Lawless and low

Rodrigo Duterte and Ronald dela Rosa
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ALMOST always inaccurate are generalizations about any group, whether a race, a social class, an ethnic community, a profession — or, for that matter, a government agency and its personnel. There’s always someone who’s an exception to a rule widely presumed to be true. Stereotyping can also be dangerous, and often is.

Not all Chinese folk are billionaires, but common belief otherwise continues to expose them to a higher level of peril to theft and kidnapping than other Filipinos. European Jews didn’t control business and the economy, but propaganda otherwise made such a tragic difference to millions of lives during the murderous rule of Adolf Hitler. And not everyone from Davao is a die-hard Duterte fan who deserves a jeer for campaigning for him last year, or uploading ungrammatical posts daily on Facebook.

That may very well be, but it’s become so difficult not to generalize about this country’s police officers that it’s a rare Filipino nowadays who doesn’t think them to be not only uniformly corrupt but also cruel and murderous.

The record speaks for itself. In 2002 a policeman shot and killed journalist Edgar Damalerio in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur. His fellow officers tried to pin the killing on Damalerio’s companion at the time of the shooting, another journalist who witnessed the incident, and who was himself killed to prevent him from testifying against Guillermo Wapile.

Despite a warrant for his arrest, Wapile, the policeman accused of the Damalerio murder, eluded capture through the help of elements of the Pagadian City police. Eventually tried and convicted through the efforts of several media advocacy groups, he apparently acted in behalf of a principal who resented Damalerio’s radio commentaries on local corruption.

In 2009, policemen together with military personnel stopped a convoy of vehicles ferrying 58 men and women including 32 journalists who were on their way to cover the filing of the certificate of candidacy of a candidate for Maguindanao governor. They diverted them to a hillside where all 58 were killed. In what is now known as the Ampatuan Massacre, over sixty police and military personnel, who were also in the private army of a local warlord, were indicted and are still undergoing trial. (The killing of 32 journalists in that one incident was both unprecedented and is still a world record in the history of atrocities against media workers.)

But not only rank-and-file policemen have been implicated in various forms of wrongdoing including smuggling, assassination, and involvement in the drug trade. Middle and high-level officers have also been equally adept at breaking the law.

In July, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte himself released a list of government officials allegedly eyeball-deep in the drug trade. The list included five high-ranking police officials. Relieved from their posts, three of the five were at the time still in the active service.

Eight years earlier, in 2008, several police officers on their way to an Interpol conference in Russia were intercepted in Moscow with over 100,000 euros, or about Php 6 million, in their possession. Graft charges were eventually filed against the policemen for allegedly appropriating intelligence funds for their private use. But none of them could explain why they were carrying that large an amount, although there have been speculations that it was not for a shopping binge but to launder the money abroad.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) motto is “To Serve And Protect,” but apparently, too many policemen serve only themselves and the politicians and warlords in certain communities. They have also gained understandable notoriety as the country’s worst violators of human rights together with those other benefactors of humanity, the men and officers of the Philippine military. They also protect gambling lords and brothel keepers if they’re not in these businesses themselves, or in the murder for hire and kidnapping for ransom trades.

The most recent high profile criminal case involving middle-level police officers is the illegal arrest, on the pretext that he was involved in the drug trade, of Korean national Jee Ick Joo, and his murder in the PNP national headquarters itself in Camp Crame, Quezon City, prompting the usual social media wags to suggest that the camp be renamed Camp Crime.

The crime is heinous enough, but particularly chilling for the manner in which it was committed. From the description of a witness, himself a policeman, the killing and cremation of Jee, and the disposal of his remains (his ashes were flushed down a toilet) suggest that not only is the taking of a human life of no moment to the monsters involved; they had also done it before.

Despite the police’s official function of keeping the peace by enforcing the law through the threat of legal violence and the actual use of force, these are not people anyone should be trusting with making life and death decisions — or even arresting anyone for jaywalking — without overhauling not only the organization itself, but also the mindset of its members.

And yet, not only have these creatures, most of them in the police organization for self-aggrandizement, been given the responsibility of manning the frontlines of the administration’s drug war; President Duterte himself has numerous times and on several occasions also pledged to protect any of their number’s being imprisoned for offenses committed when implementing the so-called Oplan Tokhang, in the course of which over 6,000 people have been killed so far. About half the killings, says the PNP, were committed by motorcycle-riding vigilantes — a claim that hardly anyone believes.

Duterte has expressed anger and has issued a pledge to see to it that the perpetrators of the Jee kidnapping for ransom and murder are prosecuted. PNP Director General Ronald de la Rosa had earlier said he has been shamed by his subordinates’ criminal behavior, but what did he and his principal — who has rejected his offer to resign — expect of people who have been repeatedly assured of impunity?

In July, 2016, the Duterte regime took control of an agency that has been both damaged and damaging to the rule of law and the country for decades — an agency charged with enforcing the law, but many of whose members, in addition to being incompetent and corrupt, are the first to break it, and who are therefore part of the problem rather than the solution. Duterte and de la Rosa took it over without any attempt to inculcate among its members respect for the law, among them the constitutionally guaranteed rights of everyone, including those suspected or accused of criminal acts, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class.

Upon his assumption to the presidency and prior to the launch of the campaign against the illegal drug trade, the least Duterte could have done, given the PNP’s foul history and worse record, and Duterte’s own violence-laced language, was to exact from these worthies a pledge to respect the law especially the Bill of Rights — or else face extinction themselves.

Duterte instead dismissed compliance with human rights protocols as both a hindrance to the anti-drug campaign and a shield to protect wrongdoers; enshrined as State policy the use of lawless violence against drug dealers and users by saying he would like to kill them all and that while mayor he had in fact killed some; and declared that he would see to it that he would protect the police from the judicial process by seeing to it that no policeman is imprisoned for offenses committed during anti-drug campaign operations.

It should have been clear except to the seriously intellectually challenged that these policy statements would lead not only to the unrestrained and unaccountable killing of suspected drug dealers and even surrendered drug users, but also to a surge in police profit-seeking through blackmail, kidnapping and whatever other enterprise their entrepreneurial impulses would inspire them to engage in.

Those impulses have predictably focused on foreign nationals as well as on Chinese Filipinos, in the stereotypical belief that they have the most money. Never mind the impact of murdering foreigners on the country’s foreign relations, which no policeman cares or understands anything about, anyway.

Apparently as clear as day as these are to every one else, they weren’t to de la Rosa, and least of all to Duterte himself, whose regime is rapidly being construed in Asia and much of the rest of the world as both lawless and low.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Presidential Communications Operations Office.

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