PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte recently told Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) chief Dionisio Santiago to resign after he noted in an interview with reporters that government allowing the construction of the Mega Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province was a micalcultation because the better approach would have been to set up such a facility in each of the country’s regions.
The mega drug rehab center was built using money amounting to P185 billion donated by Huang Rulan, a Chinese real estate tycoon. It has 10,000 beds but is now serving, according to medical director Nelson Dancel, only 520 residents undergoing treatment from six months to one year. If full, the facility would also have needed mega funding from the Department of Health. But Santiago’s argument was on patients’ need for family support.
“‘Yung regional, mas malapit yan eh,” Santiago had said. “Yung support system ng mga victims, mas malapit. We want to bring it closer. Kung pwede sa mga munisipyo, mas cheaper yun.” He was right, of course. It was just that he didn’t first tell the president about it. So, in a bureaucratic sense, the chief executive had the right to oust him.
“I put you there so you can tell me the problem of our country and teach me if I have any shortcomings. But you do not go to the press and start to blabber,” the president said before he left for an official trip to Vietnam.
What Santiago overlooked was that the statement that he issued touched a sensitive chord in the president, who has been reeling from criticisms here and abroad over his war against illegal drugs. The mega rehab center project was for a while used by the Duterte administration to counter criticisms that it is putting too much focus on police work and not on the rehabilitation of drug dependents.
Admitting that the construction of the mega drug rehab center was a mistake would be a double whammy on the government, which is struggling to make right the war against illegal drugs and its by-product, extra-judicial killings. It would also mean that even in the rehab aspect, it may not be doing things right.
Santiago is actually the second DDB chief that “offended” the president and sacked. Benjamin Reyes had contradicted the figure used by the president for the number of drug users in the country. He said that the country has as much as 4 million drug users. Reyes, noting a DDB survey said the country’s drug users number only 1.8 million.
But even if Santiago is gone from the DDB, I reckon that his advice may yet be heeded. Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, who has long focused on the problem of the proliferation of illegal drugs in the country, said recently that the Nueva Ecija facility can still be put to “optimum use,” which is an admission that it is too big to be used for its original purpose. Sotto is a pro-administration senator.
His suggestion? Use the area also as a site for a drug enforcement academy. “It can be made an extension of the present PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) Academy,” he said. This proves that Santiago’s criticism also had its value.