Opposition wary as Robredo takes on appointment to anti-drug body

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Opposition lawmakers are ‘cautiously optimistic’ as they still fear that Vice President Leni Robredo is being set up to fail in her new post as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 6) — Opposition lawmakers are “cautiously optimistic” as they still fear that Vice President Leni Robredo is being set up to fail in her new post as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs or ICAD.

Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, who also serves as the president of the opposition Liberal Party, said they discussed the matter in their party, noting that they are not certain whether Robredo’s appointment is just a trap.

Bagamat hindi natin matiyak ang motibo at sinseridad ng Malacañang sa pag-alok sa nasabing pwesto, wala tayong duda sa sinseridad ng ating Bise Presidente sa kanyang layunin na hanapan ng tunay na solusyon ang problema sa iligal na droga sa bansa,” Pangilinan said.

[Translation: While we are uncertain of the motives and sincerity of Malacañang in offering the position, we do not have any doubts about the Vice President’s goal of finding a true solution to illegal drugs in the country.]

The House LP caucus also said they are wary that there may be some people who would go against Robredo’s directives, that her orders may go unimplemented and that Malacañang may just be playing politics.

However, they said that they are confident that if Robredo is given the tools and is empowered by the administration, the drug war can be a “war against poverty and not a war against poor people.”

Pagkakataon ito para ibaling ang anumang drug policy ng gobyerno sa tunay na dapat nitong pagtuonan: Sugpuin ang ugat ng droga, siguruhing magbubunga ito ng mas ligtas na mga komunidad, at tiyaking matitigil ang walang-habas na patayan,” they said.

[Translation: This is the government’s chance to steer the drug policy to what it should really focus on: End the root of the drug problem, ensure that it will lead to safer communities and ensure that the incessant killings are stopped.]

The suspicion that Robredo is being set up to fail, coupled with a call for all relevant government agencies to support the Vice President in her new position was also echoed by Senator Risa Hontiveros of the LP-aligned Akbayan party.

House Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Zarate, who is part of the left-leaning Makabayan bloc, also expressed reservations on Robredo’s acceptance but dared her to stop the alleged extrajudicial killings done in the course of the drug war.

Zarate also urged Robredo to investigate the police over deaths in the drug war and to push for the release of data on drug operations.

LP stalwart Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the opposition is fully confident that she can carry out the task.

“Being the leader of the opposition, Vice President Robredo will continue to fiscalize. But in instances such as this, when she is called upon to do her share, she will not shirk from this challenge,” Drilon said in a statement.

Lawmakers aligned with the administration are likewise praising Robredo’s acceptance of her appointment to the ICAD.

Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, who has been Duterte’s longtime aide, said the government is ready for Robredo having a hand at the drug war, assuring her of help in “killing drug lords.” Robredo said she wants drug-related killings to stop.

Gusto namin siya mag-succeed pero natatakot ako na mas lalong dadami ang inosenteng magiging biktima [dahil] hindi na sila matatakot. Ibe-baby na niya ‘yan … Gusto niya bine-baby drug lords,” Go said.

[Translation: We want her to succeed, but I’m afraid that there would be more innocent victims because they would no longer be afraid. She will baby them … She wants to baby the drug lords.”

But for Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa, former police chief and head of Oplan Tokhang, in a war, it is inevitable to have casualties.

"Kung 'di ka mag-wage ng war, walang war, walang mamatay. Lalaki at lalaki ang negosyo ng droga. Dadami at dadami apektado sa drug problem ... This is war. Giyera ito. You have to fight. Hindi ka pwede pa-cute-cute dito. Hindi ito beauty contest. Giyera ito. War on drugs," dela Rosa said.

[Translation: If you would not be waging war, there's no war, no one would die. But the drug business would grow and grow. A lot of people would be affected by the drug problem ... This is war. You have to fight. You can't all be cutesy about this. This isn't a beauty contest. This is war. War on drugs.]

For his part, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said Robredo can start work by concentrating on drug prevention and rehabilitation.

Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara said he was surprised with Robredo’s turnaround, but nonetheless wished her well in her new job.

Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon, whose Blue Ribbon panel has probed several drug-related scandals, expects Robredo will make good of her new post.

“Now is her time na ipakita niya na [to show that] you can quell drugs without having to kill people,” Gordon told CNN Philippines.

Former top cop and now Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson said all government officials should give Robredo the support she needs to combat illegal drugs.

House Dangerous Drugs committee chair Rep. Robert “Ace” Barbers said he wants to see what Robredo can offer to the campaign against illegal drugs.

Human rights organization Amnesty International said Robredo's appointment should mark the end of killings in the drug war, but added government must clarify what powers she would have in her new post.

"We have to ask whether she’ll have power to hold police officers and other officials to account, let alone the unknown gunmen suspected of many more killings. Vice President Robredo must be granted power to halt the daily killings and change the deadly command structure we have documented, otherwise this move will be an empty gesture," the group said.

‘Not a trap’

Despite fears of the opposition and Robredo herself, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo assured that the Vice President’s appointment to the ICAD — which came after she called the drug war a failure in an interview — is not a trap.

“Her success will be our success and her failure will be our failure. I don't think we would want that,” Panelo said in a Malacañang media briefing.

Panelo, however, evaded questions on what Robredo's role at the ICAD would be, saying that the Vice President has to talk to Duterte to get those details. He only said that Robredo can stop anti-drug police operations.

"She will be criticizing herself. Siya 'yung bosing sa illegal drugs 'di ba?" he said.

[Translation: She will be criticizing herself. She's the new boss against illegal drugs, right?]

The Executive Order which established the ICAD does not provide for a co-chair, but Malacañang shrugged this off, saying that Duterte has the power to reorganize the executive branch.

Philippine Drug Enfrocement Agency Director-General Aaron Aquino, who will now be heading the ICAD with Robredo, said he feels "awkward" co-chairing the ICAD with Robredo.

Nonetheless, Aquino — who has declared that Robredo will fail as drug czar due to her lack of experience in law enforceement — said the Vice President's appointment is a welcome development and that she would be briefed on the ICAD's accomplishments soon.

He added that he is expecting a call from Robredo's office soon so they can schedule a briefing and a meeting with ICAD members.

The Philippine National Police, which is part of the 21-member ICAD assured “full support” for Robredo as ICAD co-chair, saying her experience as a lawyer and her communication with the people as Vice President, will greatly contribute to her new role.

Asked by CNN Philippines about Robredo’s vow to stop drug-related killings, PNP spokesperson BGen. Bernard Banac said, “The beauty here is there may be opposing or different opinions or perspectives but with this new development, we will have a common stand.”

The Justice department and the Presidential Communications Operations Office, which are also part of the ICAD, also vowed to cooperate with Robredo.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office, which is also part of the ICAD, also vowed to cooperate in its communications campaign and looks forward to working with Robredo.

“We look forward to the fresh perspective that VP Robredo will bring in addressing the illegal drug problem in the Philippines much faster, instead of just criticizing without concrete actions,” PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar said.

Duterte promised during the presidential campaign to wipe out illegal drugs within three to six months. After more than three years in office, the President admitted the drug problem has "worsened." Now, Duterte has tapped Robredo to co-lead the group that oversees the anti-illegal drug campaign.

Robredo said Duterte knows her stance against the drug war that has killed more than 6,600 people, and she will continue to bring that to her new job.

"Tutol ako sa pagpatay ng mga inosente. Kontra ako sa pang-aabuso ng mga opisyal. Alam niya ang aking mga puna. Alam niya ang mga balak kong ayusin, kaya kung iniisip niya na sa pagpayag kong ito ay tatahimik ako, nagkakamali siya," she said.

[Translation: I am against the killing of the innocent. I am against erring officials. He knows my issues. He knows the problems I want to fix, so if he thinks I am going to keep mum, he's wrong.]

Government data show at least 6,600 people have been killed in anti-illegal drug operations since Duterte took office in July 2016. Local and international human rights groups said the numbers are higher: more than 20,000 people in extrajudicial killings, a claim the government has denied.

Robredo said she is ready to work with the administration to end extrajudicial killings and corruption involving high-profile drug suspects and government officials.

This would mark her return to the Cabinet after two years, following her resignation as Housing Secretary as she was barred from attending meetings.

Panelo said if she wants to, Robredo can join them in the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday night.

CNN Philippines’ Xianne Arcangel, Lara Tan, Joyce Ilas and Gerg Cahiles contributed to this report.