President Rodrigo Duterte recently appointed Police Lieutenant General Camilo Cascolan as the new chief of the Philippine National Police. Cascolan is admittedly the co-author of the Philippine National Police drug manual Oplan Double Barrel, alongside Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa who used to be his boss at the PNP.
The two barrels of the Oplan are Oplan High-Value Target and Oplan Tokhang. It is the second barrel that gained overnight notoriety because of the thousands of deaths that were recorded after police operatives went knocking from house to house ostensibly asking drug pushers and users to surrender and return to the fold of the law.
The police had a single storyline to explain the deaths – suspects chose to resist and fight. It left the police no choice but defend themselves.
But despite the bloody campaign, narcotics continue to flood the Philippine market. This prompted the President to reveal an alleged exchange he had with Customs commissioner Leonardo Guerrero. He said that he told Guerrero to “shape up” and “kill” those involved in drugs, which are “still flowing inside the country” through the Bureau of Customs.
“I approved the purchase of firearms and until now wala ka napatay ni isa? So sabi ko sa kanya, ‘shape up,’” the President said, but stopped short of actually firing the Customs commissioner.
Obviously, Tokhang is a failure. In an interview following his appointment, Cascolan implied a shift to the first barrel, and said that he plans to use small-time drug pushers for leads on high-value targets. He also said that he will initiate internal cleansing in the PNP, in effect an admission that there continue to be rotten elements among its ranks.
The new PNP chief refers to “leads” in identifying drug lords, but his means in doing so is the enlistment of small-time pushers who might be inclined or induced to sing on their suppliers – or those who belong to the upper rungs of the drug trade ladder.
This reveals a mindset that is heavily biased towards the use of criminal informants in building up cases against suspects. Unknown to many, there is an almost invisible underground justice system in this country that makes use of “confidential informants” (rats or snitches in US cop lingo, makapili in our parents’ collective memory) in order to search residences, effect arrests, secure convictions, or worse, execute suspects gangland style.
A famous example is when local cops of Caloocan City, accompanied by one such informant, murdered a helpless 17-year-old Kian delos Santos without provocation and impelled only by the agitations of that CI who mysteriously became unavailable for presentation in court if only to bolster the police version of the events.
Were it not for a valuable CCTV footage, the police officers involved would not have been tried for and convicted of murder for killing Kian delos Santos during a “One Time Big Time” operation under the administration’s banner campaign against drugs.
Heavy reliance on so-called confidential informants does not come without serious cost. Informants are criminals themselves who often continue with their criminal activities even after snitching on who they allege to be fellow criminals. And since the compelling motive is oftentimes the deliverance of their own skin, their testimonies are notoriously suspect and unreliable. Repeated fabrication of testimony is always a distinct possibility.
It is welcome news that the Supreme Court has recently resolved cases with a pronounced return to the constitutionally demanded presumption of innocence on the part of the accused. In an important decision rendered last June (People vs Sapla y Guerrero), Justice Benjamin Caguioa declared illegal an intrusive search conducted by the police into a jeepney passenger’s belongings on the sole basis of a tip called in by an anonymous informant.
According to the Supreme Court, while it recognizes the necessity of adopting a decisive stance against the scourge of illegal drugs, the eradication of illegal drugs in our society cannot be achieved by subverting the people’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Constitution does not allow the end to justify the means.
In the ringing words of Justice Caguioa, the State’s steadfastness in eliminating the drug menace must be equally matched by its determination to uphold and defend the Constitution.
Our courts of justice must always assert independence in their decisions, and choose not to “sit idly by and allow the Constitution to be added to the mounting body count in the State’s war on illegal drugs.”/WDJ