Philippines Defends Deadly Crackdown on Illegal Drugs

Felipe Villamor
170502-ph-woman-1000.jpg Maria Espinosa cries outside a funeral parlor in Manila where the body of her 16-year-old son, Sonny, was taken after he died in a shooting at a suspected drug den in a suburb of the Philippine capital, Dec. 29, 2016.

The Philippine government on Tuesday defended an anti-drug campaign that has claimed more than 8,000 lives since Rodrigo Duterte became president 10 months ago, saying his administration was battling a “national security threat” which must be eliminated.

Criminal and narcotics-trafficking cartels have gained a toehold in the country’s 120 billion peso (U.S. $2.4 billion) illegal drug industry, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief Isidro Lapeña told a Manila forum attended by top police and health officials.

“As long as there is demand, the drug problem will continue,” Lapeña said. “The drug problem is massive and now poses a national security threat. We need to do something now.”

Transnational drug syndicates – including Chinese triads, African syndicates using people as drug mules and Mexican Sinaloa gangs – are believed to be trafficking meth, marijuana and party pills, such as ecstasy, in the Philippines, he said.

“As long as there is a good market for drugs in the Philippines, drug trafficking will continue,” Lapeña told the forum. Government officials had organized it to counter what they said were misleading figures reported by the international press.

There are about four million drug users in the country of 103 million people, Lapeña said.

A bloody campaign

Since President Duterte took office 10 months ago and vowed to turn Manila Bay into a dumping ground for dead drug addicts and traffickers, the drug enforcement agency and police have launched more than 53,000 anti-drug operations leading to the arrests of about 65,000 suspects.

According to official police figures, more than one million drug users have surrendered, and officers have shot dead 2,692 suspects during anti-narcotics raids since June 2016. Officials were also investigating about 5,700 drug-related deaths.

The police have said that many of the killings were not of their own doing, but could be blamed on motorcycle-riding vigilantes, who typically leave signs on their victims that read: “I am a (drug) pusher, do not follow my example.”

But the war on drugs has also resulted in some alleged abuses, including the murder last year of a South Korean man who was abducted by a group led by a policeman and that seized him under the guise of the anti-drug campaign.

The South Korean’s wife paid off the ransom, but he was later killed and his ashes flushed down the toilet, in a gruesome case that temporarily forced Manila to halt the drugs war.

The forum was meant to clear the air after Duterte’s anti-drug campaign had been severely criticized by human rights groups, the Roman Catholic Church, the European Union and the United States under the presidency of Barack Obama.

President Duterte has ignored the criticisms and vowed to pardon any police officer jailed in connection to his overall drug war.

At least two town mayors publicly named by Duterte as alleged protectors of drug syndicates have also been killed – one of them by police officers who claimed the mayor traded gunfire with them as they conducted a raid inside his jail cell.

Duterte has also admitted to having killed “about three” people when he was the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao.

Two of his former men – a police officer and an uneducated self-confessed hitman – have come forward to testify against him.

Their testimonies, earlier made in a Duterte-controlled Senate, were discredited, but the two have since sued the president for mass murder at the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

‘A murderous war against the poor’

Phelim Kine, a deputy Asia director  for New York-based Human Rights Watch, called Duterte’s drugs war “abusive” and said it should be stopped immediately.

“He’s pursuing a murderous war against the poor that has resulted in the brutally violent deaths of thousands of Filipinos,” Kine said in a statement Monday.

He noted that HRW had found a “damning pattern” that exposed unlawful police conduct “designed to paint a veneer of legality over summary executions.”

“Duterte has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for those killings,” Kine said. “He has made repeated calls for the public to kill drug addicts as part of his anti-drug campaign. These calls constitute criminal incitement to commit murder.”

But on Tuesday, the government said it had managed to seize some 14.49 billion pesos (U.S. $290 million) worth of drugs and other evidence since last year, and that the crackdown had led to a 26 percent reduction in drug supplies.

National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa admitted that corrupt policemen had coopted the war on drugs. But a relaunched campaign, spearheaded by the drug enforcement agency, would be strict and weed out corrupt officers, he said.

“We follow a strict policy under the renewed Tokhang,” Dela Rosa said, referring to name of the campaign, which is a combined Filipino word for “knock and plead,” a polite request to stop using drugs.

“We don’t care if it’s slow as long as it is sure,” he said.


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