“So I destroy him or he will destroy me. That’s the way it is,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned Senator Antonio Trillanes, a political opponent who has accused the presidential family of large-scale direct involvement in the illegal drug trade.
“[Trillanes] has been…against me, my son and my family since [the] election,” the tough-talking president said after his son Paolo Duterte was questioned on September 7 on drug smuggling accusations heard by a Senate inquiry committee.
Even before the charged accusations and predictable denials, animosity ran deep between the two outsized political personalities.
During the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trillanes accused Duterte of massive corruption as the two-decade-serving mayor of Davao City. He claimed that the then presidential aspirant had concealed billions of pesos in ill-gotten wealth in hidden bank accounts.
Duterte eventually admitted to have had amassed significant riches in various undisclosed accounts without explaining the sources of the lucre, but Trillanes’ revelations didn’t diminish growing public support for the maverick candidate, who eventually pulled off a decisive electoral victory on a populist anti-crime platform.
Now, new questions are rising about the sources of Duterte’s extraordinary and apparently unexplained wealth. As Trillanes directly targets Duterte’s family members with drug trade allegations, the tacit subject of the Senate inquiry is obviously Duterte himself.
In response, Duterte has threatened to divulge information about the senator’s alleged offshore accounts. The senator responded by signing a waiver shelving the bank secrecy law to open his accounts to a full investigation by relevant authorities.
“If you are brave, if you are not corrupt, sign a waiver like I did. Sign a waiver addressed to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) and the Ombudsman,” Trillanes dared the president to reciprocate, a challenge of transparency he has so far refused.
The drug trade accusations are undoubtedly taking a political toll on the popular president.
Trillanes claimed at the Senate committee hearing on the seizure in May of over 600 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine, known locally as shabu, from China was destined for Paolo Duterte and the president’s son-in-law Manases Carpio, a lawyer and husband of Duterte’s daughter Sara.
Tipped off by Chinese authorities, it was the largest such drug seizure in the Philippines’ history.
Trillanes has claimed the two Duterte family members are part of a Chinese triad drug trafficking syndicate known as the “Davao Group” and that the two maintain huge holdings from the trade in secret off-shore bank accounts. Trillanes also claimed a dragon-like tattoo Paolo has on his back is known to be worn by Chinese triad members.
Paolo denied all the charges at the September 7 committee hearing.
Analysts note that no national leader since former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed in a popular revolt in 1986, has so fiercely jousted with an opposition legislator, as he did with the Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, the father of previous president Benigno Aquino III.
Aquino Jr. was assassinated in 1983 upon returning from self-exile at Manila’s airport, an event that sparked Marcos’ eventual ouster.
Cognizant of concerns over Duterte’s increasingly authoritarian rhetoric, presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella bid to clarify Duterte’s threat to “destroy” Trillanes by saying the national leader “simply means to say that he wants to put a stop to these apparently wanton” accusations against the first family.
The problem for Duterte is that Trillanes, a former naval officer, has political credibility. He has emerged as Duterte’s strongest critic, accusing the president of bold-faced duplicity in overseeing a campaign of mass murder of suspected drug dealers while turning a blind eye to his son Paolo’s alleged drug trade activities in his own hometown.
The president’s daughter Sara and son Paolo serve respectively as mayor and vice-mayor of Davao, the city where Duterte served as mayor for over two decades.
Last year’s detention of Senator Leila de Lima based on what critics see as politically-motivated charges of, fittingly, involvement in the drug trade has left Trillanes as the last man standing in a legislature dominated by Duterte’s supporters. Efforts are also building to silence him.
Senator Richard Gordon, a Duterte ally, has accused Trillanes of breaching parliamentary code of conduct during the particularly heated televised questioning of Paolo Duterte. Gordon went as far as to call for the ouster of his feisty colleague, arguing: “I don’t think he belongs in the Senate. His behavior is really out of line.”
Critics, however, see Gordon’s call as part of a broader effort to muzzle Duterte’s opponents by any means necessary. There are growing fears that the administration will soon use trumped up charges to put its remaining critics behind bars to prevent the drug trafficking accusation from gaining any further momentum or popular resonance.
In a privilege speech, Senator Risa Hontiveros, a left-leaning legislator and outspoken opposition member, has accused the government of conspiring to silence her critiques of the drug war. In particular, she called for Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre to resign after the latter was caught texting the government-aligned Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) to file trumped up charges against her.
Hontiveros, a leading critic of Duterte’s lethal anti-drug campaign, has accused the government of orchestrating legal charges to intimidate and marginalize its critics. State officials have been particularly irked by her decision to shield witnesses to last month’s gruesome murder of teenager Kian Lloyd delos Santos by law enforcers caught on CCTV cameras.
The heart-wrenching incident has been a source of embarrassment for Duterte, who promised to ensure accountability and justice amid a massive public backlash. Hontiveros has accused the government of sanctioning extrajudicial killings and promoting impunity, which has led to the deaths of dozens of children and over 9,000 drug suspects.
Accusations that the president’s family is actually involved in the drug trade has inevitably dented Duterte’s crime-fighting credibility and raised new uncomfortable questions about the underlying motivations of his controversial drug war, including speculation the killings have targeted only certain drug gangs while leaving others unmolested to expand and consolidate their illegal trades.
Duterte has resorted to conspiratorial rhetoric to deflect the allegations and mobilize his base, threatening a backlash against those probing the claims against his family.
“That’s why I have said to the [police] Chief…to closely look into this because we are being sabotaged,” claimed Duterte, accusing his opponents of orchestrating the murder of teenager delos Santos and other minors killed in the drug war. “It’s not the job of the police [to kill minors]. These killings were intentional,” the president exclaimed.
The presidential palace has followed that line by saying “malignant elements” – an alleged amorphous collection of politicians and big-time drug dealers – “conspire to sabotage the President’s campaign to rid the Philippines of illegal drugs and criminality.”
The question rising among ordinary Filipinos, however, is whether Duterte and his family may actually be involved in the criminality his government claims to combat.