The chilling rationality of the war on drugs

People sometimes think that President Duterte is crazy to be making enemies on various fronts. In the four months since he was sworn into office, he has antagonized the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the local and foreign media, the Catholic Church, sections of the business community, human rights organizations, and many others. He has warned the judiciary, Congress, local government units, and state security forces not to stand in his way as he pursues his professed goal of rescuing the Filipino nation from the narcotic menace.

But, in fact, he has been quite systematic in his timing and choice of enemies. He knows that so long as it is absorbed in its own electoral process, the US government is unlikely to do anything decisive on the international front that could be used as an issue in the presidential election. The EU is too preoccupied with pressing refugee and immigration problems to bother with the rise of a foul-mouthed autocrat in another part of the world. The UN itself is in the middle of a leadership transition. As for the different human rights groups that have hounded him since he was Davao City mayor, Mr. Duterte knows there’s nothing he can do anyway to keep them off his back.

Meanwhile, no matter what the media might think of him, this volatile President makes good copy. His continuing popularity has forced the vocal section of the institutional Church into discerning silence. By the sheer force of his discursive bluntness, he has relegated legislators and magistrates to the role of enablers and spectators.  He has kept the police and the military in check by alternately wooing and threatening them.

But, more than all of these, what has given the Duterte administration a free hand in its brutal war on drugs is the suspension of the country’s longstanding war with the Moro and communist insurgents. By personally inviting them to the peace table and, in the case of the communist movement, by honoring its leaders with the unprecedented privilege of nominating their choices for key Cabinet positions, he has effectively disarmed them.  No other president has gone this far. And no other president has been spared the standard leftist calumny that lumps the nation’s president with US imperialism.

In short, Mr. Duterte has secured the strategic space he needs to focus his entire firepower on the war on illegal drugs—a war, as he likes to put it, to stop the rise of a narcostate in the Philippines. The scale of narcotrafficking in the country has never been the object of sustained public attention. Thus, even after he threatened to slaughter millions until the last drug pusher is eliminated, people tended to be dismissive of this war as nothing but inflated rhetoric.  But, that perception has drastically changed.

There is a chilling rationality to all this. The killings started almost right after the election results confirmed Mr. Duterte’s unexpected victory—as though to signal the advent of a new era. Corpses, sometimes wrapped in packing tape, started showing up in dark alleys, with cardboard signs labeling them as drug pushers.  Then, the police began knocking on doors in urban poor communities, inviting drug suspects to voluntarily submit to registration and rehabilitation.  Much information about local drug operations has been collected in this manner.

Subsequently, a two-faced approach to eliminating the problem began to take shape. Its legal face entails the deployment of police units, sometimes accompanied by media persons, to suspected drug dens and laboratories.  A shootout might ensue in the darkness, with suspects being killed as they supposedly resist arrest and put up a fight.  At other times, the police might actually take suspects into custody.  The effect of these raids has been to clog jails, and to saddle the police with enormous amounts of paperwork.

The dark twin of this approach—never acknowledged by the state—entails the use of so-called “vigilantes.” More than three out of five drug-related killings in the last four months have been ascribed to vigilantes. These are usually helmeted riders on motorcycles, or masked gunmen who swoop into neighborhoods with no other objective but to kill.  The bodies of the victims, ostensibly all drug pushers, sometimes lie uncollected by their relatives. Even in those instances where families painfully grieve for their murdered kin, only a few go out of their way to complain to the media or to get a lawyer to seek redress from the courts.

Two things deter them from pursuing formal justice.  First, as they are usually aware of their kin’s involvement in drugs, they fear that they themselves could easily be implicated in any investigation. Second, they are often intimidated by the gunmen’s capacity to kill with impunity and come back for the rest of the family.

In a democracy, it is the state’s duty to investigate these killings, whether perpetrated by the police or by unidentified gunmen. But, apart from noting them in police blotters as “deaths under investigation,” the authorities have shown little inclination to look into them.  The usual police account explains these deaths as casualties in the cleansing war launched by the drug dealers themselves.

No one seriously buys this. Yet, every effort to prove the state’s complicity in these killings has been viciously attacked for showing more concern for criminals than for the countless victims of the drug menace.  Behind this murderous righteousness is the twisted belief, unfortunately shared by many, that the rule of law is a luxury we can ill afford in a time of war.