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The Robredo Report

After weeks of delay due to the aftermath of the Mindanao earthquake in December 2019, VP Leni Robredo’s drug report, finally saw daylight. “Massive failure!” the headline said of President Digong Duterte’s drug war, quoting her. She came up with this conclusion after an 18-day stint as “co-chair” of Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD). The pushbacks from the Duterte admin were immediate that basically called her report a political hit.

The Robredo report concluded that despite all the money and efforts put into Duterte’s controversial drug war, the shabu supply and drug money seized were reduced only by 1% over the last three years. She based her assumptions on limited data albeit faulty data as she herself questioned the validity of the government estimates. She did quite a bit of extrapolation too on the supply side to nail her assumptions.

As a public health practitioner for over 40 years, I can tell you that these are inaccurate assumptions to make based on limited or unreliable data unless there is an underlying political agenda to push. Her recommendation to transfer the chairmanship of the ICAD to the Dangerous Drug Board (DDB) to improve conduct of the war is a swipe at the current PDEA Chief Aaron Aquino. This recommendation oversimplifies the solution to the country’s drug problem.

There are obviously so many variables and components in the drug war. But a serious policy discussion would require some deeper thinking into the matter. The AMLA findings is a poor measure and cannot be solely used without including the number of cases still pending in courts or have been dismissed due to corruption. Her findings and observations are opportunities for further research because extrapolated data or data based on unreliable or incomplete data points are hypothetical at best and are inconclusive to support a “Massive failure” theory.

Robredo could have achieved more credibility if she was not one sided on her thinking. Her angle is clearly the extra judicial killing and it seems her report is tilted that way. She should look at North America’s experience with its drug war and would have known that after 50 years, it is still fighting it despite the resources it has been pouring into its campaign.

America’s strategy can be generalized into two approaches, that at the federal and state levels. The federal thrust involves border interdiction and beyond. Meaning, spending money to stop supply at the source like in Mexico, Columbia, among others. The US military and Coast Guard are even involved and have resulted in tons of drugs caught in the border or drug laboratories destroyed overseas. Heck, they even captured the most notorious Mexican drug lord, El Chapo. But the war on drugs continues unabated and the illegal drug trade continues to flourish. Border protection as a key US policy tool is clearly inadequate despite increasing numbers of border patrol hires.

At the state level, many question the ability of states with their inflexible bureaucracies, tight budget, and electorates, to effectively stop drug trafficking networks who have transnational and political connections - not to mention market forces on their side. There is great demand!

Compare this to the Philippine situation where everything relies on the president to implement its drug policy who in return, relies on the military and law enforcement to carry out its policy priorities involving the war on drugs. The Philippine Coast Guard and Navy are so inadequate to cover the 7,000 plus islands if they were to interdict illegal shipments that eventually finds its way through legal port of entries like ports and airports, due to corruption. Provincial governments have already shown their inability to police their own jurisdictions because of political connections. How can a provincial governor not know of how serious the drug problem is in the province when 10 of its towns including a city, have been declared drug infested?

Clearly, Duterte’s approach is different from his predecessors. In general, all of them (from Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino III) have been a failure because just like in America, the drug trade continues to flourish today for similar reasons. Despite the harsh approach by Duterte, his campaign is a work in progress. But just like previous presidents, he too relies on metrics for success that makes sense.

According to PDEA, they look at the drug clearing percentage at the street level which is reportedly at 40%. In Bicol alone, the discovery and destruction of a huge drug laboratory in Catanduanes was a big thing!

They also use drop in the nationwide crime rate as an indicator of progress. For example in July 2016, nationwide crime incidents declined from nearly 12,000 to about 5,000 in July of 2019. Nothing wrong with this metric since crimes also involve drugs in many cases.

Most of all, (and this is really where Robredo should pay attention to) 62% of Filipinos are satisfied with Duterte’s drug campaign according to a reputable polling organization like the Social Weather Station. And finally, the campaign’s operational success netted them about P45 billion worth of illegal drugs from 2016 to 2019 representing some 163,000 operations. As former president Benigno Aquino III would say, “Keep the bosses happy!”

Law enforcement elements have been busy bodies who are clearly following operational orders. Are they always on the up and up? I’ll be lying if I say yes because the dailies report questionable outcomes. How about the nearly 6,000 drug suspects killed in anti-drug operations? Well, there could actually be more, much like the number of users could be less if one is to follow the math in all these.

Sadly, VP Robredo is approaching this serious public health issue as an opportunity for political theatre much like her comment on the recent death of a domestic helper in Kuwait who died from being severely tortured by her employer.

She was quoted as having said that there must be a measure that will ensure protection of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). “Dapat siguruhin na hindi na siya mangyayari sa susunod,” Robredo said on her radio show. Seriously? I mean, where has she been? Whether it is in the Philippines or elsewhere, no government can prevent an abusive employer. Hasn’t she been paying attention? Abusive employers are in the Middle East, ASEAN countries, and Europe!

But, 2022 is only a couple of years away and she is clearly already auditioning for it. Nothing really wrong with that except that her strategies remain the same of trying to discredit Duterte hoping to shorten his presidency. She should stop pandering to her core supporters and starts making some hard decisions because no matter what she does, they will already vote for her. What she should worry about are the 70-80% of the voting population who are enamored by Duterte because his popularity will make his successor win.

So, Robredo needs to decide if she is truly serious about this public health issue that she needs public health people to help her analyze data from the previous administrations and determine what aspects of their individual drug campaign merit emphasizing. She can even make a comparison between Aquino III and Duterte’s success rates. But, if she wants to make this a political issue, then she will need new political advisers because her report impressed many of her supporters but only alienated further, law enforcement people who lay their lives on the line for Duterte’s drug war.

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