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The woman the despot fears most

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

by Marian Pastor Roces



To call on her, the visitor clears the first streetside guardhouse and walks about 120 steps across a concrete enclosure between a low, nondescript building to the right and a wall more than 3 meters high to the left.


Razor wire of course completes the wall’s top. None of the structures are finished evenly, but these surrounds are clean. The guards are polite.

At the end is a smallish metal door. a second set of guards and another log book occupy a tiny room beyond the door. Small pictures of other big-time inmates hang together.

Noticeable is the picture of Princess Nova Parojinog, infamous for her unbelievable collection of Hermés bags, and a surviving member of the Ozamiz City family, widely associated with narco operations and massacred by police forces to the President’s glee.

Senator Leila de Lima is physically—and also symbolically—located among such characters. This the first sign of her, so to speak, framing.

Another door opens to an alley about a meter wide, hemmed in on both sides by walls of lifeless low buildings. The alley is not traversed, because the visitor is directed to another door, this time ordinary wood frame.


Senator Leila de Lima is usually still being called from out of her cell when the visitor enters a rectangular receiving room. It has curtains of faux printed satin and a kind of spare living room setting. One wall has three small locked doors that stay locked.

President Rodrigo Duterte fears strong women in general, but in Sen. Leila, he clearly recognizes a particularly dangerous protagonist. He wished her to disappear immediately as he took power, and did not lose time to lock her up.

The woman who enters the receiving room always surprises. Trim, healthy, smiling, bright, but also grave, Sen. Leila maintains threads of friendships and on-going conversations separated by months.

She is clearly undefeated by imprisonment at Camp Crame for 4 years and counting. She is actually becoming more beautiful.


She sits with the visitor for the one hour allotted. She is the last thing from the predatory female the President accused of skimming the drug traffic to fund political ambition; of colluding with inmates of the National Bilibid Prison.

Why is this self-evident?

Sen. Leila, in person, has gravitas that few in the Philippine political firmament exude. She has the presence of the likes of Sen. Jovito Salonga and Sen. Lorenzo Tañada, builders of the infrastructure of law. Except that the energy is distinctly female.


She does not small talk. Instead, there is always a sense of connection with the part of human beings that understands depth of feeling; and indeed delight.

Conversations with her take place at the intersection of law and the consequences of their misuse or mangling or absence. Which means that talks with the Senator are always about Filipinos.


Thinking about the Filipino seems to center her.

Whether the visit begins with light chat or partaking of food (her immediate family takes turns preparing daily meals), or the latest ghastly behavior by the petty kings (her senatorial staff keeps her abreast), or the gift of a shawl (or books, which make her smile all the way to her eyes), or cats (she has adopted dozens of strays hanging around her cell), Sen. Leila does not need a gear shift to reflect on the state of things in this unhappy country.


It is impossible for anyone encountering this woman to reconcile the dignity and kindness of her persona with the canard thrown at her— that she is a large-stakes drug dealer funding political aggression—without defying logic. Let alone common sense.

It is equally impossible to be blind to the misogyny with which the President and his enablers began their attack on Sen. Leila in 2016; the organized viciousness to degrade her with accusations of sexual deviancy.


Her accusers among the Bilibid Prison narcos have been liquidated a few months ago. By COVID-19, assert the officials in the face of widespread skepticism.

In any case, Sen. Leila’s continuing incarceration has nothing to do with the untruths mouthed by these now-dead accusers and the Administration executioners of weaponized law.

She is jailed and shamed because Sen. Leila already faced down one Rodrigo Duterte decades ago.

Erasure was a huge part of the emergence of the President on the national stage. His rise was facilitated by the artful glossing-over of the violent commencement of his Davao City mayoralty during the days when DDS did not mean Duterte Diehard Supporters. As Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, the Honorable de Lima presumed to seek to unearth skeletons. Not only metaphorically.

As Chairman of the Senate Justice Committee years later, Sen. Leila resurrected the inquiry.

The Davao Death Squad, flipped into the giddy, bellicose ownership of today’s DDS—by expensive engineers of attack machines—cannot be hauled back into public scrunity in the present order of things. By a woman!


Ligpit! one way or another had to come to pass.

But it is a staggering malfunction of the nation’s moral compass that this true story of a brutishly wronged stateswoman has to be retold. Over and over.

And this is because Sen. Leila also remains in jail because the nation may not wish to see her clearly: a symbol of its catastrophic moral crisis.


The Dutertean dystopia is not the making of Duterte alone. He and his cohorts will face their day of reckoning, dead or alive. This is certain. History flows that way. But will the nation find the nerve to do what Sen. Leila did to Rodrigo Duterte long ago? Face down the rot in its collective soul?


The face-down can begin by demanding the release of Sen. Leila, and celebrating her courage and endurance./mpr

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