Can you fight evil with evil? The rights and wrongs of Duterte’s drug war

Philippine President Rodrigo DutertePhoto: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

By Dung Phan

During his first State of the Nation address, President Duterte sometimes stumbled over his words. His speech, which was supposed to last about 40 minutes, went on for 140. His unconventional style might have attracted laughter as he increasingly ignored the teleprompter, wandering off-script. His message, however, never seemed more powerful.

Despite much criticism of his brutal fight against crime, he reiterated, “there will be no let-up in this campaign.” Calling on the police to, “Double your efforts. Triple them if need be,” he continued, “We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars. Or below the ground if they so wish.”

Extrajudicial killings are not new to Filipinos. In just a single reported 24 hours, at last 19 drug suspects were killed, bringing to 316 the total number of slain individuals for the first 28 days of the Duterte administration. Other estimates are higher. 120,000 people have surrendered to police in the past month as a result of crackdowns.70,000 of these are drug pushers.

At his inauguration, Duterte affirmed that solving the problem of illegal drugs will be one of the country’s top priorities and vowed his government’s anti-drug battle would be “relentless” and “sustained”. In April, he told a business group, “it is going to be bloody”. And now in office, Duterte has praised the killings as proof of the, “success” and urged police to, “seize the momentum”.

And the battle is unlikely to end soon as law enforcement officials, eager to please their new boss, are trying to make good on his own vow.

Missing preparation

Although the Duterte administration promised to rid the nation of drugs in three to six months’ time, what is missing from the initiative is the preparation for the sheer number of drug addicts suddenly seeking help.

The Philippines have experienced a rapid increase in the highly addictive methamphetamine use in recent years, known locally as “shabu.” According to the Philippines’ Dangerous Drugs Board reports in 2012, there were 1.3 million drug users nationwide, but lawmakers have said it may be nearer seven million—one-tenth of the population. And methamphetamine is more common in the country than in neighbouring countries says the United Nations.

Felipe Rojas, chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) said it is a, “happy problem” to see, “a sudden boom” in drug users surrendering to police and seeking rehabilitation en masse. But there needs be more resources to treat them. “We are afraid that if the trend continues, the quality of the services will suffer,” he told Rappler.

According to DDB, the Philippines currently has 45 residential treatment and rehabilitation centres. That is not nearly enough to cope with the number of addicts being driven into centres by the anti-drug campaign.

War on poverty

Human rights advocates have repeatedly stated that most of the killings happen in the slums, the country’s most vulnerable areas. People in the shanties are dying in high numbers, compared to just a handful of those in urban dwellings or drug lords.

“[It is] a very profitable business to be involved in – the making and pushing of drugs, any kind of drugs,” said Miguel Perez-Rubio, one of the country’s leading experts on the topic. He explains that making shabu is a widespread industry as it can be made easily and cheaply from ephedrine, used in legitimate drugs such as cough medicine.

“Duterte doesn’t understand the problems we have in small communities where people depend on selling drugs to survive,” said community leader Victor Aliguin . He’s from the Barangay 2 district where one-third of the neighbourhood’s 5,000 residents were actively involved in selling shabu and pushing drugs has become the only way to make ends meet in an area where waters have been fished out. “Duterte needs to prioritize jobs, not crime – then people wouldn’t need to sell drugs in the first place,” he adds.

The wrong message

“Can we correct evil by doing evil?” asks Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabill. According to leaders in some of the country’s most deprived communities, Duterte should address drug crime as a social issue rather than as a law-and-order one.

They say that if the Duterte administration is absolutely serious about stopping drugs, it must also prioritise funding for rehabilitation facilities, intensive drug use prevention and proper psychological treatment. However, they should fight for all people for the sake of humanity, not just those who are socially privileged because “I am not a drug pusher.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Duterte’s approach, shooting drug suspects is much cheaper and easier than investing in long-term solutions. But it’s simply tackling one problem by ignoring another.