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Philippine drug war continues despite corruption

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was recently forced to suspend police involvement in carrying out his nationwide war on drugs. But not much has changed on the ground. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

For Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it was the last straw. Jee Ick-joo, a 53-year-old South Korean businessman who was kidnapped from his home in October 2016, had been found dead. Reports and testimony led the Philippine Department of Justice to two rogue members of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

They had evidently used a pretend drug bust as a cover to kidnap Jee and extort a ransom from his wife - even though Jee was already dead at the PNP headquarters.

In retaliation, Duterte suspended the police from carrying out anti-drug operations and called them "corrupt to the core." But even after this shake-up, the Filipino strongman remained resolute in continuing his drug war until the very last day of his term. He quickly announced that the military would be taking over.

Casualties of war

Duterte won the presidency last year by promising to end drugs and criminality within six months. The aggressive timeline spurred the police into action. Now in its seventh month, the drug war has claimed more than 3,600 lives from vigilante style killings, with more than 2,000 additional deaths resulting from police operations where suspects allegedly fought back.

Duterte staunchly defended the police, promising that none of them would go to jail for doing their job fighting drugs. But his tone changed after the murder of Jee at the hands of the police.

And the recent release of an Amnesty International report that directly implicated the police in drug-related and extra-judicial killings added pressure on Duterte to rein in authorities. According to the report, police were allegedly paid up to $300 per killing of a drug suspect.

"The administration miscalculated police professionalism and competence," Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian and defense and security consultant in the Philippines, told DW. 

Institutional corruption

Philipinen Ronald dela Rosa Polizeichef (picture alliance/dpa/EPA/M. R. Cristino)

The Philippines' top police chief testifies during a Senate inquiry in December 2016

The institutionalization of corruption within the ranks of the police force was well documented even before the Duterte administration took office. Government data show that the police consistently rank as one of the most corrupt government institutions in the Philippines.

"The most serious error of the Duterte administration was that no serious attempt was made to effectively curb police corruption before the force was unleashed on the general public for the war against drugs," said Custodio.

Custodio also pointed out that involving the military to take over the drug war will further strain logistical resources and manpower needed to protect the Philippine archipelago with more than 7,000 islands.

"The approximately 120,000-strong Philippine military is already hard pressed to contain the various internal and external security threats affecting the country," he said, adding that the military was heavily involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster response during frequent natural disasters.

Change in strategy needed

Senator Risa Hontiveros who heads the Senate Committee on health, has long been critical of the government's anti-drug campaign and has called for addressing the drug problem from a public health perspective rather than a criminal one.

"Unless the government's current strategy to respond to the country's drug problem is radically overhauled and the country's security forces are thoroughly cleaned of scalawags, the anti-drug campaign will continue to be abusive and corrupt-prone," Hontiveros told DW.

"The government's plan to include the military will also add to the already chaotic situation. To let the armed forces implement a flawed and abusive style of war on drugs will only subject it to the same fate as the police," she added.

Killings continue despite suspension

There are also reports that not much has changed since Duterte suspended the drug war.

Philipinen Präsident Rodrigo Duterte (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Philippine President Duterte has vowed to continue the drug war

"The police's buy-bust operations have stopped but the vigilante style killings continue and mostly in the same poor neighborhoods," photojournalist Jun Santiago told DW.

Santiago last December joined photojournalists who cover the Manila crime beat. A group of them have been offering counseling and burial assistance to the families of victims.

Duterte, with his characteristic profanity, continues to brush off criticism of human rights groups. His soaring approval ratings, which at one point reached 91 percent, have been his justification for the violent crackdown on illegal drugs. He has also succeeded in painting people who use drugs as a growing social menace that will bring down the Philippines.

An unexpected rebuke, however, came from former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who in a New York Times' editorial called on Duterte not to make the same mistakes he did in fighting Colombia's illegal drug trade.

"The war against [drugs] cannot be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone," said Gaviria.  "Throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users is not just a waste of money but also can actually make the problem worse."

Duterte responded by calling Gaviria "an idiot."

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