Duterte’s drug war rolls on, but how far is too far?

Photo: Rody Duterte/Facebook

The war on drugs raging in the Philippines has empowered President Duterte to push his authority as a popular and powerful leader. But is the tsunami of blood unleashed onto the streets by his aggressive policies actually even necessary? 

By Victoria Wah

The war on drugs will not be over until the last drug pusher is executed, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told a cheering crowd of Filipinos during his recent visit to Singapore.

Since taking power, this mantra has fuelled his brutal crackdown on suspected drug dealers and users, bringing more than 5,900 deaths in less than six months. More than half of these were extrajudicial killings, and the remainder is alleged to have been at the hands of the police.

This policy may well be popular but the tsunami of blood on the streets has sent shock waves through the community. In fact, one national survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that nearly 80% of citizens feared that they or someone close to them could be killed as part of Duterte’s policy.

Innocent people are being killed, allege observers

Amongst the chaos are reports of cases of mistaken identity leading to the deaths of innocents. Furthermore, bystanders caught in the crossfire between the police and drug suspects are being killed or injured. This is “collateral damage” says the President.

Duterte insists that the police only kill in self-defence, and are not responsible for extrajudicial killings. However, he has also acknowledged that there are cases where he will pardon police officers that have killed civilians while acting in their line of duty. Rafendi Diamin, Amnesty International regional director, says this type of comment may, “further embolden police and vigilantes to blatantly violate laws and carry out more extrajudicial executions without fear of being held to account.”

China’s influence is making things both better and worse

The recent alliance formed between the Philippines and China muddies the waters further. China is a methamphetamine production powerhouse and supplies are frequently trafficked into the Philippines. Two-thirds of foreign nationals arrested for meth-related drug offences between January 2015 and mid-August 2016 were Chinese, says the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

Duterte had previously gone as far as blaming the Chinese government for the rampant meth industry, and threatened to kill three Chinese drug dealers. Experts add that Chinese methamphetamine experts are being recruited by drug syndicates to work in Duterte’s nation. “It’s safe to say that the majority of the meth we have comes from China”, said Derrick Carreon, a PDEA spokesman.

Although China has done little to curb its meth industry, this should not be a reason to weaken the alliance between the two countries says Duterte. Apparently, “it is not fair to blame all of China and her people for the drug problem perpetuated by some of its nationals,” he said. “Not all Chinese are related to drugs. Furthermore, China has little tolerance for drugs. It has strict laws that hold death sentences for certain drug crimes.”

It is true that China has provided help to the Philippines to combat its narcotics, including building rehab facilities and a $14 million grant for anti-drug measures. Perhaps a closer relationship with China has not exacerbated the drug industry. On the contrary, it can help the Philippines combat its drug problem effectively.

The public are still supporting Duterte’s plans

Despite being bombarded with criticism, Duterte is still getting strong public support. One recent survey showed 85% of Philippine respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with his approach.

Presidential supporter and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) chief, Mamondiong says, “The rising incidents of crimes against women and children are drug-related.” He adds, “Molestation and rape cases committed against minors by their parents are drug-related. This is how serious the drug problem in the country is.” In fact, national crime rates are currently declining and districts around the nation are being declared as drug-free.

Duterte also has good support among government institutions thanks to his “supermajority” in the House of Representatives. His dynamic policies are viewed as the solution to the problems accumulated from past presidents that benefited themselves at the expense of the people, fuelling a high unemployment rate and increased drug use. Hungry people sought to increase their energy and suppress their hunger with drugs, some explain, while many ordinary citizens used drug trafficking as their only way to make a living.

The data behind Duterte’s estimates may be flawed

There is, however, a flaw in some of the President’s arguments about the need for his aggressive approach. He estimates there are around 3.7 million drug users in the country in 2016, but the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) puts the figure at just 1.8 million in 2015. And this in itself is a steep decline from 6.7 million users in 2004.

Furthermore, the drug war has taken its toll on the economy and has done nothing to alleviate the poverty which forms the actual root of substance abuse problems. This begs the question, is widespread slaughter necessary to tackle the drug problem?

People who live in developed countries find Duterte’s actions appalling, but those who are struggling to find order and security in conflict-stricken nations embrace his boldness. Filipinos may not advocate murder as the best solution to their country’s drug problem, but his attempts to take action are at least as inspiring as they are frightening.