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Duterte's drug war — facts and fiction

Ana P. Santos Manila | Rodion Ebbighausen
May 9, 2018

It has been two years since Duterte became president of the Philippines and unleashed a brutal war on drugs. The death toll is high but nobody seems to know the real numbers — not even the police, as a DW research shows.

Philippinen Opfer einer Schießerei mit der Polizei in Manila
Image: Getty Images/D. Tawatao

Orly Fernandez shuffled on the wooden bench and took his mobile phone out of his pocket. He squinted at its black and white screen and muttered, "No calls."

It was nearly 2am on a Monday night. The last call Fernandez got was around 9pm. It didn't usually take this long to wait for someone to die.

"July 1, Duterte assumed office. July 2, it started. We would collect five to seven bodies starting around 2pm all the way until early morning. That wasn't every day, but now, there are maybe three dead a week," said Fernandez who is operations manager of Eusebio Funeral Homes in Malabon, about 13 kilometers away from the Philippine capital of Manila.

It has been almost two years since Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency and launched "Oplan Tokhang" (Operation Knock and Plead) to make good on his campaign promise to aggressively crackdown on illegal drugs. Bodies of suspected drug users turned up in dark alleys, under bridges and in dump sites — many branded with a cardboard sign that warned: "I am a drug addict/pusher. Do not be like me."

The mounting body count turned the Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela districts — a group of densely populated residential and industrial areas outside Manila known collectively as CAMANAVA — into killing fields.

And it kept Eusebio Funeral Homes very busy. But the pace of killings seems to have declined in this part of the country and Fernandez feels nights are more quiet now.

Drogenkrieg auf den Philippinen
Orly Fernandez, manager of Eusebio Funeral Services, lights a cigarette while waiting for the next call to pick up bodies of the dead in CaloocanImage: Raffy Lerma

The killings continue

Police anti-drug operations, though, continue — further away from CAMANAVA, in areas that are harder to reach and cover by the media.

Only two months ago, police killed 13 drug suspects and arrested some 100 others in a 24-hour-long drug raid in Bulacan, a province some 81 kilometers away from Manila. It was followed by another police raid in the same region with 13 people killed in April.

At the start of 2018, the government re-launched Oplan Tokhang under new guidelines that were meant to ensure better transparency, but nobody really knows their impact. With the media no longer called on to witness police operations or alerted to a crime scene, and limited access to police reports, the police now stand as the main and only source of information on the drug war.

This magnifies the basic question that remains unanswered: How many have died in this drug war and why is there a lack of reliable data on the number of deaths? Human rights advocates and the families of those killed continue their quest for justice and are still demanding answers.

Inflating and deflating the numbers

At the beginning, emboldened by Duterte's pronouncements to "Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you are doing your duty, I will protect you," the Philippine National Police (PNP) flaunted the numbers and used them as an indication that the drug war was effective in cracking down on illegal drugs and related crimes.

Philippinen - Drogenkrieg - Polizeichef Ronald Dela Rosa
Former PNP chief Ronald Dela Rosa giving a speech to his men during the first months of Duterte's war on drugsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. R. Cristino

Ronald dela Rosa, then PNP chief and long-time friend and ally of Duterte, trumpeted the success of the drug war and called critics "ingrates."

"They began deflating the numbers when it became a PR (public relations) problem," said Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), at a forum in April 2018. That PR problem began with the death of a South Korean businessman who was kidnapped in October 2016 and later found to have been killed in police headquarters. In August the following year, CCTV footage showed 17-year-old Kian delos Santos being led away to an alley by plainclothes policemen before he was killed.

Media trying to document the killings

Initially, the media acted as the main repository of numbers on the drug war.

News site Rappler ran and updated a tally of the drug war statistics. As of its last update, Rappler reported a total of 7,080 people killed in #WarOnDrugs from July 1, 2016 until July 31, 2017 — in a combination of police operations and deaths under investigations or those killed by unknown masked assailants.

Rappler confirmed that the report was based on statistics forwarded to the police beat reporters via Viber. The numbers were broken down by deaths, arrests and surrenderers per region and also had a curious statistic of "deaths under investigation" or DUI.

"It was difficult to vet the numbers because the PNP did not give specific incident reports. We tried to request for the incident reports but requests were denied given that these were ongoing investigations," said Gemma Mendoza, Rappler's head of research and data journalism.

"While we are not saying that all DUIs are connected to the drug war we saw this as a significant statistic due to the provenance of this term. It was never used before the drug war started," stressed Mendoza.

Other media efforts to document extrajudicial killings included published maps and charts by TV news station ABS CBN. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also published a "Kill List" to document the names and circumstances surrounding the death of the mostly poor young men killed in the Duterte administration's anti-drug campaign.

Real Numbers campaign

The government slammed the numbers as "fake news" and in May 2017, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) launched the Real Numbers campaign to correct "misleading numbers from human rights organizations and the media."

It was a feeble attempt to make sense of the PNP's classification of drug-related killings that were changed arbitrarily from "deaths under investigation" (DUI) in August 2016 to "murder cases under investigation" (MCUI) in January 2017 and "homicide cases under investigation" in March 2017.

"The death toll deflation by spreading the death toll over a multiplying number of confusing categories appears to be part of a deliberate government strategy to walk back its initial zealous cheerleading of rapidly rising killings attributed to the 'drug war,'" Phelim Kine, deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia Division, told DW.

Body count: To each his own

Human rights groups, the media and the police all seem to have their own tally of how many have died in a combination of police operations and vigilante killings related to the drug campaign.

However, it was the government itself that said there were more than 20,000 drug-related killings from July 2016, when Duterte started his term, to November 2017 (16,355 homicide cases under investigation and 3,967 killed in police operations), in their accomplishment report which DW has a copy of (see screenshot).

Screenshot Report The Duterte Administration
The Duterte Administration Year-End Report 2017 (emphasis by DW)

"There are varying numbers," emphasized Jacqueline de Guia, spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of the Philippines at a press conference on April 5, 2018.

Acting on a petition filed by rights groups to declare the war on drugs as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court cited this report in a resolution it released on April 10, 2018: "The government's inclusion of these deaths among its other accomplishments may lead to the inference that these are state-sponsored killings."

"This is a total of 20,322 deaths during the Duterte administration's anti-drug war from July 1, 2016 to November 27, 2017, or an average of 39.46 deaths every day. This Court wants to know why so many deaths happened," the apex court said.

Human rights commission struggling

Currently, the CHR is conducting its own investigations. They have been difficult because of the "climate of fear" among families of victims and their communities.

The lackluster cooperation of the PNP has made the CHR investigations even more difficult. As early as July 2016 — when the drug war started — the CHR has been reaching out to the PNP to discuss alleged human rights violations. It was only in August 2017, more than a year after, when the PNP met with the CHR and agreed to be more transparent. On November 18, 2017, the CHR received a letter from the PNP noting that only copies of spot reports would be released to them. "But to date, these spot reports have not been forthcoming," explained de Guia.

Drogenkrieg auf den Philippinen
Funeral workers remove four bodies of alleged drug pushers after a buy-bust operation of the PNPImage: Raffy Lerma

In its April 2018 resolution, the Supreme Court mandated the government to hand over full documentation of the more than 3,000 deaths due to police operations to facilitate their investigation on the constitutionality of the drug war.

Solicitor General Jose Calida, a Duterte ally, had earlier refused to hand over the documents saying that they "contain sensitive information that have national security implications."

PNP spokesperson John Bulalacao told DW that the police are currently still compiling the documents and will comply with the directive of the Supreme Court — subject to the final approval of the president. "We are under the executive branch. The president is our boss," Bulalacao said.

Drilling down the numbers

In an attempt to find out what we really know about the number of people getting killed in the Philippines, DW probed the available police statistics on homicide and murder by checking the Bantay Krimen website and vetting official numbers with the PNP Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management (DIDM). This was the first try to establish a reliable baseline to be able to make statements about violent deaths and, particularly, the drug war in the country.

Duterte's war on drugs — how does Bantay Krimen work?

The DW project started in February 2018 with a publicly accessible website called Bantay Krimen. The PNP launched it in March 2016 as a "community-based tool in promoting crime awareness."

Christian Santillian, who works for the PNP's IT division, explained to DW that the basis for the data of Bantay Krimen are blotter reports compiled from the more than 1,700 police stations nationwide.

A complainant goes to the police station to report an incident and file a blotter report. An officer will input the details of the blotter reports in an e-blotter database. Bantay Krimen maps the information from the e-blotter reports and breaks them down by area and crime classification.

For the research, DW used the data available from the website for the year 2017 as of February 5, 2018. The result was surprising: according to Bantay Krimen, 21,999 people were killed in the Philippines in 2017. That would mean a sharp increase in the number of killings from 2016 and would make the Philippines one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

21,999 deaths mean a murder rate of nearly 22.0 per year per 100,000 inhabitants. The region Southeast Asia has an average murder rate of 2.9, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But comparison is difficult as the UNODC uses a different statistical framework to that of the PNP. Latest UNODC numbers for the Philippines are from 2014 and they point to a murder rate in the country of 9.8.

Infografik Mord und Totschlag Philippinen ENG
Bantay Krimen before the update of April 10, 2018

When presented with these numbers, Santillian emphasized that Bantay Krimen, although a data repository, is not used as an official source. PNP crime statistics released to the public through official reports are prepared by the PNP — DIDM Data Analysis and Research Department.

Inside the PNP's statistics department

DW arranged a meeting with Superintendent Adelio Benjamin G. Castillo and the DIDM staff to better understand the PNP data management. During that meeting, they pointed out that they use a different system, and not Bantay Krimen, for crime analysis and interpretation. They said that the officially reported figures like #RealNumbersPH are also based on this system.

The DIDM numbers match the numbers from the statistical yearbook of the Philippines more or less for the period from 2004 to 2016, but it deviates massively from the numbers of Bantay Krimen.

During the meeting with DW, Castillo and his staff could not initially explain why the numbers from their internal data management systems and Bantay Krimen did not match, even though they draw from the same source: the e-blotter reports.

Infografik Karte Mordrate Philippinen ENG
Comparing figures from PNP and Bantay Krimen per region

Later, they came back to DW to explain that the numbers in Bantay Krimen are bloated because these included attempted and frustrated homicides.

Castillo said that the PNP is working on ways to improve its data collection and standardize classification protocols.

DW observed that since those meetings, the numbers of Bantay Krimen have been changed or adjusted. On April 10, 2018, the website was updated, and the numbers of April are 67 percent lower than those of February. They are over 4,000 cases lower than the official numbers released by the PNP.

Alphabet soup

PNP Spokesperson Bulalacao stressed in a phone interview with DW on April 25, 2018, that the "PNP does not shave numbers. Our numbers are based on empirical data and are complete and truthful. It is correct most of the time, though some discrepancies may arise." According to Bulalacao, discrepancies may arise because of a number of factors like information coming from far-flung police stations is delayed or complainants do not immediately come forward and file a case.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) also made similar attempts to make sense of the drug war numbers. In their first report on June 8, 2017, they concluded: "Ever-changing disaggregation figures, by status, death, or incidents, have also paved the way to another level of confusion in clustering and comparing the numbers. The same applies for the timeframe. The statistics are usually not based on an annual timeframe which makes it hard to compare data and to identify trends."

In an April 2018 forum, PCIJ Executive Director Mangahas described the PNP numbers as "an alphabet soup that is not understandable anymore."

DW's research came to the same conclusion: The data made available by the Philippines is confusing on two levels: They lack accuracy in terms of facts and context. Secondly, arbitrarily changing classifications for unexplained deaths as pointed out by Rappler and PCIJ and different time frames which they are measured make it difficult to compare the numbers and establish trends or inferences.

One is at the end of one's tether and has to conclude that there are no reliable numbers for Duterte's drug war. Even as the government tries to present its #RealNumbersPH campaign as true and accurate, this DW research shows that loose PNP internal data management protocols distort data processing and compilation. The very source of numbers is flawed.

With vetting and cross checking of data hampered by restricted access to police reports and crime scenes where witnesses and family members may be interviewed, the police are now in a position to be the singular source of information on the drug war.

The most basic question still remains unanswered: How many have been killed in the Duterte administration's war on drugs.