Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who scored a landslide victory in the 2016 vote, has campaigned on his signature wars: against drugs and corruption.
Early in his watch, the Philippine leader publicly named and shamed five "narco-generals".
He sacked many, starting with the drugs agency chief, a former police general; he warned and sacked public officials facing misconduct charges.
For these, and more, Duterte’s public standing among Filipinos went through the roof.
But the drug trade thrives in the Asian country.
Thousands of drug-related deaths had been reported, it's difficult to know whose accounts are correct.
Officially, 5,104 "drug personalities" have been killed as of January 2019. News organizations and human rights groups claim the death toll is over 12,000.
Now, it has emerged that a big part of the drug puzzle in the Philippines are the so-called "ninja cops".
These are drug-enforcement agents who are allegedly involved in the trade for personal gain.
With Duterte past the halfway mark of his six-year term (which ends in June 2022), the promised solution to drug menace is nowhere in sight.
How much money is involved in the Philippine illegal drugs trade?
It's hard to say. But it easily runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.
It's been a cat-and-mouse game.
Since 2008, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) has reportedly destroyed a total of 21.03 tons of solid illegal drugs — and 6,022.15 liters of liquid illegal drugs — with an estimated street value of Php52.75 billion (about $1 billion, Dh3.7 billion).
Php52.75billion(about $1 billion, Dh3.7 billion) estimated street value of drugs destroyed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) since 2008
From July 1, 2016, under Duterte, a total of 6.62 tons and 5,610.32 liters of dangerous drugs worth Php28.03 billion ($547 million) have been destroyed.
On August 10, 2018, PDEA agents found four magnetic lifters following a raid on a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez town, in Cavite province, south of Manila.
The lifters were empty. The PDEA K-9 team, however, detected traces of illegal drugs.
Enter Eduardo Acierto
On April 17, 2019, the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted controversial former police officer Eduardo Acierto for involvement in drug trade.
This followed the interception of over two magnetic lifters at the Manila International Container Port (MICP) in August 2018 which yielded Php3.4 billion ($65.8 million) worth of shabu. Four other containers managed to slip out of the port.
Tip of the iceberg
Acierto is a veteran anti-drug police officer. He was dismissed in 2018 over the anomalus sale of AK47s to communist rebels, is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed drug complaints against Acierto and 39 others over the magnetic lifters found at the Manila container port — and the four empty lifters found in a Cavite warehouse.
Altogether, the lifters were estimated to contain Php11 billion ($212.8 billion) worth of shabu, of which P6.8 billion went missing (in the Cavite warehouse).
What happened to the much bigger payload that vanished from the Cavite warehouse?
It's anyone's guess.
Price of 'shabu'
No one knows the connection between these incidents, but the dots connect on the streets.
In October 2016, four months into Duterte's relentless drug war, the street price of shabu went up to Php25,000/gram ($483), according to the Inquirer.
Two years later, in October 2018, as basic goods spiked in price for the rest of the country, shabu prices went significantly down in Manila — to as low as Php1,600/gram ($31).
It was about Php11,000/gram ($228) before Duterte took over in June 2016, according to PDEA.
In May 2019, anti-narcotics agents seized meth worth Php1 billion ($19.35 million) from a warehouse in Metro Manila’s Malabon city.
On July 4, 2019, PDEA destroyed 1.41 tons of assorted pieces of drugs worth about Php6 billion ($116.1 million) through thermal decomposition, or "thermolysis", a breaking down of chemical by heat.
Is the Philippines a narco-state?
President Duterte has repeatedly claimed that, if the drug trade is not curbed, the country could become a "narco-state".
On October 1, Duterte said he respects the legislative process and will wait for the Senate's final report on the alleged ninja cops and the recycling of seized illegal drugs.
He added that since the police is under the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Duterte said he will forward to DILG Secretary Eduardo Año a copy of the report and ask him to validate the findings of the Senate.
“If it comes to a serious thing as dismissing a top official here and there, it has to be for a good reason and there has to be enough proof,” the President was quoted as saying.
Methamphetamine hydrochloride (also known as "shabu") and marijuana are two of the most used and valuable illegal drugs in the country.
In 2012, the UN reported that the Philippines had the highest rate of "shabu" use in East Asia.
A US State Department report show that 2.1 percent of Filipinos aged 16 to 64 use the drug based on 2008 figures by the Philippines Dangerous Drugs Board.
As of 2016, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report that 1.1 percent of Filipinos aged 10 to 69 use the drug.
In Metro Manila, most barangays are affected by illegal drugs. The prevalence of illegal drug use in the Philippines, however, is lower than the global average, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Ninja cops: What do they do?
A “ninja cop” is the Philippine street term used to refer to uniformed personnel involved in illicit drugs trade, by allegedly under-reporting drugs seized from anti-drug busts and then selling the rest through their own network of dealers — and divvying up the proceeds.
As Duterte’s drug war continues to unleash its wrath, the existence of so-called “ninja cops” has been unmasked.
How were the ninja cops unmasked?
When General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa was the chief of the Philippines National Police (PNP), he claimed that more than 300 of his officers are conspirators in the drug business.
Duterte, in 2016, named five police generals as playing a central role in sustaining the drug trade.
Where are the narco-generals? What did Duterte do about them?
In July 2016, Duterte ordered the immediate relief of senior police officers whom he named as “narco generals”.
The alleged narco-generals named by Duterte are retired police Deputy Director General Marcelo Garbo Jr., former National Capital Region Police Office chief Director Joel Pagdilao, Western Visayas Regional Director Chief Superintendent Bernardo Diaz, Quezon City Police District Director Chief Superintendent Edgardo Tinio and retired police general Vicente Loot.
In October 2017, Duterte also ordered the relief of former Quezon City police director Chief Superintendent Edgardo Tinio, and former Metro Manila police chief Director Joel Pagdilao, the highest ranking-policemen sacked for their supposed links to the drug trade.
In May 2018, former police general Vicente Loot, then a Mayor, survived an ambush, that also injured four others. Loot was among the 5 generals named by Duterte in 2016 as a supposed protector of drug rings.
On September 17, 2019, President Duterte, admitted that he ordered the ambush of Loot in 2018. Duterte also cursed Loot in public. A presidential spokesperson later clarified the president was misquoted.
On October 5, 2019, Senator Richard Gordon has urged President Rodrigo Duterte to identify the two generals he recently revealed were “still playing” with illegal drugs.
How did the 'ninja cops' (drug recycling) issue emerge?
It started almost innocently enough.
The Philippine Senate hearing was about the loopholes in the "good conduct time allowance" (GCTA) law, prison reform, the drug kingpins of the New Bilibid Prison, the country's main correctional facility.
Then came an unexpected turn — about the existence of "ninja cops" in illegal drugs trade.
On October 1, 2019 during a Senate hearing, former Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) chief and now incumbent Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong implicated Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Oscar Albayalde in a supposed cover-up on the drugs “recycling” job by corrupt law enforcers in Pampanga in 2013.
Magalong, a former police general, shared his own assessment of what happened during that operation. He said the 13 cops did not follow the steps in crime scene processing, except for one, when they arrested supposed drug dealer Ding Wenkun.
According to Magalong, the drugs were seized by policemen in the province in November 29, 2013, in a drug bust.
Magalong said that the mere violation of the procedures should have prompted Albayalde to start an investigation.
Instead, Albayalde intervened in the dismissal of 13 "ninja cops" in Pampanga, Magalong claimed.
Selling 160kg of shabu seized from drug suspect
On Thursday, October 3, 2019, PDEA director Aquino also admitted during the same Senate investigation that Albayalde had called him up in 2016 and tried to persuade him not to dismiss 13 Pampanga policemen accused of selling some 160kg of shabu seized from a drug suspect.
At that time, Aquino was the police regional director in Central Luzon, and had jurisdiction over Pampanga; Albayalde was then the police regional director of Metro Manila.
“I wish to explain my (earlier) statement yesterday that Gen. Albayalde called me up to know the status of the case…He also added, ‘sir baka pwede huwag mo munang i-implement ang order,’ (translation: Sir, maybe you can hold the implementation of the order),” Aquino told Philippine media.
Albayalde, as Pampanga police chief, was relieved from duty following the allegedly questionable anti-narcotics operation of his men in November 2013 in Mexico town.
Albayalde earlier said he only asked Aquino about the status of the case because the relatives of the cops were seeking updates from him.
The issue of the "ninja cops" was the subject of the October 1 Senate hearing.
Thirteen police officers – who were previously under the PNP chief Oscar Albayalde when he was Pampanga provincial police chief – were involved in an anomalous drug operations. That illegal operation led to an order to dismiss the cops.
The order was never implemented and the officers remain in service.
What was Gen. Albayalde’s reaction?
During the marathon Senate committee hearings on Tuesday, October 1 , Gen. Albayalde turned the tables on Magalong and asked why he didn’t exhaust all means to dismiss the Pampanga cops when he (Magalong) was still with the PNP.
Referring to the controversial "buybust" happened in Mexico, Pampanga, in November 2013, Magalong was PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) chief and Director for Investigation and Detective Management (DIDM) — key positions that handle criminal probes.
"Then-CIDG director Magalong could have done everything in all his power. He could have followed up. After 6 years this is an issue again," Albayalde said before the Senate.
"We have papers here that should show that we’re dead serious in the campaign against illegal drugs and scawalags in uniform.... Why are we being blamed now?" he added.
Earlier in the hearing, Magalong said he learnt from Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Director General Aaron Aquino that Albayalde had asked Aquino, who was Central Luzon police chief at the time, not to implement the dismissal order for the 13 Pampanga cops because "they are his people."
Did Albayalde influence the case involving ninja cops?
During the Senate hearing, Gen. Albayalde denied influencing the case. He countered it was only natural for him to ask about the status of the case because he knew the family of the cops, and he was concerned for them. Albayalde said he knew the police officers because he was the Pampanga police chief when the operation took place.
Magalong said before the Senate that it would be impossible for Albayalde not to know all the details of the operation marked by irregularities.
According to Magalong, he could not have pressed for the dismissal of the cops, because he was busy minding thousands of other cases.
"We were looking at all investigation and detection of all units of the Philippine National Police. I cannot be specific in one specific thing," said Magalong, who retired from the PNP in December 2016.
Senator Richard Gordon then remarked that the same could be said of Albayalde as a former Pampanga police chief and now the police chief.
Albayalde responded by stressing internal cleansing under his term, and then reiteraterated that Magalong had "all the time" to follow up on the case.
What is the story so far?
Drug war continues in the Philippines, and there's a gathering cloud of distrust over the actual role of the Philippine National Police and other drug-enforcement agencies.
On September 16, during a Senate investigation, the head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Director General Aaron Aquino, police admitted that the practice of keeping portions of seized drugs to plant evidence against suspects is still "rampant" among law enforcement agencies.
In a follow-up Senate hearing, on October 4, the PDEA chief confirmed that Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde did intervene in the case of his former subordinates.
What is the background of Magalong, Albayalde and Aquino?
The story about ninja cops has snowballed after Magalong accused Gen. Albayalde, police chief of coddling rogue cops known for their involvement in drugs.
During a hearing on September 19, Magalong on another issue, Magalong bared what he knew about the drug trade in response to senators' questions.
Magalong, now the mayor of Baguio City, accused Albayalde of intervening in the case of his former men in Pampanga province who were accused of making off with millions worth of methampetamines (locally known as “shabu”) seized during a November 2013 raid in Mexico town.
Albayalde was chief of Pampanga police when a team of police officers led by then Supt. Rodney Baloyo allegedly made off with some 160 kilograms of shabu worth around Php648 million ($12.5 million) at the time following an anti-drug operation on alleged Chinese drug lord Johnson Lee.
Magalong said then PNP chief Alan Purisima tipped him off about the allegedly anomalous anti-narcotics operation after getting word that several officers, including Albayalde himself, started buying new SUVs.
Albayalde denied Magalong’s allegation.
At one point in the hearing, Magalong also quoted Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Aaron Aquino, then the Central Luzon police chief, as saying that Albayalde had asked him not to implement a 2014 dismissal order against the Pampanga cops.
What’s the conclusion from the Senate probe?
The Senate hearing without any of the senators asking both Albayalde and Aquino to confirm or deny Magalong's claim.
Albayalde later told reporters he merely asked Aquino about the status of the case of his former men. He, however, did not explicitly deny Magalong’s allegation that he had asked Aquino not to implement the dismissal order. In his defence, Albayalde said he he could not influence an “upperclassman” such as Aquino.
All three officials are from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), an elite training school for the country’s military officers: Magalong belong to Class 1982; Aquino, Class 1985, and Albayalde, Class 1986.
This revelation had prompted senators to call for an executive session where Magalong gave them the names of "ninja cops" in active service.
Senator Bong Go said during the hearing that President Rodrigo Duterte may ask the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to investigate the case.
What is an executive session?
The term "executive session" refers to closed-door committee meetings. In any case, those present in an executive session are sworn to secrecy.