The death count by the Philippine police in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs makes the United States’ numbers seem like a grain of rice. Government officials claim that over 5,000 drug dealers, which they claim all fought police, have been killed, while activists say that it’s actually at least 27,000. The rate of extrajudicial killings has become so awful that dozens of countries have called on the United Nations to investigate.
President Duterte won in 2016 on a platform of practically eliminating crime and has continued to draw controversy for his cruel and explicit comments. As Mayor of Davao, he earned the nickname “The Punisher” and was accused by human rights groups of allowing death squads to murder hundreds of alleged criminals. His election rivals warned that he would bring nothing but more death and terror to the Philippines, a prophecy that appears to have come true.
Duterte has a history of encouraging violence and even participating himself, as mayor, by forcing a tourist to swallow a cigarette butt at gunpoint who refused to comply with the town’s anti-smoking ordinances. His take-the-law-into-your-own-hands approach became a pinnacle moment at the beginning of his presidency. Less than a month before inauguration, he encouraged citizens to call the police to report drug dealers, “or do it yourself if you have the gun, you have my support.” He offered bounties for capturing drug dealers, and offered a medal to anyone who killed a drug dealer.
The President has no mercy when it comes to criminals. Months into his presidency, he compared himself to Adolf Hitler claiming “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews… there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” When asked about the casualties of his drug war around the same time, he stated, “Do the lives of 10 of these criminals really matter? If I am the one facing all this grief, would 100 lives of these idiots mean anything to me?”
He believes that the Philippines has become a “narcotics country” and warned he would not allow the country to become “Asia’s Mexico”. Despite his rhetoric, this is not the case. The Philippines has a lower prevalence rate of drug users than the international average according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. However, this statistical reality hasn’t stopped Duterte from enacting invasive and violent drug enforcement.
To begin his crackdown, Duterte launched Operation Knock and Plead, where officers would go to the homes of people listed as drug users and bring them in to take urine samples, fingerprints, mugshots, and be questioned about local drug dealers in a super polite spectacle where those who participate are released with an ice cream.
In October 2016, Duterte emboldened his bloody war by announcing a “list of the drug industry in the Philippines” — a thick document of which the number of names changed from 600,000 to 3 million people including police officers and elected officials who were supportive of the President’s actions. The Philippine President has been very fond of public lists, as he announced one the previous August listing 150 public officials allegedly involved in the drug trade. Both instances were unable to confirm if those listed were actually involved in the drug industry.
The results of Duterte’s words and policies are the emergence of vigilante gangs that take upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner. Groups riding motorcycles and detaining citizens to be murdered is a common occurrence, with the victims’ bodies being found bearing cardboard signs reading “I am a drug addict” among other phrases. These murderous gangs are part of the problem of recording an accurate death count in the country, but the administration has also hindered it.
The horrors of the Duterte administration have drawn the ire of countless countries and human rights groups, a conundrum that the President has gone to considerable lengths to debunk. In May 2017, the administration launched the Real Numbers campaign to combat the “fake news” being reported by the media, and began deflating numbers by dividing them among numerous categories. Investigations have been extremely difficult as well due to many families fearing for their own lives should they speak out.
In the face of this monstrous catastrophe, President Duterte’s administration stated in a message to the public that he is “further[ing] human rights,” and that, “Every administration has its own emphasis and approach in its effort to make human rights real.” The Philippine chief executive is truly an embodiment of the slippery slope’s end for politicians who claim to be tough on crime and emphasize order. To add insult to injury, there’s no evidence that the extrajudicial killings have had any effect on drug use. Yet Duterte is still extremely popular.
Last week I spoke on the dangers of politicians turning their own moral beliefs into policies, and the Philippine war on drugs is another example of how this can become tyrannical. Rodrigo Duterte’s political career has been one of control over what he sees as people’s vices, yet lacks a respect for life. This country is truly as bad as it gets concerning drug policy, and should serve as a warning for drug prohibition and enforcement.