Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walking with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after an oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/Stringer/Presidential Communications Office/ Stringer
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walking with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after an oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/Stringer/Presidential Communications Office/ Stringer

“My advice to all? If you are called to the Senate…sign it,” exclaimed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte amid calls for a Senate investigation into allegations against his son Paolo and kin who have been accused of facilitating large-scale drug smuggling in the city of Davao.

Duterte’s children, Sara and Paolo, are currently the mayor and vice-mayor of the president’s hometown, respectively. The Duterte family has effectively ruled Davao as its fiefdom for the past three decades and have been particularly close to the vibrant Chinese-Filipino business community in the country’s south, which has also been accused of involvement in various illicit trades.

The Filipino leader has advised his son to “remain silent” and reassured him of “help from me [Duterte] as President.” He lashed out at the country’s highest legislative office, describing the Senate as an “oppressor” which “will get nothing” out of questioning his son, daughter and family members.

Duterte and his family have categorically denied any wrongdoing, describing the accusations as politically-motivated. The tough-talking president, who has dedicated much of his time in office to a brutal anti-narcotics campaign that has claimed over 9,000 lives, has repeatedly said that he would resign from office if any of his family members were found guilty of involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Duterte has directed his ire in particular at Senator Antonio Trillanes, a former soldier and one of his government’s leading legislative critics.

With characteristic venom and bluster, the populist leader has described the opposition senator, who has called on Duterte’s son to appear before the legislators, as a “political ISIS” — referring to the notorious transnational terrorist group Islamic State — and “ignorant” of the law.

Senator Antonio Trillanes is a leading critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Trillanes struck back by accusing the president of “panicking because we’re [the Senate] close to divulging the illegal activities of his family.”

For the past two months, the Philippine Senate has conducted a high-profile investigation into alleged smuggling of more than six billion pesos worth of shabu, or crystal methamphetamine, from China through the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Customs (B0C).

The sensational investigations, which have dominated national headlines in recent weeks, led to the resignation of BoC Commissioner Nicanor E. Faeldon, a key Duterte ally, who ironically was a co-plotter of the so-called Oakwood Mutiny in 2003 with Trillanes. The two former soldiers, however, currently find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence.

The Senate investigations, which have seen heated exchanges between Trillanes and Faeldon, have exposed a dense web of illegal drug trading allegedly involving Chinese-Filipino businessmen and senior government officials. One of the witnesses, Mark Taguba, directly implicated the president’s son as an alleged key player in the so-called “Davao group” at the customs bureau in Davao City.

Duterte’s son-in-law, Maneses Carpio, the husband of Davao Mayor Sarah, was also implicated by Taguba. Carpio has dismissed the accusations as baseless and accused his detractors, namely Trillanes, as “a desperate rumor monger who happens to be a Senator.”
Taguba has recently recanted his accusations against the presidential son and son-in-law.

“I am making this statement to clear Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and Attorney Manse Carpio from any involvement in the shipment of illegal drugs into the country, and any anomalies in the Bureau of Customs,” said Taguba in a statement on September 1.

Activists display placards during a rally after 91 people were shot dead in one week in August 2017 in President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Duterte’s critics, however, claim that the witness was likely under political duress to recant his statement, particularly amid a state-sponsored killing spree of drug suspects, thus there is still a need to conduct thorough and balanced investigations into the accusations against the president’s family members.

Philippine lawmakers proposed last week to increase by 4,400% to 900 million pesos (US$17.58 million) the police’s drug war budget for 2018.

Indeed, the Filipino president can count on his allies in the Senate to block or frustrate any substantial investigation. Senator Richard Gordon, whom Duterte has affectionately described as his possible successor, has vigorously opposed calls for summoning the President’s son and son-in-law to the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigating the allegations.

He urged his Senate colleague Trillanes to provide actual evidence before subjecting the presidential family to a high profile and sensationalized investigation. The ensuing exchanges on August 31 became particularly heated, with Gordon filing an ethics complaint against his rambunctious counterpart for supposedly behaving “unparliamentarily.”

Duterte’s allies, who dominate the legislature, have accused their opponents of launching unwarranted investigations to undermine the administration. Though they will likely insulate the president’s family from any criminal proceedings, the ongoing probe has dented Duterte’s public image and claims of moral rectitude.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes at a National Heroes Day Commemoration on August 28, 2017. Photo: Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

This could inevitably undermine his political capital, especially amid rising discontent with the conduct of his bloody anti-narcotics campaign. The coldblooded murder of teenager Kian Loyd delos Santos by police officers in August, caught on CCTV, has galvanized strong public opposition to Duterte’s extrajudicial methods.

Sensing a potentially disastrous political backlash, the president made the unprecedented move of not only admitting a mistake, but also meeting the family of the victim. Duterte promised accountability for the erring police officials, which have been accused of resorting to torture and extrajudicial killings against suspected drug users as well as innocent bystanders.

While Duterte will likely continue his violent and increasingly expensive drug war with a greater focus on high-value targets and alleged ‘narco-politicians’, his aura of invincibility is starting to slip as the drug hysteria starts to hunt even his own family.

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