War on drugs



Neither friend nor foe can have any quarrel with Public Security Minister Tiran Alles for launching the ongoing offensive against the narcotics business. It is much more than a trade nowadays with drug lords, big and small, running not only just fiefdoms but also their own empires. There’s hardly anybody in this country of ours unaware of the dangerous proportions to which the drug menace has grown today.

Parents are terrified of their children being exposed to drugs in and near their schools and at social events. The news media is full of stories on drug detection every day. But however many dealers, smugglers and pushers are arrested, and whatever quantities of narcotics seized, the problem continues to grow and not diminish. It is no exaggeration to say this is one of the biggest problems confronting not only this island but the whole world.

Minister Alles has assumed responsibility for the recent appointment of Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon as the acting IGP for a three month period. It was speculated that President Ranil Wicremesinghe resorted to the device of extending the tenure of the previous incumbent, Chandana Wickremaratne, by several short extensions to stall the appointment of Tennakoon who was reported to have Alles’ backing. In fact, the minister’s public admission that he backed the appointment is considered by some to be a command performance orchestrated by Wickremesinghe.

However that be, the appointment, albeit in an acting capacity, stands. It could have not come at a worse time because Tennakoon and three other police officers have been ordered by the Supreme Court soon thereafter to pay damages of Rs. 500,000 each from personal funds to a torture victim who had successfully filed a human right case. Tennakoon is alleged to have himself participated in the third degree methods employed.

Soon after the smelly stuff hit the fan, the public outrage that resulted was inevitable. The government, predictably, is under pressure to negate Tennakoon’s appointment. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo and head of the Catholic Church, the Lawyers’ Collective, a prominent legal advocacy group led by many of the country’s top flight lawyers and several other groups both individually and collectively are pressuring the president to revoke this appointment.

Tennakoon has no right of appeal to a higher court. But he has been given an opportunity to demonstrate to the country that he can successfully take on the drug Mafia. Since the current anti-narcotic offensive began a few days ago, police public relations have been on overdrive in an effort to show the country that the massive operation that has been launched is showing results.

Evening television news bulletins are full of images of large contingents of police, sometimes complemented by troops, and police dogs trained to sniff out narcotics. There are also reports of hundreds if not thousands of suspects arrested. It is already common knowledge that the country’s prisons are bursting at the seams stuffed with convicted and remanded drug offenders.

It is also very well known that the rate of convictions obtained against the accused in all manner of criminal cases is appallingly low. Whether successful prosecutions can be mounted against suspects who are being rounded up in the present operation is an open question. Readers are well aware that samples described as drugs sent to the Government Analyst were found to be plain wheat flour. Whether law enforcers were responsible for such lucrative metamorphosis or whether switches occurred elsewhere has not been established. But anything is possible in this land like no other.

Only time will tell how successful the current campaign is going to be. There were previous occasions when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared war on drugs soon after his election. Then President Maithripala Sirisena, crowned by UNP votes, spoke admiringly of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte who launched a no holds barred offensive against narcotics in his country. This included bumping off suspects in what amounted to extra judicial executions.

We have also known similar operations here, though not relating to drugs, but directed at the JVP during its second adventure in 1988 – 89. This, though to a much lesser extent, happened also in 1971, when various politicians were given a god given opportunity of identifying their political opponents as “terrorists” and having them bumped off by law enforcers.

There is no doubt that during the current offensive there will be considerable whistle blowing and finger pointing from within the narcotics underworld which will seize the opportunity to have their rivals in the drug trade eliminated via a law and order operation mounted by the government. Minister Tiran Alles did not directly say that those in the drug business would be bumped off. But he did clearly imply that they carried that risk.

He has even publicly questioned the ethics of lawyers defending drug offenders. This has predictably triggered the obvious reaction from the legal profession arguing that appearing for any client retaining them was the professional obligation of lawyers. That debate remains inconclusive for the time being.

Alles says that his life has been threatened “within seven poya days” by an anonymous overseas caller. He had retorted that he intends resolving the problem “within two poya days.” He says that neither he nor President Wickremesinghe will be influenced to pull their punches at the behest of any drug Mafia.

Given the size of the big bucks generated by the narcotics industry, it is extremely unlikely that the trade is without political godfathers. An election is round the corner and political war chests need replenishing. The narcotic czars will be only too happy to dig deep into their pockets. But as the saying goes, there is no free lunch.