A quick search on the internet regarding the state of the Philippine drug war reveals a shocking reality. Bystanders describe the bloodied bodies of victims lying callously in the street after encounters with police force; families recall husbands and fathers being taken from their homes by masked vigilantes. If the tales of the widows and children left behind aren’t enough to paint a horrifying picture, the devastating photos that emerge certainly do.
In a country currently experiencing our own struggles with drug use and trafficking, such a reality can be hard to process, to say the least. It’s difficult to imagine how a federal operation intended to protect the public has strayed so far as to leave 7 of every 10 Filipinos fearing they will become victims at the hands of their own government. To understand how the Philippines got here, it’s helpful to examine the history of President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug initiative.
A Violent Past
In the mid-to-late 90’s, while drug hysteria seemed to be reaching a global peak, Rodrigo Duterte was in the middle of serving 22 years as Mayor of Davao City in the Philippines. He was notorious, but praised by citizens no less, for his zero-tolerance attitude toward drugs and criminal activity, earning him popular sensationalist nicknames like “The Punisher.”
After local media sources connected over 60 unexplained deaths throughout Davao City with a vigilante group of killers known as the Davao Death Squad (DDS), human rights activists began to suspect Duterte of assembling the force. Though he denied involvement in the group’s creation, he had no problem publicly encouraging and approving of their actions.
In these early days, the DDS was believed to be comprised of only ten members, a number that quickly grew alongside death tolls. Throughout the entirety of Duterte’s time as Mayor, both hitmen and human rights groups have estimated at least 1,000 casualties as the result of Duterte’s orders.
The Present President
Unfortunately, as the death count rose, it appeared Duterte’s approval ratings did as well. In June of 2016, running on a hostile platform that candidly threatened to kill drug users and traffickers, Duterte won the presidential election, promising to rid the Philippines of their drug problem within six months. The Philippine National Police force (PNP) were immediately pressured and given all-encompassing immunity to kill anyone suspected of using or selling drugs. Just two months into Duterte’s presidency, the official death count had already climbed to over 2,000.
It wasn’t until January of 2017, when a South Korean businessman was kidnapped and murdered at the hands of two PNP officers, that Duterte first began to question the integrity of the police force. Official anti-drug operations were temporarily suspended until late February, and on March 6th the PNP launched a new plan to redirect focus on “big fishes” instead of low-level users. But in practice, neither the suspension nor the new plan (dubbed “Oplan Double Barrel Reloaded”) changed much of anything on the ground, and Duterte’s approval ratings still soared, so the killings relentlessly continued. It would take a tragedy to wake the nation up.
During August 2017, in a one-week crackdown in Caloocan City, the PNP killed 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, reporting that he was armed and killed after fighting back when officers tried to arrest him. This report is identical to countless others, but surveillance footage of officers dragging Kian outside, giving him a gun, and shooting him as he tried to run finally confirmed the corruption among the PNP that citizens have long feared. It was finally enough for the Senate to open an investigation, and for Duterte’s satisfaction ratings to take a massive hit.
Hope for the Future?
With Duterte’s violent methods rapidly drawing criticisms from the public eye, as of October 12 he has once again detached the PNP from the anti-drug campaign, pulling Oplan Double Barrel and ordering all drug-related operations to be left to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). The PNP is now limited only to intelligence gathering, and the officers responsible for Kian’s murder has been detained despite Duterte’s past promises to protect the police. Whether or not these actions will have a tangible effect remains yet to be seen, but in the meantime, there exists a lesson for the rest of the world.
Though Duterte’s approach is no doubt extremist, it demonstrates the devastating consequences of criminalizing addicts instead of treating their disease. Waging war against drug users is a hostile tactic that destroys countless lives. Fostering a culture of prevention and rehabilitation is far more effective, and could have saved actual thousands in the case of the Philippines: While the police force currently claims a death count of 3,451 people, human rights groups factoring in victims of vigilante killings estimate numbers upwards of 12,000. Meanwhile, PNP reports state that 2,465 kilograms of methamphetamine have been seized since the start of Duterte’s drug war.