A Battle of Two Evils

After a highly-publicized Senate investigation and many months of political mudslinging, the saga between President Rodrigo Duterte and Senator Leila de Lima entered a climactic turn with the arrest of the latter.

The Senator is being detained for drug trafficking charges, after being accused by the current administration of receiving bribe money from high-profile inmates inside a maximum security prison. In her defense, de Lima argued that the motive of her arrest is purely political and that the Duterte government merely wanted to silence her for being a fierce critic on the ‘war on drugs’. The embattled Senator wore the mantle of a freedom fighter proudly, saying she is proud “to be the first political prisoner” of the current regime.

Several groups also voiced their support for Senator de Lima, including Human Rights Watch and a liberal watchdog based in the European Union – all condemning the arrest as blatant political persecution. One has to remember that a trial happened before this ordeal. For many months there was an inquiry into the rampant drug trade inside a supposedly high-security penitentiary, and the findings did produce damning evidence to link the Senator to the criminal activities she is accused of.

The 2014 raid on Bilibid 

On the 15th of December in 2014, a surprise raid on the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) shed light on the absurd reality inside the jailhouse: several high-profile inmates, leaders of lucrative criminal syndicates or high-profile drug manufacturers, were living a life of luxury despite being prisoners. They enjoyed extravagant accommodations fitted with air-conditioning and equipped with jacuzzis, stripper bars and even a recording studio. Most concerning of all, despite officially under custody these V.I.P criminals were able to continue their criminal operations – including their drug trade.

The revelations became a focal point of the 2016 elections, as then-candidate Duterte adopted a nationwide anti-narcotics program as his priority he vowed to further scrutinize the results of the raid. Senator de Lima was thrust into the spotlight for the scandal, since she was Justice Secretary at the time of the raid and thus had the responsibility of overseeing correction facilities. After the elections the new administration revealed that “75% of drug transactions are being cooked in Muntinlupa (where NBP is located)”, that may have been an exaggeration but further discoveries only casted further suspicion on the role of the former Justice secretary in the scandal.

Justice secretary Leila de Lima allegedly visited Jaybee Sebastian (in the orange jumpsuit) at his luxury prison cell in Bilibid.

The case against de Lima

The current Solicitor-General Jose Calida produced a photo evidence of the Senator with convicted drug dealer and armed robbery gang leader Jaybee Sebastian also in the frame. Calida claimed that the photo was taken inside the latter’s luxury kubol (jail cell), proving his links with de Lima. A video also went viral on social media showing the Senator singing at a party with other Department of Justice officials, including her undersecretary. The Facebook page that published it claimed it was a private party for convicted high-level drug manufacturer Herbert Colanggo.

Then, the testimonies poured in. The inmates in question themselves implicated the former Justice secretary in their drug trade, claiming that they were compelled to donate large sums to de Lima’s planned Senatorial campaign. Convicted kidnapper and NBP inmate Rodolfo Magleo claims that de Lima was a regular fixture in the penitentiary and she specifically had a close relation with Sebastian. Another big-time drug dealer, Herbert Colanggo who ran the drug trade in Mindanao, revealed his monthly contribution of Php3 million per month to de Lima’s election kitty. Ultimately, Jaybee Sebastian himself testified and claimed the Justice secretary was in his payroll receiving Php1 million per month.


Many enemies

Aside from the corroborative testimonies given by the convicts, what was even more telling was the obvious persistence the Duterte administration had in pinning down the Senator. It is undeniable that there was a tinge of vindictiveness in the pursuit of de Lima, she had enemies within the incumbent government that longed for her head since the day Duterte took over.

For one, de Lima was instrumental in the detention of former president Gloria Arroyo in 2010. Anyone who followed the latter’s trial saw how relentless de Lima was in that case, acting in her capacity as Justice Secretary. She also oversaw the downfall of prominent Senators Bong Revilla, Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile – all three have found favour with the current President. Then lastly, de Lima also crossed the most influential cult in the country – the Iglesia ni Cristo – when she ordered the arrest of several of their leaders in 2014.

However, de Lima was in jeopardy when she dared confront Duterte in his war on drugs. As a former human rights activist, the Senator denounced the drug war from its’ inception which was lauded by human rights groups but was met with suspicion given how she was already linked to the drug trade prior. Whether her objections came as a result of her stance on human rights or a confirmation of her links to the drug trade is unknown at this point, but what is certain is that her vocal rejection of the Duterte administration earned her her biggest enemy in politics.

Major costs, special favours?

It is clear that revenge was a clear motive in de Lima’s arrest, but it is not to say that the allegations against her are baseless. There is a strong case to prove her guilt, but the Duterte government chose to pay a steep price.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre

To turn them into state witnesses, charges against five high-profile inmates were dropped. They include Herbert Colanggo, Engelberto Durano, Vicente Sy, Jojo Baligad and Peter Co – all high-profile syndicate leaders. They all maintained their criminal operations despite being detained, imagine the havoc they will wreak if they are given full freedom.

The Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II was also grilled during one of the Senate investigations after an exposé showed that inmates who testified against de Lima were bestowed with special privileges. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian alleged that the convicts-turned-witnesses were allowed communication equipment as well as having their rooms fitted with special amenities such as air-conditioning, which is ironically alike to the charge the Duterte camp is accusing Senator de Lima in the first place. To his defense, Aguirre dismissed the claims and said “aircons inside jail cells are not a special privilege.

Hypocrisy on both sides

Taking advantage of the abundant publicity her arrest received, Senator de Lima flashed an “L” hand gesture to reporters. This is the same hand gesture that the anti-Marcos People Power protesters used in the 1986 Revolution, clearly de Lima wanted to portray herself as a freedom fighter and a hero. However, the evidence against her is damning enough to mount a solid challenge in court – a fact that her detractors failed to properly exploit.

There was a strong case against de Lima that would hold even in a fair trial, yet the Duterte camp chose to fight dirty and pulled underhanded tactics. The only plausible reason for them to do so is to achieve their desired result as quickly as possible. For this, the prosecution only showed that they are no better than the Senator and that they were capable of committing the same crimes they accused her of.

The biggest losers — all of us 

Both sides can claim some form of victory in their own right, with supporters of de Lima finding sympathy among overseas groups and the Duterte administration celebrating the downfall of an ardent critic. The only losers are the Filipino people, who not only had to deal with petty political bickering for several months but now are left with the prospect of having high-level criminals out of jail and back into the streets.

Sen. De Lima flashing the iconic ‘L for Laban (Fight)’ hand sign used by anti-Marcos protesters.

The problem of favoritism inside our prisons has also been left unaddressed. The previous government showed that such practices could happen willfully under their watch, the crackdown shown by the Duterte administration gave hope that this problem could be remedied. However, all credibility the government had to curb this practice has been diminished by this scandal. They showed that they are also amenable to this practice provided it benefits them politically.

Usually in a battle of epic proportions, there is a hero that we can get behind of and support. But this is Philippine politics, it is mostly just a battle between two evils.