Drug War in the Philippines

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By Joe Chivers

If you are even a casual reader of the news, the dark situation in the Philippines cannot have escaped your attention. Filipino President, Rodrigo Duterte, hasn’t so much got blood on his hands as he has his hands in a barrel of bodily fluids and human viscera. Since June 2016, the nation’s government, various Islamist groups, and vigilantes have been killing drug dealers and users with a ferocity that is unmatched by any other nation, spare Mexico. Many of the police’s killings are being covered up, with police dumping the mangled bodies of executed suspects at hospitals, despite them having been dead for some time from irreparable wounds. According to an Amnesty International report, police officers are paid per execution, while no such bounty is awarded for an arrest. The report also documents police usage of hitmen to carry out killings. Since the war, known as Oplan Tokhang (Operation Knock and Plead), started, 4500 people have been killed according to official figures. Other sources indicate the death toll is anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000. The police’s role in the war temporarily ceased last year, following the kidnap and murder of a South Korean businessman, Jee Ick-Joo, and a teenager, Kian Loyd delos Santos, who was dragged away by police and executed. During this time, responsibility for prosecuting the war was handed to the Filipino DEA. Since then, and with little attention or fanfare from the world’s media, the police’s war has started up again, and is just as brutal as ever, despite new “efforts” at transparency. It should be noted that the US’ criticism of the war has cooled somewhat since Donald Trump became President. Indeed, the United States has been providing funding for the campaign.

News from the war, both ridiculous and disturbing, has not dried up. Back in February, the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced that they were conducting a preliminary investigation into Duterte’s war. His response? He dragged The Philippines out of the ICC in March, but attempted to reassure the UN, stating “the government affirms its commitment to fight against impunity for atrocity crimes, notwithstanding its withdrawal from the Rome Statute, especially since the Philippines has a national legislation punishing atrocity crimes.” Not content with this, in April he also threatened to arrest an ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, should she attempt any investigations in the country. According to his protestations, there is an international effort to depict him as a “ruthless and heartless violator of human rights.” Let us be frank, it does not take an expert’s skill to depict him as such.

As mentioned previously, the efforts of “transparency” have done nothing to prevent the murders continuing. One week in March of this year was one of the bloodiest of the entire operation, with 13 people killed and 100 arrested in a veritable orgy of raids and stings. The bloodshed witnessed in 2016, where families were destroyed by state violence continues. The “kill list,” containing names of Filipinos who could be killed at any time, is over one million names strong. The murder rate has jumped by 50 percent since Duterte came to power, with vigilantes dressed in black, riding motorcycles and carrying .45 “Duterte Pistols,” carrying out many of these. Due to the kill list being so long, it is no surprise that as many as 80 percent of Filipinos fear that they may fall victim to these killers.

July brought with it disturbing new trends. A recent proposal suggested drugs testing children as young as ten years old. The proposal has brought outrage from Catholic leaders who see it as both ignoring the children’s dignity and possibly endangering their lives. As this proposal came following a remark by the President that challenged police to kill 32 people per day, it’s easy to understand exactly why. Just a few days ago, Duterte restated his commitment to the war on drugs. In a press conference, police chief Oscar Albayalde phrased this recommitment bluntly.

“Surgical and chilling will be the trademark of the reinvigorated anti-illegal drugs and anti-criminality campaign.”

According to Albayalde, 893 “high-value targets” had been identified by police. Many, including this writer, question exactly how accurate this intelligence is. Chilling appears to be the watchword of the Filipino state currently, with Duterte himself insisting that the war on drugs shall be “as relentless and chilling as on the day it began,” as part of a 48 minute speech.

At this juncture, it is important for us to examine exactly what sort of character Duterte is. This is not done as an ad hominem, but to establish an understanding. As the President is rapidly attempting to reshape Filipino society and its concept of justice, we must understand from what position he is doing this. He is an authoritarian, that much will surprise no one. In addition to the proposal for mandatory drug testing, he has suggested that running a democracy is difficult due to citizens having “so many rights.” Were this only rhetoric, it would not be nearly as damaging as his praxis. This is a man who has boasted of personally killing three men when he was mayor of the city of Davao. In February, a month before International Women’s Month, he ordered troops to shoot female suspects in their genitals. In unhinged displays of power and a flagrant disregard for due process, he blurts out suspects’ names in press conferences, which often leads to murders. He carries around a thick sheaf of paper which he says contains the names of individuals involved in the drug trade. The Filipino people are not simply grinning and bearing it, with numerous protests taking place since he came to power. As we mentioned earlier, we are not attempting a mere ad hominem smear against Duterte, merely stating the facts. He is leading a reinvigoration of nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism in South-East Asia, and reshaping the nation according to his own twisted ideology. This is a situation that must end, and end soon, to put an end to these mass killings. The next election is not for four more years. It falls to the international community to put an end to this injustice.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.