Manila suspends war on drugs to purge rogue cops

Activists protesting against the Philippine government's war on drugs in Manila last Friday. South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo (pictured) was abducted and killed last year, allegedly by anti-narcotics officers.
Activists protesting against the Philippine government's war on drugs in Manila last Friday. South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo (pictured) was abducted and killed last year, allegedly by anti-narcotics officers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move to clean up police ranks comes amid scandal over slaying of Korean man by anti-drug cops

The Philippine police yesterday suspended President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs, as it refocuses its efforts on purging its ranks of rogue officers.

The move comes as the 160,000-strong Philippine National Police (PNP) is shaken by a scandal over the kidnapping and slaying last year of a South Korean man, allegedly by anti-narcotics officers.

"There is no war on drugs for the meantime. We're shifting to a war on scalawags. We will clean our own ranks first. Then after that, maybe, we can resume the war on drugs," director-general Ronald de la Rosa, the PNP chief, told reporters.

Hours earlier, at a late evening news conference on Sunday, Mr Duterte ordered the PNP to disband its anti-illegal drugs group, and all precinct-level anti-narcotics units.

"Something has to be corrected severely… Let me reorganise the system," he said, describing the police force as "the most corrupt".

  • TIMELINE OF ANTI-CRIME DRIVE

  • June 30, 2016

  • President Rodrigo Duterte takes office and immediately sets in motion a crackdown on crime. During his campaign, he promised to end the drug menace in three to six months.

  • July 25

  • At his State of the Nation Address, Mr Duterte says there are nearly four million drug addicts in the Philippines. Official figures, though, place it closer to 1.8 million.

  • Sept 5

  • Mr Duterte hits out at then US President Barack Obama for criticising his anti-crime drive. By then, more than 2,400 have been killed by either police or vigilantes.

  • Sept 18

  • Mr Duterte asks for a six-month extension of his self-imposed deadline.

  • Oct 8

  • Mr Duterte marks his first 100 days in office. The death toll has risen to 3,500. The number would later be revised down to 2,300. Police explain that a number of deaths are not drug-related.

  • Oct 18

  • Anti-narcotics officers seize South Korean Jee Ick Joo, under the pretence of a drug raid.

  • Dec 14

  • The number of drug suspects killed breaches 6,000. Of the total, 2,102 are killed in police operations and the rest by unknown suspects.

  • Jan 8, 2017

  • The Philippine Daily Inquirer publishes a report on Mr Jee's kidnapping and possible murder.

  • Jan 17-18

  • South Korea's foreign ministry confirms receiving a report that Mr Jee has been killed, purportedly by rogue cops. Six suspects are named.

  • Jan 19

  • Police Director-General Ronald de la Rosa confirms that Mr Jee was killed inside the headquarters of the police's top brass.

  • Jan 26

  • A Senate investigation finds corruption runs deep in the police force.

  • Jan 30

  • Police suspend the anti-crime drive to focus on "cleansing" their ranks. 

  • Raul Dancel

"You are corrupt to the core. It's in your system," the President said, suggesting that two in five policemen are probably tainted.

Mr de la Rosa had offered to resign, but Mr Duterte said: "What good will come of it? You can't be blamed for this." Mr de la Rosa was police chief when Mr Duterte was mayor of the southern city of Davao.

The "internal cleansing" of the police force arose from a discovery that errant cops were behind the abduction and murder of Mr Jee Ick Joo, a South Korean businessman.

Mr Jee was seized in October by an anti-narcotics team, under the pretence of a drug raid. He was taken to a compound inside the camp housing the headquarters of the PNP's top brass in Manila. While there, and just steps away from Mr de la Rosa's office, police officer Ricky Santa Isabel strangled Mr Jee.

Santa Isabel then demanded a ransom of five million pesos (S$143,300) from Mr Jee's wife. Not knowing Mr Jee was already dead, she paid on Oct 31. But Santa Isabel then asked for another four million pesos.

During a Senate hearing last week, Santa Isabel tagged his supervisor Rafael Dumlao as the "brains" behind the kidnapping and slaying.

On Sunday, Mr Duterte offered a five million peso reward for Dumlao's arrest, "dead or alive".

"You deliver him to me dead, I'm okay with that… (Dumlao) put the reputation of the police in shambles," he said.

Mr de la Rosa afterwards informed Mr Duterte that Dumlao was already in police custody, and that Dumlao had confessed to the crime.

Mr de la Rosa said he does not know how long the police purge will last. He said he will form a "counter-intelligence task force" to go after errant cops, and a new "narcotics command" may be set up later.

Mr Duterte, meanwhile, said his crackdown on illegal drugs will continue until the end of his term in 2022.

"I will extend it to the last day of my term. March no longer applies," he said.

He had promised during his campaign to rid the Philippines of the "drug menace" in six months. He later asked for three more months, saying he was unaware, until he assumed office, how widespread the problem had become.

Critics questioned the sincerity of the police "cleansing".

Mr Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said "it is nothing less than an empty public relations gesture".

Mr Renato Reyes, secretary-general of Bayan (Nation), a coalition of leftist activist groups, said: "How can a corrupt and fascist police force, where impunity is the norm, successfully stamp out criminal activities such as the illegal drug trade? The body count will continue to rise and more criminals in uniform will wreak havoc on the people."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Manila suspends war on drugs to purge rogue cops'. Print Edition | Subscribe