Philippine police chief touts drug-war policy change despite ongoing killings

Jojo Riñoza and Aie Balagtas See
Philippine police chief touts drug-war policy change despite ongoing killings Priest Falviano Villanueva spreads incense over urns containing the ashes of people killed in the Philippine government’s war on drugs, during a Mass for their families at a Catholic church in Manila, Nov. 15, 2021.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Despite a policy shift to use minimum force in drug-related arrests, Philippine law enforcement agencies have killed 46 suspects since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office at the end of June, the national police chief said Monday.

Thirty-two suspects have died in police-led operations and another 14 were killed in clashes with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency so far under the new Marcos administration, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin told reporters in Manila.

“The policy I emphasize to every police officer is that we will not endanger their lives,” he said during an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

“We will minimize the use of force in arresting drug suspects.”

The police chief said those killed had fought with officers, adding a standing order remains the same – police can use deadly force if their lives are in danger.

Azurin also said the verifiable figure of those killed during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war was 6,252 – far less than the 8,000 figure police previously released. The revised figure took into consideration that many of those killed were considered “deaths under investigation.” 

Human rights advocacy groups have cast doubt on the accuracy of the government’s statistics, saying that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 people could have been killed, when accounting for attacks committed by vigilantes.

Marcos has stressed that he would continue Duterte’s “war on drugs” while focusing on going after big-time syndicates rather than drug users. The former president, who left office on June 30 and faces the prospect of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), has acknowledged that his administration’s drug war failed. 

When asked to comment on the killings during the Duterte administration, Azurin declined, saying it was “not right for me to give an assessment” since he was not involved.

The police chief defended Duterte’s policy of “tokhang,” which has become synonymous with unprovoked killings attributed to police.

The term is a combination of two Tagalog words that mean “knock” and “plead,” calling for officers to knock on doors of suspects and persuade them to give up peacefully. 

“I think there was just a misconception on the policy on tokhang. Generally, the main purpose was just to spread awareness in the community about drugs,” he said. 

Under Marcos, police are using a different term called Anti-Illegal Drugs Operation through Reinforcement and Education, “Adore,” the police chief said. Azurin said the shift in terminology was necessary because police understand that people have already “reached the awareness level” about drug use.

“So with all the minimum caution, we advise our police officers, ‘you do not endanger your life.’ But definitely, when they are in danger, they have to defend themselves,” he said.

“As we can notice, the deaths are very minimal because we opt to focus on engaging other sectors. We are partnering with the religious sector so that [at] their level, they can engage the suspects at the barangay level so they can just surrender and stop their illegal activities.”

The new approach has led to drug confiscations valued at about 9.7 billion pesos (U.S. $169 million) during more than 18,500 anti-illegal drug operations since July, the police chief said. This also led to the arrest of more than 22,600 suspects.

Meanwhile, ICC prosecutors have been petitioning to carry out an investigation into the massive drug-war deaths here, but Marcos has so far blocked their access. 

Carlos Conde, the Philippine researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has been leading calls for Duterte to be investigated, challenged Azurin’s statement. 

“Clearly, that’s a manifestation of the fact that the drug war policy continues. And as long as President Marcos doesn’t issue a direct, categorical policy change that the war stops, we can expect more killings,” Conde told BenarNews on Monday. 

He argued that the government structure that allowed the law enforcement sector to carry out the killings “remain in place.” 

“So of course, people will continue to get killed,” he said.


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