Pubdate: Wed, 28 Jan 2004 Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer (Philippines) Copyright: 2004 Philippine Daily Inquirer Contact: http://www.inquirer.net/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1073 Author: Tonette Orejas, Inquirer News Service Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/areas/Philippines CENTRAL LUZON'S DRUG CENTER TAKES A BAD TRIP "BAD trip dun," said Alex, using the parlance of drug addicts to describe the situation at the Central Luzon Drug Rehabilitation Center at the foothills of Mount Arayat in Magalang town, Pampanga province. Alex's affidavit and those of 10 other male patients exposed an ordeal instead of a positive high from the six-month cure program they underwent beginning in August last year. The regimen did not allow the patients to question the way things were done. Extortion was commonly practiced. Unauthorized fees were collected. At least 73 male patients, including Alex and the 10 others, received harsh punishments. Police investigators said the claims of the 11 patients could not be easily dismissed. All dormitory leaders and, at the same time, victims of maltreatment, they provided an insider's account of what is actually happening at the tightly-secured six-hectare compound in Barangay Santo Nino. A scrutiny of how the patients are handled and how the center is managed is proper because the CLDRC is the only such facility in the Central Luzon region, police officials said. The non-government organization Sagip Bie Foundation owns the center. It appointed one of its founding directors, Senior Superintendent Conrado Briton, to manage the drug center and the Philippine National Police to provide security and medical staff. Maltreatment On Jan. 9, Alex said police officer-1 Resty Astrero rounded up the 22 ward leaders of Dormitory B and confined them in Dormitory G. There, before more than 100 patients, they were made to form a single line. With a bamboo pole in hand, Astrero flogged each of the 22 men. Alex said it was their "DA" (disciplinary action) for smoking and drinking liquor on Dec. 24 and 31. "Captain (Danilo) Laguda (chief of the rehabilitation program) said, 'We will stop the clock,' meaning house rules were lifted. So we went ahead with the revelry," Alex recalled. Astrero, Alex said, carried out the punishment in the morning and in the evening. On the two occasions, Alex said he was hit thrice because he was suspected of instigating the violations. He said he fell on his knees after each beating. The victims suffered contusions and hematoma, according to a medico-legal report done at the regional police headquarters in Camp Olivas. Shocking To Reynaldo Lopez, whose son was among those punished, three things were "shocking." First, the parents were initially denied access to their children. Second, force was used on the patients. And third, some officials held the view that the handling was correct. "They told us our children deserved to be treated that way because they were addicts anyway," Lopez said in an interview. Alex and his co-ward leaders admitted committing the violations. "But we are not criminals who should be harmed excessively," he said. Reporting the incident, he added, was impossible because Dormitory G is isolated from the rest of the compound by a high fence with barbed wire. However, the 22 patients managed to find a way to send out what Alex called "a life-saving" text message. Astrero, in an interview, expressed no guilt for his actions. "My sole purpose was to discipline (them)," he said, adding that Alex's group also hurt two patients. But the Inquirer's review of the center's operations manual showed that Astrero's actions, no matter how well meaning to him, were uncalled for. "The center staff shall, in no occasion, practice the application and use of excessive physical force in disciplining the patients," the manual's Page 27 read. Penalties for actions classified as serious offenses, such as the use and the smuggling of liquor, cigarettes, illegal drugs and mobile phones, are two months cancellation of visiting privilege and extension of the rehabilitation program to not less than two months. There is an investigation officer and four established steps for "processing disciplinary actions." Astrero admitted that he skirted the process. Lopez, claiming concern for the safety of patients, wants investigators to determine if force was systematically used as a disciplinary measure at the center since it was opened in March 2000. More than 3,000 patients from Central and Northern Luzon, and Metro Manila have sought treatment at the center. Until Alex's batch mates broke their silence, harsh punishments had not been known to have existed there. More than 2,000 patients are undergoing rehabilitation. Astrero, who had worked at the center since 2000, denied that there ever was a policy to use force on erring patients. The Jan. 9 incident was, he said, an isolated, if not an extreme situation. Irregularities Investigators also uncovered a string of extortion activities, as well as unauthorized collections, by many in the center's staff. They included: Collecting 10 percent of the amount of tokens that replaced the use of cash in paying for items and services. Collecting money for phone cards. Seeking liquor, fighting cocks, car tires, television sets and guitars as "gifts." Charging parking fees. Demanding "automatic donations" of 100 pesos on top of the 600 pesos overnight rent at the formation house. Non-return of the 100-peso deposit for the use of the visitors' nipa hut. "There were excessive collections," said Superintendent Regino Raquipiso, chief investigator of the police's Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit. "Some staff members committed abuses. They found the chances to make money (from the patients and guardians)," he added. As Alex's group gave a glimpse of what was happening at the center, two officers of the Sagip Bie Foundation repeated demands to Briton to release financial reports on donations made to the center. "In all these four years, Briton had not furnished us any financial statement," said Senior Superintendent Efren Alamares, a director of the foundation. More than the issue of lack of transparency, the foundation's treasurer, Walfrido Katigbak, said he was appalled by the "refusal" of Briton to open the books and to go under audit since June last year. Katigbak, a businessman, said he had discovered a number of lapses in the disbursement of funds from the few transactions that required his approval. "These are lack of supporting documents or no supporting documents at all to validate release of funds, no prior board approval for capital expenditures and other procedural deficiencies," Katigbak said in a letter to the foundation chair, Mayor Benigno Espino of Arayat town. Citing dismay for the inaction of the foundation, Katigbak took a leave of absence in December. Alamares, tasked recently by the foundation with investigating fund anomalies at the CLDRC, learned that Briton bought three vehicles without naming the foundation as the owners. More than eight million pesos in savings were deposited in a bank and almost 80 employees were hired without the board approval. For the formation house, over two million pesos was allegedly paid to patients who rendered construction work but reported not receiving payments for their labor. The audit, according to Katigbak, was necessary because if based on the 2003 financial report Briton furnished the Inquirer, almost 14 million pesos of the 44 million pesos that the center spent last year came from the Office of the President and local governments. The parents or guardians of the patients made the biggest contributions at 23.085 million pesos. While claiming that donations were "properly receipted" and the transactions were "above board," Briton could not give an estimate of how much money the center had received in the past four years. He admitted that no biddings were made for contracts in supplies and services. Canvassing for low prices was done though, he said, adding that one of the suppliers includes a cousin. The maltreatment issue and the alleged fund misuse are, to Briton, "part of a smear campaign to destroy us. "The move is orchestrated by somebody," he said. "The ultimate objective of what is happening now is to boot me out from this post."