The Trump administration has made a point of reinvigorating the war on drugs in an alarming and disproportionate way. More worrying still, he seems to have found another world leader who also believes in extreme anti-drug measures.
During a call last month, Trump congratulated Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, for his state-sanctioned crackdown on the country’s drug problem. According to a transcript recently circulated by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and marked “Confidential,” Trump emphasized his support for Duterte’s draconian drug policies, which human rights activists have soundly criticized.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
The most amazing thing about the Trump-Duterte exchange is that Trump's praise of drug war is first topic and it comes up unsolicitedly pic.twitter.com/w0UGlui7lD
— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) May 24, 2017
Trump’s praise for authoritarian leaders is nothing new, but his call with Duterte and praise of the Philippines’ drug crackdown is disconcerting.
Duterte has a long legacy of extreme anti-crime measures. As mayor of Davao City, located on the southern island of Mindanao, he is believed to have backed radical measures aimed at stomping out the drug trade, including “death squads” that ultimately killed over 1,000 people during his tenure. As president, Duterte has grown even bolder. In his inaugural address, Duterte vowed to eradicate the issue, promising, “[w]e will not stop until the last drug lord… and the last pusher have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.”
Duterte has expressed little concern about the measures taken to solve the country’s drug problem. “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun — you have my support,” he advised the public last year. “Shoot…[dealers] and I’ll give you a medal.”
That approach has resulted in almost 9,000 deaths, as vigilantes have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. According to police, around a third of victims have been killed by police in official operations. But human rights monitors say paid assassins, vigilantes, and, allegedly, police who have been paid off are responsible for two-thirds of the deaths. It’s a situation that’s causing extreme fear and paranoia, to say nothing of sparking concern and panic. According to Reuters, a poll in March indicated 73 percent of the country’s residents are worried that they or someone they know may be targeted next.
Duterte’s regime has been a brutal one, undeniably extreme even by the standards of anti-drug hardliners around the globe. Still, it’s not surprising that his policies have found a fan in Trump, whose Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has made tough-on-crime policies a staple of his Justice Department. Under the Obama administration, efforts were made to reserve the toughest sentencing available for those linked to more violent crimes — cuing a 14 percent decline in in the federal prison population. But Sessions has sought to unravel those efforts. In early May, he sent a memo instructing federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in drug cases, regardless of whether mandatory minimum sentencing would be triggered. As a result, arrests for possessing small quantities of marijuana can result in life in jail if the accused has two previous drug convictions — of any kind. In February, Sessions also argued that legal pot drives violent crime, citing long-refuted talking points.
“I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions said. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”
Sessions has also reversed Obama-era efforts to roll back federal funding for private prisons, arguing that the extra cells will be needed to house an expected uptick in prisoners.
While Duterte’s actions are clearly more deadly than any the Trump administration has taken, Trump’s admiration for a brutal, bloody crackdown on the drug trade isn’t completely out of left field. Painting the drug trade as an evil that requires immediate eradication has proven a key talking point for the administration, one that has continued to ramp up under Sessions. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions told law enforcement officials in March. “It will destroy your life.”
Sessions has also brought other anti-drug hardliners into his inner circle, including Steven H. Cook, a notorious anti-drug street cop turned federal prosecutor who now works with Sessions. According to the Washington Post, Cook’s harsh stance on crime, with an emphasis on drug issues, is now helping to drive DOJ policy.
“Drug trafficking is inherently violent. Drug traffickers are dealing in a heavy cash business,” the Post quoted Cook once saying. “They can’t resolve disputes in court. They resolve the disputes on the street, and they resolve them through violence.”
While the latest version of the war on drugs might look different in the United States than it does in the Philippines, it will still have devastating ramifications for those charged with crimes — disproportionately people of color, despite studies maintaining that drug usage does not vary significantly by race. According to a 2016 report from the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit working to end the U.S. war on drugs, Black Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 31 percent of arrests for drug-related violations and 40 percent of those then incarcerated in state and federal prisons for those crimes. Numbers are similarly high for Latinx Americans.
If Trump’s call with Duterte is any indicator, reforming drug policy in the United States isn’t a goal for the administration — let alone challenging racial disparities. During their call, Duterte told Trump that drugs are “the scourge of my nation now, and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation.” Trump responded that “we had a previous president who did not understand that, but I understand that.” He went on to call Duterte “a good man,” inviting him to the Oval Office “anytime.”
Warm relations between Trump and Duterte could have a number of implications more generally. During the call, Trump also told Duterte about two U.S. nuclear submarines off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, leading to concern about the president’s handling of sensitive information. Duterte also declared martial law Tuesday on the island of Mindanao in an effort to crack down on activity linked to ISIS — something that may or may not be extended past the initial 60-day period currently stated.