterte was elected with a promise to clean up corruption as well as do something about drugs. But in fact from the beginning, as Asia Sentinel reported in 2016, he has used flawed data to support his claim that the Philippines is becoming a “narco-state.” Although he claimed in his 2016 State of the Nation address that 3 million individuals were using drugs, the Philippine Dangerous Drugs Board put the figure at 1.8 million, most of them using cannabis. When the head of the board pointed that out, Duterte fired him. 

In the three and a half years since his election, he has exhibited an increasingly dictatorial streak, filing sedition charges in July against 36 individuals including Robredo and seeking the passage of one of the region’s latest “fake news” bills, which was clearly aimed at Rappler, the country’s most popular online news site. He has used other methods of attempting to get rid of Rappler as well. He is also threatening to void the license of ABS-CBN, the country’s leading media network, which has been critical of his drug war. He has ridiculed a United Nations probe into the drug war and threatened to retaliate against donors who supported a UN resolution on the drug war abuses. 

“This symbolic fit of pique by President Duterte to suspend negotiations on aid with certain governments will only hurt those poor Filipinos benefiting from that assistance,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Development assistance is a declining resource around the world, so I’m sure those donors can find plenty of other governments in the region who actually care enough about their people to accept the aid. Once again, Duterte tries to act tough but the only people getting hurt by his bravado are the people of the Philippines.” 

He jailed former Attorney General Leila de Lima on dubious charges of complicity in drug deals and has used the impeachment process to get rid of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, replacing with a Duterte ally after. Sereno opposed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges whom he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests.

The sedition charges, filed on July 18, were aimed at some of Duterte’s most vocal critics, including – besides Robredo – Sen. Antonio F. Trillanes IV, four Catholic prelates and De Lima, who has been in “pretrial detention” for two and a half years on drug peddling charges that are universally regarded as trumped up by rights organizations across the globe.  

De Lima, named on sedition charges from jail, wrote a powerful op-ed article that appeared in the New York Times on July 22 charging the president with having “unleashed a brazen assault on the country’s democratic institutions — at times, using his so-called war on drugs as a pretense for going after his political adversaries and dissenters.”

Despite the precarious political position the appointment as “drug czar” puts her in, Robredo, in a statement to the press, said: “Because if I could save even an innocent life, my principle and my heart would say I should try it.” she added. “The President [knew] that I was opposed to killing innocent people, I was against the abuse of officials. He knows my comments. He knows my plans to fix. So if he thinks that with this consent I will be quiet, he will make a mistake.”