Duterte’s drug war threatens Philippine democracy

On this International Day of Democracy, Iris Gonzales reports on the heavy-handed campaign of the country’s president.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared an all out war against people in the drug trade. There are already at least 2,400 drug-related deaths according to police. In a community in Quezon City on evening of September, a team of police killed an alleged drug pusher as part of its anti-drug campaign. Here, they take the lifeless body to the morgue for an autopsy. © Iris Gonzales

She heard a neighbor shouting her name. ‘Lucy, Lucy, your son!’

It was around 10 in the evening on Victory Avenue, a narrow alley where people live in makeshift homes, shanties of recycled wood and scraps of metal. It is one of many densely populated slum areas in Quezon City.

Here, the men and women survive on odd jobs – a small time contract today, none tomorrow, a day's minimum wage for a month's work or what-have-you. Yet, people take it, because they usually have no other choice.

Lucy dela Rosa’s son, 32-year-old JJ is no exception. He used to sell second hand car parts, mostly stolen side mirrors.

But Lucy said his son needed to earn more to feed his five children.

And so he sold drugs. He started just two months ago. Lucy warned him to find another way. She warned him many times but he wouldn’t listen.

On 1 September, just as she was about to sleep, Lucy heard her neighbour scream.

She rushed outside. JJ, her eldest of five children is dead, gunned down by the police.

He tried to escape and he fought back with a .45-caliber pistol, said police superintendent Christian Ventura dela Cruz, who headed the team that went to JJ’s community for an anti-drug operation that night.

JJ had been on the list a long time, dela Cruz said.

‘He fought back. He had a gun. It was a 45,’ he narrated.

The police tried to arrest him on the streets but he ran and fired at them. He was killed in a neighbour’s house where he tried to hide, a few meters away from the borrowed room where he lived with his mother and children.

A crowd of onlookers had gathered after the shooting incident but nobody wanted to say anything.

A neighbour, a lanky aging woman with protruding shoulders and a cigarette on her hand, does not believe JJ owned a gun, much less shot people.

‘He didn’t seem the type. He was kind and cordial, and funny, especially to the children,’ said the woman.

Lucy rushed to where her son was but the area was already cordoned off.

‘I was told by the police I could not go,’ said Lucy.

It was only when the men from the funeral parlor came three hours later that Lucy was able to see her son, now wrapped in a blue body bag and face covered with blood.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who was catapulted to power on 30 June with 16 million votes, a historic high in Philippine presidential elections, has launched an all-out war against drugs.

There are 3.7 million drug users in the Philippines, about three per cent of the country’s 100 million people but Duterte said the problem is in ‘epidemic proportions’.

‘During my inauguration last 30 June, I said that the fight against criminality and illegal drugs and corruption would be relentless and sustained,’ Duterte declared during his first State of the Nation Address in July.

‘I reiterate that commitment today. And that is why I call on the Philippine National Police, the barangay chairmen, the Mayors, and Governors and all those occupying seats of power and authority, not to lower their guard. There will be no let-up in this campaign. Double your efforts. Triple them, if need be. We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.’

The number of deaths as a result of the campaign, however, is stark and telling.

Photo Gallery: visualizing Philippine democracy through UN SDGs

IDD-Philippines-1-590.JPG [Related Image]
A 26-year-old alleged party drug dealer, selling drugs such as Ecstasy and Valium, is caught in the act during a buy-bust operation. View the full photo gallery for this report. © Iris Gonzales

As of this writing, the number of drug offenders killed has reached nearly 3,000, according to the Philippine National Police.

Of this, at least 1,466 suspected drug offenders were killed in the government’s ‘Double-Barrel’ strategy against illegal drugs since President Duterte assumed office on 30 June.

Like double-barreled shotguns firing shots from both barrels, the government’s campaign focuses on big time pushers and small time drug sellers.

There’s a barrel that will target from above, the high-value targets. And there’s a barrel that will target from below, the street-level personalities, the police explained.

Aside from the 1,466 suspected drug offenders, there are 1,490 killed by suspected vigilante groups, which the police classified under ‘deaths under investigation’.

The victims usually have cardboard signs hanging on their bodies with handwritten messages that serve as a warning to others: ‘We are drug pushers, do not be like us.’

‘The number of [police] operations conducted since the launching of [operation] Double-Barrel has already reached 17,389, resulting in the deaths of 1,466 drug personalities and the arrest of 16,025 drug suspects,’ senior superintendent Dionardo Carlos, the police force’s spokesperson, said on 10 September.

He claimed that all suspects who were killed fought it out with the police.

The Malacanang, the residence and workplace of the president, has washed its hands of these vigilante type deaths, saying that these were no cause for concern.

But human rights groups are holding the Duterte administration accountable.

‘If I become president, it will be bloody because we’ll order the killing of all criminals'

Duterte, a former prosecutor and mayor of Davao City, promised to end criminal behavior and warned during his campaign that there would be blood on the streets if he won.

‘If I become president, it will be bloody because we'll order the killing of all criminals, the drug addicts and the drug lords,’ Duterte said in February, two months before he was elected as president in May.

His 20-year stretch as mayor also saw the rise of vigilante groups, with many believing that it was Duterte himself who formed the so-called ‘Davao Death Squad’, the infamous vigilante group in the province to end criminality.

An urban legend of the Davao elderly, repeated only in hushed whispers, says that during Duterte's time as mayor, he would roam the streets of the province on a motorcycle just before the break of dawn to kill criminals.

Indeed, the rising body count since the mayor-turned-president took office last June has shocked the world.

US President Barack Obama has said the campaign against illegal drugs must be within the bounds of the law, while the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the killings are indeed alarming.

‘Duterte is steamrolling the rule of law and its advocates both at home and abroad.

He has declared the soaring number of killings of alleged criminal suspects as proof of the “success” of his anti-drug campaign and urged police to “seize the momentum,”’ said Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

A consortium of more than 300 organizations, the International Drug Control Consortium, also urged the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board to help put a stop on the drug-related killings in the Philippines.

They called on the two international bodies to assert that President Duterte’s actions to incite these extrajudicial killings cannot be justified as being in line with global drug control.

All measures taken to control drugs in the Philippines must be grounded in international law, the consortium said.

‘Poverty must be ended, not the lives of the poor’

They also want the two influential bodies to convince Duterte to uphold the rule of law and ensure that the right to due process and a fair trial is guaranteed to all people suspected of committing drug-related crimes.

Back in the Philippines, local organizations have also raised their concerns on the so-called ‘cardboard justice’, referring to the vigilante-style killings of men in bonnets or masks.

The Student Council Alliance of the Philippines, a group of student activists has called on the president to tackle the rising incidence of these summary executions in the country.

More importantly, President Duterte should address the root of the problem, which is poverty, according to the Stop the Killings Network, a group of non-government organizations seeking an end to the extrajudicial killings.

‘We are one with the people who want an end to the drug menace in the country. But no amount of killing is bound to end this problem,’ the coalition said in a manifesto.

It said that the most effective way to solve the drug menace is to address the socio-economic roots of this problem.

‘The Duterte administration has yet to produce jobs, end contractual work, improve social services, provide free or affordable decent homes to the homeless and informal settlers and distribute land to the tiller-farmers, to make the majority poor Filipinos productive and positive contributors to nation-building,’ it said.

‘Poverty must be ended, not the lives of the poor,’ the group added.

Indeed, most of the drug peddlers that were killed came from slum areas and poor communities, who were just too desperate to eke out a living.

The Philippine economy has been growing steadily but it has not been enough to trickle down to the poorest of the poor.

A quarter of the country’s 100 million population still lives below the poverty threshold, surviving on roughly a dollar a day.

But President Duterte would hear no criticism when it comes to the war on drugs.

He also seems to have his way with the law.

While he promised that he would do everything within the bounds of the Constitution, some fear that there may be signs that Martial Law, which the Philippines experienced for 20 years, may be coming back.

For instance, when a bomb exploded in President Duterte’s hometown of Davao on 2 September and caused at least 14 deaths, he immediately declared a State of Lawlessness, a chilling pronouncement especially to human rights victims during the military rule.

‘It’s an assault. It means you have a weak system. It means that you do not trust your own system'

But for Rolando Tolentino, former Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, it may be too early to call it the return of military rule.

‘For the most part, the Lawlessness declaration, its main thrust is for the police to mobilize the army but we do not get that at this time. It’s really more police visibility, and to a large extent, more courteous police visibility,” Tolentino said.

But he believes that the Duterte administration’s war on drugs is indeed a threat to democracy, which the country started to enjoy again in 1986, only after Martial Law ended.

‘It’s an assault. It means you have a weak system. It means that you do not trust your own system – justice, penal system, police – that you would resort to short cut procedures or more short-term kind of resolutions rather than strengthening the laws or arrest procedures, and gathering enough evidence to really convict people,’ Tolentino said.

But it is a war that Duterte believes in. He is protecting his country, said the 71-year-old tough-talking president.

‘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,’ he said.

It is a message he likes to repeat every chance he gets.

In the meantime, in the stillest of hours and in Manila’s darkest of streets, slum dwellers will hear a gunfire – one, two or three shots. They will know in that instant that a neighbor has died. The men in bonnets are around. Or maybe, the police have come.