Seized crystal methamphetamine hidden in magnetic lifters at the port in Cavite outside of Manila. Photo: Twitter
Seized crystal methamphetamine hidden in magnetic lifters at the port in Cavite outside of Manila. Photo: Twitter

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent order to militarize the notoriously corruption-ridden Bureau of Customs (BoC) came in response to the latest controversy of an illegal drug shipment being moved unimpeded through a state-run port.

The controversial order came shortly after Duterte replaced former BoC chief Isidro Lapeña, who faced a massive outcry over his failure to apprehend an estimated 11 billion peso (US$208 million) shipment of crystal methamphetamine which inexplicably slipped past his inspecting authorities hidden in magnetic lifters at port in Cavite.

Adding fuel to the fire, Lapeña was later promoted by Duterte to director general of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), a Cabinet-level position.

Opposition critics seized on the appointment to accuse the president of a cover-up by keeping the former BoC chief close to the center of power, lest uncomfortable details about the drug shipment leak to the public.

There is no evidence, of course, to indicate that Duterte or any senior government official had any prior knowledge of the shipment, which reports indicate originated from China. But the incident has shone more uncomfortable light on the contradictions and failings surrounding Duterte’s deadly war on drugs campaign.

Opposition politicians, namely Senator Antonio Trillanes, have openly accused Duterte’s family members, including his son Paolo, of involvement in the drug trade. Paolo has denied the accusations but resigned from his position as vice mayor of Davao City, reportedly for family reasons, amid a Senate investigation.

Paolo Duterte talks to his lawyer during a Senate hearing on drug smuggling in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Opposition senators had accused the presidential son of running a massive drug shipment from China through Davao’s ports; he responded by filing a libel suit against Trillanes for supposedly “baseless” accusations.

Thousands of low-level suspected drug dealers and users have been killed during police operations under Duterte’s watch. Officers have claimed in every instance that they fired in self-defense, claims that rights groups and independent observers have questions.

Amid the deteriorating climate of impunity, security forces recently killed a police officer on Duterte’s infamous nacro-list, while human rights lawyer Ben Ramos, who had investigated extrajudicial killings under the current administration, was also murdered.

Since taking office in mid-2016, Duterte’s government has yet to convict a single major drug trafficker.

The head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Aaron Aquino, has accused a “big man” within government of protecting major drug dealers, though without naming names.

Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency officers seize methamphetamine in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

In that vein, critics note that convicted “drug queen” Yu Yuk Lai and her daughter Diana Yu Uy were recently released after a Manila Regional Trial Court cleared them of drug charges due to a supposed lack of evidence.

“He immediately intervened as soon as we caught the drug suspect [Yu Yuk Lai],” the drug enforcement chief said without divulging the alleged individual’s identity. He promised to take the case to the Supreme Court to have the ruling overturned.

That raises important questions about Duterte’s militarization of the Bureau of Customs. Duterte appointed former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and current Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) administrator Rey Leonardo Guerrero to take over the agency.

Close to a dozen former AFP chiefs and senior generals have joined Duterte’s cabinet over the past two years, a reflection of Duterte’s bid to curry favor with the defense establishment.

Military oversight of the bureau, recent history shows, is no panacea. Nicanor Faeldon, an ex-military officer who Duterte appointed to the same position in June 2016, resigned a year later after another multi-billion peso drug shipment controversy tainted his short time in office.

Duterte’s order for the military to take over the civilian agency, however, has been questioned on legal grounds. Tony La Viña, a leading constitutional expert, has described the order as “illegal “ and “unconstitutional.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech in a file photo. Photo: AFP

He has noted that Section 5(4), Article XVI clearly states, “No member of the armed forces in the active service shall, at any time, be appointed or designated in any capacity to a civilian position in the Government including government-owned or controlled corporations or any of their subsidiaries.”

Opposition and independent legislators have also joined the chorus of criticism.

“Placing the AFP in charge of the BOC may appear decisive and daring, but what we need are no-nonsense solutions, not theatrics,” said Senator Francis Pangilinan, a lawyer and key opposition leader.

Influential independent Senator Panfilo Lacson Sr also questioned the president’s decision, warning about the possibility of military officers falling prey to bribery.

He instead called on the government to “establish a focused counter-intelligence system to curb corruption and prioritize leadership by example.”

“These can help the Bureau of Customs curb corruption without having to tap officers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” he said.

The government has countered that the move is legal because it was made in response to an “emergency”, which is allowed for under a constitutional provision that says the president “may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.”

Philippine soldiers in Marawi on October 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the move was consistent with Duterte’s earlier declaration of a state of “lawlessness” caused by the wild and wooly drug trade.

“Now the lawless violence certainly would refer to what is happening in BoC. There is a state of lawlessness there,” the spokesman, who previously served as the president’s chief legal counsel, said.

Senate President Tito Sotto, a staunch Duterte ally, has also come to the president’s defense, arguing in a tweet that the move is “[r]adical but necessary” and that “drastic measures are needed to finally crack the whip in the bureau.”

It’s still not clear if the military will take full control of the agency, which appears to fall outside of its constitutional duty. The AFP is already bogged down with various insurgencies on the southern island of Mindanao, which Duterte placed under martial law after last year’s militant siege of the city of Marawi.

Insiders say the military has no institutional appetite to stretch itself further into what are normally civilian functions. The government has said it is only asking soldiers to occupy the agency temporarily to facilitate reforms and intimidate corrupt elements.

But as the controversy mounts, Duterte’s call on the military to makes amends for his civilian appointees points to wider failings of his drug war and governance.

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