For all the good cheer and hopeful outlooks expressed, one thing that seems depressingly consistent about the turning of the calendar in the Philippines is the human toll the Christmas-to-New Year holiday period seems to exact. Some years are better than others.
The year 2013, however, was not one of those better years, and in fact, gave us every reason to fear that basic safety and security in the Philippines are rapidly deteriorating.
It began on December 15 with a repeat of an incident that happened last year: A smash-and-grab robbery by a so-called “Martilyo [hammer]Gang” in the jewelry department of the SM department store inside the SM North Edsa mall. On December 20, a brazen ambush carried out by a pair of gunmen in police uniforms resulted in the murders of Ukol Tumog Talumpa, the mayor of Labangan town in Zamboanga del Sur, his wife, another relative, and an unrelated 18-month-old boy at the arrivals area of NAIA Terminal 3.
On Christmas Day, a large-scale operation at a farm near Lipa City, Batangas, yielded several suspects and roughly 84 kilograms of “shabu” (methamphetamine hydrochloride), a stockpile that was alarming evidence of the appearance of Mexico’s dreaded Sinaloa drug cartel in Asia. On the day after Christmas, two young boys (ages 4 and 5) were shot and seriously wounded by one or more gunmen firing indiscriminately in a crowded area of Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur; the gunmen were apparently pursuing another man for reasons unknown.
On December 30, security at NAIA became an issue again when a mentally-ill man was able to scale a blast fence undetected, and was reportedly found attempting to climb into the landing gear compartment of a parked Kuwait Airlines plane. On December 31, a domestic squabble in a wealthy family compound in Pili, Camarines Sur, escalated into a 10-hour hostage drama, which ended tragically when the kidnapper (a son of the family) shot and killed his father, brother, sister-in-law, and then himself. The traditional festivities later in the evening in other parts of the country were marred with even more tragedy. Despite the usual campaign against the unsafe use of fireworks and “celebratory gunfire,” at least 800 fireworks injuries—mostly from varieties that have been repeatedly banned—and two dozen injuries from “stray bullets” were recorded, including a three-month-old infant who was killed in his crib when a carelessly fired round punched through the ceiling of his family’s home in Ilocos Sur.
What may have been the most appalling incident occurred just before midnight on New Year’s Eve in Caloocan City when two gunmen—identified as Noriel Padilla, a.k.a. “Totoy Ampatuan” and his brother “JetJet” Padilla, local gang members with a long and well-known history of terrorizing their city—killed two and wounded 10 others at a street party, in apparent retaliation for the death of their uncle in a drug-related shooting last February.
A natural response of the authorities to these sorts of incidents is to reassure the public that the appropriate reactions are being made—the suspects are being pursued, charges are being readied, steps are being taken (such as the ridiculous edict banning the wearing of caps or sunglasses in Metro Manila malls) to improve safety, etc., etc. The thrust of these reassurances, of course, is to deflect any notion that there is a bad trend developing; in the case of the Batangas drug raid, for instance, one official of the Philippine National Police even went so far as to say the operation “nipped their [the Sinaloa cartel’s]plan in the bud,” apparently unaware (or at least hoping no one else is aware) that the cartel has thwarted the best efforts of both the United States and Mexican governments for more than a decade.
No one wants the Philippines to have a reputation as a dangerous place, but downplaying the growing risks to public safety would be irresponsible. In any large population, there will be crimes and harmful negligence, but what is happening in the Philippines is not just people being people, but a clear pattern of systemic breakdowns. Darwin Canete, a prosecutor in Caloocan City, is particularly frustrated by the case of the Padilla brothers.
“Two years ago, I filed a nonbailable case against these two,” he said (the case was in connection with the murder of a police informant whose tip had led to the arrest of one of the brothers on drug charges). “It was a strong case, and yet here they are, still running loose and terrorizing the community.” Canete, who according to protocol had turned the case over to a prosecutor specializing in juvenile cases, was uncertain as to its disposition and stopped short of accusing anyone of dropping the ball. “The point is, the whole system has to work together, and right now it’s not,” he explained, citing basic problems like a lack of a reliable national criminal database, and the Juvenile Justice Law which places young suspects and offenders under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, but somehow overlooked the need for the DSWD to have secure facilities. “I had another case, one in which a teen boy shot and killed another youngster,” Canete said. “The police and our office did everything correctly and handed him over to the DSWD, and he promptly escaped. So how do I explain that to the victim’s mother?,” he added.
Having seen hundreds of cases, Canete thinks the real problem is more fundamental. “I believe it’s a social or a cultural thing. In Davao [Canete’s hometown] for example, people are inculcated from the time they’re young that there’s a certain way to behave,” he explained. “Here around Manila, that’s missing. It’s like the Wild West, anything goes,” he added.
The implication of that is there is some shortcoming in leadership, and another odd incident that occurred over the holiday might just reveal where that shortcoming lies: A target-shooting competition hosted by President Benigno Aquino 3rd and attended by Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares and congressman—and current subject of a tax evasion case—Manny Pacquiao. The ever-vigilant attorney from Caloocan saw a problem with that right away. “Who thought that was okay?,” he asked sarcastically. “That’s like a judge having lunch or playing a round of golf with a defendant,” he added. Not only that, the treatment of gunplay as a casual hobby by the President is certainly not a good message for a country that has a persistent problem with illegal firearms and the use of guns in violent crimes.
Darwin Canete the professional has some specific suggestions about how the government can “nip the problem in the bud” when it comes to the country’s deteriorating peace and order environment. “We are working on upgrading our Criminal Code, and working on ways to improve our information systems,” he said. “But that needs funding and manpower, and most of all, it needs commitment,” Canete added. Whether any of those things will be forthcoming from a government led by one who thinks guns are toys and has no concept of “conflict of interest” is something that worries us.