Justice? Or, “just us?”
What if your country’s chief cop is a hit man?
Hello again, it’s Mac in Manila writing to you from six months farther down the road in a demagogic regime put in place by democratic minority— one much like your own. I live in a situation, in other words, not terribly different from what you, my putative American reader, may face sooner than you can imagine. Since the confusion and distraction (Look! Over there in the left margin! Is that a rabbit?) are deliberately designed to bring you to the point of, “Never mind the larger patterns, what just happened?” I’m spinning a little yarn here so you can extrapolate from the 8th month of Rodrigo Duterte forward to a similar point in the Donald Trump Sphere.
Right this moment, we share anxiety from our respective presidents’ selection of chief cops, Attorney General in the American cast; Secretary of Justice here in the Philippines. Both US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Philippine Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II are men of checkered pasts — politically and ethically. I would add “criminally” to that list, except that, unlike these two birds, evidence really matters to us folks resisting authoritarianism.
My present juxtaposition: I just read a Guardian article titled ‘Gun for hire’: how Jeff Sessions used his prosecuting power to target Democrats (which you can find here — just not right now, ha — it’s long) while at the same time our Secretary of Justice here has jailed a serving senator who, not incidentally, is one of the most powerful voices of the opposition. Many of the methods Aguirre used are the very ones Sessions has been (believably) accused of using against state & local opposition.
But first, a few words about the drug killings we’re now famous for. (To be honest, we take whatever international attention we can get with a modicum of guilty pride at being noticed as a country — it’s already a cultural trait.) Extortion — big-time and small-time — has been part of the “war on drugs” game all along, but recently a Korean national was brutally murdered during a bungled kidnap-for-ransom attempt. Killed by the police. Inside the National Police Headquarters.
As a result of the “diplomatic embarrassment” that caused — the National Police Chief’s house was only a few doors down from the killing — anti-drug operations were “put on pause” while “a few bad apples” were “weeded out” from the drug enforcement people. (Say what you will about our government officials, they are masters of cliché.)
The killing hardly slowed down. It did, however, go “underground” for a while during the weeding. What the “reform” supposedly consisted of was shuttling selected cops off to parts of the country that are fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a gang of Muslim bandits, pirates & kidnappers who are Facebook friends with ISIS. So, the killers get to go kill, right? Well, yes and no. Many of those getting reassigned are the more decent cops who were reluctant to go on participating in meaningless state-sponsored slaughter. The goal apparently, to harden them by putting them in kill-or-be-killed situations till they get more comfortable with killing people. (There are also a number of genuine bad guys getting transferred, but they’ll just adapt their extortion games to better suit the quasi-war-zone environment.) (Also, higher ranking cops are bribing their way out — millions have already changed hands.)
Brushing their hands at having “taken care” of that, the president and his enforcers have now returned to killing poor street people. This is not off topic. Senator Leila de Lima was herself Secretary of Justice during the previous administration, and before that, Human Rights Commissioner— back when now-President Duterte was still mayor of Davao City. As mayor, he ruled his city in the same way. The Davao Death Squads (DDS) were infamously well-known. Once at DOJ, then Sec. de Lima traced the DDS back to Duterte and was already building a case against him when she left the Department of Justice to run for the Senate.
While Duterte was preparing his presidential candidacy, he often bragged — as he still does now — about the people he killed and his conviction that killing “criminals” (not really humans, by his reckoning) was what made people safe. As he became more vocal, so did she and an irreconcilable grudge developed. Managing to land the Chair of the Senate Justice Committee enabled her to open a hearing into, not just the present drug war, but extrajudicial killings in general — including Davao. It didn’t last.
One of the witnesses who came before the committee was an unprepossessing little guy who claimed to have had a role in the DDS — a gunman, a contracted hit-man. His story was fairly detailed and believable and his delivery was compellingly unrehearsed. It was juicy testimony that held media attention for a couple of days longer than usual. Then our boxing-champ Senator, Manny Pacquiao— a notorious Duterte lap-dog — moved to eject de Lima from the chair and replace her with yet another lap-dog.
The president himself presided over her public humiliation, slut-shaming her on TV for having had an affair with her driver (which was true). That was followed by a “sex tape” of extremely dubious provenance. (Few of us who’ve seen it believe it was her in the fuzzy, out-of-focus video.) Then her driver was hunted down and brought in to testify on the affair before the House Ethics Committee (under what pressures we may never know) to convince de Lima to resign from the Senate. Instead, she announced that, yes, she was an unmarried woman who did have sex — which had nothing to do with her being a senator, thank you very much and none of your bee’s wax.
Our Secretary of Justice, Aguirre, who had been advancing in media the notion that she might be charged with one thing or another as a result of her human sexuality, was not nearly as flummoxed as the president’s committee members. He went to plan B. The driver gave some poorly rehearsed details of her allegedly taking money from drug dealers inside the national hoosegow. That testimony quickly (and quietly) collapsed under its own ill-conceptualized weight.
De Lima had spent a goodly part of her Justice Department term trying without success to clean up New Bilibid Prison — the chronically over-crowded and corrupt national jail. She fired a string of Department of Corrections Heads and New Bilibid Wardens and incurred the wrath of a number of high-roller prison gang kingpins by evicting them from their luxurious multi-roomed quarters.
These were Aguirre’s next recruits. By allowing these convicted drug lords to eventually reconstruct their dens, gyms and love-nests (yes, one main Duterte propagandist openly admitted before the House that she used to supply prostitutes to those inmates — which was somehow okay on her part while somehow scandalous that it happened during de Lima’s oversight). These gents were ushered before the Committee to testify (this time, reading their statements) that they had paid off de Lima in order to keep their drug businesses in operation. All this openly the work of Justice Secretary Aguirre — whose position is an almost exact copy of the office of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Aguirre was able to get an arrest warrant for de Lima — albeit from a court of questionable jurisdiction — but the icing on the cake was that as soon as she was arrested, he rescinded the charges the drug kingpins were imprisoned for. Kids are being shot down in the streets for dealing fractions of grams, but drug-lords can go free if they’ll help jail the opposition.
These are the sort of things Sessions has built a reputation for in the local politics of Mobile and the state politics of Alabama. (Remember to check out that link to the Guardian article for details.) He also appears to have used a sympathetic FBI agent to help him entrap his party’s political foes. The implications made are that he owes his power and position in the Alabama GOP — and thus his Senate seat — to those activities.
Right now, he’s outraging liberals by eviscerating previous DOJ policies (withdrawing the government case against a prejudicial voter ID law in Texas, refusing to pursue a school bathroom gender case, evangelizing to cops about their new freedom from federal oversight of policing methods and use of force) while preparing to press the scapegoats of the Trump campaign to (and beyond, if the courts fail to stop him) the full force of the law. But that’s just now, and I’m talking to you from months down the road. The political hits haven’t even started yet — but that doesn’t mean they won’t.
Trump, Duterte, both their Justice Heads — they are all notoriously vengeful. Sessions, after disqualification for federal judgeship because of racism, returned to Alabama and took up an old case to put one of his (black) accusers in prison. Here, the contract hit-man and, just today, a retired Davao policeman, have made independent corroborating testimonies that Duterte — not satisfied with killing criminals — soon included political and personal enemies in his “high-value” hit lists. Trump prides himself on his vengefulness.
Here’s the Easter Egg. Do you know who your Solicitor General is? Do you even know what he does? Since January 23, 2017, Noel J. Francisco has been the (acting) United States Solicitor General — he is the Trump administration’s lawyer. The legal voice of the Trump-Bannon policy. He pleads the government’s case before the Supreme Court, for instance. The present Philippine Solicitor General just ask our Supreme Court to reverse the charges against a woman who was perhaps the biggest plunderer in the history of Filipino development and anti-poverty programs. Within 48hrs of the Supreme Court decision in her favor, she too became a witness against Senator de Lima, who, as Secretary of Justice, had brought her to trial.
You might want to pay attention to this Solicitor General business. SCOTUS decisions literally change the law in America. How they are pled (and if they are pled) is enormously important. Will Francisco be put forward for confirmation? Will someone else be chosen for the office instead? From six months down the authoritarian road, I’m suggesting you watch this one carefully. And loudly.