Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.

So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.

For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:

Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?

Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.

The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.

This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.

Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.

Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?

MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.

This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.

The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.

RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?

MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.

RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?

MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).

The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.

She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.

Erik de Castro talks about his new film ‘Federal’

SOME cinema-goers in Brazil were surprised last month when Erik de Castro’s new film “Federal” was released just days after the blockbuster “Tropa de Elite 2” had opened. They rightly believed that “Federal” would be unfairly compared to “Tropa”, which had a much bigger budget and opened on nearly ten times more screens than Castro’s film.

In the following interview, Castro, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles in the 1990s, talks about the timing of the release of his film; what it was like working with Selton Mello, one of Brazil’s most popular actors; why he thinks the sex scenes in “Federal” were not excessive, and why he thinks Brasilia is the capital of cocaine.

QUESTION: Why was your movie released shortly after “Tropa de Elite 2” in Brazil? Didn’t your distributor realize that it would face stiff competition since it is a police/action movie too?

ANSWER: That’s a long story. To make it short: we had no option. “Tropa” is a blockbuster. “Federal,” which was called “a masterpiece” by a film critic in Rio shortly after its first screening at the Rio International Film Festival, is more in the path of a cult movie now. That’s okay, though. “Blade Runner” was indeed one of my influences!

Q: Why did it take so long, from the inception of the script in 2001, to the filming of “Federal” in 2006, and then finally to its release this year? Was it because of a lack of funds?

A: Film production in Brazil is a tough endeavor. Also “Federal” was a completely independent production, from a first time feature filmmaker, out of the Rio/São Paulo axis — and it had a lot of action. We shot in 2006, than it took us a few years raising the money for its conclusion and proper release.

Q: At the beginning of “Federal”, the opening credits say that the movie was made with the support of the Prefeitura do Rio, which confused me. For a moment I thought I may have come into the wrong room and was about to watch “Tropa de Elite 2”. Was your movie edited in Rio?

A: No, but the whole sound editing and mixing process was done in Rio. Riofilme invested in the production, as a co-producer. Jose Wilker was the president of the company and he liked the screenplay a lot.

Q: How was it as a director to work with Selton Mello, who is considered a star in Brazil? Was he difficult to direct? Why isn’t he promoting the film right now? Is it because it took so long after the film was finished for it to be launched that may have lessened Mello’s enthusiasm?

A: The same as it was with any of the almost forty actors and actresses that I had on my cast on “Federal”: a creative collaboration. Also, I just didn’t see him as a star. I’ve known Selton since 1995 when I invited him and he accepted to be in my first short film shot in Brazil — I had a few others shot during my student period in Los Angeles — called “Reason to Believe” (1996). I showed ‘Federal’s script to him in 2001, right before the Sundance Lab Institute selection, and he promptly accepted. He was not difficult to direct at all. Like I said, filmmaking is all about creative collaboration.

As for the last question, why don’t you ask him about it? He’s currently dedicated to his own projects that he is producing and directing and that is happening at the same time of “Federal’s” release.

Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained about the various sex scenes in the film, saying they were gratuitous and too explicit. Did you include them on purpose to “spice” up the story?

A: To me they’re very organic. Sex is something that is part of our lives. So some cops in “Federal” do have a lot of love to give to their ladies…and vice-versa! I think people should relax more with sex scenes in films — and enjoy it. Truth is I’ve heard a lot of people who loved them in “Federal”!

The “spiciest” one, the scene of the character Rocha (Christovam Neto) and his “blonde” is the favorite of a lot of people, including my film professor Tom Stempel who defined it as: “My kind of sex scene: fast, funny and keeps the story going.”

Q: In the movie one of the characters says that Brasilia is “the capital of the powder,” a reference to the trafficking and consumption of cocaine here. Don’t you think that cocaine as a drug was more widely consumed here in the 1980s, and that nowadays, at least among the younger generation, ecstasy and crack have taken over as the drugs of choice?

A: Other drugs come and go, but cocaine is always there. I don’t see a character like the diplomat Sophia consuming crack or ecstasy. Cocaine made our point. Cocaine is the classic drug. And that phrase (“the capital of the powder”) didn’t come from me. It came from UnB Professor Argemiro Procópio, PhD, one of the consultants of the script. He’s the author of many books about drug trafficking and how it affects our society. One of them “O Brasil no Mundo das Drogas” (“Brazil in the World of the Drugs”) points out Brasília as one of the cities where drug consumption, especially cocaine, has grown more than elsewhere in the entire country.

And that has a reason: cocaine is an expensive drug and Brasilia has a lot of rich people. Period. Big shopping malls brands come here, great fashion stores, hip and very expensive concerts, and cocaine too. That’s historical in this city but no one seems to care or talk about it. Professor Argemiro dared me: “I dare you to put that phrase in your film.” Well, it’s there.

Q: I found many of Michael Madsen’s lines as a corrupt DEA agent to be very cliché! Him saying that Brazil has the best coffee in the world and that he needed to “fuck” a Brazilian woman made me squirm. Were these the original lines in the script or did he improvise?

A: Original lines and Michael loved it! Sam Gibson originally was a one-scene character, who was supposed to be a kind of a comic relief in the story, with all those lines and purposely cliché. His character grew in the story and some of the cliché lines stayed. That’s all. We had a ball on the set with Michael.

I’ve heard different opinions about Sam’s sense of humor and for me that’s what “Federal” and any good film — or art form for that matter — is all about: Not having consensus.

Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained that the storyline is not coherent, and that you failed to adequately link the various scenes. How do you respond?

A: I don’t. Others have congratulated me for the script and the way that the edited film kept them tight in their sits, waiting for what was going to happen next. These people understood the film thoroughly.

I had as an editing consultant on this film — and who is also a dear friend — Roman Polanski’s editor, Academy Award nominee Hervé deLuze (“The Pianist”). He had read the script and appreciated very much the way Heber Trigueiro (“Federal’s” editor) and myself were conducting the rhythm and pace of the film.

Again, film is a very complex art form. Either it hits you, or not. If everyone understood it the same way, it would be too boring. That’s why cinema is so great: cinema is disagreement. I might like a film that you hate and vice-versa.

Q: In the scene of “Federal” where the federal police surround the chacara of the head of the NGO, the police shoot a stream of bullets into one of the cars trying to escape from the scene. Is this standard procedure for the police? To me it seemed like overkill. I would have thought that they would just shoot out the tires to get the car to stop so that they could get the passengers alive. Instead, they stop the car but have also killed everyone in it!

A: Come on, give me a break! It’s a cop movie! They were being shot at. So, let’s kill the bastards!!

At some point in a movie like this, it is a matter of kill or be killed. This was one of those moments. It’s like a modern Western.

Q: What was the reaction of the Federal Police to your film? I read the comment of one policeman online who said that your movie shamed the Federal Police for showing them to be so corrupt.

Do you agree with this, or do you think “Federal” showed them in a more nuanced light?

A: Again the arrow hits you according to your own perceptions and thoughts. If this guy felt this way, who am I to disagree?

There were a lot of people at the Federal Police who knew about this project ever since its screenplay was written back in 2001. One retired deputy, to whom I showed the script in 2002, said to me that everything that was there was true.

I’ve heard about federal policemen who saw it and liked it very much. I just think that I’ve shown the cops, their wives and even the criminals in a humane way.

The Federal Police Department is a very big place and I’m sure you would get a lot of different opinions there.

Q: What are your next projects that you are working on?

A: I’m working right now on a romantic vampire thriller called “A Lenda de Cândida” (“Candida’s Tale”), which I wrote with my “Federal” co-writer Érico Beduschi back in 1999. Diler Trindade will produce this one.

Also, I have yet another police story called “BR-306” (“Route 306”), written by myself, which is being developed with producer Marcus Ligocki, from Brasilia, for his company Ligocki Z Entretenimento.

Currently I’m finishing my production company’s (BSB Cinema) third World War II documentary, called “Brazil and the Battle of the Atlantic”.

The previous ones were “Senta a Pua!” (directed by myself), about the first Brazilian fighter squadron in WWII and “A Cobra Fumou”, about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) in WWII, directed by Vinícius Reis.

Selton Mello in a scene from “Federal”

‘Federal’ fails to make plausible link between drug traffickers and politicians

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

THE new Brazilian film “Federal” by Erik de Castro, that opened nationwide on more than 70 screens across Brazil on Oct. 29, is a labor of love that had been percolating in the head of its director since he was 16 in 1987.

Twenty-three years later and after several rewrites at the Sundance Institute in the US, “Federal” has finally made it to the big screen. It is the story of a small group of federal and civil police officers in Brasilia who are hot on the trail of international drug trafficker Carlos ‘Beque’ Batista (Eduardo Dussek). Led by a serious yet affable Vital (Carlos Alberto Riccelli), the group includes a young and idealistic federal agent Dani (Selton Mello), a street cop called Lua (Cesario Augusto) and a feisty federal agent named Rocha (Christovam Neto).

De Castro is wildly ambitious in trying to set out telling a story that will illustrate how drug dealers are linked to corrupt politicians in high places, but he fails to paint a convincing picture. Instead, he has produced an interesting look into the lives of policemen, some good others corrupt, in their daily fight against the menace of drugs.

The opening scenes of policemen looking over the body of a murdered drug dealer in the garden of a posh house could have been filmed anywhere in Brazil, but soon De Castro has policemen chasing after another suspect in the satellite city of Ceilandia in an action sequence that involves the traditional dance/martial art that originated with Brazilian slaves called “capoeira”.

The director, who is a native of Brasilia, filmed the entire movie on location in super-16mm that was later blown-up to 35mm. This shows. At the Parkshopping cinema that I watched “Federal” at, the screen was left with a blank space on either side, as the projected film did not fill up the screen entirely. The use of traditional film, instead of digital video, gives the film a cinematic feel that De Castro was aiming for. One reviewer of the film however complained that the scenes looked washed-out and monochromatic, compared to the sweeping and brighter shots of Brasilia’s famous skyline that the director scatters throughout the movie to constantly remind us just where this police thriller is taking place. I found his lighting to be very naturalistic, giving the film a realism that is often missing from other Brazilian films, especially those produced by Globo Filmes that tend to be super-glossy and perfect looking.

Unfortunately, the film’s acting and script deserve less praise. Some of the actors either overacted their parts, such as Michael Madsen as the American Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sam Gibson, or under-acted their parts such as Selton Mello did with Dani. Here the script is also very much to blame, with Madsen saying such clichéd things as: “Brazil has the best coffee in the world!” and “I’ve been in Brazil for several days now and I haven’t even fucked a Brazilian woman yet!” His forced hilarity was over the top and made me squirm in embarrassment. He came across as the stereotypical obnoxious American: Loud, tacky and over-confident.

On the other side of the spectrum, Melo played Dani so low-key that at times it seemed like he was on tranquilizers and sleep-walking his way through the story. Melo is a big star in Brazil, so having him in an independent and relatively low budget film like “Federal”, which was produced on a budget of R$5 million (approximately $2.9 million), is considered a coup of sorts. But not only is Dani moping throughout the movie, he also has an annoying conversation with Vital near the beginning of the film after he sees that a suspect has been tortured for hours by his civilian police colleagues.

“How can we justify this torture?” Dani asks Vital.
“I think that if I had been a policeman during the military dictatorship I would have joined the guerrillas and fought on their side,” he says, referring to the 1964-1985 period during which Brazil was under strict military control and Marxist guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped diplomats.

“This is our job, this is what we do as policemen,” Vital replies.

I felt like Dani needed a slap in the face from Vital, and a good tongue-lashing. While I’m sure the Federal Police is full of principled and honest agents, Dani’s constant whining and depression throughout the movie made one want someone in the film to suggest to him that maybe he wasn’t cut-out to be a federal agent after all!

Script problems aside, it is clear from seeing “Federal” and from talking with the director (see my interview with him in the next entry), that De Castro loves Brasilia and is trying to showcase the city in this film. I like the capital too but it would have been better if De Castro had been subtler in including shots of the city in the story.

For instance, twice in the film Dani is shown standing next to his motorcycle at the JK Bridge that links the Plano Piloto to the Lago Sul district of Brasilia. This is the most beautiful bridge in Brasilia, and one of the most unique in the world. Its graceful white arches stretching across the Paranoa Lake have become an iconic landmark of the capital. But we already know that Dani lives in a small apartment, which if you live here would know that the superquadras that house most apartments here are not really near the bridge. Which brings me to my point: The shots of the bridge seem gratuitous and do not appear as a convincing part of the narrative.

De Castro also finds it necessary to show us just how human each of our policemen are by showing that each one either has a vigorous sex life or not. At the cinema that I watched “Federal” at, I heard teenagers behind me groan in desperation at some of the protracted and rather explicit sex scenes, which seemed gratuitous and did not do much to advance the story.

I did not mind those scenes so much. What bothered me were the rather sketchy performances of the bad guys: The head of the NGO, Eliezer Gallo (Adriano Siri), who also funded a church (in which he hid a drug manufacturing lab in its basement) seemed to me like a flimsy caricature of shadowy power brokers in the capital. And the reverend of the church, played by Andre Amaro, was cartoonishly funny in the way he led prayers, raising his arms and uttering foolish words. It just made me laugh.

The point that “Federal” makes very well though is that Brazil has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The country has thousands of kilometers of extremely porous borders with Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Much of that border is in the Amazon jungle, and as such is very difficult to be policed effectively by Brazilian border guards. Just last week, Italian police announced they had seized several tons of cocaine that had been smuggled from Brazil into Italy by sea, hidden in a container of agricultural machines.

While De Castro succeeds in showing us just how corrupt or honest various anti-drug smuggling policemen can be, he utterly fails to paint a convincing picture of the relationship between international drug dealers and political leaders in Brasilia. Which is a shame really. Perhaps he can do that in “Federal 2”.

From left to right: Selton Mello as Dani and Carlos Alberto Riccelli (Vital), with Christovam Neto (Rocha) in the middle, and Cesario Augusto (Lua) behind him, in a scene from “Federal”.


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