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A look at Philippines' war on drugs

Since Rodrigo Duterte won the country's presidency in May this year, the Philippines has seen scores of police killings as part of the leader's pledge to wipe out drugs and criminality. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

The cardboard sign covered the dead body while duct tape wrapped around the face obscured its identity. Usually, "drug pusher" was scrawled on the cardboard to serve as both warning and justification.

The dead bodies that were filling the streets were spilling over onto her social media feed and Hope Swann had had enough.

"I read an article about the chief of police saying: 'So many have already died, are we going to stop now?' and the blood just came rushing to my face. I just had to do something," said Swann.

The 29-year-old university professor took a 15-inch cardboard and wrote, "We are all possible drug pushers" on it. The next day, she hung the sign around her neck and went to her class in a part of town where you instinctively hold your bag closer to you.

Philippinen Drogengesetze Protest

29-year-old university professor Hope Swann took a 15-inch cardboard and wrote, 'We are all possible drug pushers' on it

Killing spree

According to data released by the Philippine National Police (PNP), in the first two weeks since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, there were 135 suspected drug pushers and users killed and 1,844 arrested. That translates to about 10 deaths and 141 arrests per day for the period July 1 -13.

A campaign that promised a crackdown on illegal drugs and criminality within six months won Duterte the presidency by a landslide. He repeated this vow during his inauguration speech when he promised that the war against drugs would be "relentless" and "sustained."

Later, when he called on people to help clamp down on crime by shooting drug dealers and promised they would be rewarded, it seemed as if marching orders were served.

The public supplied watch lists of suspected pushers and dealers to the police, the police conducted house visits; city mayors offered police a reward for every pusher they turned in.

The mayor of Cebu, the second largest economic hub in the country, offered a reward of 50,000 Philippine pesos (around $900) to the police for every drug lord killed.

Just doing their job

In an interview, PNP spokesman and senior superintendent Dionardo Carlos corroborated the police data saying: "More than 66,000 have surrendered and our sources are already telling us that there is less street crime."

Carlos denied that police were accepting rewards for turning in suspects, but admitted that PNP could not stop local mayors from offering incentives as a strategy to crack down on crime. "The PNP is a professional organization. We do not operate on a rewards system. We are here to do our job."

The police have admitted killing suspected drug dealers and users in their operations. A leading national newspaper is publishing a daily "kill list" tallying the number of police killings.

Carlos justified the killings as self-defense. "These were people who opted to fight it out with our police. The police were just defending themselves. If there was any wrongdoing on the part of the police, an investigation will be done and they will be made to answer criminally and administratively."

A call for a Senate probe on the killings was dismissed by the PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa as "legal harassment" meant to "dampen the morale" of the police.

"These killings and the failure of the government to either decry them or launch an urgent investigation is a recipe for greater fear, insecurity and the threat of extrajudicial violence," said Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director.

Mass surrender

Meanwhile, Joy Belmonte has her hands full as vice-mayor and head of the anti-drug task force of Quezon City, one of the biggest urban centers in the country.

As of July 15, the task force had received 3,000 people who turned themselves in. "But this number always changes, there will be even more tomorrow," said Belmonte.

"Every day, someone surrenders. I've had surrenderees as young as nine years old. They say they're scared to get caught and be killed so they will just surrender," she added.

To cope, Belmonte is assessing each individual's level of drug use to filter the users from the addicts. "Those are two different things. The users can be helped with counseling and can go back to their community. An addict will need rehabilitation," explained Belmonte.

Since she began heading the anti-drug task force in 2010, she has not seen anything like this.

And neither has the Philippines. Currently, there are only 45 rehabilitation centers nationwide - not nearly enough to accommodate the number of people turning themselves in.

The government is scrambling to cope and looking into putting up regional rehabilitation centers for drug users across the country.

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Citizen protest

Citizens like Swann are finding their own way to express their outrage. Adrienne Onday, a 19-year-old student and friend of Swann, wrote: "We are all possible pushers" in the native language of Filipino on a cardboard and hung it around her neck.

A Facebook page called #CardboardJustice has been set up to call on others to support the movement and student groups in Onday's university are planning a mass street protest.

Both women have been wearing the sign everyday since July 14 and they say they will not take it off until they see some serious action on the part of those in power to do something about the killings.

From the looks of it, that will be a long time coming.

In an interview, PNP Chief Dela Rosa described the crackdown on drugs as necessary.

"If we don't do this, we will be headed by narco-politicans and narco-terrorists. It is only now that we have had a president with - pardon my expression - balls. He is so tough with his zero tolerance war on drugs."

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