Duterte's War on Drugs: A Problem and its Roots

Duterte's War on Drugs: A Problem and its Roots
"What concerns today’s discussion is a human rights crisis that has been left unaddressed for far too long. While the issue has piqued media interest in spurts over the years of Duterte’s term, the long-lasting consequences of his policies still remain within the social climate of the Philippines. As the end of his term approaches , it is pertinent to reflect upon a major aspect of his presidency: Duterte’s War on Drugs."

CW: mentions discussion of drug abuse


Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is a relatively controversial figure. There is much to discuss concerning his term (started in May 2016), from his approach to foreign policy, to his handling of COVID-19, or even his general execution of democracy in the Philippines.


What concerns today’s discussion is a human rights crisis that has been left unaddressed for far too long. While the issue has piqued media interest in spurts over the years of Duterte’s term, the long-lasting consequences of his policies still remain within the social climate of the Philippines. As the end of his term approaches , it is pertinent to reflect upon a major aspect of his presidency: Duterte’s War on Drugs.


The Policy and its Execution


It is impossible to discuss the War on Drugs without emphasizing its true goal: to effectively lower crime and illegal drug use in the Philippines. And, to its credit, Duterte’s policy worked. The number of drug users in the Philippines has declined 50% after three years of Duterte’s term according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Philippines’ Dangerous Drug Board. But it is a very extreme plan. Unlawful killings of alleged drug abusers are carried out by police without any kind of due process. Victims are killed under police custody rather than tried. Vigilantes are encouraged to incur violence if it means eradicating all drug use. The number of drug suspects killed in anti-drug operations has increased to 5,856 since the crackdown began in July 2016, according to recent data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). That number has likely risen, as this anti-drug campaign is an extremely intensive program that Duterte intends to continue throughout the full run of his term. Duterte’s last State of the Nation address defended the war on drugs, saying that “we still have a long way in our fight against the proliferation of drugs.”


The true essence of Duterte’s drug policy is best captured through his direct quote. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews ... there's 3 million drug addicts. There are. I'd be happy to slaughter them.” These words give the perfect snapshot of Duterte’s ideologies. He is a man passionate for his country, verbally threatening to kill those who “destroy [his] country,” or “destroy the young people of [his] country.” He uses violence to achieve his goals, no matter the cost, even when that violence is heavily disproportionate to someone’s crime. That is what makes him extreme and even dangerous.


International Status


On June 14th, 2021, Fatou Bensouda, the high prosecutor of the International Crime Court (ICC) requested for an investigation into the drug crackdown in the Philippines after a preliminary examination into the situation was conducted. There was reasonable suspicion, as stated in the report, that “Police and other government officials planned, ordered, and sometimes directly perpetrated extrajudicial killings.” The ICC reviewed reports of police killing thousands during the official law enforcement operations. They also noted that “state officials at the highest levels of government also spoke publicly and repeatedly in support of extrajudicial killings, and created a culture of impunity for those who committed them.” Vigilante justice was a common method of Duterte, which meant allowing private citizens to kill any alleged drug abusers. In some cases, the ICC reports that certain private citizens were paid off to do so. The ICC’s request is still being processed.


In the same month, ex-mayor Montasser Sabal was killed in police custody in a rather brutal and ambiguous manner. Sabal was identified as a narco-politician and he allegedly shot an officer during his transportation to Manilla. Details about the officer who was shot were not released, and an investigation led by Alfegar Triambulo is currently underway


This casts some suspicion on the Philippine National Police . They hold a vast amount of power, evidenced in the fact that extrajudicial violence is approached as a solution to crime. The police have become the courts and executioners in one


There is also potential that they could be corrupt as Human Rights Watch (HRW) research found that police were falsifying evidence to justify these killings and Amnesty International observed impunity and brutality towards those taken into police custody. Interviewed families of victims expressed the inability to fight for justice. A barangay official told Rogie Sebastian to surrender to the police because he was on the “watch list” as a drug user. He had given up drug use months earlier, so he resisted. Two weeks later, three armed masked men wearing bulletproof vests arrived at his home in Manila and handcuffed him. “I could hear Rogie begging for his life from outside the room,” a relative said. “We were crying and the other armed man threatened to kill us as well.” Additionally, the relatives of Edward Sentorias, a jobless father of three killed by the police in Manila, said they had no hope for an investigation: “I saw one of the police go inside with an aluminum briefcase.… [He took] out the gun and some [shabu] sachets, and placed them there [by Sentorias’ body]. I went back to where I was, and was totally shocked. I couldn’t even complain. If we go complain, what is our chance against the authorities?”


Duterte’s war on drugs can be viewed in many contexts. Some may say he’s achieving his goals, regardless of the means. Others are shaken by the tragedy of losing friends or relatives so swiftly and brutally. One fact remains clear: this is a violation of human rights. Such brutality is a grossly disproportionate punishment.


Public Opinion


These policies affect the Filipino public, which is why it’s very important to directly gauge the opinions of his constituents. I managed to interview a man who will simply be referred to as ‘Leoj’ for the remainder of this article.  He has lived in the Philippines his whole life, is part of a younger demographic, and an average Filipino citizen. Because of those facts, his analysis and opinions are still valuable insights into the internal workings of Philippine society.


On Duterte, Leoj stated that he perceived the president as “a man with a plan that just got ruined with everything that happened in the world.” He indicated an understanding that Duterte carries out his policies with a love for the Philippines in mind - something Duterte has mentioned himself.

Leoj presents the impression that Duterte is imposing, straightforward, and powerful - an idea that can be twisted to both positive and negative viewpoints. This is perhaps the reason why Duterte is so controversial. Power can mean many things. “I think that society has something to think wise[ly] about now,” continued Leoj. “Or Filipinos, rather. Duterte’s term caused fear or something to look up to. It’s a borderline between those two.”


When asked about alternative plans to squash illegal drug abuse, Leoj said “from a simple guy like me, I don’t have a brain for that, but I think the source of that problem is poverty...and I don’t know how to solve that.”


Leoj brings up an extremely relevant issue. To solve a problem, in this case, drug abuse, you must trace it back to the start. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to combat issues that were simply the problem’s effects.


Drug abuse goes hand in hand with poverty. Although Duterte characterized his drug crackdown as an operation that targeted drug lords and drug dealers, a report from HRW revealed that many of those killed in police raids were “unemployed or worked menial jobs.” Duterte’s drug plan disproportionately affects poor and urban communities - in fact, prior to his presidency, his policies in Davao City also reflected this. His “Davao Death Squad” earned him a formidable reputation as they often murdered drug abusers, petty criminals, and even street children.  This is very telling: the root issue of drug abuse is the impoverishment of the Philippines because the targeted drug abusers share the same background of poverty, being working-class citizens.


Whether or not these people were drug abusers is irrelevant. The punishments these victims face is disproportionate to their alleged crimes. Their killings are unlawful and carried out without any investigation.


At last, I asked Leoj if he thought  that the drug war was a human rights crisis.

“I do think so, yes,”...“Even if his intentions are good, he cannot control all of the people.”


Reflection Within A Reflection


It is noticeably difficult to find direct sources related to public opinion about Duterte within the Philippines. When researching this article, I wanted to get a bigger idea of how Duterte was perceived within the country. However, I could find no opinion pieces published by Philippine media outlets. They were all news sources like DW, Bloomberg, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc.  This is a result of media censorship, another effect of Duterte’s presidency. A major example that relates to the war on drugs is the case of Rappler founder and executive editor Maria Ressa. Ressa was declared guilty of cyberlibel, or defamation, back in June 2020. The Rappler had long been a Philippine news source that had earned a reputation of being critical of the war on drugs and, overall, critical of the Philippine government. However, this case worked to silence those voices on the basis of government defamation, effectively squashing free speech.


I find this to be a very troubling fact, especially in relation to the U.S.A. The Philippines was never truly foreign soil. Trade relations run deep with that little archipelago, which used to be U.S. territory. There is no expectation for the U.S.A. to be the Philippine’s savior. ​​There is, however, the expectation that American society should protect the basic freedoms all human beings hold- including freedom of speech. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.


It seems history has proven to be a failsafe frame of reference. The results of World War II run parallel to the War on Drugs - along the same line of American ignorance. Manuel Quezon, a prominent Filipino nationalist,  captured this anguish back in the late 1930s : “How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, Europe, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!"


The blatant abuses presented by Duterte, from his extremism to his violence, paint a portrait of a dangerous man. His drug policy is not something born out of malicious intent. The goals were made clear: eradication of crime and drug abuse. It is the execution that remains the issue. The roots of the problem were not what was attacked. Focus was brought to the reactionary consequences. It is like hacking at the blossoms of a dandelion rather than pulling it from its root. Sure, on the surface, the most obvious problems are gone, but the weeds still remain, choking out your country.



Editors: Adele L. Evie F. Raniyah B. This article was orginally written in August 2021

Image Credits: https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/philippine/philippines-journalist-killed-07222021134202.html/@@images/684146e4-378b-4ee4-813f-c5992be1143b.jpeg