Palace has list of pols in drugs, says Sotto

Palace has list of pols in drugs, says Sotto
By Cathy C. Yamsuan, Leila Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The list of politicians suspected of involvement in drug trafficking is known to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and does not include the names of current presidential, vice presidential or senatorial candidates.

This was disclosed by Vicente Sotto III, who chaired the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) until November 2009, and who warned Thursday against exposing the “confidential” list in connection with the US Department of State’s concern that drug money would be used to influence the national elections on May 10.

The US agency expressed its concern in a strategy report based on the findings of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

According to Sotto, the DDB and PDEA began forming the list right after the President declared herself the national anti-drug czar in January 2009.

He said regular meetings attended by DDB and PDEA representatives were held in Malacañang since then.

In one of those meetings, Ms Arroyo asked about the status of government efforts to arrest and prosecute suspected drug traffickers, Sotto said.

“Who are these personalities and why have we not arrested them yet? How do we get them?” he quoted Ms Arroyo as saying in Filipino.

US state dept. has no copy

Sotto said he and the PDEA head, retired military general Dionisio Santiago, gathered the names of suspected drug dealers from the orders of battle of the agency, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police.

He said the list was completed in less than a month.

“By the third quarter of 2009, we had submitted our list to the President, who immediately directed the AMLAC (Anti-Money Laundering Council) and BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) to monitor those listed,” said Sotto, a former senator who is seeking reelection under the Nationalist People’s Coalition.

He said the US state department had not been given a copy of the list containing the names of “suspected mid- and high-level drug dealers.”

“There were also some names of local government officials, but their direct involvement has not yet been established. Otherwise, they should have already been arrested,” he said.

Sotto said that by the time he resigned from the DDB in November 2009, some of those listed had “already been charged.”

“Some are now under surveillance and some have also gone into hiding,” he said.

It is for this reason that it would be unwise to publicize the list, Sotto said.

“While there is no specific threat to national security if we do so, there is the possibility of retaliation against law enforcers. Or whoever exposes the names can be charged with defamation or be accused of witch-hunting,” he said.

Disruptive of intel work

Election Commissioner Rene Sarmiento Thursday added his voice to those calling on the PDEA to name the candidates involved in narco-politics, and to identify as well those who were providing the illicit funds.

“I think it’s part of the voters’ education and responsible citizenship of PDEA to name not only the candidates, but the sources of this money,” Sarmiento said.

But Sotto said disclosure of the list would “disrupt the work of the intelligence community.”

“Publicizing the list would make all intelligence work useless because it is a confidential list,” he said.

Besides, he said, those listed were already being monitored on different fronts—by drug enforcement agencies as well as the BIR and AMLAC.

Private persons, local officials

Sotto said the list was dominated by the names of private persons and included those of a number of local elected officials.

“The names of local officials are listed because they are in areas notorious for distribution of illegal drugs, or are themselves suspected drug users,” Sotto said.

“But let me clarify that these names are included in intelligence reports only for possible involvement, whether directly or indirectly. That’s why their activities are also monitored,” he said.

Sotto lamented that politicians had been quick to assail PDEA for the US state department report.

“If they want a copy, they can ask for it but we request that it should not be made public. Those who reacted only read the Inquirer report but not the entire US state department report,” he said.

“Why not take note of some highlights, like the one that showed declining numbers of drug users from 6 million to 1.7 million? Is that not an achievement?” Sotto asked.

New rules

Alarmed at the possibility of drug money influencing the May polls, Sarmiento said the Commission on Elections (Comelec) should find new ways to regulate the funds used in campaigns.

He said the laws penalizing those giving and accepting illicit funds for campaigning were weak and needed beefing up.

Sarmiento also said he would ask the Comelec en banc to study the US state department report and would suggest that the poll body be briefed by the PDEA on the matter.

“This has serious repercussions on our governance. Imagine if our winning candidates are backed by this kind of support or money. It’s alarming, based on the principle of ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’ or quid pro quo,” he told reporters. “We will discuss in the Comelec how to regulate this kind of campaign finance.

Sarmiento said candidates backed by drug money were no different from those backed by illegal gambling rings.

He said that from his own study and his participation in conferences on regulating campaign finance, the rules and regulations to curb the use of drug and illegal gambling money in politics were weak.

“I think it’s high time the Comelec adapted rules on how to regulate these sources of funds,” he said.

Sarmiento said those involved in channeling illicit funds to candidates may be charged with vote-buying under the Omnibus Election Code.

Poll fraud

But the penalty is only one to six years imprisonment, disqualification from public office, and deprivation of the right to vote.

Jose de Venecia III, who is running for senator under the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, also called for the disclosure of candidates with links to the drug trade.

De Venecia, an information technology businessman who blew the lid off an overpriced P16.5-billion government broadband project, warned that drug money could be used to fund not only an election campaign but also fraud in the country’s first automated polls.

He pointed out that automated election system was vulnerable to fraud because it was untested and “full of operational bugs.”

“The purported huge amounts in illicit funds could be used by favored candidates in their election campaigns, and also in cheating operations to thwart the true will of the people,” he said.

Attention: Navy

De Venecia called on the Navy and the Coast Guard to beef up their efforts in addressing the drug trade. He noted that a key portion of the US state department report cited how “traffickers increasingly took advantage of the Philippines’ long and porous maritime borders to use the country as a transit point for high-grade cocaine and heroin shipments, primarily from India and Pakistan.”

“This finding is a big red flag for both our Coast Guard and Navy to redouble their vigilance and more aggressively operate against sea-borne drug dealers,” he said. With a report from Norman Bordadora

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.