Testing the strength of our institutions

A country’s institutions are strong when they are able to maintain their autonomy against pressures that seek to alter their standard operating procedures in order to accommodate the interests of powerful actors. The key word here is autonomy or independence.

The recent arrest of the 38-year-old son of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla on charges of illegal possession and importation of almost a kilo of high-grade marijuana known as “kush,” a prohibited drug, presents us with a crucial test of the strength of our legal institutions.

The justice secretary has promptly issued a handwritten statement in which he pledges not to intervene in any way in the charges against his son, even as he acknowledges the pain that every parent feels when one’s own child gets into trouble with the law. For that, I salute him.

“I see this as a test to our family, to myself, and in many ways to our country on how we handle a sensitive matter like this,” he told a media interviewer. “I’m the head of the justice department and I will let justice take its course.”

These are very reassuring statements. Unfortunately, in our country, the pursuit of justice does not rest solely on the pledges of one man. On their own, other people often do certain things to help lessen the pains of a well-connected family. These typically involve making small departures from regular procedure, all done in “good faith,” and given as a “matter of courtesy.”

As an example, the agency that effected the arrest of the suspect Juanito Jose Diaz Remulla III has seen it fit to hide his face from public view. In a series of blurred photos aptly captioned “A name without a face,” the Inquirer pointedly noted: “The photos handed to the media had the younger Remulla’s face covered for his privacy—a practice not always applied to other arrested crime suspects.”

The media has also wondered why the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) waited two days before reporting the arrest, “without any explanation for the delayed public disclosure that often quickly follows a high-profile drug bust.” I guess the PDEA expected that the matter of the suspect’s identity and his affinity with the justice secretary was bound to be asked, so they took time to verify if the person they arrested was really the son of Remulla. The arrest happened while the DOJ chief was abroad, and maybe PDEA saw it fit to inform him about the incident before the media got to him. Again, a matter of courtesy.

But there’s probably more than meets the eye here.

According to the Bureau of Customs, the parcel containing the contraband packed in bubble wrap arrived at the Central Mail Exchange Center of the Philippine Postal Corp. on Sept. 27. It was shipped by a certain Benjamin Huffman of 1524 Hornblend Street, San Diego, California, and presumably carried the name and address of its consignee, Juanito Jose Remulla III. An x-ray inspection of the parcel at the Central Mail Exchange showed that its contents might be illegal drugs, whereupon customs officials alerted the PDEA.

On Oct. 11, or 14 days after it was informed of the possible illegal drug shipment, the PDEA, together with the NAIA Inter-Agency Drug Interdiction Task Group, conducted what they call a “controlled delivery” operation. The PDEA website defines “controlled delivery” as “a technique used when a consignment of illicit drugs is detected and allowed to go forward under the control and surveillance of law enforcement officers in order to secure evidence against the organizers of such illicit drug traffic.”

According to the PDEA report, it was Juanito Remulla III who received the parcel after presenting his driver’s license as proof that he was indeed its intended recipient. PDEA operatives arrested him while in the act of receiving the marked parcel.

In the Inquirer story “No bail for Remulla son” (News, 10/15/22), PDEA spokesperson Derrick Carreon is reported as saying they had no prior knowledge that Juanito Remulla III was the son of the justice secretary. The suspect also did not identify himself as such.

If true, then PDEA deserves only the highest praise for the professionalism of its agents. But some questions remain. Since it took 14 days for PDEA to set up the “controlled delivery” operation, are we to believe that, during that time, no one thought of asking who Juanito Remulla III might be? The name is not exactly common; anyone who has been around would have easily recognized it as belonging to the longtime and legendary governor of Cavite province, Juanito Remulla Sr.

That the PDEA went ahead with the arrest, presumably without inquiring if the person they had in their sights was somehow related to the powerful Remullas of Cavite, is truly remarkable. But a lot of people find it hard to believe, so everyone is keenly watching how this saga will end.

This case has generated tremendous interest because of the parties involved. Former Cavite representative Boying Remulla was a staunch supporter of the deadly drug war launched by former president Rodrigo Duterte, and a passionate advocate of applying the death penalty to convicted drug lords.

Now as DOJ secretary, he is also in a position to decide whether to continue prosecuting the trumped-up drug charges that were filed against former senator Leila de Lima at the instigation of Duterte, or to withdraw them—as a matter of justice—after several witnesses recanted their coerced testimonies against the senator, who has languished in jail for more than five years.