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Will Anyone Stop Rodrigo Duterte?

The new president of the Philippines is behind an anti-drug campaign that has claimed nearly 2,500 lives. And he's just getting started.

Getty/Noel Celis

Since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency of the Philippines eight weeks ago, the same scene has unfolded night after night in the slum neighborhoods of Manila: A shot rings out, and a person lies dead on the street with a cardboard sign laid next to him, scrawled with a single word: “Pusher.”

This is how Duterte’s war on drugs is playing out on the ground. It is a punitive campaign spurred by the president’s promises of immunity and even bounties to those who take drug users and traffickers “dead or alive.” Last week, the national police chief testified during a Senate inquiry that more than 1,900 people suspected of being involved in the drug trade or abusing drugs had been shot dead by police or “vigilantes” (that number now approaches 2,500). Over 10,000 people have been arrested, and at least 675,000 people have voluntarily surrendered to the authorities.

The numbers are staggering, but what remains unclear is whether those killed and imprisoned are even involved in the drug trade. According to bereaved relatives, Duterte’s take-no-prisoners approach has claimed former addicts, spouses of suspected drug peddlers, and even a 5-year old child as casualties. “Mothers are approaching me every week as their sons are threatened or listed in police precincts,” said Jean Enriquez, a long-time feminist leader who belongs to a coalition of 50 Philippine human rights organizations. “Being listed could mean death.”

The soaring rise in extrajudicial killings has invited scrutiny and condemnation from both international and domestic human rights groups, as well as institutions like the Catholic Church. But Duterte shows no sign of slowing down. Only last Friday, he brushed off criticism from the United Nations in an address to the Philippine military: “What crime against humanity? I’d like to be frank with you, are [drug users] humans?”  

A woman clutches her dead husband who was shot by unidentified armed assailants on a Manila street. They left a sign alleging that he was a drug peddler, a charge she denies.
Getty/Dondi Tawatao

For those who are listed but not killed, the “voluntary” nature of their surrenders is also highly debatable. Many are rounded up in nightly “knock and plead” operations conducted by police based on a list of suspected drug users compiled by neighborhood captains. With as many as ten SWAT officers at the door and the police asserting, “We know you are a user,” the choice to give in might be less an admission of guilt than a self-preservation instinct—better to be institutionalized than to be killed. This method of warrantless apprehension is “tantamount to a coerced confession,” said Cecilia Lero, who works at the Center for Popular Empowerment, an NGO based in Manila.

Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Philippine electorate overwhelmingly chose Duterte precisely for his hardline stance on drugs. As a candidate, Duterte single-mindedly campaigned on a promise to wage a “bloody” battle against the drug trade, which he blamed for a host of social ills, including corruption and crime. His campaign promises were backed up by his 22-year record as mayor of Davao, the largest city on the island of Mindanao, where he is credited for turning a lawless, violent city into one of the safest in the world, earning him the nicknames “Duterte Harry” and “the Punisher.”

It didn’t seem to disturb the majority of voters that he was linked to the notorious “Davao Death Squads,” paramilitary gangs that acted as a shadow police force and killed more than a thousand people in the streets, mostly for petty crimes. Duterte has denied any involvement in extrajudicial killings, either as mayor or as president, even as he has boasted that he directly killed many criminals himself. “I’m a lawyer, I am a Christian, and ... I still have my values in life,” he once said. But, he added, “When you go against criminal syndicates, do not expect a pristine and white environment. It’s always bloody, but I never said extrajudicial.”

Despite all the violence that has been unleashed, the latest opinion polls show that Duterte has an astonishing 91 percent approval rate. “The media may write headlines criticizing the drug war, but my conversations with citizens, be it cab drivers, my uncles, or professionals, tell me there is strong support for it,” said Pia Ranada, a local reporter with The Rappler. She herself has received online death threats for her coverage of the president.

Duterte’s appeal is unmistakable. What some decry as crude, misogynist, and offensive behavior others seem to relish, viewing him as an enforcer and a straight talker, an outsider who isn’t beholden to the Manila power elite or even the U.S., a traditional ally. He frequently contradicts himself and has to walk back his spontaneous remarks—for example, after he called the U.S. ambassador a “gay” “son of a whore,” or when he threatened withdrawal from the U.N. for criticizing him. It is not surprising that he has frequently been compared to another political outsider, Donald Trump. 

But unlike Trump, Duterte comes from a regional political dynasty—his father was governor of Davao province, his uncle and cousins were Cebu City mayors, and his daughter is currently mayor of Davao. Furthermore, he has built significant alliances during his long career, including with the national police and left-wing Communist organizations. Most unsettling of all, he is seen as exactly the kind of disruptive leader that the Philippines needs.

The Philippines is a country where extrajudicial killings already have a long history, from the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos through recent administrations, notably that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But there is something unprecedented about the Duterte-era wave of killings. Previously, the main victims of state-sponsored killings and forced disappearances were activists fighting for land reform, environmental justice, and labor rights, as well as muck-raking journalists and suspected members of armed underground groups. But the current level of open support for extrajudicial street justice by the highest office in the nation is new. “Where other presidents have engaged in extrajudicial killing, they haven’t made it a matter of policy and they haven’t made it something public, whereas Duterte has done both,” said Vicente Rafael, a history professor in the Southeast Asian studies program at University of Washington, who is currently in Manila. 

Human rights advocates light candles during a vigil for the victims of recent drug-related extrajudicial killings at a church in Manila.

A handful of legislators and civil society organizations have called on the president to put a stop to the killings and restore due process rights to the accused. While the police have stated that some of the vigilante killings are being conducted by rival drug syndicates, many also question whether corrupt police officers and other officials are using the cover of the drug war to silence potential informants. Whether or not this is true, Enriquez, the feminist activist, wondered if the blanket impunity offered to police would “transform even virtuous, law-abiding police officers into violent and lawless individuals.” She said this threatened to undo the decades of work that her organization and others have done to train security forces on human rights values. 

In addition to the alarming number of deaths, there is a widespread perception that the harshest punishments have been meted out only to the poor. While Duterte has publicly named and shamed more than a hundred businessmen, judges, and even top police brass in his lists of those allegedly involved in the drug trade, none of these figures have been summarily executed. Some have even been allowed to leave the country. “The rich and powerful are given deadlines to negotiate their surrender,” noted congressional representative Teddy Baguilat. “But for the poor, there are no negotiations, no courtesy calls, no warnings. ... The poor simply get the bullet.” The fact that most victims live in the slums also contributes to the disconnect between middle- and upper-class citizens and the actual consequences of Duterte’s war. 

His critics suggest that addressing widespread poverty and underemployment would be more effective in tamping down illegal drug use than his fear-based regime. The most popular drug in the country is shabu, slang for crystal meth, which drug syndicates produce in local labs. In a country with the highest level of income inequality in Asia, where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line and the average annual income hovers around $3,500, the highly addictive drug offers a quick and easy fix, especially for low-wage workers who use it to endure long shifts. These are the people “most beaten down, exploited, and neglected by the poverty-inducing system” of the country, said Enriquez. Rather than devaluing their lives even further, she said, the government needs to offer substantial programs and services to restore their health and independence.

City jails designed to hold 800 inmates are now crowded to five times their capacity with those charged with drug crimes, making a place to sleep, much less privacy, an unthinkable luxury. Private drug treatment remains out of reach for most of the population, while government rehab centers, already scant, are woefully unprepared for the influx in patients. Such conditions are why human rights activists question Duterte’s stated intention to reform drug users, instead seeing an attempt to eradicate society’s “undesired.” Human rights spokesperson and former Congressman Walden Bello has called for a massive expansion of the government’s rehabilitation programs, and has begun efforts to have drug use classified as a disease rather than a crime. Current lawmakers from his political party, Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, are also designing programs based on harm reduction principles.

Such demands are complicated by the fact that Duterte suspects that drug addicts cannot be rehabilitated. He has questioned rehabilitation’s effectiveness time and time again, although he recently ordered that military camps be readied as rehabilitation centers and even asked for China’s help in funding them.

Alleged drug addicts and sellers who have surrendered to the police await processing at a police station in Manila.
Getty/Noel Celis

Five hours north of Manila, in the balmy city of Baguio, Sergi Musni, a case manager at Serenity in the Steps, a private drug treatment center, has already felt the impact of Duterte’s policies. “At first, when I heard Duterte wanting to kill all addicts, I was hurt for my fellow addicts,” he admitted, as a former addict himself. But he has had no time to dwell on his feelings. Serenity is one of the few centers in the country where those who surrender to the police can access community-based addiction treatment free of charge. With a team of ten to 15 trained addiction specialists, Musni has already offered treatment to 159 of the city’s 1000 “surrenderees,” as he calls them. That number keeps growing.  

Musni confirmed that most patients were driven to Serenity by the desire not to be killed by police, and that some have used drugs only once or twice. But he sees the services that his center provides as a form of addiction prevention, a long-term measure to provide addicts and would-be addicts with the tools to stay sober. 

The center’s treatment approach has been singled out as a potential model for nation-wide application, and it will meet in September with the national police chief to explore this option. But in the meantime, the center is in dire need of funds and manpower. Serenity has been running its treatment program since July without any public or private funds, while center staff, including Musni, work on a voluntary basis. Normally, the center charges private clients 275,000 Philippine pesos (about $6,000) for a six-month treatment course. But since staff members are busy working with surrenderees, they can’t take private clients. “We are right now helping the country, and I hope the country sees that eventually,” said Musni.   

Duterte is enjoying a honeymoon period with the public, and it has not been easy to criticize his drug war. Part of the reason is Duterte’s own penchant for retaliation. Public figures who have called for investigations into the killings, such as Senator Leila De Lima, have been subject to smear campaigns by Duterte himself, who alleged that De Lima was engaged in an extramarital affair with someone involved in the drug trade. Duterte even suggested, “If I were De Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I will hang myself.” 

“What he has done to De Lima and how he’s trying to make her into an example of what happens if you defy the executive on this particular issue has caused some people to be more careful about the things they say,” said Lero of the Center for Popular Empowerment. 

But those hoping to stop the killings also face roadblocks from those who would presumably be natural allies in the fight against state-sponsored murder—the Communist left who were historically the targets of previous administrations.

This is because Duterte is seen as the first state leader to make genuine overtures towards reconciliation and even cooperation with these groups. His past as a nominal student activist and a self-proclaimed “socialist,” as well as his links to left-wing Communist elements in Mindanao, provide him with a level of clout among the left that few previous presidents have enjoyed.

Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines, pointed out that Duterte had so far made the most meaningful efforts to engage the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Maoist-leaning National Democratic Front, sending negotiators to Oslo in a multi-stage process to end the longest armed Communist insurgency in the world. Duterte has also won praise for his efforts to broker peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, as well as with various breakaway factions of the movement. His promises to build the nation’s weak industrial base, invest in infrastructure, and reduce dependence on U.S. and foreign capital are also very popular among the nationalist left and other progressive parties. 

Simbulan added, “He has a very good social reform agenda which actually he’s doing on a nationwide scale. These things are being overlooked.” As cause for optimism, he pointed to Duterte’s appointment of Communist Party members to key cabinet posts, including those known for their anti-mining, labor rights, and land reform stances, all historically unpopular with the Philippine government. 

Valerie Francisco, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and a member of U.S.-based groups that work with National Democratic organizations in the Philippines, noted that while no one has condoned the killings, Duterte’s other political platforms need to be acknowledged. Organizations like hers, she said, are committed “to keep him accountable to the things he has maintained in his campaign—to get rid of corruption and to continue towards industrializing the Philippines and weaning it off the economic dependence we have on the U.S.”

But others dismiss the sincerity of Duterte’s social reform gestures. Enriquez noted that while the Communist Party might currently be optimistic about Duterte’s commitment to socialist causes, his other appointments show that he is still tied to the status quo in the areas of finance, trade, and corporate-led development. “Even some fascist or authoritarian governments have accommodated the left in their regimes,” she noted. “It’s not clear whether he even knows the meaning of socialism,” added Walden Bello, the former congressman. “How long the [Communist Party] will be able to maintain their opposition to the killings while remaining in the cabinet is anyone’s guess.”

These sentiments reflect a deep and long-standing divide in the Philippine left. It is partly why it is hard to imagine a more broad-based effort to hold Duterte accountable emerging in the near future. Rafael of the University of Washington noted that this was what made Duterte such a smart politician: “He’s moved to neutralize the left. He’s very much a product of a certain kind of populist moment right now which is sweeping the world. The idea that he’s progressive left or authoritarian fascist right misses the whole point—I think he combines different elements and that’s part of what makes him so politically savvy.”

Meanwhile, some worry about the potential for Duterte’s war to plunge the Philippines into the same chaos that he has promised to rein in, fostering a lawless realm where rumor is king and vendettas are resolved by shootouts. Will the law-and-order president be able to control what he has unleashed?  

Or does the war on drugs have another end entirely? Rafael wondered, “Is there sufficient evidence to warrant this incredibly violent war on drugs, or is there something else behind it? Is this a move to establish authoritarian rule?” 

This article has been updated.