A step too far? Duterte hits the police and adds military force to his war on drugs

President Duterte has come down hard on the police force in the Philippines, but is promising no let-up in his war on drugs. Is military intervention a step too far?

By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by John Pennington

Philippine President Duterte is once again making international headlines with his war on drugs. Instead of slamming international bodies, Duterte now apologises for the corruption of his police force while vowing to kill more with the help of the military.

Until recently, Duterte fiercely protected the police and their role in the war on drugs. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he told police officers on July 1, one day after his inauguration. Duterte’s determination to rid the Philippines of drugs emboldened police officers and gave them a sense of duty. Shootings have become common on the streets and the Philippines has descended into chaos. While drug usage has dropped markedly, the price paid is huge – just seven months into the campaign, the death toll already exceeds 7,000.

Police officers are paid for each drug suspect they kill

In an investigative report released by Amnesty International, an experienced frontline police officer confessed that police in Manila are paid up to 15,000 pesos (US$300) for every suspected drug dealer they kill and up to 10,000 pesos (US$200) for a drug user. This creates what Amnesty International called an “informal economy of death”, where police officers profit from killing, which is the opposite of what they are supposed to do. There is also no practical reason for them to avoid killing as the President has verbally promised them immunity. The scale of destruction is therefore unprecedented, the vast majority are killed by vigilantes and most of those killed are poor and defenceless.

The murder of South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo inside Camp Crame, the Philippines National Police (PNP) headquarters, laid bare the scale of the corruption. Jee was kidnapped and strangled to death by rogue police officers. This incident humiliated and angered Duterte, leading him to lambaste the police force, calling them, “corrupt to the core”. For the first time, Duterte apologised for the effects of the war on drugs.

A pause in the war on drugs was a temporary one

The incident prompted him to put a hold on the war and embark on an overhaul of the police force. In a late-night press conference, Duterte announced, “Because of this sordid incident, let me reorganise the system. Ang kalaban ko dito mga pulis na kriminal (My enemies here are the police who are criminals).” All anti-illegal drug groups within the PNP will be dissolved, and no police officer will be allowed to enforce laws relating to the drug campaign.

However, this move will not end his grotesque war on drugs. He added, “The drug war I will extend to the last day of my term. Wala na ‘yung March [deadline] (No more March deadline).” Duterte’s rejection of PNP chief director General Dela Rosa’s resignation over Jee’s death shows that despite their scandalous behaviour, Duterte still backs the police force.

Duterte has now called on the military to support the war

Duterte sprung a surprise by handing the anti-drug campaign to the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). PDEA director general Isidro Lapena stressed that the military would not be on patrol duty or lead their own operations. Instead, they are to provide back-up to PDEA agents.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Phelim Kine predicted that if Duterte were to enlist the military, the consequences would be dire. The war would only become more brutal considering the, “deeply rooted culture of impunity for military abuses” and that the military’s, “long history of masking extrajudicial killings (of suspected communist rebels) has sinister parallels” with Duterte’s war on drugs. Duterte avoided this pitfall, and any accusations of tyranny that would have come with it.

Duterte justifies the war on drugs as a necessary evil

Amnesty International are concerned that Duterte’s anti-drug campaign may constitute crimes against humanity. In response, the Philippines dismissed the report by arguing, “criminals…are not humanity”, justifying their actions by saying that the scale of the narcotics problem makes this campaign a necessary evil. Is this really the case?

Duterte claims that there are 3.7 million drug users in the country, and predicts that the country will become a “narco state” if drug addiction is not combated. However, this is not true. According to the 2015 Nationwide Survey on the Nature and Extent of Drug Abuse by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), there are an estimated 1.8 million drug users in the country, or 2.3% of the population aged between 10 and 69. While this is certainly higher than DDB’s estimates of 1.3 million in 2012 and 1.7 million in 2008, it still falls short of Duterte’s figure of 3.7 million.

Even the lower estimated figures are unreliable and ambiguous

The DBB’s 1.8 million estimate is problematic on various levels. First, it does not discriminate between the types of drugs (shabu and marijuana) used. This distinction is important because different drugs have different risk profiles and effects. For instance, shabu (or crystal meth) is a highly addictive stimulant with side effects that can include aggression and psychosis – which is why it is often blamed for social ills in the Philippines. On the other hand, marijuana has milder side effects. Yet the survey simply lumps all drug users together. In fact, most drug users are marijuana users, and only less than half – approximately 860,000 – had used shabu.

Secondly, the figure does not distinguish between users and problem users. “We did not try to categorise them, whether or not they were addicts, problematic drug users, or just plain users,” admitted DDB chairman Reyes. The issue here is that drug use does not necessarily translate into drug dependence or drug addiction. University of Adelaide treatment specialist Robert Ali said that only 10-15% of shabu users require residential care – an estimate based on his clinical experience and experience of treatment services in the United Kingdom. Using the global estimate of 0.6% of all drug users being problem users, the figure in the Philippines would be 18,000. This is a very small figure, and by no means requires the scale of violence we are witnessing today. In fact, of the 1.8 million users identified by DDB, a third of them have used drugs only once in the past 13 months.

On the other hand, data released by the police shows that the crime rate was already decreasing before Duterte’s inauguration. Even accepting the figure of 75% of serious crimes being drug-related in nature as correct, the war on drugs is still not needed. Even under Benigno Aquino – who only left office in June 2016–serious crime was already in decline.

Can Duterte’s hardline approach be in any way justified?

Illegal drug trade in the Philippines remains rife, and some might argue that a hardline approach is the only way to deal with the transnational drugs trade. But at the root of the problem facing the country is also the age-old issue of poverty. Most meth users are impoverished and to them, shabu is a cost-effective solution that counters hunger and provides temporal drive to work long hours.

To quote Alison Ritter, a researcher at Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, “To argue that killing people for consuming drugs is associated with crime reduction is blatantly unsupported.” While the Philippines clearly has a drugs problem, its extent has been overestimated by Duterte. While something needed to be done about it, the level of violence he is applying is disproportionate in the extreme.