Duterte’s Machiavellian War on Drugs

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Duterte’s Machiavellian War on Drugs

The Philippines’ president has little regard for human rights as he cracks down on drugs.

Duterte’s Machiavellian War on Drugs

A woman cries after her husband was shot dead by unidentified gunmen riding motorcycles in Manila, Philippines (October 10, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Three armed men in balaclavas moved stealthily along the narrow, snaking alley of an urban slum in a small municipality in the heart of metro Manila. At 3 am, the armed trio had planned their move. They had turned off the lampposts, and were creeping through the cloak of darkness.

Tightly clustered shanties made from galvanized iron and thin wooden boards made the operation susceptible to attracting witnesses. Some of the residents, silently peeking through from their crude homes, were aware of the group’s presence. None of them stirred nor called the police. But why would they? The hooded men are the police.

A burst of shots broke the predawn silence. Some residents recounted hearing shouts and pleading. In a matter of minutes, silence reigned again and the armed men disappeared into the shadows.

At the rooster’s announcement of sunrise, the narrow alley became dense with snooping crowds, discussing the events that had unfolded hours before. Two of their neighbors ─ a husband and wife ─ were found dead inside their home. The husband sustained four gunshots in the chest, while the wife sustained two in the head. Both were in their 50s and were suspected retail peddlers of illegal drugs.

According to the couple’s son, one of the three surviving children, the three men barged through their door. One of them fired four shots at his father, who had just emerged from the bathroom. This alerted the rest of the family to shout and panic, but the men restrained them, threatening that they would all be executed if they did not keep their mouths shut. Their mother tried escaping from the back door, but one of the men grabbed her by the hair, pinned her on the wooden bed and gave her two slugs at the base of her skull. When the men left, the victims’ two daughters screamed for help to the neighbors, hoping their parents could still be saved, but no one found the will to rush the couple to the hospital out of fear that getting involved might cost their lives.

Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO), a unit of the Philippine National Police, came in an hour after the incident to conduct a forensic investigation that might lead to clues in solving the double murder. Just two weeks before, another suspected drug dealer had been gunned down in the same area; it took more than seven hours for SOCO to arrive on the scene.

This incident accounts for just two among the many undocumented extrajudicial killings that have been taking place in the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte took the highest office in the land. According to the latest tally from the Philippine National Police, from July first to the third week of October, 4,726 people have been killed in the president’s campaign against illegal drugs. Of those, 1,725 suspected drug personalities have been killed in police operations (as of October 26), and 3,001 people have been murdered in vigilante-style killings. As of this writing, these figures have become obsolete as the bodies of victims continue to pile up from Duterte’s zero-tolerance policy against illegal drugs.

Duterte’s unorthodox method of dealing with the social menace of drugs has taken the center stage when it comes to human rights issues, alarming both local and international groups. Human rights watchdogs have severely criticized his administration for undermining justice with “shoot to kill” orders. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has brought up these violations, slamming Duterte for endorsing such practices. The United States, a long-time ally and trading partner of the Philippines, has also voiced concerns, urging Duterte’s administration to adhere to human rights standards in dealing with drug criminals. But Duterte remains unfazed, even giving his detractors a harsh word or two, as he is bent on doing for the entire Philippines what he had done for Davao.

Former Davao Death Squad member Edgar Matobato claimed in a Senate probe in September that he liquidated suspected individuals under the order of then-Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Matobato claimed that he was tasked to kill drug traffickers, rapists, and petty thieves, among others, and added that 1,000 individuals were killed in Davao City by his group alone from 1988 to 2013.

Members of Duterte’s cabinet refute the president’s involvement in these extra-judicial killings. His communications secretary, for instance, claimed that the president is “not capable” of ordering such killings, adding that when Duterte was the incumbent mayor of Davao, the Commission of Human Rights had already conducted an investigation into these alleged killings, but found no solid evidence linking Duterte to the summary executions.

In September, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay urged the United Nations not to interfere with Duterte’s drug war, as the new administration is determined to free the Philippines from corruption and other stagnating practices. This crackdown on crime, he said, was brought about by Duterte’s “unprecedented” mandate.

Critics of the administration stress that Duterte and the Philippine National Police have taken actions that differ from their statements. PNP’s “Project Double Barrel” or Oplan Tokhang strategy has become the norm in dealing with street-level drug pushing. Based on the concept of the double-barrel gun, which fires two shots with just one pull of the trigger, the strategy is aimed against big-time drug lords (the first “barrel”) and helping those at the bottom (the second “barrel”), who want to reform and seek rehabilitation.

Yet this operation appears to have no clear protocol for the rules of engagement. Questionable shootouts follow accounts of non-resistance from apprehended drug dealers, often with the suspects, who are most often small-time pushers, ending up dead. The reported reason is that quotas on killing criminals have been allegedly imposed among cops in order to pass in Project Double Barrel. PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa denies this, stating that the quota imposed is on the number of surrenders and arrests made, not the number of suspects killed in operations.

The administration also claims that vigilante groups are responsible for the extra-judicial killings and not the police. It is yet to be verified, however, if these so-called “vigilantes” are responding to the president’s call for citizens to kill criminals. The ranks of the security apparatus itself are marred by corruption, as shown by the arrests of some low-ranking cops involved in drug pushing. Analysts postulate that these “vigilantes” may be crooked cops who are trying to erase any trails that may lead to the major drug syndicates and implicate police and military officers involved in drug trafficking.

Duterte once said that he only has six years to cure the country of its ever-persistent maladies. With the ever-increasing number of drug suspects getting killed in the Double Barrel operations, it appears that Duterte is winning in his crusade, but his approach is cutting corners. Most notably, it ignores standard practices that value the human individual’s right to live and to equal representation in the court of law.

Vincent Dublado is an English teacher and writer based in the Philippines.