War Against Drugs Essay

Since becoming president of the Philippines in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has launched a war on drugs that has resulted in the extrajudicial deaths of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users across the country. The Philippine president sees drug dealing and addiction as “major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress,” says John Gershman, an expert on Philippine politics. The drug war is a cornerstone of Duterte’s domestic policy and represents the extension of policies he’d implemented earlier in his political career as the mayor of the city of Davao. In December 2016, the United States withheld poverty aid to the Philippines after declaring concern over Duterte’s war on drugs.

Philippine Pesident Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the change of command for the new Armed Forces chief at a military camp in Quezon city, Metro Manila, December 7, 2016. (Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters)

How did the Philippines’ war on drugs start?  

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When Rodrigo Duterte campaigned for president, he claimed that drug dealing and drug addiction were major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress. He promised a large-scale crackdown on dealers and addicts, similar to the crackdown that he engaged in when he was mayor of Davao, one of the Philippines’ largest cities on the southern island of Mindanao. When Duterte became president in June, he encouraged the public to “go ahead and kill” drug addicts. His rhetoric has been widely understood as an endorsement of extrajudicial killings, as it has created conditions for people to feel that it’s appropriate to kill drug users and dealers. What have followed seem to be vigilante attacks against alleged or suspected drug dealers and drug addicts. The police are engaged in large-scale sweeps. The Philippine National Police also revealed a list of high-level political officials and other influential people who were allegedly involved in the drug trade.

“When Rodrigo Duterte campaigned for president, he claimed that drug dealing and drug addiction were major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress.”

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The dominant drug in the Philippines is a variant of methamphetamine called shabu. According to a 2012 United Nations report, among all the countries in East Asia, the Philippines had the highest rate of methamphetamine abuse. Estimates showed that about 2.2 percent of Filipinos between the ages of sixteen and sixty-four were using methamphetamines, and that methamphetamines and marijuana were the primary drugs of choice. In 2015, the national drug enforcement agency reported that one fifth of the barangays, the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, had evidence of drug use, drug trafficking, or drug manufacturing; in Manila, the capital, 92 percent of the barangays had yielded such evidence.

How would you describe Duterte’s leadership as the mayor of Davao?

After the collapse of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, there were high levels of crime in Davao and Duterte cracked down on crime associated with drugs and criminality more generally. There was early criticism of his time as mayor by Philippine and international human rights groups because of his de facto endorsement of extrajudicial killings, under the auspices of the “Davao Death Squad.”

Duterte was also successful at negotiating with the Philippine Communist Party. He was seen broadly as sympathetic to their concerns about poverty, inequality, and housing, and pursued a reasonably robust anti-poverty agenda while he was mayor. He was also interested in public health issues, launching the first legislation against public smoking in the Philippines, which he has claimed he will launch nationally.

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What have been the outcomes of the drug war?

By early December, nearly 6,000 people had been killed: about 2,100 have died in police operations and the remainder in what are called “deaths under investigation,” which is shorthand for vigilante killings. There are also claims that half a million to seven hundred thousand people have surrendered themselves to the police. More than 40,000 people have been arrested.

Although human rights organizations and political leaders have spoken out against the crackdown, Duterte has been relatively successful at not having the legislature engaged in any serious oversight of or investigation into this war. Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, former chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and a former secretary of justice under the previous administration, had condemned the war on drugs and held hearings on human rights violations associated with these extrajudicial killings. However, in August, Duterte alleged that he had evidence of de Lima having an affair with her driver, who had been using drugs and collecting drug protection money when de Lima was the justice secretary. De Lima was later removed from her position chairing the investigative committee in a 16-4 vote by elected members of the Senate committee.

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What is the public reaction to the drug war?

The war on drugs has received a high level of popular support from across the class spectrum in the Philippines. The most recent nationwide survey on presidential performance and trust ratings conducted from September 25 to October 1 by Pulse Asia Research showed that Duterte’s approval rating was around 86 percent. Even through some people are concerned about these deaths, they support him as a president for his position on other issues. For example, he has a relatively progressive economic agenda, with a focus on economic inequality.

Duterte is also supporting a range of anti-poverty programs and policies. The most recent World Bank quarterly report speaks positively about Duterte’s economic plans. The fact that he wants to work on issues of social inequality and economic inequality makes people not perceive the drug war as a war on the poor.

How is Duterte succeeding in carrying out this war on drugs?

The Philippine judicial system is very slow and perceived as corrupt, enabling Duterte to act proactively and address the issue of drugs in a non-constructive way with widespread violations of human rights. Moreover, in the face of a corrupt, elite-dominated political system and a slow, ineffective, and equally corrupt judicial system, people are willing to tolerate this politician who promised something and is now delivering.

“Drug dealers and drug addicts are a stigmatized group, and stigmatized groups always have difficulty gaining political support for the defense of their rights.”

There are no trials, so there is no evidence that the people being killed are in fact drug dealers or drug addicts. [This situation] shows the weakness of human rights institutions and discourse in the face of a popular and skilled populist leader. It is different from college students being arrested under the Marcos regime or activists being targeted under the first Aquino administration, when popular outcry was aroused. Drug dealers and drug addicts are a stigmatized group, and stigmatized groups always have difficulty gaining political support for the defense of their rights.

How has the United States reacted to the drug war and why is Duterte challenging U.S.-Philippines relations?

It’s never been a genuine partnership. It’s always been a relationship dominated by U.S. interests. Growing up in the 1960s, Duterte lived through a period when the United States firmly supported a regime that was even more brutal than this particular regime and was willing to not criticize that particular government. He noticed that the United States was willing to overlook human rights violations when these violations served their geopolitical interests. He was unhappy about the double standards. [Editor’s Note: The Obama administration has expressed concern over reports of extrajudicial killings and encouraged Manila to abide by its international human rights obligations.] For the first time, the United States is facing someone who is willing to challenge this historically imbalanced relationship. It is unclear what might happen to the relationship under the administration of Donald J. Trump, but initial indications are that it may not focus on human rights in the Philippines. President-Elect Trump has reportedly endorsed the Philippine president’s effort, allegedly saying that the country is going about the drug war "the right way," according to Duterte.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Daily News Brief

A roundup of global news developments by CFR.org editors, including analysis from CFR scholars.

Duterte's War on Drugs

The office of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was on the defensive after fresh allegations of corruption were leveled against his deadly drug war, claiming that police plant evidence at crime scenes, receive cash rewards for committing extrajudicial killings, and have largely been responsible for thousands of killings blamed on vigilantes. The new report claimed that Philippine police are behind the extrajudicial killings of 9,000 people, mostly poor drug users and small-scale dealers.

"There is no truth in the allegation that there is a coordinated effort to kill drug suspects," the president's office said Thursday, in a written reply to questions from Reuters. "The so-called officers interviewed must be living movie scenes." The report, published in April 2017 by Reuters, was based on the testimony of two anonymous Philippine National Police senior officers critical of the deadly campaign.

The report also alleged that not only drug suspects, but petty criminals and “troublemakers” — pickpockets, gang members, alcoholics, swindlers and rapists — were also targets, with a US$200 reward given to police who execute them.

A poll released 20 April 2017 by Social Weather Stations found that 73 percent of respondents are worried that they or someone they know could fall victim to an Extra-Judicial Killing, often referred to on the archipelago by its acronym “EJK.”

The Philippine police paused the controversial anti-drug operation in response to the kidnapping and brutal murder of a South Korean businessman by anti-narcotics officers. National Police Chief Roland Dela Rosa said 29 January 2017 that local anti-narcotics units would go through a period of "internal cleansing" to get rid of rogue officers, whom he described as "scalawags." Dela Rosa's announcement came after President Rodrigo Duterte openly accused as many as 40 percent of policemen of corruption, as he dealt with the fallout over the death of Jee Ick-joo in Manila in October 2016. The suspected officers were accused of kidnapping Jee for ransom. More than 7,000 people had been murdered since Duterte launched a brutal and deadly crackdown of illicit drugs shortly after taking office in June 2016. Duterte vowed to continue with his anti-drug crackdown across the archipelago until he leaves office in 2022, discarding an earlier promise to end the operations in March of this year.

Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed 'The Punisher', won a landslide victory in the May 2016 presidential election, promising to rid society of drugs and crime in six months by killing tens of thousands of criminals. y late August 2016, seven weeks into the campaign, the death toll by police killings of suspects and illegal vigilante murders had reached 1,800. Police operations alone had resulted in 718 deaths, while more than 1,080 people were killed by “various syndicate groups involved with illegal drugs".

Since Duterte took office at the end of June 2016, his war against drugs left over 400 suspected drug dealers dead in the month of July. That figure did not include those slain by suspected vigilantes. The country's top broadcaster, ABS-CBN, reported in early August 2016 that 603 people had been killed since Duterte's May election, with 211 murdered by unidentified gunmen. Reuters reported 07 August 2016 that as many as 770 to 800 had been killed in police operations against illegal drugs since Duterte was sworn in as president on June 30, including more than 200 killed by vigilante groups. Bodies not confirmed killed by police have been found in the streets with their face covered with packing tape and a placard reading 'I'm a pusher'. Over 4,000 were arrested, while over half a million drug users turned themselves in to authorities.

In his inaugural speech on 30 June 2016, Duterte pledged to rout corruption and drugs. Using his characteristically sharp language, he also took on the widespread suspicion that he had deployed death squads to enforce order in Davao. “I know that there are some who do not approve of my methods of fighting criminality, drugs and corruption,” he said. “In response, let me say that I have seen how corruption works. I have seen how illegal drugs ruin individuals and relationships…I have seen how corruption bled government funds. ... As a lawyer and former prosecutor, I know the limits of the powers of the president,” he added. “You mind your work and I will mind mine. I know what is legal and what is not.”

In his first state of the nation address to parliament, Duterte ignored the outrage over the continuing death count, declaring that drugs were 'drowning his country' and had to be stopped at all costs. 'Double your efforts. Triple them if need be,' Mr Duterte told police. 'We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars ... or below ground if you wish,' he said. Mr Duterte made it clear he would pardon police if they were charged with human rights violations for carrying out his merciless orders.

Duterte won the 09 May 2016 presidential election on a promise to end crime and corruption within six months of taking office. He vowed on one occasion during the election campaign that 100,000 people would die, and so many bodies would be dumped in Manila Bay that the fish there would grow fat from feeding on them, according to the South China Morning Post. His tough talk during and immediately after the presidential election alarmed some. “My payment for a drug lord, if killed, is 5 million (pesos, or $109,000). If alive, it's only 4.999 million,” he told supporters during his victory party. Human rights groups said that citizens could use the president’s words to kill people they don’t like by saying they were drug dealers. As the longtime mayor of Davao City, Duterte put in tough penalties for crime. But Human Rights Watch said he went too far, using death squads to kill more than 1,000 people.

The Philippine president-elect had a new program to fight crime. President-elect Duterte said 11 June 2016 people should go after drug dealers themselves. In a speech, he said people with guns should shoot and kill drug dealers who refuse to be taken to a police station. The same is true, he said, if drug dealers threaten people with a gun or a knife. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have a gun ... you have my support," Duterte said. "Shoot him, and I'll give you a medal."

Before the bodies started piling up, Manila police also launched a campaign, codenamed Oplan Rody - the incoming president's nickname - to rid the streets of drunks and shirtless men. Crime is a significant concern in urban areas of the Philippines. The crackdown is dubbed “Oplan Rody” an acronym for “Rid the Streets of Drinkers and Youth.” Rody is the nickname of Duterte. Soon after Duterte was innaugurated, police rounded up hundreds of children or their parents to enforce a night curfew for minors, and taken away drunk and shirtless men roaming metropolitan Manila's slums. The poor, who were among Rodrigo Duterte's strongest supporters, got a foretaste of the war against crime he vowed to wage.

According to the Philippine National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management, theft, physical assault, and robbery were the most common crimes reported to local authorities in 2014. Robberies committed by taxi drivers and/or individuals using stolen taxi cabs were increasingly reported to local police in 2014. Although the vast majority of taxi services remain safe and reliable, robberies perpetrated by taxi drivers do occur. Other common criminal acts include: pickpocketing, confidence schemes, acquaintance scams, and credit card fraud. Carjacking, kidnappings, robberies, and violent assaults also occur sporadically.

A lawmaker on 07 August 2016 lamented that the campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte against illegal drugs had given way to a “class war” as poor suspected drug users were deprived of due process. Ifugao Rep. Teddy Brawner Baguilat hit the double-standard in the administration’s anti-drug initiative. “The rich and powerful are given deadlines to negotiate their surrender, are accommodated in the PNP White House, gets invited to coffee and are subject to an investigation.... “But the poor, the lowly drug pusher or the addict simply gets the bullet. It seems like the rules are different with the rich and the poor”.

The production, trafficking, and consumption of illegal drugs are issues of concern. Trafficking and abuse of methamphetamine remains the foremost drug-related problem, followed by marijuana, and, to a lesser extent, ecstasy and cocaine. Transnational organized crime groups exploit both under-staffed and under-resourced law enforcement and a weak judicial system to establish clandestine drug laboratories and import wholesale quantities of methamphetamine to supply the domestic market. Authorities have raided methamphetamine laboratories in Metro Manila and Luzon. Regionally, the Philippines is an identified source of methamphetamine for Guam and a transit point from Africa to Southeast Asia.

The Philippines remains a transshipment point and destination country for large shipments of methamphetamine. Known locally as “shabu,” methamphetamine continues to be the primary drug consumed and trafficked within the country. Philippine authorities also seized two new psychoactive substances (NPS) for the first time in 2014. Despite a Philippine government budget reduction for counter-drug activities, Philippine law enforcement conducted numerous successful law enforcement operations that led to large drug seizures and arrests in 2014. This success was partly due to intensified interagency cooperation and partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Increased bilateral cooperation also led to successful enforcement operations against international drug syndicates operating in the Philippines.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the lead counternarcotic enforcement agency in the Philippines, is responsible for pursuing anti-illegal drug investigations and operations nationwide. Founded in 2002, PDEA continues to develop as an organization with an emphasis on core values and training. PDEA removed 16 agents for a variety of offenses in 2014, including corruption and grave misconduct. Due to budget decreases, no new agents were added in 2014. Four regional laboratories are in place for rapid analysis of drug evidence. PDEA acquired 15 canines to assist in the search for illegal drugs during operations in 2014, and established a canine training facility to increase its canine capacity.

Chinese drug trafficking organizations continue to dominate the methamphetamine trade in the Philippines. However, there are continued indications of the presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating in the Philippines as well as other parts of East Asia. During follow-up investigations to the December 2013 seizure of 83 kg of Mexican-sourced methamphetamine, PDEA officials conducted several multi-kilogram methamphetamine seizures which chemical analysis determined to be from the same Mexican origin. African drug trafficking organizations remain primarily engaged in the use of air passengers to move illegal drugs into and through the Philippine airport system. However, authorities reported they detected a decrease in their activities. According to the Philippine Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), methamphetamine is the most abused drug in the Philippines, followed by marijuana and the illicit use of inhalants. The DDB leads Philippine government preventive education programs aimed at promoting self-awareness and explaining the repercussions of drug dependency.

Although Philippine law mandates criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, corruption remains endemic throughout the country. Media and law enforcement officials continued to allege in 2014 that some local politicians and other government officials received support from drug traffickers, though no criminal cases were filed. As a matter of policy, the Government of the Philippines does not facilitate drug trafficking or the laundering of proceeds of drug trafficking, and no senior government official has been convicted for conducting such activities.

Nearly 3,000 drug suspects had been killed fromt he time Duterte launched his war on drugs upon taking office on 30 June 2016 up to mid-September 2016. Police took credit for 1,033 of those deaths and blamed the 1,894 others on vigilantes or hired guns. “More people will be killed, plenty will be killed until the last pusher is out of the streets,” Duterte said.

Duterte said on 19 September 2016 that he needs six more months for his ongoing war on drugs, saying he "cannot kill them all", adding that there are too many people involved in the narcotic trade. "We would need time to put everything in order. Give me a little extension, maybe of another six months," he said.

During a speech 30 September 2016, Duterte said “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are three million drug addicts … I’d be happy to slaughter them." The comment received criticism from various officials and organizations around the world. Jewish groups, senior U.S. officials, the German government and U.N. representatives quickly condemned Duterte's comments, prompting the president's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, to issue a statement. "We do not wish to diminish the profound loss of six million Jews in the Holocaust ... The president's reference to the slaughter was an oblique deflection of the way he has been pictured as a mass murderer, a Hitler, a label he rejects." His spokesman confirmed that Duterte's plan is still to kill drug dealers and addicts to achieve his goal to eliminate drugs in the country. "Duterte was referencing to his 'willingness to kill' three million criminal drug dealers - to save the future of the next generation and the country."

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said 13 October 2016 she was "deeply concerned" about the reported deaths, as well as "the fact that public statements of high officials" in the Philippines "seem to condone such killings." Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte launched a war on drugs soon after taking office at the end of June. Since then, an estimated 3,000 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed. The Philippines has been a member of the ICC since November 2011, which means the Hague-based tribunal has juridiction over crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that are committed there.

Bensouda said extrajudicial killings in the Asian nation could be prosecuted by the court if they are "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population." She wrote "Let me be clear. Any person in the Philippines who incites or engages in acts of mass violence including by ordering, requesting, encouraging or contributing, in any other manner, to the commission of crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC is potentially liable to prosecution before the Court."


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