Duterte’s way of admitting failure

Even on the assumption that he wasn’t just being sarcastic, or worse, misusing the Filipino language, President Duterte’s statements the other day are the clearest admission that his much-touted war on drugs has failed. He has run out of ideas. And so, he is asking Vice President Leni Robredo, who has been critical of the government’s approach to the problem, to take charge of the campaign.

“Sabihin mo sa kanya tanggapin niya. Sisikat siya diyan. Hindi ko nakayanan, baka kaya niya (Tell her to accept it; she’ll be famous. I couldn’t do it; maybe she can).”

People may recall that Mr. Duterte had boasted during the 2016 electoral campaign that he could end the drug menace within his first six months in office. But one year after becoming president, he began to say that the drug problem was bigger than he thought, and asked for more time. Later, secure in his high survey ratings, he acknowledged that it might take him till the end of his term to lick the drug problem. Now, he is openly saying the problem will likely persist beyond his term.

But that is exactly what serious analysts of the drug problem have been saying from the start.Calculated to create shock and awe, the brutal killing of drug suspects by the thousands did not end the problem.  The bulk entry of illegal drugs through the country’s ports continued unabated. Convicted drug lords at the national penitentiary are still dealing in drugs, unhampered by their detention.

The offer to Vice President Robredo to be the Duterte administration’s “drug czar” has to be taken in the context of this grudging realization that, despite the killings, there has hardly been a dent on the problem. It remains so complex and multidimensional that there is no shortcut to solving it. Mr. Duterte knows this. But the public that adores him and continues to believe in the efficacy of quick fixes backed by political will is only starting to see this complexity.

What is bringing about this realization is the criminal involvement of high-ranking police officers in the drug trade—an element whose dimensions have not been fully revealed. The exposés at the recent Senate hearings, leading to the resignation of Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde a few months before his retirement, have been, so far, the biggest blow to police credibility.

Albayalde was shown to have interceded for rogue police officers who were under him when he was Pampanga provincial police chief. These men were investigated for recycling confiscated illegal drugs and for extorting money from arrested drug dealers in exchange for their release. Though briefly suspended, none of them spent even a day in jail. When no one was looking, they were quietly reinstated and assigned to other units — in stark contrast to the summary way in which suspected drug offenders from the ranks of the poor are dealt with.

No doubt this scandal has riled Mr. Duterte. Until now, he has not been able to appoint a suitable replacement for the resigned Albayalde. Whom can he trust to head the PNP? But, he gleefully muses, this won’t be his problem anymore if  Vice President Robredo accepts his offer.

“Pagka tinanggap ni Leni… If anything that has to do with drugs and criminality, you ask her. Siya ang ilagay ko. Tingnan natin. Hindi na ako makialam (The moment she accepts… Anything that has to do with drugs and criminality, you ask her. I will appoint. Let’s see; I won’t interfere anymore).”

This supposed offer sounds like one totally uttered in pique, originating from wounded machismo and being criticized by a woman he has dismissed as an unworthy successor to the presidency. Still, in his typical mocking style, Mr. Duterte goes on to paint a scenario of what he is prepared to do to allow the Vice President to solve the drug problem in her own way, and thereby earn some fame. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, ever on cue to dress up his boss’ naked utterances in policy garb, chimes in with his version of the presidential offer.

“The President renews his offer to the Vice President to become the anti-illegal drugs czar, with all offices, bureaus, agencies or government instrumentalities involved in the enforcement of the law on prohibited drugs placed under her command and supervision with a Cabinet secretary portfolio, to ensure her effectiveness in combating the drug menace.”

No self-respecting vice president can conceivably take this as a serious offer. Mr. Duterte might as well step down from the presidency and let Vice President Robredo succeed him if he were half as serious as Panelo makes him out to be. Then, perhaps, in the remaining time of less than three years, under the leadership of Leni Robredo, something meaningful might be achieved. It is time we distinguished data-based programs from populist bluster.

An objective analysis of the drug problem as it exists in the country has to be the starting point of any serious anti-drug effort. How many of our countrymen, more or less, are hooked on illegal drugs? What social factors underlie their addiction? What will it take to free them from this  pernicious habit? Where are these drugs coming from? How are they brought into the country and by whom? What kind of networks are involved in their distribution? What is the role of the police and of politicians in the maintenance and protection of the drug networks? What kind of reforms are needed to make the police and other antidrug agencies effective instruments in the control of the drug problem? What realistic and measurable goals must be set so that it becomes possible at any point to determine whether we are gaining or losing in the effort to wipe out this social problem?