By Perry Diaz
The events leading to the appointment of Vice President Leni Robredo as Drug Czar were like a high-stakes poker game. When President Rodrigo Duterte, apparently annoyed at Leni’s criticism of Duterte’s handling of the bloody anti-illegal drugs campaign – she said the “War on Drugs” wasn’t working — Duterte dared her to run the campaign herself. “Let’s see if you can handle it,” Duterte told Leni on October 28, 2019.
VP Leni hesitated and did not accept Duterte’s challenge. But Duterte, probably sensing that Leni wouldn’t dare take it, appointed Leni as co-chair of the Interagency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), which reports directly to Duterte.
It was a gambit by Duterte, who might have thought that Leni would turn down the offer and stop criticizing Duterte. Indeed, Duterte thinks that Leni was weak. Wrong. Leni accepted the offer. Although it might have crossed her mind that it was a trap. Yes, she was enticed to enter the lion king’s den, without any armor or weapons. There were no rules of engagement. All she knows was that Duterte calls the shots. Poor Leni. Now the lion king can devour her.
She knows from the get-go that there was no job description. She also knows that her co-chair is the Director General of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Aaron Aquino, a well-entrenched bureaucrat and retired general. Aquino has a cabinet rank of undersecretary. He sees himself above Leni.
Leni’s first act as drug czar is the stoppage of the “senseless killings,” which has so far eliminated 5,500 drug pushers and users. However, it is estimated that at least 30,000 extrajudicial killings were done by vigilantes and police officers without due process. Although Duterte didn’t want to stop the “senseless killings” of mostly poor suspected drug users and pushers under “Oplan Tokhang,” he didn’t have much of a leverage to stop it.
But Leni has difficulty working with Aquino. When Leni wanted to see the “narcolist” of high-value drug lords, Aquino objected saying that Leni had no authority since she is just a member of a committee. Whereas, Aquino as Director General of PDEA has the real authority over the war on drugs. Leni was reminded that she is only involved in policy matters and has no operational authority. Which makes one wonder: Is Leni being used as a window dressing for the bloody war on drugs? Is she just the pretty poster girl on the anti-drug campaign? It would seem so.
Duterte stepped in and threatened to remove Leni from her “drug czar” appointment if she “shared state secrets with foreign individuals and entities.” Prior to Leni’s appointment as drug czar, Leni told Reuters that international help, including from United Nations and International Criminal Court (ICC), “should be sought if the government refused to change tack and stop abusive policies.”
Leni met with officials from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), community-based advocacy groups and U.S. Embassy last week to discuss the drug problem. The meeting must have miffed Duterte who said that he would fire Leni as co-chair of ICAD if she shares classified information because certain matters should be kept with the government. It is apparent that Duterte wants the anti-illegal drugs campaign to remain local and avoid international intervention.
However, Leni said her work as ICAD o-chair could be “limited” without the narcolist. She said that other agencies could not stop her from fulfilling her task as one of the leaders of the anti-illegal drugs campaign. Indeed, as a co-equal of Aquino, Leni should have access to all information available to Aquino.
Fire the drug czar
Leni seems to be saying that Duterte can fire her if she continues to pursue getting the narcolist. She just called Duterte’s bluff. Now, what’s Duterte’s next move?
If Duterte decides to go ahead and fire her, it would make him look guilty of setting Leni to fail, which would draw international criticism; now that Leni had invited international groups into the fray.
But what if Duterte decides to keep her and give her the narcolist? What has he got to lose? For one thing he’d lose face. But he can get himself off the hook easily. His problem is what does Leni going to do with the narcolist? Many believe that the narcolist contains names of influential politicians and powerful, mostly Chinese, drug lords. If they’re exposed in public, it would put tremendous pressure on Duterte and PDEA chief Aquino to go after them. But that’s what czar Leni wanted precisely – to root them out and prosecute them.
The future of the government’s anti-illegal drugs program now hangs in the balance. But Leni has to relentlessly pursue her plan to go after the drug lords. The question is: Is Duterte willing to go along with her plan? But what if he doesn’t want Leni to get a copy of the narcolist? Is Leni going to resign her post as drug czar or is Duterte going to fire her? Either way, Leni appears to be on her way out… unless she accedes to Duterte’s wish to stay away from the Narcolist. But to do so would make her a toothless paper tiger.