Dutertismo and the war on drugs

“Dutertismo” is a term I coined in a column I wrote shortly before the 2016 presidential election (Public Lives, 5/1/2016). I used it to refer to the Philippines’ own version of the phenomenon that came to be known as “Nazism” in Hitler’s Germany, and as “Fascism” in Mussolini’s Italy.

The more current name for these forms of rule is “populist authoritarianism.” It is found in almost every corner of the world today: Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, etc.

“I am your last card,” Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly told his audiences during the 2016 campaign, seeking to establish a direct union between him, the leader, and the people’s destiny. That message instantly resonated with a public that had grown tired of hearing about the restoration of democracy at Edsa in 1986.

It acquired a plausible meaning in the context of the growing perception that the entire system of government, politics, the economy, and the law was hopelessly broken. And that the country, more than ever, needed an unconventional leader who could solve the country’s persistent problems in as short a period as three to six months, using novel means.

What Mr. Duterte had in mind was the approach to governance that he tested for over two decades as mayor of Davao City. This was a method that relied on shortcuts to produce results, unencumbered by institutional protocols or by respect for democratic values.

Populists like Mr. Duterte have no need for legal or expert opinion to validate their actions. They draw their oxygen rather from visible public affirmation of their rule. The high trust and approval ratings in opinion polls are important to Mr. Duterte, just as the mesmerized crowds were crucial to Hitler and Mussolini.

As long as he remains popular, Mr. Duterte believes he can ignore institutions. He has deluded himself into thinking he’s exempted from the law because his mission is greater. He comes out as a swaggering iconoclast because he deliberately sets out to break conventions, precedents, and good form. He taunts his own officials when they manifest fear of the law or deference to other branches of government, assuring them that he takes full responsibility for the orders he gives them. During an event last week, for instance, he mocked Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s anxiety about being included in the case filed before the International Criminal Court concerning the drug killings.

The Duterte approach is perhaps best exemplified by the bloody “tokhang” campaign that then Gen. Bato dela Rosa launched in the very first week of Mr. Duterte’s presidency. Dead bodies riddled with bullets, their heads sometimes wrapped in packing tape, were turning up everywhere. A crudely scribbled note was often placed beside these victims: “Adik: huwag tularan” (Addict: Don’t emulate). No one comes forward to own the killings, but everyone knows it’s the work of the police. Or, of “vigilantes” working with the authorities.

This was followed by publicized appeals by the local police, with the cooperation of the local government units and barangays, advising residents who might have used or peddled illegal drugs in the past to register with their local barangays so they would not be victims of mistaken identity. Gripped by fear, many residents fatally complied. Countless individuals from these lists later turned up dead, victims of the dreaded operation that came to be known as “tokhang.”

Awakened in the middle of the night, unsuspecting victims innocently opened their doors to police operatives, in the belief that the presence of their families would protect them. But, often, they were dragged out of the house in full view of their loved ones and shot right then and there. The “nanlaban” (“fought back”) narrative became so common that it is now used as a trope to signify police impunity.

This pattern of killing, perpetrated by the police, attracted so much unwanted public attention that the drug war later began to rely on the services of masked killers whose actions could not be directly traced back to the police. The deaths resulting from these operations were separately listed as “deaths under investigation.”

It is very important to keep all this in mind because the 52 cases reported by the Department of Justice panel currently investigating the drug killings are a minuscule part of the thousands of deaths that resulted from drug operations conducted and acknowledged by the police. Killings by masked vigilantes are presumably not part of the DOJ investigation.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra himself was recently quoted as saying that the DOJ probe “is a very huge task.” One can well understand why. It would mean going through police records, assuming they are on file and have not been destroyed. It would mean putting at risk for criminal prosecution the very same police officers whom Mr. Duterte has repeatedly assured of protection. I am convinced this is a task that only a special commission appointed by a new government can perform with any credibility.

Secretary Guevarra is, to put it mildly, caught in the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, he has to show that the country has a functioning justice system that is capable of enforcing accountability. It is the only way to satisfy the principle of “complementarity” that is needed to counter the International Criminal Court’s intervention in our affairs. But, on the other, he serves under a President who—even as he tells the police to kill! kill!—invokes “national security” concerns to prevent the justice system from peering into the conduct of his drug war.