‘Tokhang’ 2, vigilantes, and the Church

Late in January, President Duterte suspended the police-led war on drugs in the wake of the gruesome abduction and murder of the Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo by police elements assigned to the Philippine National Police Anti-Illegal Drugs Group.  What ostensibly prompted the suspension order was the realization that the war on drugs was being used by some police officers as a cover for criminal activities.

It was a no-brainer that the PNP itself had to undergo a thorough internal cleansing before it could effectively perform the crucial role of lead agency in the war on drugs. After subjecting an assembly of about 300 police officers, all facing charges for a broad range of offenses, to a public dressing-down,

Mr. Duterte ordered the transfer of a small sample to farflung assignments in Mindanao to teach them a lesson.  This appears to be the sum total of the review process aimed at ridding the PNP of unfit officers.

A month quickly passed, and the PNP has now relaunched the war under the banner of “Project Tokhang 2” and “Oplan Double-Barrel Reloaded,” to be led by a newly formed Drug Enforcement Group. This new version promises to be bloodless. Still, PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa seems all too painfully aware that the credibility issue that has hounded the police throughout this bloody campaign is hardly resolved through a mere change in labels.

In nearly every urban poor community that has been subjected to lightning drug raids, residents harbor no other perception of the police except as a bunch of ruthless killers. Whatever social trust is left in these neighborhoods between ordinary residents and law enforcement agencies has been completely eroded. And so the proposed solution is to restore trust by inviting priests, pastors and imams to join the police as they go knocking at the homes of drug suspects to convince them to surrender and seek rehabilitation.

It is difficult to misinterpret the PNP chief when he says: “Imagine you’re a drug personality and the people who come knocking on your door turn out to be the chief of police, the barangay captain and the local priest. I think it will soften your heart, and make you immediately follow their advice to change your ways, or undergo rehab if you’re not yet ready.” At first glance, this move seems incredible in its naivete, for seeking to involve civilians in what have been—in the last eight months—undisguised and heavily armed police operations.

Indeed, some bishops have dismissed the offer of a place in Tokhang 2 as nothing but a public relations gambit meant to show police openness to public scrutiny, while challenging the Church to do its share in combating the drug menace by joining the police in their Tokhang routine. Church people have correctly responded that police work is not a function of the clergy.

But, more importantly perhaps, this unusual invitation might have been intended to perpetuate the myth that while Project Tokhang was originally conceived as a harmless effort to plead with drug users and pushers to change their ways, it has had no choice but to resort to coercive means when met with violent resistance.  Therefore, it is to be assumed that all the killings that have resulted from legitimate police operations have been done in self-defense.

My own view is that the methodical carnage that attended the war on drugs was, from the start, intended to produce shock and awe.  The sheer scale of the cold-blooded killings was meant to jolt the entire nation into a chilling realization not only of the magnitude of the drug problem, but also of this administration’s willpower to end it within the shortest possible time. The immediate result of this shock-and-awe strategy has been the mass surrender of over a million drug users and pushers, who, by voluntarily admitting to their drug habit, might have been hoping to buy some measure of protection from murder.  Little did they know that they were, in effect, signing their own death warrants.

In here perhaps lies the most difficult role the Church has had to play in these dangerous times—how to help those who wish to turn a new leaf in their lives, but are gripped by the terror of being hunted down in this brutal war. Many of them have nowhere to go, no sanctuary in which they can find refuge, even as they try desperately to free themselves of their drug habit. Can the Church offer them adequate shelter and protection while they undergo rehabilitation? One expects the police to recognize this vital role of the Church and to respect this delineation of institutional functions. PNP Chief Dela Rosa might want to start with this acknowledgment if it wishes to reach out to the Church.

But, the so-called “vigilante killers” are another matter. In their anonymity, they seem to answer to a different morality and set of laws. The killings attributed to them outnumber the deaths from acknowledged police operations by a ratio of 2:1. State security forces have denied involvement in these killings, though they have shown no urgency in investigating them.

There is absolutely no room for self-righteous masked killers in a society that claims to be under the rule of law.  Their presence in our midst promotes violence, anarchy, and deep insecurity.  The local governments, the Commission on Human Rights, and civil society organizations can join hands with the police in a concerted effort to expose them, stop them, and make them accountable. The Church can minister to the needy and the oppressed, even as it pursues its fundamental role of educating consciences.  But law enforcement is not its function.