Mayor Lim’s experiment

Highly unusual, and most certainly illegal – this is how human rights lawyers have described Mayor Alfredo Lim’s order to spray-paint the homes of arrested drug pushers with anti-drug graffiti.  A petition for injunction they will file seeking to stop the mayor from pursuing this unorthodox campaign will likely be resolved in favor of the human rights activists.  But it will not deter Manila’s controversial mayor from inventing new tricks to keep the anti-drug campaign in the news.

Mayor Lim is aware that this experiment in the use of informal sanctions against drug pushers enjoys broad public approval.  As important as determining its legality, we must try to understand why the public seems to support it, and what it actually does to further the aim of the anti-drug campaign.

At last count, Mayor Lim admits that under his orders, police officers have spray-painted more than 200 homes of known drug pushers, mostly in the slums of Manila, with graffiti like:  “Drug pusher – alis dyan!” and “Beware: a drug pusher lives here!”   According to him, the campaign targets pushers who have been the subject of previous arrests but have always managed to be freed on bail.  Upon their temporary release, he said, they do not even bother to lie low; they just go on with their criminal activities, confident that the law will never get them.  The spray-painting crusade is born of exasperation and a desire to reverse the community’s sense of powerlessness in the face of the drug menace.

Does it work?  The mayor says that at least 60% of the homes they have sprayed have been vacated by their occupants.  He does not say whether this has also led to a decline in drug pushing on the streets and in the schools.  Real pushers will tend to be mobile or seminomadic, instead of establishing permanent residences.  Chased out of Manila, they can always move to Quezon City, just like the sex joints that Mayor Lim drove out of Mabini and M.H. del Pilar.  But he believes that if all of Metro Manila’s citizens watch their neighborhoods very closely, there is no reason why we cannot keep the entire city drug-free.

Being a lawyer himself, the mayor knows that his campaign lies uneasily on a legal borderzone.  He argues that the intention of the spray-paint campaign is not to stigmatize or expose the pusher or his family to public humiliation.  Rather, he says, the State, in its role as guardian of the community, is simply warning the people against the presence of undesirable elements in their midst.

Whether intended or unintended, the effect is still to mark and humiliate, not just the suspected pusher but also everyone else who lives in the house so marked.  This is clearly unjust, but Mayor Lim says the drug pusher should have known that his sins are ultimately going to be visited upon his family.  The obvious tactic at work here is the deployment of informal social pressure, or the mobilization of hiya to stamp out deviant behavior.

Mayor Lim finds the present law inadequate to combat the threat posed by drug syndicates.  He thinks it has too many loopholes, and it favors criminals more than the law-abiding citizens.  But maybe the law is not just inadequate or defective; the legal system itself is simply not as much a part of the value horizon of the average Filipino as the culture of hiya and pakikisama.

By his unorthodox methods, the mayor may have unwittingly stumbled upon a creative way of drawing community participation in the campaign against crime.  Filipinos, in general, tend to be tolerant of their neighbors’ illegal or immoral activities, he says.  And though they may often gossip about these, they will seldom go to the police to report or complain.  Yet all it takes is for someone to show courage and take the lead.    This is what he’s doing with the spray-paint campaign, he says.  If he were a sociologist, Mayor Lim might well have said after Emile Durkheim: the idea is to rekindle the community’s “collective conscience”.

If we suspend our disbelief for a while, it might be useful to look at the mayor’s controversial campaign in these terms, instead of just zeroing in on the unconstitutionality of his actions.  By examining community perceptions of the campaign, and the public acceptance it has gained, we might find a way of reformatting the war against prohibited drugs, drawing from our people’s cultural resources while explicitly avoiding the sacrifice of vital human rights.

Every society has its system of sanctions.  Some are formalized into laws, but many are informal.  It is the informal sanctions – the mocking laugh and the contemptuous glance — that are applied continuously in the course of our everyday lives.  Our fear of these compels us to be honest.  More than the formal institutions of the law, these informal sanctions sustain the normative order of our society.

These sanctions are not always reasonable, especially in a rapidly changing world.  And a vibrant society must often help the individual develop the capacity to resist unjust social pressure.  But equally, there are times when formal sanctions must be supplemented by informal pressure, especially in those instances where the immoral is not necessarily illegal.   I think that we lost the battle to recover the wealth plundered by Marcos and his cronies precisely because we failed to mobilize moral pressure in support of the nation’s legal claims.


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