Who Let the Dogs Out?

The war on drugs is arguably the strongest campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, this is proven by the intense police crackdown on the narcotics trade in the Philippines resulting in thousands of deaths.

One might expect that the purveyors of drug use in the country – the wealthy and powerful drug manufacturers, otherwise known as “drug lords” – would bear the brunt of the Head-of-State’s so-called “war”. However, these very influential drug lords seem to elude much of the President’s wrath and just this week the war on drugs took a massive hit with the dismissal of charges against several accused narcotics traders.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed cases filed against Peter Lim, Peter Co, Kerwin Espinosa and 19 others who have been previously named by the President to be among the leading drug traders in the country last Sunday. The reason cited was the apparent lack of evidence to pursue cases against these very powerful individuals, despite historical accounts proving otherwise.

Accused drug lord Kerwin Espinosa presented to the media after returning to the Philippines.

Kerwin Espinosa is the son of the late mayor of Albuera, Leyte Rolando Espinosa who was slain in a reported shoot-out with police forces inside his jail cell in 2016. He was a fugitive overseas when his name was included in a list of drug dealers exposed by Duterte, but was prompted to return to the country after reports of his father’s killing.

During his trial, the younger Espinosa confessed that he indeed is a drug lord – earning a whopping ₱50M yearly – and paid millions in protection money to rogue politicians, one of whom was former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima who was convicted of conspiring in the drug trade in 2016. Before his father was killed, the older Espinosa also testified that his son was a big-time player in the country’s narcotics trade and urged him to surrender.

Was the younger Espinosa’s testimony in front of the Philippine Senate of his involvement in the drug trade not enough? If not, what about the testimony of his father or that of the Chief Executive Duterte himself who had the confidence to name Kerwin Espinosa in his “narco list” of drug dealers in the country?

The same conundrum beleaguers observers with the case of Peter Lim, who also has the alias of “Jaguar” due to his notoriety in illegal narcotics operations. He is one of the three individuals who President Duterte branded as the leaders of the drug trade in the entire Philippines, the latter even suggested that the three “should just commit suicide” since he was so certain of their guilt.

President Rodrigo Duterte poses with alleged drug lord Peter Lim, who was also a sponsor of his wedding.

With regards to Lim, who was in hiding overseas at one point, the President formerly declared that once he steps into the country “he will be killed”. Despite this sharp rhetoric, there were doubts that Duterte may be giving the accused drug lord favorable treatment since they were co-sponsors at the same wedding – which in Filipino culture, forges a deep bond among these “kumpadres“.

If this tie between Duterte and Lim is indeed factual, then we should expect the President to know Lim on a personal basis and if he does, then we can take his word about his accusation that the Chinese-Filipino businessman is trading illegal drugs. Given that, how can the DOJ still insinuate that the evidence against Lim was insufficient?

The incumbent Secretary of Justice, Vitaliano Aguirre III, is also among Duterte’s closest aides and among his most trusted confidantes. It should have been easy for the President to win a conviction against these accused, if the latter wished to do so that is.

Much of the blame can also be placed on the Philippine National Police (PNP), who were tasked of gathering evidence to file charges against these individuals. They are well-loved by the President, who has entrusted them with the task of ridding the country of narcotics, but now it seems the force has failed him in their assigned mission.

The police Chief Inspector of Ozamiz City, who led the drive to arrest Kerwin Espinosa, also declared his bewilderment at the DOJ’s recent decision. He even floated the theory that the cases may have been sabotaged from within the PNP force itself.

All hope is not lost however, as the dismissal by the DOJ can be appealed and be re-filed again. This time, the government should ensure that their case is strong or else it will suffer the same fate again.

Given that this is Duterte’s banner project, he should take a lead role in ensuring these alleged drug lords are brought to justice – after all, he has expressed his certainty that these individuals are indeed guilty. There will surely be critics who would pinpoint the President’s hand in the dismissal, he now has to prove his legitimacy – and that of his drug war – to them.

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