Philippines' Duterte appoints drug war critic Leni Robredo as 'drugs tsar'

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman said the decision to make Ms Leni Robredo (left) a co-chair of an inter-agency committee against narcotics was genuine and not a cynical move to discredit her. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte has put Vice-President Leni Robredo, his main political rival, in charge of a multi-agency body tasked to oversee his controversial drug war, so she can have a go at a problem he promised, but failed, to resolve in six months.

In a memorandum made public on Tuesday (Nov 5), Mr Duterte designated Ms Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (Icad). Icad has jurisdiction over all law enforcement agencies enforcing Mr Duterte's brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, although its authority is largely supervisory.

The president's spokesman Salvador Panelo said in appointing Ms Robredo as "drugs czar" till 2022, Mr Duterte is making good on a pledge to let a critic who thinks she can do a better job steer his drug war.

Mr Duterte had last week slammed Ms Robredo for criticising his anti-drug campaign, and offered to put her in charge.

"I will surrender my powers to enforce the law. I will give it to the vice-president for six months. I'll let her carry it out. Let us see what will happen. I will not interfere," he said.

Mr Duterte was reacting to Ms Robredo's comments in an interview with Reuters that the drug war "is not working". Too many people have been killed in the crackdown, and the problem still persists, she said.

Over 7,000 drug dealers and users have been killed either in police raids or by unnamed executioners since Mr Duterte took office in mid-2016.

"We ask ourselves, 'Why is this still happening?' The president has already made very serious threats to drug syndicates, to drug lords... and yet it's still very prevalent. So obviously, it's not working," she said. She also called for the president to allow the United Nations to conduct an investigation into allegations of rights abuses over the crackdown.

The comments outraged Mr Duterte, who has had a frosty relationship with his vice-president. Ms Robredo, who heads the opposition party, was elected separately from Mr Duterte.

"If she wants, I can commission her to be the drug czar," Mr Duterte told reporters. "I'll give her a clean slate, so she will know how easy it is to control drugs."

Mr Robredo had been sceptical of Mr Duterte's offer for her to serve as "drug czar", and she had no immediate response to her appointment.

"If it wasn't a failure, why would he pass it on to me? If it was successful, he wouldn't have to pass it on... because you've already done it," she said. She then clarified that she did not want to end Mr Duterte's anti-drugs campaign, but would want to "tweak" it.

Her allies in the opposition warned that the offer for her to oversee the drug war could be a "ruse" meant to humiliate her.

But Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told the online news site Rappler that Ms Robredo, as head of Icad, "will have a pro-active role in the government's war against illegal drugs".

"She will have a hand in crafting the policies and programmes of the government, and at the same time ensure the proper implementation of anti-illegal drug operations and advocacy initiatives," he said.

Icad encompasses 21 agencies. It is tasked to "ensure the effective conduct of all anti-illegal drug operations and arrest of high-value drug personalities" including "street-level peddlers and users".

Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief Aaron Aquino, who had previously commented that Ms Robreto would likely "fail" as "drugs czar", said on Tuesday he was ready to work with the vice-president. Mr Aquino will be co-chair of Icad.

Brigadier-General Bernard Banac, national police spokesman, said the 190,000-strong Philippine National Police would "comply with and abide by the order of the president, and we will extend utmost courtesy and full assistance to the vice-president".

He said he expected Ms Robredo to bring a "new perspective" in the drug war.

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