After slow-drip revelations last month that several members of the Philippine National Police Anti-Illegal Drugs Group had kidnapped and killed a South Korean businessman in October 2016, a reluctant Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called off his “war on drugs” at the end of January.
It was particularly embarrassing for the government that these criminal cops had taken Jee Ick-joo to police headquarters in Metro Manila where they strangled him before demanding a large ransom from his wife, who was led to believe he was still alive.
With guns falling silent in what had been a nightly crackdown over the past six months, this may prove to be the turning point in a bloody campaign that, at last count, has left more than 7,000 people dead.
Critics claimed that Jee’s killing was further proof that corrupt police had been using the war on drugs to commit crimes of their own – particularly against those involved in the drug trade – in order to cover their tracks. But there’s also growing evidence that many of those killed in the drug war were innocent.
Of course, all of those murdered either in “police encounters” or by motorcycle assassins riding in tandem were denied any sort due process. But a number of stories have emerged that suggest mistakes were being made or scores settled under the cover of the drug crackdown.
The fact that both kinds of killing have stopped since the suspension of the anti-drug campaign appears to confirm what critics always suspected: the murders by police and mysterious vigilantes were closely linked.
One of the most heart-wrenching stories is that of the Rosales siblings. The murder of Lauren Rosales led to one of the most moving pleas to end the “collateral damage” of the war on drugs. Her brother JR was killed by assassins while investigating her murder.
A 2008 Human Rights Watch investigation of a similarly violent crackdown on drugs in Thailand in 2003, in which nearly 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed, showed that more than half of those who died had no connection to drugs whatsoever.
As British academic and writer James Fenton pointed out in his recent account of the drug killings, this underlines the truth of the words British writer GK Chesterton put in mouth of his detective Father Brown:
“Where does a wise man hide a pebble? … on the beach … Where does a wise man hide a leaf? … In the forest … And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in.”
Observers have often been at a loss to explain why Duterte’s drug crackdown has enjoyed strong public support. But perhaps because of the drug war, a recent survey showed more than three-quarters of Filipinos claim it had reduced the drug menace in their neighbourhoods.
Drawing on the appeal of “penal populism”, which has been defined as “a political style that builds on collective sentiments of fear and demands for punitive politics”, Duterte has implemented his authoritarian “Davao model” (named after the southern city of Davao, where he was mayor) nationally.
He uses violence as spectacle to humiliate friends and families of purported drug dealers and users, who are portrayed as subhuman and thus legitimate targets of extermination. And this discourages investigation of the killings and conveys the political message that he can protect ordinary people.
State-encouraged violence thus creates a sense of political order amid weak institutions.
The war on drugs in the Philippines has created “an economy of murder” according to a new report by Amnesty International. The human rights group has revealed that police are paid hundreds of US dollars for each extrajudicial killing – but not for arrests. And that the murders are staged to make they seem like legitimate police operations through planted evidence and falsified reports.
Besides often stealing from the home of the murder victims, police also have links to funeral homes, who pay to get the corpse delivered to them, according to the report, causing the usually destitute families of the victims additional hardship.
Police lock down poor neighbourhoods under a policy known as Oplan TokHang – a portmanteau combining the Cebuano words tuktok (knock) and hangyo (plead) – to get drug dealers and users to surrender. This is in stark contrast to their polite treatment of people in rich neighbourhoods, where they go from house to house investigating people for possible drug use.
Most victims of police and vigilante “hits” are poor and defenceless people, making the war against the drugs appear more like a war against the poor.
But it now seems that something like a “poor Filipino lives matter” movement is gaining strength.
The country’s Catholic bishops, long intimidated by Duterte’s threats to reveal the Church’s hypocrisy over sex scandals, issued a pastoral letter on February 5 unequivocally condemning the violent anti-drug campaign as a “reign of terror” for poor communities of the country.
The communist left is involved in protracted peace negotiations to end a five-decade long insurgency, against the government. It had accepted three social welfare oriented cabinet-level positions in the current government, but has recently been distancing itself from its informal alliance with Duterte.
As the number of drug-related killings mounted, the hard left’s role in Duterte’s government became increasingly untenable. Its position became particularly difficult as promises made by the government to improve the life of the poor in exchange for support failed to materialise.
There’s been no movement on land reform, and little sign that the administration is serious about fulfilling its promise to put a stop to the rampant practice of offering short-term contracts – a process that enables companies to roll over employee contracts to avoid paying benefits and keep wages low.
The Communists suspended a ceasefire after accusing the military of “encroaching” on territory they controlled in the countryside and of the government of reneging on a promise to release jailed comrades. Duterte retaliated by cancelling peace negotiations, warning the rebels to be “ready to fight” again.
It is telling that three of the most high-profile figures who oppose Duterte’s violent drug crackdown are women – former vice president Leni Robredo, Senator Leila de Lima, and US-based activist Loida Nicolas-Lewis.
These women stand in contrast to Duterte’s tough guy image and misogyny (he has gone so far as to joke about rape victims).
All three “loathsome ladies,” as Duterte social media “trolls” have dubbed them, have been smeared, often using sexual innuendo and even faked sex videos. His congressional allies held hearings interrogating de Lima’s driver, who was also her lover (a dual sin in a class-bound society with double standards), about alleged links between de Lima and drug lords.
Duterte couldn’t resist giving the story a final machismo spin. “She was not only screwing her driver, she was screwing the nation,” he said.
Duterte’s early presidency has seen a monomaniacal commitment to his violent drug crackdown during which he has drawn on his deep-seated nationalism to fend off Western criticism.
Although he has threatened to substitute the military for the police in order to resume his war on drugs and has won the alleged support of Donald Trump for the drug crackdown, the killings have ended for now.
This will spare dozens of lives daily, mostly in the poorest parts of Metro Manila and other areas in the Philippines targeted during the crackdown. Pressure, from South Korea and also from the foreign business community in the Philippines generally, was crucial in influencing the suspension.
But whether this form of state violence can be stopped in the long term will largely depend on how strong opposition becomes within the country itself.