The Philippines; Duterte’s War on Drugs


She says she could smell the corpse before she could see it. Upon rounding the next corner in the Pasay district of Manila, her sense of sight confirmed the lingering, rotting smell. Three bodies, the pool of claret around them long dried out, almost as dark as the tarmac. Over their faces, stickers covered discernable features; “Drug Pusher”, “Sell Drugs, Die”, or minor deviations.

I hear the story from a Dutch backpacker four days after arriving in the country. Within the week, another tale from three English students, who were in a Cebu City restaurant when they heard the gunshots. A waiter rushes over to reassure them that it’s just kids playing with fireworks. Ten minutes later, when they settle the bill and leave, a thick throng already surrounds the dead body.

The drug war. You’ve read about it by now, given Duterte is a headline writer’s dream, but here are the numbers. As of December 14th, the last time numbers were calculated, 6,000 dead. 40,000 more arrested, according to independent sources, though the police claim it’s in excess of one million. In a recent poll, 70% of civilians said they support the drug war. In a separate poll, 80% confessed they feared they or a close friend would fall victim to an extrajudicial killing as part of it.

And then, perhaps the most informative statistic; out of those 6,000 official deaths, the trigger was pulled by vigilantes in 65% of cases.

Because anarchy is exactly what it is.

First, the devil needs an advocate. Duterte’s war is working. Drug dealers are either dead or handing themselves in to avoid execution. A taxi driver a friend spoke to, and a hostel bouncer I spoke to insisted it was for the best. The addiction issue here, to ‘shabu’, a cheaper version of crystal meth, had spiralled out of control to the point it was effecting the economy as addicts weren’t able to work, reduced to leaning on government issued benefits. Safer too, they say, as addicts are unpredictable in their quest to obtain the next hit of the drug.

You could even suggest it’s been so effective that it’s working too well. There’s a huge issue with prison overcrowding, the system failing under the weight of extreme success. According to Sky News, Manila’s Quezon City Jail has 3000 detainees crammed into a jail with a capacity of 800. 130 people in cells designed for 30, which was a stretch in the first place, are forced to sleep in specific formations, rolling over simultaneously and spooning the next criminal to utilise every precious inch of floor space.

Morgues are also overflowing; there’s a lack of capacity for the sheer scale of death. With many families unable to afford proper funerals, mass graves provide uncomfortable flashbacks to the horrific genocides of other eras. Those are the ‘positives’. It’s about as humane as Hitler’s reign, but the results and statistics, while dismally accrued, can’t be disputed, they would argue. Not surprising, then, that Duterte recently had to apologise for comparing his campaign to the Nazi holocaust against the Jews.

Motorbike drive-bys, as in the recent murder spirals in Guatemala and Honduras, are the most frequent method. Masked men, swift and deft getaways. Not that they need to in the eyes of the law, only to avoid identification that will lead to retribution from rival gangs. Nobody mentions the collateral damage – stray bullets piercing civilians, children included, intended targets actually being innocent – it’s all covered up, the ‘greater good’ of eliminating drugs a higher priority.

And this is where we come back to the vigilante statistic. Duterte made it clear that vigilantes carrying out his war on drugs would not be prosecuted. Not awarded in official ceremonies, as it’s claimed some of the high kill rate officers have been, but the agreement is in place. Cash rewards are even transferred in some cases.

But this has led to old scores being settled in new ways. Enemies and adversaries of civilians are being killed before having drugs posthumously planted on them. You’d hope, if you can hope about such things, that would only be the case for rogue vigilantes, but there are all but confirmed stories of Duterte using kill squad members to do exactly the same to rivals and political threats during his time as Mayor of Davao.

Furthermore, drug gangs previously settled scores by cutting off each other’s fingers, but now? The rulebook has been thrown out. A government-approved anarchy descends, the lines of right and wrong roaring downwards into a rising pit of blood and death.

Going back to the original story, the Dutch girl says the bodies had been left there for two days, hence the rotting smell, as a deterrent or threat to others in the drug game. Try to move the bodies, you’ll be arrested or shot, too.

This is entirely contradictory to official word; police chiefs claim officers are only shooting in self-defence, with crime scenes immediately secured for forensics teams to work on. The investigations of impartial outside studies suggest that is anything but the case; there’s a 97% fatality rate of those shot, just 3% wounded. “My men are just good shots,” a flippant remark from Derrick Carreon, the DEA spokesperson. Post-death enquiries are opaque, with accusations that officers are planting guns and white substances on victims if they aren’t found on their person. Even, in some cases, slaughtering those who’ve already surrendered. Not one officer has yet been dismissed for misconduct. The scandal gathers speed.

No surprises, then, that journalists and reporters on the frontlines give consistent word that official police reports are in constant conflict with the claims of the families and neighbours of victims. This is often the case in crimes of varying magnitudes around the globe, yet the lack of clarity is more conspicuous here, simply down to the weight of numbers. In individual cases, family will usually back their kin, but in 6,000 cases, the discrepancies are too much to ignore.

Said discrepancies are covered, superbly, below.

Perhaps the most damning accusation, and one with huge weight behind it seeing as no ‘name’ drug baron has yet been caught and paraded, dead or alive, before the media, is that the police are targeting low-level drug pushers instead of the truly culpable drug lords.

Teenagers, often just weeks or months into the business and still at the bottom of the totem pole, immaterial in the grand scheme of things, are facing execution to increase fatality numbers. Users, too. Even, in some case, ex-users now taking part in rehabilitation programs. It’s like murdering every casual drug user in London and New York and leaving the Mexican/Colombian cartels alone to combat cocaine issues. Lunacy, in a word. Supply amounts to a small percentage of those involved, yet a huge percentage of the problem, the mass drug dealers, are still operating untouched.

Which takes its cue from Mexico. Any reading on the subject, particularly from experts such as Don Winslow, underlines the fact that the government there usually collaborates with the cartel leaders.  The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, as the saying goes. In the past, when the head of the snake has been sliced off, the new heads that form in its place are uglier, wilder and bloodier. Pacts are formed with the lesser of the potential evils, hence El Chapo’s many ‘escapes’.

It appears to be happening here, too. How else could you explain it? It’s a fight for show, the body count a false exhibition of success for the media. Why attack the demand side? Addiction is an illness, bullets aren’t the cure.

Particularly when it comes to collateral damage. The 12 year-old girl, Kristine Joy Sailog, killed in a church parking lot at Christmas Mass on the 21st December. 7 year-old San Nino Batucan, killed by a stray bullet in Cebu. 4 year-old Althea Barbon, who died alongside her father during an undercover anti-drug police operation. The list, tragically, goes on.

A deterrent for Duterte, perhaps? “Collateral damage”, in fact, are his exact words when asked about the issue.

It’s hardly a surprise in a war that never could anyway. This is a president cold-bloodedly reading out kill list names on television, boastfully describing how he’s thrown people out of helicopters. He’s a caricature of an untouchable criminal, because political standing is impunity. He says he’d happily die on the frontlines, but the myriad of personal guards suggest otherwise. Disagree with him? Die, you son of a whore.

Manila and Cebu City, the country’s second biggest, are the beating heart of the war. Though the fight hasn’t darkened tourist hotspots like Boracay and Palawan, what happens when one of those stray bullets in the city finds a tourist and international attention pulls focus, forces involvement?

No ‘War on Drugs’ has ever been won. Fact. Colombia and Mexico will testify. Then again, measures this extreme have never been taken either. But when a five year-old girl gets caught in the crossfire and killed on the way to school, a twelve year-old murdered outside her church, is it really worth it? Is this an addiction problem or an access and availability problem?

It’s irrelevant to those at the helm. Duterte emits pride at the bloodshed. It’s a war like an antibiotic, attempting to eradicate the bad at whatever cost to the good. At least antibiotics imply a fresh start, a return to wellbeing, but there’s no healing here, only death, tears and widows.

For now, to modify a phrase, there’s only red at the end of the barrel.



Further reading:

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