THE DRUG case filed against Juanito Jose Remulla III, son of the Secretary of Justice (SOJ) Jesus Crispin "Boying" Remulla, had been hounded by controversy since news of it broke in October 2022. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been pressed by the UN Human Rights Commission to submit its findings on the numerous cases of killings during police operations against drug suspects. At the time of his son's arrest, Secretary Remulla was in Geneva to present and defend the country's human rights record.
Timeline of the case
After only a few months, the case was resolved in a record- breaking 84 days. The following is a timeline of events and a diagram leading to the acquittal of Remulla III.
SEPTEMBER 27, 2022
A shipment of "Kush", a type of high-grade marijuana, was intercepted by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) in Pasay. It was addressed to recipient "Juanito Remulla"
OCTOBER 11, 2022
Through a "controlled delivery" operation, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) arrested Juanito Remulla III after he received a parcel containing PHP 1.3-million worth of high-grade marijuana or "Kush."
Controlled delivery operations allow the delivery to proceed to determine its recipient as well as evidence for arrest.
OCTOBER 13, 2022
Two days after Remulla III was apprehended, PDEA publicized the case and provided blurred mugshots for the media, inviting criticism of the protection of Remulla's facial identity, a form of special treatment that not every suspect in drug-related crimes receives.
SOJ Remulla, in a handwritten note, sent this statement from Geneva: "To make everything clear: I will not intervene in nor influence my son's predicament, and I have not done so in any way."
OCTOBER 14, 2022
Remulla III was charged with "possession of dangerous drugs" at the Las Pinas City Regional Trial Court. But he still faced separate complaints for importation of dangerous drugs and violation of the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act which were filed on the same day at the Pasay City Prosecutor's Office.
President Marcos expressed support for SOJ Remulla, saying that calls for Remulla's resignation had "no basis." The SOJ evaded reporters' questions, only granting an interview to SMNI, the news organization owned by Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, who is wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged sex trafficking.
OCTOBER 15, 2022
PDEA announced they would not subject Remulla III to a drug test as Remulla III refused to undergo drug testing and invoked his right against self-incrimination.
OCTOBER 18, 2022
SOJ Remulla held a press briefing during which he insisted the case should not reach his department, maintaining all the while his refusal to resign his post.
OCTOBER 20, 2022
At the height of the coverage and amid actions related to the case, President Marcos appointed Moro Virgilio Lazo as the new Director General of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
Lazo is the younger brother of Vicentito Lazo, the Marcoses' mayoral bet in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. Virgilio Lazo himself helped in the local campaign security of the Marcoses. This removed from PDEA control over the operation which led to the arrest of Remulla III.
NOVEMBER 4, 2023
Remulla III pleaded not guilty to drug possession charges before a Las Pinas City Regional Trial Court Branch 197. The arraignment was conducted through a video conference.
JANUARY 6, 2023
Remulla III walked free from detention after the Las Pinas City Court acquitted him of possession of illegal drugs.
Two separate complaints are still pending before the Pasay City prosecutor's office - one for alleged illegal drug importation and another for violation of customs law. But the media have not given details about the charge sheets in these two cases. Clearly, if these cases present the same witnesses and evidence, then one can presume the same outcome.
Media's coverage in 2022
The case received sustained media coverage through October. Reports featured the views of political analysts who highlighted the SOJ's role in the case. Inquirer.net correctly noted the chain of authority over the case, that the Prosecutor's Office is under the National Prosecution Service, an attached agency of the DOJ; citing as well Remulla's statement that while he has authority over the prosecution, he insisted that the court make the decision and that the case should not go to the DOJ.
News accounts reported how netizens called on the SOJ to resign out of courtesy or "delicadeza", making viral the hashtag #RemullaResign. Columnists Antonio Montalvan II and Gideon Lasco joined the call, citing Remulla's "conflict of interest" and "moral authority" as SOJ.
Further, the editorial of The Freeman in Cebu wrote that the case was "worth watching" as it would show the difference between justice for the poor vs the rich. Rappler's editorial reviewed and compared it to Leila de Lima's slow-moving case. The Manila Times published an editorial which echoed the President's support for the Remullas.
Meanwhile, only ANC and Rappler connected the appointment of a new PDEA Director General to the drug case filed against the son of Justice Secretary Remulla. Rappler had a more pointed reference: Under the law, the PDEA Director General oversees the agency "responsible for the efficient and effective law enforcement of all the provisions on any dangerous drug and/or controlled precursor and essential chemical as provided in this act (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002)."
Rappler also noted that the appointment of a new PDEA head "came at the height of issues surrounding the arrest of SOJ Remulla's son," and that PDEA was among the agencies that arrested Juanito Jose on October 11.
Neither report detailed what impact the change of leadership could have had on the conduct of the prosecution. PDEA was the first to detect the delivery of "Kush" and had a primary role in preserving the integrity of as well as the chain of evidence - both factors which led to the acquittal of the Remulla III.
The rest of the media missed reporting the change of leadership, ignoring how this could affect the trial of the SOJ's son.
CMFR noted that none of the reports examined the handling of the case after the new PDEA Director took office to inquire into the case, if the same PDEA officers who handled the case, including evidence, were still in charge of the case; or if the case was handled by a different team - conditions which would have had an effect on the integrity of evidence presented to the court and the preservation of the chain of evidence.
Quick Acquittal, Quick media coverage?
Come January 6, coverage of the acquittal was as brief as the speed of the decision. The trial lasted only 84 days with the decision released on January 10. Only a few accounts stood out by pointing to the swift action, contrasting this with the justice system 's inaction in other cases.
Coverage cited the decision of Judge Ricardo Moldez III of Branch 197 which said that "no clear evidence that the accused had freely, consciously, and with full knowledge possessed the alleged seized illegal drugs."
Inquirer.net highlighted in their January 6 report that the testimony of PDEA intelligence officers Eduardo Bongao Jr. and Clint Mek-eng, as prosecution witnesses, said that they did not find any evidence that the suspect knew about the package, or that he had any intent to possess the illegal drugs in the package."
In effect the witnesses for prosecution were providing testimonies for their defense. But the report did not ask whether the PDEA had acted hastily in arresting Juanito and that the mistake was in filing the charges in the first place. .
The PDEA agents in their testimony claimed that Remulla III was not expecting any shipment and received it just because it was named for him.
Additionally, the court pointed out that the prosecution failed to provide additional evidence demonstrating that the defendant was aware that the package contained marijuana - "to show that the accused, by receiving the parcel, knew that he was also possessing illegal drugs."
Pearlito Campanilla, one of Remulla III's lawyers, told the media in an ambush interview that the court also had concerns regarding the preservation and integrity of evidence in the case. Campanilla said the court ruled that the authorities did not follow the protocols for maintaining the chain of custody as outlined in Section 21 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.
Last January 9, Mike Navallo interviewed Jose Justiniano, former DOJ undersecretary, on ANC's Rundown, where he pointed to lapses in PDEA's chain of custody.
Justiniano cited the ruling that the box with two plastic bags containing a total of 893.91 grams of Kush were found September 28, 2022 and had a written notation that read "CAIDTF 9/28/22 Kush" with a signature on it. When asked who labeled the package, Gerardo Pascual, the customs examiner, failed to answer and stated that he was only made aware of the package on October 4, 2022. Also, Pascual failed to justify what happened from September 29 to October 3. From then on, Justiniano said that the chain of custody was already compromised.
For further understanding, CMFR created a diagram to illustrate the chain of custody of the package that led to Remulla III's arrest.
The media noted the speed of Remulla's trial, expressing concern about the unfairness and inequality in the treatment of others accused.
The Inquirer's January 13 editorial noted the "muted outrage" that greeted Remulla III's acquittal, interpreting it as a sign that the Filipino public are resigned to how swift justice is reserved only for the privileged.
In its January 6 report, Rappler referred to the "Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases," which took effect in September 2017. The guidelines prescribe the trial period for drug-related cases to be within 60 days of the filing of information or charge from the prosecutor's office. A decision should be reached within 15 days of the submission of the case for resolution, making the total time 75 days.
The same report cited high profile cases which were not resolved within the prescribed periods, including the cases of young people who were killed: Kian Delos Santos, Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo "Kulot" de Guzman.
It also relates to the case of Leila de Lima, who is charged with drug dealing in the New Bilibid Prison as it cited other lawyers who pointed to the favored treatment of Remulla's son.
On January 6, GMA News cited Edcel Lagman, Albay Representative, who mentioned that Remulla III's quick exoneration was "grossly unfortunate," and he mentioned De Lima's case as "stranded in a dark tunnel of injustice."
Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, said in Rappler's January 6 report that the quick acquittal of Remulla III sends a message that the justice system is biased towards those who are well-connected or close to the administration.
The acquittal could well be the albatross around Secretary Remulla's neck as he tries to prove how he can credibly lead the government's justice agency. The calls for his resignation before the trial began in earnest remain relevant and the background of his son's case should serve as reference with each drug-related prosecution under DOJ's authority.