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Whimsical war

Philippine Daily Inquirer /November 23, 2021

The collective reaction to President Duterte’s “blind item” about an allegedly cocaine-using presidential candidate was twofold: first, speculation (and for many, quick conclusion) about who he was alluding to; and second, a question — how come he was revealing this bit of information only now, and the alleged user has not been investigated or charged under his administration’s relentless drug war?

The President has never been shy about brandishing the names of so-called narco-politicians and other purported suspects in public. He has released three such “narco lists’’ in the past years; none of the May 2022 presidential candidates was in any of those lists.

The answer to the question might be found in the other clues provided by the President: This candidate came from a “wealthy family,” and had a well-known father.

The President was clearly aiming to demolish one of the leading rivals of his anointed successor, but in doing so, he also brought out the ugly truth of his administration’s yawning double standard when it comes to the targets of the drug war.

On the one hand, there are the thousands killed since 2016 (8,663 in official records), most of them from destitute communities and whose killings were routinely palmed off by the police as the result of the suspects allegedly having fought it out with the authorities (“nanlaban”). The United Nations Human Rights Office, in its June 2020 report on human rights violations in the country, also documented how police arrested victims without warrants and recovered guns that bore the same serial number from different victims in different locations, indicating the widespread planting of evidence.

On the other hand, there are startling cases of special treatment, like the drug raid last Nov. 6 on a private party held at a beach resort in Mabini town in Davao de Oro province where party drugs and other illegal substances were found to be overflowing. Among those present at the event was Jefry Tupas, the chief information officer of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. Tupas claimed she and her boyfriend had left before police and agents of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) raided the party, but witnesses said she was among those apprehended. Tupas, according to her fellow partygoers, then whipped out her trump card: “Sir, I am a staff of Inday Sara,” she told the PDEA agents. “What is happening here, Sir?”

The city official was forthwith released without charges. After the raid, Tupas was “terminated’’ from her city hall job. (Tupas was a correspondent for the Inquirer from 2003 to 2015 before resigning to serve as Mayor Sara Duterte’s chief information officer.)

What was made clear by the Davao de Oro party incident was not only that illegal drugs proliferate in the President’s own turf and under the noses of its officials, but also that the well-connected who end up as drug suspects can be untouchable, treated by the police with the lightest of hands.

The whimsical, arbitrary nature of the drug war appears to have likewise slanted the case against Julian Ongpin, son of billionaire business tycoon Roberto Ongpin.

Ongpin was charged with possessing 12 grams of cocaine following the mysterious death of his companion, visual artist Bree Jonson, in a hostel room in La Union on Sept. 18. But a court in La Union last week dismissed the charges over police mishandling of evidence. The court ruled that the police failed to properly mark the sachets supposedly containing the cocaine, thus allowing for the possibility of evidence-tampering. The court also noted that Ongpin was not in the hostel room when the police seized the drugs.

The police and prosecutors had bungled the job early on, when they decided not to immediately arrest Ongpin despite what they claimed was his possession of cocaine, which made the case non-bailable. He was also not charged for the death of Jonson, whom his side said, and the police quickly determined, was a suicide despite the Jonson family’s protests.

The bitter perception that there are different rules for the poor and the rich under the drug war was acknowledged by the President himself at one point. “Why the poor?,” he wondered aloud during an event in Cagayan de Oro on Oct. 20, 2017. “Why are there so many deaths, not the rich? My God, I am telling you, the market of shabu is the poor community.”

But moneyed Filipinos? They use pricier drugs like cocaine and heroin, said Mr. Duterte. “The millionaires, they do shabu in yachts or they go to the airport to do cocaine or heroin. But heroin and cocaine are derivatives of the poppy. It’s not as damaging to the brain.”

From that haphazard rationale has come haphazard justice: High-profile suspects, even those belatedly fingered by Mr. Duterte as indulging in cocaine use, have it easy, while poor and powerless Filipinos turn up as dead, brutalized bodies on desolate streets.

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