Rodrigo Duterte and Oscar Albayalde
President Rodrigo Duterte and then PNP chief Oscar Albayalde are shown in this photo taken during during the 118th Police Service Anniversary at Camp Brigadier General Rafael T. Crame in Quezon City on August 9, 2019. (Kind Rodriguez/Presidential Photo)

Not only the credibility of the Duterte regime is at stake in the scandal over the alleged appropriation and sale by 13 “ninja cops” of illegal drugs they had confiscated during an anti-drug operation, as well as resigned Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Oscar Albayalde’s supposedly preventing their dismissal from the service.  On the block as well is whether the PNP should continue as the lead organization in that “war”— or should have even been so designated at all.

Not that doubts have not been raised before about the wisdom of President Rodrigo Duterte’s making the PNP the lead agency in the “war on drugs.” The PNP record of killings it has since accumulated, killings which supposedly occurred when suspected drug users and pushers “fought back,” already argues against it, because of the possibility that most of the killings were deliberate. The current scandal is now saying that some police officers may have even benefitted from the “war” and contributed to the persistence of the drug problem.

There is as well the growing conviction that the police, and hence, the regime they serve, were targeting the poor to the exclusion of the drug lords who have managed to sneak into the country billions of pesos in drugs even while the much hyped up anti-drug campaign was at its most brutal second stage. Neither did Mr. Duterte’s appointing the former head of the Bureau of Customs to another post despite suspicions that he was incompetent if not corrupt help. 

It was in the context of widespread skepticism over the sincerity of the regime’s commitment to ending the drug problem that the “ninja cops” scandal broke.

In Japanese history, literature and folk lore, ninjas or shinobis are not the dashing, romantic figures Hollywood movies have made them out to be. Recruited from the lowest rungs of a society in turmoil, they were trained as spies, assassins and mercenaries whose criminal services they sold to the highest bidder.

They’re often thought to be another name for samurai by those unfamiliar with the complexity of Japanese feudal society. But the ninjas were often at war with the former, and were considered unworthy of the code of honor of the warrior class of ancient Japan. 

In the Hollywood film “The Last Samurai,” ninjas were thus depicted as treacherous killers in the service of  rogue feudal lords who had no compunction about killing women and children so long as it suited their patrons’ intentions.

Ninjas have nevertheless been mostly celebrated as heroic figures by Hollywood and US television. There’s a TV series called “American Ninja Warrior” and even an Australian equivalent. In both programs ninjas are celebrated as great and incredible athletes focused on overcoming the most difficult obstacles and performing impossible feats as excellently as possible.

What to make then of the use of the term “ninja cops” to describe those police officers who profit from the illegal drugs they’ve confiscated during anti-drug operations? There’s no denying the hint of approval in the term — telling proof of  the power of the movies and television in propagating the legend about the ninjas’ supposed dexterity in scaling walls, their stealth, their mastery of martial arts, and exceptional athleticism. Additionally, however, in Philippine mass culture, getting away with anything and amassing wealth no matter how and what the source is also admired rather than condemned. In the court of public opinion, grand theft is often regarded as indicative of cunning, initiative and resourcefulness.

“Ninja cops” is therefore not a pejorative label in police ranks. But as of last week, Senator Richard Gordon, who chairs the Senate Blue Ribbon and Justice and Human Rights Committees, was declaring the guilt of the 13 police officers, and resigned Philippine National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde.  All 13 were allegedly involved in what he said was a 2013 holdup-extortion operation (the street name for it is “ hulidap”) in Pampanga province after which over a hundred kilos of confiscated drugs went missing.

Gordon was also saying that all those involved deserve life imprisonment as mandated by the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 (Republic Act 9165) and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019).  The latter provides prison terms of only six to 15 years for those guilty of using their positions to influence responsible officials to act in their behalf. But, said Gordon, Albayalde and company are also in violation of RA 9165, while the former PNP chief would also be liable under the provisions of the Revised Penal Code. If proven in court, these alleged offenses would lead to his imprisonment for life and permanent disqualification from holding public office.

Gordon is a Duterte ally. But despite his committees’ recommendations, it’s still the Department of Justice (DOJ) that will decide whether charges will be filed against Albayalde and the police officers accused of being “ninja cops.” The DOJ is “ reinvestigating” the complaint against them. But Secretary Menardo Guevara said Albayalde could be included in an amended complaint “if there’s any basis for it.”

If the DOJ does file charges against Albayalde and company, it will convince even more citizens that the Duterte regime’s bloody “drug war” is not only anti-poor and completely bogus. That it is the PNP rather than the authority mandated by RA 9165, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), that’s the lead organization in the enforcement of the law would also validate the conclusion that Mr. Duterte’s choice of police chief made sure that the main plank of his platform of government will fail.

Should the DOJ not find “any basis” for including Albayalde in its “reinvestigation” despite the findings of the Senate Committees, it will reinforce the already current view that only the small fry — in this case the 13 police officers — are ever prosecuted by the so-called Philippine justice system while the big fish nearly always get away with anything including murder. But if none of the 13 and Albayalde  are charged after the “reinvestigation,” the consequences in terms of public opinion will be even more devastating.

It looks like a  no-win situation for the DOJ, the PNP, the Duterte regime, and the so-called “war” on drugs.

That “war” has long been under suspicion as false, anti- poor, and a populist attempt to convince Mr. Duterte’s political base that he’s serious about ending the drug problem. In a frantic attempt at damage control, Mr. Duterte apparently convinced his man Albayalde to resign his post only weeks before his retirement, and has threatened to pay back “evil ninja cops” with — whatever it means — the same “evil.” Whether this latest public relations ploy will work is uncertain, given the decline in his approval ratings. Already severely challenged even before Mr. Duterte launched his “war on drugs,” police credibility is also likely to reach sub-basement levels because of the “ninja cops” scandal. 

Time passes — and together with it, the slow but certain erosion of the current regime’s support not only among the already skeptical but also among its once ardent partisans. Like the medals Ferdinand Marcos claimed to have amassed for fighting the Japanese during World War II, as brutal and as bloody as it may be, the “war on drugs” is being exposed to the entire country and the world as a fraud and a sham.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Imaged cropped from a PCOO photo.

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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