By Raïssa Robles
Don’t be. According to a study on the Philippine drug situation by the US State Department:
Out of 13,667 drug cases filed from 2003 to 2007, only 4,790 led to convictions (mostly cases of simple possession). The rest were either acquitted or dismissed.
Much more than today’s acquittal is at stake here.
The acquittal is a signal to law enforcers and the authorities that they can make all the arrests they want in drug cases. But in the end they will lose most of these cases. The suspects will walk free.
The case of the “Alabang boys” was a very high-profile case that drew the attention of the highest officials of the land. The case had so many red flags going up that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself stepped in and ordered the case to proceed.
You see, one of the suspects was a nephew of a close aide of hers. And Arroyo owned units in one of the condo buildings constructed by the suspect’s family.
She did not want to give anyone the impression she was soft on illegal drugs.
Forgive me for raising my eyebrows when I heard the suspects’ lawyer triumphantly say after the acquittal of his rich clients that “justice was served today” (They own that store in shopping malls called The Rudy Project, you know).
Read my piece below and you’ll see why.
It was what authorities in Manila
call “a routine” operation
By Raïssa Robles
In the early hours of September 21, 2008, undercover agents from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) successfully clinched a deal to buy 60 tablets of the banned drug “Ecstasy” from two alleged dealers inside the posh gated community of Alabang, south of Manila. When the operatives closed in and one of the suspects tried to escape by driving away, the agents shot out the tires of the fleeing car.
They also claimed finding cocaine and marijuana inside the car. As the agents hauled the two young men to PDEA headquarters, one of them allegedly squealed, enabling them to set a trap for a third prey that day.
But the prize the agents snagged may have been more than the government bargained for. The case has touched off a string of bizarre events, allegations of bribery in high places, suspensions from public office, a congressional investigation and two disbarment cases.
The three suspected drug pushers — Richard Brodett, then 25; Jorge Joseph, 22 then and Joseph Tecson, 27 then — were scions of families with wealth and influence. Young Brodett turned out to be a nephew of a close aide of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. His family turned out to have a stake in a property firm called the Burgundy Group which constructed a building where President Arroyo happens to own a condominium unit.
PDEA chief Dionisio Santiago told the Morning Post in an exclusive interview that despite such connections President Arroyo personally ordered him not to release the “Alabang boys” (the name comes from the exclusive subdivision where the initial entrapment occurred and where the young Brodett lives). PDEA is a special agency created by Congress in 2002 and attached to the Office of the President.
“Don’t release them no matter what, don’t let the influential interfere in this case,” Santiago quoted Arroyo as telling him on January 20, 2009. “That shows you she’s hanging tough against illegal drugs,” he said.
Illegal drugs: a Philippine sunrise industry
The case has also cast a light on a sordid network which has turned the Philippines into a major hub for drug trafficking and made narcotics a local sunrise industry earning from $6.4 billion to US$8.4 billion yearly.
“The drug situation in the Philippines could be considered a national security threat,” warned Santiago, a former Armed Forces chief-of-staff. During the interview, he named prominent personalities allegedly involved in drugs and noted that some who used to be mayors were now elected congressmen.
“There is narco-politics all over the country [with] politicians at all levels” involved as financiers or protectors of drug syndicates, he claimed.
The agency is running after seven transnational drug syndicates, all with links to the Chinese mainland, he said.
The Philippines was identified by the United Nations 2008 World Drug Report as “a major manufacturing and trafficking location…a significant producer, transit country and consumer of crystal methamphetamine (‘shabu’).”
Drugs and raw materials smuggled into the country travel a circuitous route, the report said. Originating mostly from Yunnan province, these passed Guangxi, Guangdong and Fujian provinces before being shipped out of Hong Kong.
After these are processed in clandestine labs outside Manila the produce is exported to Korea, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan province, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, US mainland and Guam.
The same report said the Philippines in 2006 had “the world’s highest” number of methamphetamine users (6% of residents ages 15 to 64); followed by El Salvador at 3%. China and Hong Kong jointly had 0.2% since heroin and opium were the preferred drugs there.
PDEA said an estimated 6.7 million Filipinos use marijuana and amphetamines.
A 2009 report on drugs issued by the US State Department praised both the PDEA and the police for dismantling nine clandestine mega-laboratories in 2007, each capable of making over 1,000 kilograms of shabu per production cycle.
Nagging problem: low conviction rate
But nagging problems remain, the US foreign office said: “Out of 13,667 drug cases filed from 2003 to 2007, only 4,790 led to convictions (most of which were cases of simple possession). The rest were either acquitted or dismissed.”
It blamed the low conviction rate on “pervasive problems in law enforcement and criminal justice system such as corruption, low morale, inadequate resources and salaries, and lack of cooperation between police and prosecutors.”
Dismissal order: prepared by suspects’ lawyer
The possible scale of such problems was recently laid bare when Felisberto Verano Jr,lawyer of the Alabang boys, made a shocking admission that he tried to get his clients released and their case dismissed by preparing such an order using the justice department’s official stationery and somehow getting this document placed on Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s desk two days before Christmas, awaiting his signature.
The justice undersecretary, Ricardo Blancaflor, whose office had relayed that order to his superior’s desk was placed under investigation. He denied giving Verano, his law school fraternity mate, undue privilege. He also denied receiving a 2.6 million pesos payoff.
As for Verano, a disbarment suit was filed against him before the Supreme Court but nothing came of it. When it was filed, he merely shrugged it off. “A lot of lawyers get disbarment cases. This is my third,” he told The Morning Post.
“I don’t see anything wrong [with my action] because I just prepared the order and it’s up to the secretary…to sign. It would be a different matter if I had forged his signature,” he said.
Besides, he said, he was merely making sure that a resolution dismissing the case which State Prosecutor John Resado had issued as early as December 2, 2008 was carried out.
The plan was foiled when Justice Secretary Gonzalez refused to sign the order because it had misspelled his name and he did not want to be smeared by allegations of massive payoffs.
Days earlier, PDEA’s head of Special Enforcement Services, Major Ferdinand Marcelino, had gone public with an admission that he had thrice rejected bribes to release the boys whose entrapment he had supervised. “I was offered twice with three million pesos and it went up to 20 million pesos,” Major Marcelino said. His agency warned, without giving proof, that “money was changing hands” inside the justice department for the same reason.
Suspect’s lawyer: was law teacher of prosecutor who dismissed the case originally
PDEA blamed State Prosecutor Resado for the mess. Resado’s controversial resolution dismissing the case was placed under intense scrutiny by the House of Representatives oversight committee on dangerous drugs. Several lawmakers remarked on how it overwhelmingly favoured the suspects instead of the arresting team.
This observation turned out to have basis. Resado’s 23-page resolution, which The Morning Post obtained, had adopted in entirety the arguments made by the suspects’ lawyer Verano, who turned out to be his former law professor.
For instance, Verano had insisted the suspects were not selling drugs but were about to party when arrested. Verano said Brodett fled in his car because he had mistaken the armed agents for kidnappers since they never identified themselves. Verano said Brodett was mauled and nearly killed by the agents. Resado’s resolution also said all those.
Resado wrote that the agents had failed to coordinate with the police before the operation. However, PDEA is not required by law to do that because “being directly under the Office the President, it is a higher agency than the police force,” according to a senior police official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Congresswoman Darlene Custodio also rightly observed during the congressional hearing that Resado was able to dismiss the case by discarding key evidence – the PDEA chemists’ report confirming that what was sold to the agents were ecstasy tablets.
Resado had agreed with his former law professor’s conclusion that the evidence had been planted because the chemists’ log showed they had received the evidence even before the drug bust took place.
But the chemists told the congressional probe that they had made a mistake. The chemists tried to rectify their mistake by signing an affidavit blaming “human error” for writing 12:15 a.m. (past midnight) instead of 12:15 p.m. (past noon).
Resado said the explanation was filed too late and was “incredible and show gross and inexcusable negligence.”
In conclusion, he said, PDEA’s evidence was all inadmissible “for being the fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Resado’s insistence, that he had decided the case based on merits, was undermined by an anonymous tipster who claimed that 1.6 million pesos were deposited to the accounts of Resado and his wife on Dec 2, 2008, the same date as the resolution dismissing the case.
Under oath before lawmakers, Resado confirmed that cash was indeed deposited in his account that day but it was “only 800,00 pesos” and not bribe money. He had personally deposited the sum which came from earnings from his “informal” money-lending business, he said.
But he refused to sign a waiver to allow the Anti-Money Laundering Council to probe his bank accounts after lawmakers told him he could be facing charges of graft, illicit money-lending and tax evasion.
Resado also counter-attacked by claiming that the anti-narcotics agency’s chief lawyer, Alvaro Lazaro, also tried to bribe him thrice to drop the case. But unlike Major Marcelino, he never reported these to his superiors because Lazaro was “his friend”.
Atty. Lazaro denied the charge.
A disbarment case was filed against Resado.
Feud: Prosecutors vs. undercover agents
The Alabang boys case unmasked the simmering feud between prosecutors and undercover agents. The prosecutors claimed the latter undermined many cases by committing serious procedural lapses during operations; while the agents in turn accused state prosecutors of colluding with drug traffickers.
In the Alabang Boys case, it’s interesting to note that neither Major Marcelino – the team leader of the undercover agents – nor his superior, PDEA chief Santiago, was called to testify during the trial.
In the case of the Alabang boys, it is basically Prosecutor Resado’s word against that of Major Marcelino. If Beijing anti-drug authorities were asked their opinion, they would probably take the major’s word.
In 2006, Beijing had tipped off Manila that Southeast Asia’s biggest transnational drug network then was setting up shop in the Philippine capital. The 29-year-old Mr Marcelino followed up the lead, which resulted in the arrest of 16 people including three from the mainland.
Among those arrested was the owner of the building where the shabu lab was located. The owner was a public prosecutor whom the justice department absolved. It said although he owned the building he had leased it out and had no control what it was used for.
“Beijing was aghast at that,” PDEA’s Santiago said.