THAT evening of December 5 when I had this conversation with the PRRD, he looked haggard and exhausted. He explained that he had to leave the Cabinet meeting twice that day, first to light up the Christmas tree at the Malacañang grounds and the second to meet with a special group of Chinese mainland visitors earlier, headed by Mr. Huang Rulun who gave P1.4 billion for the rehabilitation of the illegal drug surrenderees. Mr. Rulun had started his business here in Binondo Chinatown way back in 1986 and claims to have an emotional attachment to the Philippines. The President praised this philanthropist for his gesture and appreciated the fact that he asked nothing in return.
This started him off on how sincere acts of people like Huang Rulun can make his day and mentioned some of our local industrialists doing the same. This monologue glided towards the nature of the presidential job and how drained he has been in the past the six months but felt compelled nevertheless to push on as he has barely begun to fulfill his promises to the country. I saw that he was fit and very healthy and said so, but he mumbled something kind about my own appearance, tactfully disregarding one loose shirt button in my middle that exposed a slightly obese structure. The President and I are of the same age, although I kept insisting that I am one of the Philippines’s oldest millennials.
As any powerful man at the top of the totem pole, the buck stops with him. He began reciting his mantra that I have seen perhaps a million times on TV. But it is quite different when one is just a foot away from his face. You can see the passion and the anger in his eyes. He intimated that he didn’t have an inkling when he ran as a candidate for the presidency that the illegal drug problem was this huge. He was way off his estimation yet totally convinced that he is destined to prevent this country from turning into a narco-state.
At this juncture, we came perhaps to the highpoint of his tirade on illegal drugs. He stepped out of the room to summon an aide to hand him a fat file in a blue envelope that turned out to contain a declassified list of 4,000 police officers, judges, powerful politicians and local government executives, businessmen and ordinary folk–all either drug users, protectors or drug kingpins–copies of which he will submit soon to the two houses of the legislature and subsequently the media. Some of these names shown to me by the President were not only recognizable by me, but some were acquaintances of old. It was terribly shocking! If true!
I am fully aware that the President showed me these names in total confidence and no way will I blurt or even mention these names to anyone–not even to those concerned. But I understand the reason the President did this. It was to emphasize the enormity of the problem facing the country.
The President has repeatedly mentioned in his speeches the overwhelming number of the drug-affected in the Philippines, claiming close to four million, which for him is the perfect justification for his war on drugs. However, the President’s estimates are not congruent with those of the Dangerous Drugs Board that only lists 1.7 million drug-affected reported nationwide. The President hasn’t been technically accurate as well in delineating a drug abuser, an addict and a drug dependent. This loose distinction contrasts with the current data provided by the DDB.
I digress a little now to hark back to what happened in Colombia, South America in the late 1970s when Pablo Escobar, the richest narcotics criminal, held the levers of power through his Medellin Cartel. He even ran and won as an elected member of parliament. His take from illegal drugs amounting to billions of United States dollars enabled him to corrupt politicians and have police officers in his pocket. He even had the Catholic Church praising him to high heavens as a major donor, building schools, hospitals and local churches. In Escobar’s heyday, Colombia was the murder capital of the world. This undermining of the legally constituted authority in Colombia ended only when Escobar was himself killed with the help of the US government through its Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The parallelism to the Philippines at this time may not be totally accurate but one can draw lessons today that could compare to the horrors of narco-politics in Escobar’s time.
PRRD’s fears of the Philippines becoming a narco-state is a valid one for this singular leader who has confronted and seen the evils of illegal drugs as city mayor. Davao was his laboratory in microcosm; and he has perfected the methods he is now applying to the whole country, preventing its slide to the illegal drug abyss. He will die or be killed in the process or better still, precipitate the opposite–the demise of these drug networks. In his mind and in his actions, he has made a clear choice.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue with the President that evening. I was perhaps astounded by the enormity of the looming tragedy befalling our country; or stunned by data overload. I didn’t construct arguments to counter his position given the time constraints and faced with the gravitas of the office.
Perhaps it was better as I now have the luxury of composing my thoughts dispassionately and coldly far from the intimidating majesty of Malacañang.
My thoughts at this point are simply rhetorical. On the list of 4,000 names or so involved, were they vetted properly and within the bounds of justice and fair play? Where did the lists come from? It is possible it could have been supplied by political rivals out to dislodge them from political sinecures or business competitors out to destroy reputations? Mistakes were already made in the past presidential public shaming, with the Supreme Court itself proving that some judges’ names were already of those long dead!
Having known the President as our mayor in Davao for several decades and a prosecutor before that, I think he believes in democracy and the rule of law. Although his detractors have accused him of being loose with the interpretation of the concepts. As an astute practicing lawyer, he is vilified as one who skirts the spirit of the law but covers himself with its technicalities on the letter of the law. This becomes apparent in how he takes on every issue. It has become his basis for many of his decisions, including the Marcos burial where significant historical controversies were glossed over. But despite adverse reactions and opinions by partisans, he remains in staunch agreement with the decisions made by the Supreme Court.
My take on this is that the rule of law and democracy are two essential canons that guide the Centrist Democrats of the Philippines. Both interrelated concepts are weak in the country due to the inability to establish politically sustainable institutions. Patronage politics has been the norm and has perverted the system that was handed down through the centuries of Spanish and American tutelage. Perhaps what the country needs is an iron-fisted leader who has warned the populace that if he wins, he will do what in fact he is now doing. And this is where he runs counter to the mores which he has already defined as basically a “Western cultural interpretation” of universal moral and ethical concepts. Right or wrong, he has the backing of the majority of the people. And that to his mind, gives him license.
(Part 3 of this article will appear next Thursday.)
The author served under four Philippine Presidents in various capacities as a member of the Cabinet and several commissions. A Harvard-educated political technocrat, he was one of the prime movers of the Citizens Movement for Federal Philippines (CMFP); one of the founders of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP); Ang Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya; and the Centrist Democracy Political Institute (CDPI).