Since 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has claimed the lives of over 20,000 people attracting global attention. In reality these killings have very little to do with cracking down on drugs and everything to do with enabling President Duterte’s rise in power.
During his presidential run, Duterte promised to crack down on drug dealers proclaiming that he would fill Manila bay with so many bodies that fish would get fat. He has successfully blamed the most pressing issues facing the Philippines on drug use and the people involved. This blame has assured that the people largely support his extrajudicial killings.
The reality is that President Duterte could care less about eradicating the use of drugs in the Philippines, his motivation is simply the consolidation of his regime. This can be explicitly seen in the leniency awarded to Former head of the Philippines National Police Force, General Oscar Albayalde. There is concrete evidence and several witnesses who have testified that in 2013 the General received money for turning a blind eye to the resale of narcotics confiscated by officers working below him. Yet the bodies of Albayalde or the officers have not been found in the street but instead they are enjoying ‘due process’ a concept President Duterte seems to have forgot he publicly discredited. This blatant use of “discriminatory” legalism fits with the common narrative of populist leaders that for their friends they give everything but for their enemies they give only the law (Müller, 2016, p.46).
Through the war on drugs, President Duterte has established an old-fashioned ‘witch-hunt’ in The Philippines. There are currently anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million people sitting on the President’s ‘watch list’. People have no way of knowing who is on that list or what qualifies a person for it. The fear of ending up on this list has forced the people to turn on each other and do what they feel is necessary to uphold President Duterte’s new policies. President Duterte has capitalized on this fear in order to maintain strict control over Filipino society.
The particularly terrifying aspect of this witch hunt is the public opinions expressed in regards to these slayings. Journalists within the Philippines have captured haunting images of the crowds that gather around the victims. They state that these crowds are generally festive, and that people treat the scenes like a source of entertainment. People laugh, smile for the cameras and make bets on whether the body is someone they knew or not. These scenes have been compared to those of the hangings in eighteenth-century Europe or Lynching’s during the Jim Crow era.
President Duterte has also found a viable and unquestionable way to rid himself of political critics. He has used this judicial prerogative to justify the slaying or imprisonment of political critics of his regime. Most notably a former Filipino Senator, Leila Delima has been imprisoned under the guise of this war on drugs. The Senator publicly called for an investigation into the killings and was openly critical of President Duterte’s choices. She was recently thrown into prison without bail for three counts of drug trafficking, each with no concrete evidence to support the allegations. Similarly, Journalist Maria Ressa, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes have all faced threats and harassment at the hands of the Duterte regime.
The troubling reality is that the majority of Filipino’s still believe in President Duterte’s ability to lead. Polls conducted in June of 2017 showed that 82% of the public was still supportive of the President and even more troubling 78% were satisfied with the crackdown on drugs . While a portion of these slayings may consist of genuine drug dealers; the vast majority have no real connection to the drug world. Many of these killings are carried out without any hard evidence against the individuals.
President Duterte has achieved the harrowing status of being both feared and respected by those he leads. This unique position will continue to enable him to commit mass atrocities with little to no backlash. Historically leaders in this position have gone on to slaughter whomever they see fit whenever and as time progresses the group of people who they seek to eliminate only broadens.
So, let’s recognize that President Duterte’s war on drugs is realistically a war on anything that could undermine the power held by his regime. What is happening in the Philippines is not an overzealous crackdown on drugs but a calculated effort to scare any opposition into obedience effectively putting more power into the Duterte Regime.
Fonbuena, Carmela. “Philippines Police Chief and Duterte Drug War Enforcer Resigns in Meth Scandal.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Oct. 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/14/philippines-police-chief-and-duterte-drug-war-enforcer-resigns-in-meth-scandal
Johnson, David T., and Jon FERNQUEST. “Governing through Killing: The War on Drugs in the Philippines.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2 May 2018, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/asian-journal-of-law-and-society/article/governing-through-killing-the-war-on-drugs-in-the-philippines/878BFFB53E2705BEFD2373CDAC3E84F4/core-reader.
Johnson, Howard. “Former Philippines Chief Drugs Fighter Faces Drug Charges.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Oct. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50120723.
Müller, J.-W. (2016). What Is Populism?, 46. doi: 10.9783/9780812293784
Regencia, Ted. “Senator: Rodrigo Duterte’s Drug War Has Killed 20,000.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 21 Feb. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/senator-rodrigo-duterte-drug-war-killed-20000-180221134139202.html.
Sullivan, Michael, and Michel Martin. “Philippine President Duterte Compares Himself To Hitler.” NPR, NPR, 1 Oct. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/10/01/496226383/philippine-president-duterte-compares-himself-to-hitler.