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.

Beware of the scaremongers

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

This column apppeared in Arab News on June 05, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is constantly being criticized by outsiders who love poking holes in the reputation of the country. With record unemployment, two digit annual inflation, the worst performing economy in the first semester of 2016, the ongoing impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and ongoing outbreaks of dengue and Zika viruses, there are plenty of negative things to criticize in the country.

But it is when exaggeration gets the best of people’s criticism that one cannot stand still and not rectify their wildly inaccurate utterances. Two recent pronouncements come to mind: One was a petition that was signed by 150 prominent doctors and scientists warning that the Rio Olympics in August had to be canceled or moved elsewhere because of the risk of the Zika virus being picked up by participants in the sporting event and then spreading the disease around the world. The other pronouncement was that the violence in Rio de Janeiro was so acute that foreigners should just stay away from the Olympics if they wanted to remain alive.

The signatories of the petition said that the Zika epidemic was very severe in Rio de Janeiro; that the disease was recently found to be more dangerous than previously thought, and that Rio’s public health infrastructure was already overwhelmed and would not be able to deal with the larger number of cases during the Olympics.

The World Health Organization did not agree with the dire warnings, saying, “Canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” It noted that Brazil was among 60 countries where the virus was present, and that there was no public health justification for postponing or canceling the games.

The worried doctors and scientists claim that the 500,000 foreign tourists expected at the Rio Olympics will be perfect carriers of the virus back to their home countries. But a Cambridge University professor disagreed in a BBC interview, saying that August is the coolest month in Rio due to it being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, which will consequently cause a decrease in the reproduction of the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.

While Rio de Janeiro has an unfortunate reputation of being violent and crime-ridden, the security situation has greatly improved over the past 10 years, with heavy police patrols in the tourist areas such as Copacabana. Even so, the International Business Times ran a scare-mongering story this week claiming that 41,000 deaths a year in Brazil are due to firearms, and that 21 cities out of a recent study of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil. These figures may be true, but it is also true that most of this violence is being done by poor people against other poor people.

To beef up security in Rio during the Olympics, the Brazilian government will be deploying 38,000 military personnel to patrol the most dangerous parts of the cities and an additional 47,000 security forces from the civil, military and federal police as well as Civil Defense and National Force members.

Brazil is not a paradise of non-violence and vibrant health, but it is not the hellhole that many foreign observers make it out to be. It would be a shame if their negative scaremongering manages to scare away tourists that are thinking of visiting Brazil during the Olympics or afterward. It is a beautiful and friendly country that deserves to be visited by as many foreigners as possible.


Many twists and turns in 113 Sul murder case

Adriana Villela: She remains the main suspect in the brutal

of her parents in August 2009.

THE INVESTIGATION into the brutal August 2009 murder of the rich elderly Villela couple and their maid in their sixth floor apartment in the 113 Sul quadra of Brasilia, has so many twists and turns that it is becoming hard to follow at times.

The case remains unsolved more than a year after it was committed, and four police chief investigators have handled the case, the latest one bringing back to Brasilia a surprise confession from the former doorman of the Villela’s building, saying he had murdered the couple because he held a grudge against them.

Leonardo Alves, the former doorman in question, but who was no longer working in Brasilia when the murders took place, initially told police that he had committed the crime with his two nephews, that they had not used gloves, and that they did not clean up the crime scene afterwards. Given that Jose Guilherme Villela, 73, a former judge on the Superior Electoral Court, his wife Maria Carvalho Mendes Villela, 69, and their maid Francisca Nascimento da Silva, 58, had all been savagely stabbed more than 74 times, and that police found the bodies in the apartment without pools of blood, puts his testimony into serious doubt. Investigators at the time said the crime scene had looked like it had been professionally cleaned up, and that they did not find the fingerprints of the murderers in the apartment, which means that gloves were most likely used.

Alves, 44, was tracked down in a small town of Minas Gerais after a police investigator listening into a wiretap overheard two prisoners in the Papuda jail talk about the murders. Police found that the former doorman had opened several shops and allegedly sold some of Mrs. Villela’s gold jewelry to persons in that state.

The 46-year-old daughter of the Villelas, Adriana, who is an architect, has been the main suspect as the mastermind of the murders from the beginning, though she maintains her innocence. Police investigators found out that she was receiving a monthly allowance of R$8,500 a month (around $5,000) from her parents, and that she often argued with her mother over money when she would ask her for more. Her father headed his own law firm, which was a lucrative practice that made millions for him in legal fees from famous clients, which included former Brazilian President Fernando Collor, who was impeached in 1992 for corruption only two years into his term.

Now in a new twist, the ex-doorman Alves this week told police that Adriana had indeed paid him and his accomplices to murder her parents, and most horrifyingly, had been present in the apartment when they were executed. The police say they believe him and are trying to put together a case against the daughter. She had been previously arrested and held for a few weeks during the course of the investigation, but was eventually let go for lack of evidence against her.

The civil police of Brasilia have bungled the investigation from the start, with the first police investigator being yanked off the case by her superiors after she listened to a fortune-teller and followed false clues that she had planted. Police later found out that the fortune-teller was a friend of Adriana, and that the daughter of the Villela’s had told her to go to the police with her clues.

Police investigators say that Alves and his two accomplices used at least 15 mobile phones in conjunction with stolen SIM cards, to cover their tracks. Knives that were supposedly used in the murders have never been found; with police even diving in a river in Minas that one of Alves’ nephews said he had thrown it in.

Adriana’s lawyers have insisted that Alves was motivated to kill the Villela couple because he had several heated arguments with them when he was still the doorman of their building, with an especially heated one after he brought a locksmith to break into their apartment, without their approval, to fix a leaking pipe when the couple were away on a trip.

But police investigators have a long list of suspicious behavior committed by Adriana, and the rebuttal of these doubts by her lawyers has not been very convincing.

Police say they found a partial fingerprint of Adriana’s from her parent’s apartment that will be able to place her having been there between the 28th and 31st of August, 2009, when the murders took place. Adriana emailed the Correio Braziliense newspaper last week to insist that she had never been to her parent’s apartment during that period. She claims her last visit to the apartment was on Aug. 13, 2009, to have breakfast with her parents and give her father a birthday present.

Investigators also point out that Adriana went out of her way to create an alibi for herself on the night of Aug. 28 by calling several friends at night to have dinner with her, and they also noted her absence that night a party that she had been invited to. Adriana claims that she did eat dinner with a friend in the Vila Planalto, but that she went home at 8:30pm because she was tired.

Adriana’s strange behavior in relation to her daughter Carolina was also noticed by the police, who said that Adriana tried to dissuade her daughter from going to her grandparents’ apartment to have lunch with them as she did once a week, after Aug. 28 but before the bodies were discovered. Carolina had repeatedly asked Adriana where her grandparents were since they were not answering their phones. Investigators note that Adriana did not call her parents or attempt to visit them in their apartment from Aug. 28 to 31.

Adriana’s lawyers have pointed to the changing testimony of Alves as proof that the police are coaching him in what to say in order to bolster their premature conclusions. Unfortunately for Adriana, her alibis are not very good ones and she continues to be the main suspect as she remains to benefit the most financially from the brutal murder of her parents if she is found innocent.

Kohail Sentenced to Death in Jeddah School Fight Case

IN a ruling that was not very surprising, a Saudi Arabian court in Jeddah on Monday sentenced to death Mohamed Kohail, a Canadian citizen of Palestinian origin, for the death of Munzer Haraki during a fight at the Edugates International School in January 2007.

I did a some reporting on this story last year and from my notes I can say that the family of the Syrian victim was intent on the death penalty for Mohamed Kohail and his younger brother Sultan, who was initially held in a facility for minors and then allowed out on bail. He still awaits his verdict and could possibly be sentenced to death too.

The Canada.com website reports that Mohamed’s friend Muhanna Ezzat, who is Jordanian as far as I know and not Saudi, was also sentenced to death for his participation in the fight.

Last year a video clip of the fight appeared, apparently filmed on the mobile phone of one of the students at the school. I watched the clip, which does not show the entire fight, and was startled at the level of violence used in the fight, with boys picking up huge concrete blocks to smash on each other’s heads. At one point in the video, an Egyptian man, possibly a teacher or a parent, tries to intervene and stop the fight but to no avail.

A friend of the Kohail’s is quoted in many Canadian newspapers anonymously saying that the court refused to hear all of the defense witnesses and that Mohamed initially refused to fingerprint the death sentence verdict, even allegedly saying that they would have to cut off his fingertip first to get his fingerprint on it. He eventually relented and fingerprinted the document.

Many friends of the Kohail family complained that Mohamed should not have been found guilty of murder in the first degree, as the death of Munzer was accidental. An autopsy of Munzer found that he died of internal bleeding and heart failure. When I spoke to Mohamed’s lawyer last year, he admitted that Mohamed had punched Munzer several times in the stomach, but that it was only in self-defense after Munzer had attacked him. Unfortunately, I do not think that Saudi courts are used to making fine distinctions between intentional and unintentional murder.

Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the male students at Edugates and other private schools in Jeddah regularly engage in street fights. What this is a reflection of, I’m not sure. Is it because they are in a highly-segregated society where they don’t have enough exposure to the opposite sex? Is it because their parents don’t spend enough time monitoring them and finding out what they they’re doing after school? I think that perhaps it’s a bit of both.

I don’t think that Munzer’s death should be trivialized and cheapened by the explanation that “it was just a schoolyard brawl.” That to me that is insulting and dismissive. A young man died unnecessarily, and we should hope that somehow we can change the circumstances that led to such a sad event so that it never happens again in the future.

No Hysteria Needed for Cold-Blooded Killers

THE news last week that three Filipinos had been convicted and sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for killing compatriots last year in Jeddah and then dumping their chopped up bodies in an empty lot, was reported as yet another “save the poor Filipinos in Saudi” story by ABS-CBN television.

Their report which, also aired here on The Filipino Channel, consisted solely of interviews in Pampanga with distraught relatives of the three condemned to death. Tears flowed aplenty along with allegations that they were innocent and that they had been tortured in jail to admit to the horrific crimes.

Lacking from the report, at least as far as I could understand, was any necessary context of explaining that the three convicts were part of a jueteng gang that had killed the other Filipinos in a battle over gambling turf. In that context, of the cold-blooded and nasty murders caused by greed for more money from an illegal gambling activity, how can anyone have sympathy for the killers? It was not a crime of passion, done in the heat of an argument. Neither was it accidental. It was premeditated murder of the worst kind, in which the bodies of the victims were chopped up into pieces.

When Saudi investigators found the bodies, they were so decomposed and in small pieces that it was impossible to identify which pieces belonged to which victim. That is why family members of the victims were flown in from the Philippines to give DNA samples that could be compared to that of the victims. Matches were found and this is how they could determine which body parts belonged to which victim.

All of this has been previously reported by Arab News, so I don’t know why ABS-CBN did not do a more balanced report on the sentencing of the accused. It was much easier I guess, and much more dramatic, to just interview the hysterical relatives of the convicted killers, then to actually get the other side of the story and present the complete picture of why these three guys were sentenced to death.

While I am not in favor of the death penalty, I really find it hard to have any sympathy for heartless killers, who chop the bodies up of their victims.

The three killers still have a chance of avoiding the death penalty under Shariah law if the families of the victims agree to forgive the killers and accept blood money as compensation. For this, the Philippine government will have to work hard for.
Beheadings Hurt Cause of Muslims

THE rash of beheadings by Muslim militants from Basilan in the Philippines to Afghanistan and Iraq is a disgusting practice that has nothing to do with Islam and only serves to give the religion and its followers the reputation of being barbaric.

While we in the Muslim world know that Islam is a religion of peace and common sense, the acts of a few deranged militants is besmirching the reputation of all Muslims.

The recent beheading of ten Marines in Basilan by militants linked to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf was a gruesome and wholly unnecessary act. The Marines were killed in a ten-hour gun battle with MILF fighters, so why was it necessary to then chop their heads off? If you ask the MILF they will deny having done it and instead will blame rogue elements of the MILF whom they claim are really Abu Sayyaf.

Basilan Rep. Wahab Akbar recently denounced what happened as “barbaric” and even told the story of how one dead soldier had his hand cut off when a militant could not get a ring off his hand.

Akbar has rightly called on the Philippine military to use local resources to go after the four alleged killers of the Marines, whom he named, instead of sending in a big contingent of troops that could cause havoc and put innocent civilian lives at risk.

I agree in principle with Akbar, but the problem is that too many Muslim politicians in Mindanao claim that they support the central government, but also wink at the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, in an attempt at having it both ways.

I understand why the military must be wary and suspicious of these local politicians and of the MILF when they claim to be helping the government. So many times when some MILF soldiers have killed government troops in irregular situations or beheaded victims, then the MILF conveniently disowns them by claiming that they are rogue elements or even Abu Sayyaf members.

Muslim politicians should realize that they cannot have it both ways, i.e. claim to support Manila and then be in bed with the militants at the same time. That is a dangerous game to play, and one that is already being exposed by military officials fed-up with the never-ending cat-and-mouse games in Mindanao.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Sides have to be taken and sometimes that can be the hardest thing to do in the world.

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