HUMAN rights advocates hailed on Tuesday the suspension of the war on illegal drugs as regional police units promptly complied with a national directive to cease and desist from all anti-narcotics operations and focus on weeding out scalawags from the force.

Local police chiefs immediately ordered a halt to "Oplan Tokhang" (Operation Knock and Plead) and Oplan Double Barrel, the anti-illegal drugs programs of the Philippine National Police (PNP), upon receipt of the memorandum issued by PNP Director General Ronald "Bato" de la Rosa on Monday.

Drug busts, service of warrants and any operation related to illegal drugs were put on hold effective Monday, January 30 in compliance to dela Rosa's directive. All drug-related operations will be temporarily conducted solely by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

Dela Rosa issued the directive on orders of President Rodrigo R. Duterte, following the scandal that rocked the PNP Anti-Illegal Drugs Group, whose personnel have been implicated in the abduction and killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo in October last year.

The case, which brought to light the alleged "tokhang for ransom" activities of some law enforcement officers, triggered a Senate investigation. It has also compelled the tough-talking President Duterte, who had vowed to wipe out the illegal drugs problem in the country within his first six months in office, to issue a public apology to the Koreans.

New focus

Chief Inspector Dianne Grace Catedral, public information officer of the Police Regional Office (PRO) in Negros, said Chief Superintendent Renato Gumban, acting regional director of PRO-NIR, has ordered all police chiefs in the region to suspend anti-illegal drug operations and focus on the anti-criminality campaign.

Senior Superintendent William Señoron, acting provincial director of Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office, said they will follow the directive and concentrate more on barangay drug-clearing operations.

In Cebu City, Police Regional Office (PRO) 7 Director Noli Taliño said personnel of the Provincial, City and Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group will be reassigned to intelligence units and beat patrols.

"The police will not operate in anything related to drugs. Anti-drugs units are already dismantled," he said.

During a command conference Tuesday, Taliño said they will focus on solving murder, homicide, physical injury, robbery, theft, carnapping, motornapping, and rape in the region.

For his part, PDEA 7 Director Yogi Filemon Ruiz said he has received a memorandum from PDEA Director General Isidro Lapeñas directing all personnel to focus on high-value targets.

As of Tuesday, Ruiz said they have arrested 30 percent of their targets. He added that they will tap the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their operations.

In Cagayan de Oro City in Northern Mindanao, police spokesperson Chief Inspector Mardy Hortillosa II said all anti-drug operations were suspended effective Tuesday. However, they have continued to serve arrest warrants related to drugs because "kailangan man i-serve (they needed to be served)," Hortillosa said.

Duty bound

As articulated earlier by dela Rosa, the suspension of Oplan Tokhang does not mean the police will close their eyes to anti-illegal drug activities.

Senior Superintendent Michael John Dubria, Davao City Police Office director, said they are duty-bound to arrest anybody caught in the act of violating the law.

“Being police officers and law enforcers, we are still duty-bound to arrest any crime that is actually happening in front of us or in our presence so duty-bound pa rin ang kapulisan na manghuli," he said.

“Basta illegal activity, any illegal act happening in the presence of the police officer talagang huhulihin naming yan caught in the act or committed in the presence of a police officer or peace officer it is also the same as giving warrantless arrest or citizen’s arrest,” he added.

Dubria also said there will be increased coordination with the Armed Forces and PDEA, which would need the PNP's support in the campaign against illegal drugs.

Ronald Go, president of Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, described the suspension of the war on drugs as a temporary setback.

But he said "it is probably a good idea to suspend the war against drugs while authorities ferret out these unscrupulous individuals."

"The sooner the drug problem and its accompanying issues are addressed the better for everyone. Businesses will always operate better in a society with less crime. However, if abuses continue to proliferate this can be detrimental to the peaceful conduct of business as well. So the ceasing of activities against the drug trade, although a temporary setback to all that has been gained so far, is perhaps a necessary respite," he added.

Root cause

In Baguio City, Cordillera Human Rights Alliance secretary general Imelda Tabiando said they have been opposing the war on illegal drugs because this has claimed the lives of innocent citizens.

"Extra judicial killings should be stopped because many families are now affected, many children are suffering. If they want to prosecute people who were involved of illegal drugs, they should be brought to court and the court will be the one to sanction them," she said.

Tabiando said the government should instead address poverty, which she said is the root cause of illegal activities in the country. She said the government should provide more jobs to dissuade the poor from illegal activities.

In his memorandum, dela Rosa ordered all police units to stop all anti-illegal drugs operations nationwide and focus on "internal cleansing."

The memorandum directed anti-illegal drug units at all levels, including Regional Anti-Illegal Drugs Operations Task Group, Provincial Anti-Illegal Drugs Operations Task Group, City Anti-Illegal Drugs Operations Task Group, and Municipal Anti-Illegal Drugs Operations Task Group, to stop conducting drug busts and service of search warrants, among other operations.

Walk-in surrenderees, however, should still be processed at the police stations, according to the PNP procedure and guidelines.

Internal cleansing

The police is currently mandated to concentrate on seven focus crimes, including internal cleansing and police community relations activities.

Dela Rosa said that as part of their intensified internal cleansing, he has created a counter-intelligence group focused on running after police scalawags.

He said he will be “ruthless and unforgiving” against the policemen who destroy the image of the PNP.

Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo and his househelp Marissa Morquicho were taken from their residence in Angeles City, Pampanga by men who identified themselves as AIDG personnel on October 18 last year. A few hours later, Jee was strangled to death inside a car parked in Camp Crame, the police national headquarters. Morquicho was released.

Charges of kidnapping for ransom with homicide were filed against three policemen and four others, but the Angeles City Regional Trial Court has ordered a reinvestigation and gave the Department of Justice 60 days to submit its findings. (Marites Villamor-Ilano with reports from SunStar Bacolod, SunStar Baguio, SunStar Davao, Kevin Lagunda of SunStar Cebu, Alwin Saliring of SunStar Cagayan de Oro)