New chief has less than a year to clean up drug-smeared PNP

Police Gen. Benjamin Acorda Jr. —RADYO PILIPINAS PHOTO

When Police Gen. Benjamin Acorda Jr. took over as Philippine National Police chief from Rodolfo Azurin Jr. on April 24, he promised a “relentless” anticrime drive and assured his predecessor that he would continue “cleansing” the ranks.

Acorda made an “uncompromising commitment” to turn the police into “vanguards of peace to ensure a safe and economically stable” nation.

“We will not rest until every Filipino feels safe and secure in their homes, in their streets and their places of work,” he said in a speech after receiving his four-star epaulets in a ceremony last April 24 at Camp Crame, where he was officially given command of the 228,000-strong PNP by President Marcos.

Fulfilling his promise of safety and security in homes and in workplaces could take years, but he only has 223 days to serve as PNP chief before he retires at 56 on Dec. 3. Even Azurin, the first PNP chief appointed by Mr. Marcos, served for less than a year (267 days).

Major scandal

A day after he took command of the PNP, Acorda told reporters that drugs and “internal cleansing” were his “main concerns,” along with insurgency and terrorism.

He takes the helm as a major scandal unravels in the PNP involving its biggest drug haul ever—more than one ton of “shabu” (crystal meth) with a street value of P6.7 billion.

Azurin had relieved 49 officers, including the head of the PNP Drug Enforcement Group (DEG), who were allegedly involved in a coverup of the arrest of one of their own in the seizure of the shabu in Tondo, Manila, last Oct. 8. They face both criminal and administrative charges.

The former DEG chief, Police Brig. Gen. Narciso Domingo, has denied any wrongdoing, saying that with Azurin’s permission he had tried to use the arrested officer as a kind of decoy to lure in his cohorts. 

Azurin confirmed this but said he stopped the planned ruse after receiving information that the officer, since dismissed from the service, might be killed by the other drug dealers.

Two of the 49 officers also allegedly stole 42 kilos from the seized shabu but returned the loot later, explaining that the purloined portion of the drug haul was to be given as a “reward” to tipsters. This is a common practice, according to drug enforcers.

In a news conference last week, Police Maj. Gen. Eliseo Cruz, chief of the PNP Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management, said investigators had reckoned that the seized drugs amounted to more than one ton and not just 990 kilos as earlier reported by the DEG.

Related: Poverty alleviation is at the mercy of political patronage

Removing ‘scalawags’

Acorda also is taking office just after a special five-man advisory group cleared 917 of 953 police generals and colonels of supposed links to the drug trade. The 36 other officers will be evaluated further by the National Police Commission (Napolcom).

Last January, Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos, who supervises the PNP, made a surprise announcement: that all top police officers should submit “courtesy resignations” to allow the police force to make a “fresh start” through the removal of “scalawags.”

“I do believe we must cleanse our ranks,” Abalos said.

The “voluntary” resignations were followed by a review of the officers’ records by the advisory group, which gave its findings, disclosed in part by Abalos, to Napolcom. In turn, Napolcom will submit its recommendations to the President on whose resignations to accept.

The officers whose resignations will be accepted are those found to be either drug users or linked to the drug trade.

Acorda told reporters that he would leave it to the President to identify the officers forced to resign. He said that as a former police intelligence chief, he knew there were “just a few” officers linked to drugs and “far more good police officers.” 

“My stand on drugs is clear: No police should be involved in pushing, using or whatever means of illegal drug trade,” he said in his speech as the new PNP chief. He warned all police officers involved in drugs that they would be charged and discharged.

He said the fight against drugs on his watch would be “holistic in prevention and aggressive in operations.”

“Under my leadership, rewards and punishment will be quick and decisive, … fair and impartial, and due process shall be observed,” Acorda said, adding that assignments and promotions would be based on merits, ability and “moral ascendancy.”

He welcomed scrutiny by the media to “bring out the truth” and to serve as check and balance. “We will be transparent,” he promised.

‘Protect the people’

In his own speech at the change-of-command ceremony, the President had his own orders to the PNP under its new leader, focusing on establishing peace and order, and internal security.

He said the police must be effective in their intelligence and investigation work and in enforcing accountability for their actions, and reminded them to follow the rule of law “without fear or favor.”

“Make your presence felt in the streets, make them safer,” he told the police. “Defend our democratic institutions, our cherished ideals. Protect the people, especially the weak, the vulnerable, and those who indirectly work with us in the same cause, such as journalists, civic action groups, civil volunteers, [and] the like.”

“Finally,” Mr. Marcos said, “serve the people with integrity, with accountability, and genuine justice. Always be open to public scrutiny, and practice restraint and maximum tolerance in the face of harsh criticism.”

Neither the President nor Acorda cited any achievement of then President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year bloody “war on drugs” upon which to build a new antidrug policy.

Last September, Mr. Marcos said he was shifting the antidrug campaign from mere enforcement to prevention as well as education and rehabilitation of drug users, whom he called “victims” of the narcotics trade. 

Speaking at a forum organized by the Asia Society while on a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, he said he told the police commanders that he was “‘not interested in the kid who makes 100 pesos a week selling weed.’”

“‘That’s not the person that I want you to go after,’” he said, adding that they should focus on dealers whose arrest or neutralization “will make an actual difference” in constricting the supply, distribution and importation of drugs. 

Despite his promise of transparency, Acorda did not address the long-running complaint of the Commission on Human Rights about the PNP’s refusal to give it access to police investigation records and reports concerning suspected drug offenders believed to have been victims of extrajudicial killings.

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