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The War On Drugs: Duterte’s Crackdown on The Philippines’ Drug Market

Packets of shabu, a cheap form of methamphetamine, placed in front of arrested drug suspects in Manila, the Philippine capital, last month. Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

Rodrigo Duterte, the current and arguably most controversial Filipino President, has been lauded by the people for his political will and success in quickly implementing public policy. His critics, however, view him as an overwhelming tyrant, especially in his war against crime and drugs, as the amount of deaths soar to surprising heights.

Drugs In The Philippines

The dominant drug in the Philippines is a variant of methamphetamine; it is called shabu. According to a 2012 United Nations report, among all 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 methamphetamine, and that methamphetamine and marijuana were the primary drugs of choice. In 2015, the National Drug Enforcement Agency reported that one fifth of barangays (neighborhoods), 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 barangay had yielded such evidence. The immense use of drugs catalyzes the high percentage of crime in these small neighborhoods, which Duterte has been trying to control through his extrajudicial killings.

More than 2 million pesos worth of shabu was confiscated in Cebu. ABS CBN News

Duterte Before Office

Before becoming President, Duterte was the mayor of Davao City. Under Duterte, The Davao Death Squad had killed hundreds of drug users, drug dealers, and even children. Prior to his candidacy in 2015, Duterte had made it clear that it was his intention to eliminate all forms of crime by killing all criminals, no matter the means. “If by chance that God will place me there, watch out because the 1,000 [executed] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.” This anti drug sentiment had been the basis for his electoral platform. Following his election, Duterte continued to state unequivocally that his anti-drug campaign would focus on killing drug dealers and users. Speaking in Davao City on June 4, he stated: “If you are still into drugs, I am going to kill you. Don’t take this as a joke. I’m not trying to make you laugh. I’ll really kill you.” His rhetoric has been widely understood by the people as an endorsement of these extrajudicial killings, as it has created situations for people to feel that it’s appropriate to kill drug users and dealers.

Operation Double Barrel and Controversy

Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Duterte has carried out a war on drugs that has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos to date, mostly urban poor. At least 2,555 of the killings have been attributed to the Philippine National Police. Duterte and other senior officials have instigated and incited the killings in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity. This anti drug campaign, known as “Operation Double Barrel,” has targeted suspected drug dealers for arrest, but in actuality and in practice, has been a campaign of extrajudicial executions in impoverished areas of Manila and other urban areas. 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. 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. Furthermore, in the face of a corrupt, elite-dominated political system and a slow, ineffective, and equally corrupt judicial system, many Filipinos (9 out of 10) are willing to tolerate this politician who promised a change and is now delivering.

Clarita Alia speaks out against death squad killings at a rally in Davao City in December 2003. From July 2001 to April 2007, her four sons--Richard, 18, Christopher, 17, Bobby, 14, and Fernando, 15--fell victim to apparent death squad killings. The police have not arrested a single suspect in any of the killings. © 2003 Ryan Anson

The Current Effects Of Duterte’s Crackdown

According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), 4,948 suspected drug users and dealers died during police operations from July 1, 2016 to September 30, 2018. But this does not include the thousands of others killed by unidentified gunmen. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), 22,983 such deaths since the “war on drugs” began are classified as homicides under investigation.

Citizen Reactions

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 of 2016 by Pulse Asia Research showed that Duterte’s approval rating was around 86 percent. Even though some people are concerned about these deaths, they support him as a president for his position on other issues such as economic reform, increased spending on infrastructure, poverty reduction, and crime and corruption. Duterte’s control over the media and propaganda is what helps paint himself as an effective Filipino leader. Duterte and his administration is able to peddle their own narrative through many forms of media. They take responsibility for everything positive while blaming others for everything negative. This allows Duterte to quickly implement policy and get things done, something Filipinos have been yearning for in a president.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supporters gather during a vigil backing the anti-drugs crackdown at the Luneta park in Manila on Saturday. (REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)


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