Hunting tigers and swatting flies: Duterte chases corrupt officials in drugs trade crackdown

Photo: Rody Duterte/Facebook

President Duterte’s war on drugs has taken a new turn, forcing 150 government officials to surrender to the police for investigation. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

Like Light Yagami from “Death Note” who is determined to rule a world free of criminals, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is unflinchingly committed to ridding the Southeast Asian country of drugs and illegality.

During a recent name-and-shame speech, Duterte called out over 150 officials with alleged connections to the illegal drug trade. These people were immediately suspended from duty, had their firearms permits rescinded, and forced to surrender to the Philippines National Police (PNP) within 24 hours.

“Twenty-four hours. (All you military and police personnel attached to these individuals.) I give you 24 hours to report to your mother unit or I will whack you. I’ll dismiss you from the service”, he exclaimed.

Swatting flies and hunting tigers

This “Project Double Barrel Alpha” is an extension of Duterte’s Project Double Barrel. It will focus on hunting “tigers” – politicians, military, police, government officials, and celebrities. These tigers are high-value targets, unlike the “flies,” who are mostly impoverished civilians and small-time drug dealers. This sudden change in strategy is noteworthy as he previously claimed that the reason for the country’s 600,000 drug addicts was that “government personnel were into it.”

Herein lies an interesting irony: If Duterte thought this was the case, why encourage the killings of the smaller players when he could have targeted tigers right from the start? Given that the Project Double Barrel Alpha was agreed upon because the government wants to focus on arrests instead of neutralisation (a euphemism for the extrajudicial killings of the drug war), then is the change in strategy acknowledging that previous actions were a smokescreen for poverty?

Many named government officials insist they are innocent and have no links to the drug trade in any way, such as Marjorie Salazar (Lasam mayor); Reynaldo Parojinog  Sr (Ozamiz mayor); Hector Ong (Laoang mayor); Madeleine Ong (former Laoang mayor); and Beda Camanaque (Basay mayor). All have said they will cooperate with authorities to clear their reputations.

This leads to the issue of evidence. Police General Dela Rosa admitted that the basis for holding the accused is flimsy, but because the “President named them and they came to me and surrendered. I can’t just turn them away … So now that they’re here, we’ll process them”. The question is then how many are innocent?  At this point, nobody knows.

Rody the lone ranger

Duterte is addicted to playing God and taking the law into his own hands, but he has to be careful –  he is alone in this fight against drugs and crime. He has had no qualms naming government officials, members of the judiciary, congressmen, and police officials from the southern city of Davao – his previous turf. He has a reputation for being tough there and people know him personally. But these people helped him in one way or another to get to where he is today, and now his objectivity and impartiality could be the cause of his downfall.

One of the reasons Duterte is enjoying large-scale popularity is he is still in the honeymoon period and the impact of his brutal campaign has not yet been felt. But a recent poll showed 94% of the people asked found it crucial that the police take suspects alive instead of shooting them dead on the spot. There is a brewing unease among the public; his honeymoon period might soon come to an end.

Until now he has burnt bridges, overtly attacking the Church by calling Filipino bishops “sons of whores,” and accusing them of corruption and hypocrisy. Internationally, he says he will abandon the Philippines’ long-time close ally, the United States, in favour of China. But this alliance ignores the fact that territorial disputes will always be a thorn between the two.  At the same time, Duterte has threatened to leave the United Nations after it condemned his anti-drug campaign as a flagrant violation of human rights, calling the global body ‘useless.’

He has also threatened to declare martial law if anyone tries to hinder his anti-drug war, but he does not have the carte blanche to do so that everyone expects. “Times have changed. The power to declare martial law is not as absolute under the 1987 constitution… It needs the concurrence of (the) majority of Congress within 48 hours, and the Supreme Court may review it”, says Fe Zamora, an expert on the Philippine military.

Looking back, Ferdinand Marcos only declared martial law after seven years in office, having already secured the loyalty of the military generals – but Rody is barely four months into his leadership. It is unclear how much power he holds right now but it is unlikely enough that he could take such a drastic action.

Perhaps “The Punisher” has good intentions for the country, but his methods are not the best. He needs to tread carefully because he has become both famous and l infamous for his insensitivity, brutality, and antisocial behaviour. If he falls, no-one will be there to catch him.