Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says a prayer in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo, recently appointed as the nation’s “drug czar”, is not only shaking up the country’s controversial drug war policy but also potentially its geopolitical alignments.

Robredo, a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-Western stance, is working in her new role to reopen closed channels with traditional security partners, including the United States.

In particular she aims to revive ties between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Western counterparts, many of whom have shied from bilateral cooperation amid reports of widespread abuses related to the drug war.

Rights groups have estimated as many as 23,000 have been killed in extrajudicial fashion since the campaign’s launch in mid-2016, coinciding with Duterte’s taking elected office.

Government officials categorize such claims as grossly exaggerated and maintain that police officials have only shot and killed suspects in self-defense.

The geopolitical shift over the drug war is apparently already underway. Days after her drug czar appointment in early November, Robredo said US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim offered to assist her with the anti-drug campaign.

Philippine Vice President during a wreath laying ceremony of the 121st Independence Day celebrations at the Rizal monument in Manila, June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Artur Widak

“He [Kim] said that the US is looking forward to partnering with us. [Help from] the US in the drug war, especially in intelligence-gathering, is very important,” Robredo told reporters at the Indo-Pacific Federation Conference of the Theosophical Society in Manila.

Renewed cooperation with the US could allow Robredo and like-minded officials to push back against China’s growing influence over Philippine security services, which have warmly welcomed Beijing’s offers of trainings, weapon sales and diplomatic support in recent years.

As the co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), a somewhat obscure agency in the bureaucratic scheme of things, Robredo technically has limited powers to shape broad government policy.

But Robredo’s political profile as the country’s de facto opposition leader and second highest-ranking official, however, gives her broad leeway to reshape and restrain Duterte’s most controversial policy.

As Duterte enters the second half of his legally mandated single six-year term, speculation runs rife about his eventual prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other global bodies for alleged crimes against humanity.

Robredo’s appointment could act to limit Duterte’s personal exposure to any alleged crimes, and if the lethal campaign is sufficiently toned down under her watch could avoid full investigations by the ICC and UN human rights bodies.

Duterte has barred both ICC and UN representatives from entering the Philippines to conduct probes, even threatening in one outburst to feed ICC investigators to crocodiles if they landed in the country.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila in a file photo.
Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

The US and its international partners have expressed concerns about the penetration of transnational drug syndicates into the Philippines, including the notorious Mexican Sinaloa gang.

In 2014, an anti-drug operation apprehended three Sinaloa members in Manila, who were caught with 84 kilograms of “shabu”, the local name for crystal methamphetamine.

The raid accentuated Washington’s concerns about growing linkages between China-based drug syndicates and their Latin American counterparts, with Manila emerging as an important global hub for transshipment of illegal drugs that eventually arrive on US shores.

China stands accused of turning a blind eye to shipments of the potent opioid fentanyl, an illegal drug that has caused thousands of lethal overdoses in the US, from its chemical factories to Mexican drug gangs that sell it in the US.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency and other relevant agencies had sought to assist the Philippine in its counter-narcotics operations but those efforts until now have been constrained by Duterte’s highly criticized drug war.

Duterte won the 2016 presidential elections based in part on a promise to crack down on drug syndicates. The Filipino president has openly called on police forces to kill suspected drug dealers, promising to raise their salaries and shield them from prosecution.

At the height of the bloody campaign, Duterte urged police: “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill one thousand persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds a Galil sniper rifle at Camp Crame in Manila on April 19, 2018. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

In response, the US Senate threatened to block the sale of assault rifles to the PNP. The US State Department, meanwhile reallocated funds intended for the PNP to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has shunned involvement in the drug campaign.

In the US’s fiscal 2020 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, a congressional committee of lawmakers recommended to reduce counter-narcotics assistance to the Philippines under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE).

“The counternarcotics strategy of the government of the Philippines is not consistent with international norms,” states the provision.

Even before Robredo’s appointment, the US had indicated a willingness to engage on softer counternarcotics cooperation, including via financial support for public health-based and non-violent community-driven drug treatment programs.

Through greater US cooperation, Robredo will likely seek to redirect more funding to the rehabilitation-focused approaches of drug addicts she favors.

The new drug czar has called for the end of the PNP’s notorious “tokhang” (knock on the door) operations which have led to thousands of killings under suspicious circumstances.

Renewed Philippine-US counternarcotics cooperation, meanwhile, will likely challenge China’s recent strong inroads into Filipino security services.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte (R) raise a toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

China has recently provided unprecedented assistance to the PNP, including the provision of assault rifles, while traditional Western partners have shunned cooperation.

Beijing has a certain vested interest in expanded cooperation amid an influx of hundreds of thousands of its nationals into the Philippines, including many involved in a booming gaming industry.

As many as 56 Chinese nationals have been reportedly kidnapped, with several others killed, by Chinese criminal groups. In response, China has offered logistical support and training to the PNP’s Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG).

“[Training in China is] the best way for our investigators and hostage negotiators to effectively learn Mandarin,” said Police Lieutenant Colonel Elmer Cereno, a PNP-AKG spokesperson.

“Follow-up operations against the accomplices [are] delayed since we have to request for or hire interpreters to be able to track down the rest of the gang,” he added, underscoring recent growing coordination with Chinese authorities.

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