MANILA—Vice President Leni Robredo is back in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet, under pressure to lead his anti-narcotics campaign, which she has repeatedly criticized over the deaths of thousands of alleged suspects while supposedly leaving many big-time drug traffickers untouched.
The new campaign under Robredo will focus on preventing unnecessary killings while treating drug use as a public health issue, not just law enforcement problem, said Barry Gutierrez, her spokesman and legal adviser.
“Obviously, in any law enforcement, in any effort against crime, there will be situations that will arise where someone will get killed,” he told ABS-CBN News.
“But what we’re trying to avoid here is wanton killing being the main strategy, wanton killing that appears to be an indispensable component of the effort.”
The first order of the day for Robredo is to “get the facts straight” on the extent of drug problem and the real number of drug users after more than 3 years of intense government crackdown, said Gutierrez.
Statistics and other relevant information will be made public “so long as they are not privileged” under a policy of “full transparency,” he told ABS-CBN News.
As co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), Robredo is expected to get full access to information, including investigation reports into police operations which resulted in deaths.
Human rights groups have questioned government figures showing at least 6,000 deaths in the drug war, saying the actual number could be double or even triple the official count.
The official ICAD figure is 5,779 deaths as of Oct. 31, said Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac, spokesman of the Philippine National Police, which initially placed the number at 6,600.
“The first thing that VP Leni will do is to really get a good grasp of how big the problem is,” Gutierrez told ABS-CBN News.
“As the person tasked with leading government effort on anti-illegal drugs, she has to have that information.”
As ICAD co-chair with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Robredo will be dealing with the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), one of 20 agencies under the committee.
The OSG was criticized for supposedly preventing the PNP from releasing records of the drug war, even with requests coming from agencies such as the Commission on Human Rights.
Last April, the Supreme Court ordered the OSG and the PNP to submit police reports and other documents pertaining to the deadly anti-drug campaign.
But petitioners later described many of these documents, which were turned over to the high court, as “rubbish.”
Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said the vice president would be provided all information on the conduct of the anti-drug campaign.
But he could not yet say if the PNP and the OSG would now be more open to provide such data to the public. The PNP periodically releases what it calls the “real numbers” on the anti-narcotics drive, which human rights groups dismissed as an understatement.
“Let’s just cross the bridge when we get there. This is a new dynamic. I don’t presume to know and speculate how the relationship between the ICAD members and the vice president will be,” he told ANC’s Early Edition.
Robredo joined the Duterte Cabinet in charge of the government’s housing program in 2016, but quit later that year over policy differences, including his bloody war on drugs.
Her latest appointment presents a much bigger challenge, the drug war being main campaign promise that catapulted Duterte to the presidency.
Duterte’s supporters often described critics such as Robredo as outsiders with no clear understanding of the scope of the drug problem.
“She will take the drug war in the direction which she believes is right,” Gutierrez said.
“And if somebody will tell her that she cannot do that, then they should probably answer to the president because it’s the president who gave her the authority.”