Duterte’s war on drugs looks just like…war

Praised by Trump on his war on drugs, Philippines President Duterte promises to promote police involved in extrajudicial killings.

Police in the Philippines say their sweeps are mostly "buy-bust" operations, which have resulted in thousands of deaths since 2016 CREDIT: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
Police in the Philippines say their sweeps are mostly "buy-bust" operations, which have resulted in thousands of deaths since 2016 CREDIT: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Sixty people have been killed by security forces in the Philippines capital Manila and the bordering province of Bulacan under President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on alleged drug users and dealers. By Thursday, the three-day operation had resulted in 223 arrests.

Reuters reports that this is the deadliest three days in Duterte’s campaign against drugs and crime that has left over 9,000 dead across the country since the strongman took office in June 2016.

The reasons for the bloody sweeps – known as “one-time, big-time” operations — remain unclear, as national police chief Ronald dela Rosa told reporters that, “The president did not instruct me to kill and kill.”

He added: “I also don’t have any instructions to my men to kill and kill. But the instruction coming from the president is very clear that our war on drugs is unrelenting. Those who were killed fought back.”


Duterte – who has been praised by President Donald Trump as doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” —  on Wednesday expressed his satisfaction with the start of the operations.

“Let’s kill another 32 every day. Maybe we can reduce what ails this country,” he said. And on Thursday, he said that he would not only pardon the police officer involved in the extrajudicial killings, but promote them as well.

He also ordered police to shoot rights activists observing the police sweeps, which drew an immediate response from Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phelim Kine. “President Duterte’s threats against human rights activists is like painting a target on the backs of courageous people working to protect the rights and upholding the dignity of all Filipinos,” Kine said. “Duterte should retract his reprehensible remarks immediately before there is more blood on his hands.”

Trump is in the minority of world leaders complimenting Duterte on his approach, which has drawn criticism from the international community as well as rights groups.

In response to calls to maintain the rule of law and respect human rights, the Philippines in May issued a defiant response to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Using a term coined by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, the response said that reports of the killings were based on “alternative facts.”


The extent of drug use and addiction in the Philippines is somewhat unclear – statistics available up to 2015 show a serious reduction in the number of drug users since 2004.

Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, told ThinkProgress that the number of people “using drugs problematically” is “actually a very small percentage overall…it’s estimated that around five to ten percent of people who use drugs overall develop problematic behaviors.”

She said that while drugs like shabu can be “extremely harmful” what Duterte is doing is using his drug war as “a smokescreen” to crack down on the poor.

But, of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Even if the country is facing a drug epidemic that isn’t being captured by polling snapshots, the consensus among Western countries is that treatment, rather than crackdowns, is the way to cope with an addiction crisis. An adequate response, said Hetzer, would be providing voluntary treatment and heal care for people struggling with drug addiction.

Given U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s memo on changes to charging and sentencing policies, and given Trump’s clear approval of Duterte’s hardline methods, Hetzer worries that U.S. drug policy might be backsliding.

“We’re very concerned about an escalation in the drug war [in the U.S.] that would take us back to the policies of the 80s and 90s, especially in the hands of Jeff Sessions,” said Hetzer.


The worry, she said, is that what was done in the last years of former President Barack Obama’s administration – moving away from harsh, mandatory sentencing – will be undone.

“It harks back to the drug policy of the 80s and 90s, which showed no abatement in drug use and only served to fuel mass incarceration in this country,” said Hetzer.