Southeast Asia

Policing the Philippines’ law enforcers

The official motto of the Philippine National Police (PNP) is “we serve and protect”. Filipinos might well ask – whom?

By Alan C. Robles

On 23 November 2009, 58 people were kidnapped and slaughtered in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines. Women in the group were raped, shot and mutilated. The bodies were buried by use of an earthmoving construction tractor. At least 34 of the victims were journalists. This was the worst media atrocity in the country’s history.

Not only did police fail to stop the well-organised massacre – they took part. Policemen, accompanied by hundreds of armed civilian “volunteers”, blocked the convoy the victims were in and directed it to the killing ground. Of the 196 people now being tried for the crime, 61 are from the Philippines National Police (PNP).

The Ampatuan Massacre, named after the warlord clan accused of perpetrating it, bloodily drove home the central problem of the PNP. It is institutionally weak and subservient to local politicians. A 2005 study of the 137,000-member PNP done by the UNDP points out that “the authority being exercised by local government units over the internal operations and decision-making of the PNP creates an environment extremely vulnerable to undue politicisation of the police force.” Rather than enforce the law, policemen end up enforcing the will of a local leader.

On the wrong side of the law

According to Jesse Robredo, secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) “the problem, in varying degrees, has existed for a long time”. It’s a huge problem but far from being the only one. Beset with poor training, scant equipment and corruption, law enforcers have a dismal record. Far too often, they are on the wrong side of the law.

In late 2009, a video surfaced of a Manila police officer torturing a prisoner to death. A few months after, another policeman was charged with raping a female prisoner. Higher up the command chain, last year, the government filed corruption charges against a group of former and active PNP officers involved in a 2008 trip to Moscow where one of the officers was caught carrying € 105,000 in undeclared cash.

Even when the cops spring into action to do their jobs, they can be catastrophically inept. Last August, in Manila, a gunman – a sacked police officer – held a bus full of tourists from Hong Kong hostage. The PNP’s rescue attempt went disastrously wrong. A bumbling, slow-motion assault led to a shootout that killed eight of 25 hostages, as well as the kidnapper.

Organised crime, however, is hardly impressed by law enforcers in the Philippines. At the start of this year, the PNP proclaimed it would crack down on “car-nappers” – armed violent gangs who snatch vehicles by stopping them and forcing the owners out. Rather than duck their heads and go into hiding, the gangs responded by continuing to hijack cars the week after the announcement.

After a bomb explosion killed five aboard a passenger bus in Manila in late January, the Australian embassy issued a travel warning about “the high threat of terrorist attack and the high level of serious crime”. This was certainly not an endorsement of police capacities.

Statistics show that PNP capabilities are indeed limited. According to the UNDP study, over 20,000 PNP members did not have firearms in 2004. Those who did were issued only 28 rounds of ammunition for one year, with another 10 for marksmanship training. While it needed 25,000 handheld radios, the PNP only had 2,280. This January, a paper surfaced showing that in nine of the country’s 15 regions, nearly 80 % of police investigators have had no formal training.

In 2009, the research firm Pulse Asia conducted a poll. The results showed that respondents considered the PNP the country’s second most corrupt government agency, after the Department of Public Works and Highways. A 2006 survey by the Social Weather Stations, a research institute, showed that public confidence in the police was “very bad”. In 2007, the rating was “bad”, and in 2008 “poor”. Trying to put the best spin on the matter, the PNP spokesman in 2008 claimed the ratings at least were “improving” and the police was “slowly regaining the trust of the community”.

The question is: was there ever any trust to begin with? Philippine law enforcement’s traditions are rooted not so much in crime-fighting as in politics, repression and suppression of dissent – with no particular regard for due process or human rights. Centuries of colonial rule followed by decades of authoritarianism under a dictator have left their mark. Democratisation in the late 1980s only changed one thing: The police no longer served national leaders, but became subordinate to local politicians (see box).

In a 1987 essay, political scientist Benedict Anderson famously described the Philippines as a “cacique democracy”, a political system based on competing oligarchs drawn from a few rich and powerful families. The clans legitimise their hold on power by dominating provincial and local elective offices. To win them they use methods summed up by another famous phrase: “Guns, goons and gold.” Local police and private armies – goons – play a key role in these elections, which can be bloody and murderous. The Ampatuan Massacre was actually one clan’s way of preventing another from registering its candidate. The scale of atro­city and brutality were staggering, but the barbarity was not new. In 2007, in a town near Manila, a police inspector and accomplices set fire to a school being used as a voting precinct, killing three people trapped inside.

Between elections, mafia-controlled police protect or even run unsavoury activities such as drug dealing, kidnapping, car-napping and illegal gambling. This is possible because, as political analyst Miriam Coronel Ferrer writes, the Philippines is a “weak state”. She explains: “A state is weak when its capacity to exercise ‘social control’ is not only low but also fragmented. There is no rule of law. The national government cannot convincingly enforce order and exercise governance, especially in peripheral areas.”

As Ferrer explains, the Ampatuans enriched themselves, built a private army, suborned the police and terrorised Maguindanao. This was made possible through the assistance of then President Gloria Arroyo, who needed the clan’s support in Congress, plus the votes it could deliver in elections. “Local bosses are able to entrench themselves to become political dynasties by ‘holding the fort’ for the centre. In turn, they are able to get a slice of the national state’s resources and powerful protection.” Under the Arroyo administration, “local governments were heavily encouraged to procure arms and organise militias to fight those opposed to the government.”

A new administration

The new administration under President Noynoy Aquino, who was elected last year, promises change. Interior Secretary Robredo says: “We will not allow the police to be used for partisan and political purposes.” He argues that reform is possible: “You need two things: an administration truly interested in reform, and a national government that doesn’t tolerate this kind of thing.”

Robredo notes that the National Police Commission (Napolcom) appoints local officers to supervise the police forces, and that it can withdraw such mandates: “If they abuse their authority over their police force, we’ll remove operational supervision and control of the police from their hands.” He said the department has already done this in two or three instances. “One was a mayor reported to be protecting illegal loggers.” Secretary Robredo insists, however, that it makes sense to put the police under the control of local governments. “The national government doesn’t have all the resources; a good local official, whose intentions are similar to those of the PNP, is really a good partner in maintaining peace and order.” He asserts that “by and large most of our local officials help the police and provide them logistical support”.

This year, the Aquino administration has bud­geted two billion pesos (equivalent of € 33.2 million) for acquiring new equipment for the police. It is continuing implementation of the “Integrated PNP Transformation Programme”, which is based on the findings of the UNDP. The Department of Interior and Local Government has also undertaken a cleanup of the PNP. As of January, Robredo said, 175 policemen had been dismissed – more than half of them for involvement with illegal drugs.

Whether any of these efforts will change the performance of the police, or increase its standing in the eyes of the public remains an open question. The challenges are daunting – and political at heart. Political analyst Ferrer says: “We have to strengthen and insulate the state institutions from the machinations of the national leadership, transform the orientation of local governments and wean them away from presi­dential patronage; and put a stop to political violence through the rule of law.“

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