Filipinos aren’t Russians but how they love to designate “czars” to head this or that campaign or group of offices. It’s a practice they’ve picked up from US media and officialdom. Both have the habit of attaching the label to anyone who’s been given powers over several agencies in pursuit of a common goal. One suspects it’s the media that started it all, and that officialdom merely picked up on it, like that linguistic atrocity, “presidentiable” or even — eww — “senatoriable.”

Philippine media and Malacanang itself seemed hard put over what to call her when Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo put herself on top of the so-called Philippine anti-drug effort. They ended up calling her Czarina, which didn’t remind me of Catherine the Great, but of Pooh Bah– the pompous, self-important and useless official in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado.

Just how useless was Mrs. Arroyo’s self-anointment? As (still disputed) President of the Philippines, Mrs. Arroyo already has command over all the offices and agencies involved, and which can still be involved, in the anti-drug campaign (if you can call something that’s half-heartedly carried out a “campaign” ) of the Philippine government. These agencies include all units in the Office of the President, as well as the Departments of Justice, Defense, Finance, Transportation and Highways and even Education, and all other agencies attached to them.

The President of the Philippines is in fact the czar (or czarina) of the country of our despair, the Philippine government being highly centralized and its powers concentrated in whoever’s ensconced, legally or illegally, in the Palace by the Pasig. Not for nothing does “command responsibility” fall frequently from the lips of the opposition whenever they dig up some anomaly in this or that agency. Both de facto as well as de jure, the President of the Philippines might as well be the entire Philippine government for the powers that he or she wields. He or she does command — and has the responsibility.

What then could have moved Mrs. Arroyo to so pointlessly designate herself? The unkind assumption is that it was to take the heat off the Department of Justice, whose prosecutors were being accused of intervening — for the usual considerations, of course — in the “Alabang Boys” case. The DOJ is after all one of Mrs. Arroyo’s favorite departments, and it won’t do for Raul Gonzalez to look as if he were presiding over an office of extortionists and bribe-takers.

But even more crucially will it not do for the Philippines to continue being a marijuana producer as well as exporter and transshipment point for methamphetamine and precursor chemicals to Guam, Saipan and the US mainland. The US government is understandably concerned, and has been for a long time, the US drug problem being of such major proportions it’s become a national security issue. Mrs. Arroyo can’t be seen as soft on a problem the US is as concerned about as terrorism, thus her sudden focus on a problem that’s been there for ages, which has grown during her watch, and about which she had not been particularly anxious until this January.

But the hoopla isn’t likely to delude the US government into thinking that something’s actually being done. There’s the announcement that students, and lately, their professors and teachers, will be subjected to random drug testing. Random drug testing is a strategy straight out of the unlamented Bush administration, which in 2007 doubled the US anti-drug budget by allocating millions of dollars more for it.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work — at least not according to British and US experience. While it does seem like a no-brainer to assume that the threat of random drug tests, whether among students, teachers, government and private sector employees, etc., would discourage probable users, thus shrinking the market for illegal drugs, it hasn’t been very successful in deterring students in the US and the UK from drug use.

That’s in the US and the UK, of course, but what would be the basis for random drug tests as a deterrent to drug use in the Philippines? There’s no available study on its effectiveness, and the only reason for its being adopted here seems to be its use in the US.

What has been established, on the other hand, is the role of corruption in the persistence and growth of the drug problem, whether in the Philippines or elsewhere. About the Philippines, the US State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs points out that “corruption among the police, judiciary, and elected officials continues to be a significant impediment to Philippine law enforcement efforts.”

The Bureau noted the involvement of Drug Enforcement Agency and police operatives in the sale of confiscated drugs, a practice well- known in law enforcement and police reporters’ circles. There is also the involvement of local officials in the smuggling of drugs and precursor chemicals (the chemicals used to manufacture drugs like methamphetamine or “shabu”) into and out of the Philippines. This country, the Bureau noted in its 2007 report, is “a smugglers’ paradise,” given the number of its islands, length of its coastline, and officials eager for a share of drug trade billions.

As for corrupt judges, the “Alabang Boys” scandal suggests that illegal drug cases may not even be reaching the courts, and seem likely to die at the prosecutorial level. That, of course, is the main lesson emerging from that scandal. But it’s a lesson far from being heeded. Not only will the “Alabang Boys” not be tried, no one in the DOJ will lose his retirement pension either.

All of which says that Mrs. Arroyo should be addressing the corruption issue rather than approving random drug tests which are themselves untested in the Philippine setting as a deterrent to drug use. Our Czarina has also announced the appointment of retired general Jovito Palparan to the Dangerous Drugs Board, which the short-sighted are hailing as a harbinger of streets and rivers choked with drug-lord bodies. You wish. The fly in this ointment is a reminder from the US Ambassador that the Philippine government should prosecute human rights violators. Our Czarina should take heed. When it comes to the US, she’s not so much Czarina as governor of a US dependency.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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