War without end

"Can this government deliver on its promise?"



In early 2016, when he was still mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines, presidential bet Rodrigo Duterte promised during the campaign to end the drug menace in the country in three to six months. He won handily, with a margin of six million votes against his nearest rival. And even when he had yet to take his oath of office as president on June 30, 2016, news reports started to trickle in of drug busts by police in various parts of the country, no doubt the precursor of an impending all-out war against drug trafficking he promised during the campaign.

Since June 2016 to October 30 this year, the Philippine National Police (PNP) has reported that almost 5,000 drug suspects have been killed in legitimate operations. In every instance, the police claim that the suspects chose to fight it out rather than to surrender.

The body count, however, does not end there. A total of 23,518 homicides took place from June 1, 2016 to October 28, 2018, or an average of 33 per day. The police classify these as “deaths under investigation”, but human rights watchdogs consider these as extrajudicial killings or summary executions apparently by vigilante groups. The PNP has yet to disclose the results of the so-called “deaths under investigation” in the past two years.

Meanwhile, jails are bursting at the seams with thousands of mainly drug users and street-level drug pushers arrested by the police in so-called “buy-bust” operations now awaiting disposition of their cases. If many Philippine jails had been severely overcrowded in the past because no new facilities have been built to accommodate criminal suspects and convicts, they are even more congested now with inmates packed like sardines, taking turns sleeping in cramped and dingy quarters.

Despite the bloody outcome of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs in the last two years, the drug problem persists.

Even a cursory glance at newspaper headlines these days would reveal that the illegal drug trade is thriving.

Police routinely arrest drug pushers in buy-bust operations, ranging from those caught selling from one or two grams of shabu worth hundreds to a few thousand pesos to those selling significant amounts of the contraband worth hundreds of thousands to millions of pesos to police assets.

Duterte himself has publicy revealed the involvement of active and retired high-ranking police officers, local officials and even a few lawmakers as protectors of the illegal drug trade. But few have been brought to justice, even as there have been sensational cases of several town mayors named in the government’s blacklist of drug coddlers killed by the police.

The most damning evidence that the problem of illegal drugs has not been solved at all and may have even grown worse after more than two years is the smuggling of a large shipment of shabu worth P6.4 billion through the Bureau of Customs last year.

This year, another P11 billion worth of the contraband also slipped past Customs, prompting the dismissal of the bureau’s top official, a former police general.

Part of the problem is that the institution tasked by Duterte to be in the frontline of anti-drug operations—the Philippine National Police—is itself tainted by the involvement of some of its officers in the illegal drug trade.

In October, the country’s top cop, Director General Oscar Albayalde, disclosed that a number of cops belonging to task forces created for the sole purpose of running after drug traffickers were themselves involved in the the illegal trade. These erring cops were later named in Duterte’s blacklist of drug trade coddlers.

Duterte temporarily stopped the war on drugs in late 2016 after cops were tagged as main suspects in the killing of South Korean Jee Ick-joo right inside Camp Crame. More than a year after taking office, Duterte publicly admitted that his administration’s war on drugs had not achieved its target of ending the drug menace. On August 12, 2017 he said in the vernacular: “Others couldn’t do it. How much more for us? We can’t control it.”

In an op-ed commentary in the New York Times on February 7, 2017, titled “President Duterte is Repeating My Mistakes”, Cesar Gaviria, the president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, pointed out: “The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable. We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one...This means investing in solutions that meet the basic standards of basic rights and minimize unnecessary pain and suffering. Strategies that target violent criminals and undermine money laundering are critical. So, too, are measures that decriminalize drug users, support alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders and provide a range of treatment options for drug abusers...There is no doubt that tough penalties are necessary to deter organized crime. But extrajudicial killings and vigilantism are the wrong ways to go...The fight against drugs has to be balanced so that it does not infringe on the rights and well-being of citizens,” Gaviria said.

I wasn’t too long ago that Duterte admitted that the war on drugs would not be won even after he steps down in 2022. But recently, he recanted this statement and said the country would be drug-free by the time he leaves office three and a half years from now. Can his government deliver on that promise? We really doubt it, considering that the drug menace is still prevalent after more than two years of a bloody war on drugs.

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Topics: Rodrigo Duterte , Davao City , Philippine National Police , Oscar Albayalde , Bureau of Customs
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