By Karl Romano
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday he had accepted the resignation of his justice secretary, a controversial figure at the forefront of defending the chief executive’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead.
Duterte did not explain why he was letting go of Vitaliano Aguirre, one of his trusted aides. A day earlier, the national daily Philippine Star, citing unnamed sources, reported that the president would fire the justice secretary this week amid a deluge of public criticism over his performance.
“I accepted the resignation of Vit Aguirre, my fraternity brother, as secretary of justice. I am now in the hustings looking for a replacement,” Duterte said Thursday, calling the cabinet member by his nickname. He was speaking during an awards ceremony for outstanding farmers and fishermen at the presidential palace in Manila.
Media reports about Aguirre’s possible departure from Duterte’s cabinet began to surface in mid-March after a panel of state prosecutors dismissed drug charges against businessman Peter Lim and Kerwin Espinosa, a man whom Duterte had described as among the top drug lords in the central Philippines.
Following a public uproar, Aguirre in recent weeks said he had ordered a reinvestigation.
Espinosa’s father, local town mayor Rolando Espinosa, surrendered to clear his name last year. But he was killed in a shootout that he started, according to police, when authorities came to his jail to serve him a search warrant.
The younger Espinosa went into hiding, but police said he was later caught in the United Arab Emirates. He had admitted to being a drug trafficker during a public inquiry at the Senate and had also testified against Sen. Leila de Lima, Duterte’s arch critic who was detained for allegedly receiving funds from drug lords to finance her campaign.
De Lima has denied the allegation, accusing Duterte of having a hand in her detention as payback for her investigations of political killings linked to the president when he was still a longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao.
Aguirre, Duterte’s former law school classmate, also figured in a recent controversy for accepting into a witness protection program a woman who was jailed on corruption charges by the previous government.
Last year, two of Aguirre’s men at the Justice Department were also embroiled in controversy after allegedly extorting millions of pesos from a Chinese businessman to free more than 1,000 Chinese workers who were arrested on suspicion of working in the country without permits.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Aguirre’s resignation was too little, too late.
“The damage is done. By being allowed to stay in his post for the longest time, Mr. Aguirre turned the Justice Department into a leading purveyor of fake news, a manufacturer of fake legal cases to harass the opposition, and a refuge for drug lords, plunderers and other high-profile criminals,” Hontiveros said.
“Our justice system is now in shambles, with more and more people trusting it less and less,” she said.
She said Aguirre’s resignation was “a hollow gesture” meant to protect the president from further criticism.
“Sorry, but too late the hero for ‘justice zero’,” Hontiveros said, adding that by accepting Aguirre’s resignation, Duterte had also freed him from accountability.
“I urge the public to continue to exact accountability from this administration and closely follow the executive branch’s process of appointing a new justice chief,” Hontiveros said.
Aguirre has been among the most vocal defenders of Duterte’s anti-narcotics war that has left more than 4,000 dead in police operations since 2016, according to official figures. Rights groups, however, said the figure could be much higher if killings by pro-government vigilantes were factored in, running to about 12,000.