There is a substantial drug problem in the Philippines. “Shabu” – known to Westerners as crystal meth – is cheap and rampant throughout the country. Nearly seven million Filipino citizens, or roughly 10 percent of the population, are addicted to it. The current president’s solution to this problem is simple: kill those who sell it. No trial, no hearings, just swift, vigilante justice served Charles Bronson-style.
Nearly twenty-five hundred people have been killed in Manila since June 30, 2016, when President Rodrigo Duterte took office and began his personal war on drug dealers. Campaigning on a strong platform of anti-drug rhetoric, Duterte won with merely 39 percent of the electoral votes. Yet his approval rating is over 90 percent.
“Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun…”
Duterte was elected in May and took office at the end of June. During his campaign, he promised to “kill them all,” and offered bounties to police officers who killed drug dealers. “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun — you have my support,” he said in early June. He also offered praise to regular citizens who killed or arrested drug dealers. If a dealer were to resist or threaten a citizen, Duterte said, “you can kill him … Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal.”
Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office, dumping so many bodies into Manila Bay that “the fish will grow fat.” One month into his term, he ramped up the rhetoric. “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 put behind bars [sic] – or below the ground, if they so wish,” he told his nation in late July.
“When I saw the man I was supposed to kill, I got near him and I shot him.”
It is not surprising that this type of rhetoric has led to an increase in vigilantism. In this twisted modern-day McCarthyism, the mere accusation of being a drug dealer is enough to get you killed. In late August, a businessman and his wife were killed by an unknown attacker, just days after the man was accused by police of being a high-profile drug trafficker.
In fact, there is a market for hired guns in this extrajudicial war. Maria (not her real name) is part of a three-woman group of hired contractors whose job is to kill drug dealers. “My first job was two years ago in this province nearby. I felt really scared and nervous because it was my first time,” she told the BBC in August.
Maria is valued because she is a woman, and can get closer to the dealers much easier without arousing the same suspicion as a man. “One time, they needed a woman… When I saw the man I was supposed to kill, I got near him and I shot him,” she explained. However, it was a man that got her involved in contract killings: her husband.
Maria told the BBC how, originally, her husband was the contract killer. He was first approached by a police officer and hired to kill a man who – ironically – owed a drug debt to the officer. “My husband was ordered to kill people who had not paid what they owed,” she said. This quickly became regular work for her husband until a woman was needed for a more challenging mark. That is when Maria was tapped by her husband to stand in, and she has been working since.
This has proven to be good income for Maria and her husband, who previously had no regular income. Now, they earn up to 20,000 Philippine pesos ($430) per hit, which is shared between their crew. With widespread poverty across most of the Philippines, this represents a fortune for low-income families. Yet money can become its own addiction, and now Maria may have no way out.
People like Maria are not the only low-income citizens affected by this drug war. In fact, much of the violence has occurred in the poorest areas of the country and has targeted mostly low-level players in the country’s drug trade.
Eliminating [the low-level dealers] will…[do] nothing to actually affect a [cartel].
There have certainly been plenty of street-level targets, but removing them will likely do little to actually have an impact. While low-level pushers are common in any drug trade, the power they actually hold in the overall organization is minimal. Eliminating them will simply dent the façade, doing nothing to actually affect a cartel’s operational ability. Rather, it produces what Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, refers to as a “filtering effect,” where careless and “inefficient traffickers” get caught while the smarter and more clever criminals keep working.
In fact, removing just the street-level dealers may cause more long term problems. As Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently noted, “There is a high chance that Duterte’s hunting down of low-level pushers (and those accused of being pushers) will in fact significantly increase organized crime in the Philippines and intensify corruption.”
“We might as well abolish our courts.”
According to human rights lawyers, Duterte’s one-man war is abhorrent. Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno is one of the Philippines’ leading human rights lawyer. He told CNN that under President Duterte, the nation is in a state of fear worse than when former president Ferdinand Marcos held the country in a state of martial law. Before, enemies of the state were labeled as “communists.” “Now, it’s ‘drug user’. The presumption is reversed – you have to come forward (these days) and prove your innocence. It’s harder than during the Marcos years. Anything goes,” Diokno said.
Diokno argues that the police have abandoned due process, both through the bodies they are leaving in their wake as well as the “tokhang”, or “knock and plead,” operations they carry out. During these “investigations,” police go to the homes of suspected shabu users – rather than dealers – with an almost absurd politeness and invite them to return to the police station. The suspected users are then rounded up, taken to a local police hall, and forced to pledge they will immediately stop all drug use as well as swear that the affirmation was completely voluntary. After being processed – which includes signing an affidavit to their oaths, photographing, and fingerprinting – the suspects are then given… ice cream and soda.
The government argues that these confessions are all voluntary. However, Diokno contends these are “warrantless arrests” wherein the suspects are forced to “sign documents incriminating themselves, which is a violation of our bill of rights.” He says that many of these people are poor and unaware of their legal rights. He has not seen any formal guidelines for Duterte’s war, despite repeated requests for information. “Law officials (are) acting as judge, jury and executioner. We might as well abolish our courts,” he told CNN.
“There is no denying the fact that this is a very important issue of public interest and national importance…”
The Philippine Senate has begun investigating President Duterte’s actions. Sen. Leila De Lima, who is the head of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights, told CNN Philippines that the rising death toll involving suspected drug dealers is a “very important issue of public interest.” The investigation was joined by Sen. Ping Lascon, chairman of the Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs.
“There is no denying the fact that this is a very important issue of public interest and national importance, and this is something bigger than [me],” Sen. De Lima said in her interview. She wants to know how many of these deaths are the result of legitimate police investigations and how many are non-sanctioned vigilante killings.
“If such a policy were implemented in Indonesia…the number of drug traffickers and users in our…country would drop drastically.”
Other nations already seem to be taking a shine to President Duterte’s plan. Budi Waseso, who serves as Indonesia’s anti-drug tsar, has expressed support for the actions in the Philippines and has indicated a desire to start a similar crusade in his country. “I would be on the frontline to eradicate all the traffickers…. If such a policy were implemented in Indonesia, we believe that the number of drug traffickers and users in our beloved country would drop drastically,” he said.
President Duterte had a meeting in Jakarta last week to speak with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Prior to this visit, President Wododo also suggested that Indonesia should embrace a policy similar to that in the Philippines. He said that Indonesian authorities were hiring more people and obtaining more weapons in an effort to increase their fight against the existing drug trade.
“I do not have any master except the Filipino people…”
President Duterte has remained defiant to those who question his motives. He recently warned President Obama not to ask about his extrajudicial means of fighting the drug trade in the Philippines. “I am a president of a sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, and nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions,” he said in a recent press conference in his country. He then told President Obama, “Son of a bitch. I will swear at you in that forum.” President Obama promptly cancelled a scheduled meeting with Duterte, saying that he did not want to meet unless it would be productive.
This is not the first time that Duterte said something inflammatory. He once cursed the Pope out for causing traffic jams during a visit to Manila. During his presidential campaign, he also joked about the rape of an Australian missionary. With the international eye on him, it remains to be seen what the so-called “Donald Trump of Asia” will do next.