• Past wars on drugs all failed. Will Duterte succeed?



    Ronald dela Rosa, head of the Philippine National Police, reckons that since his boss, President Duterte, took office at the end of June, almost 2,000 people have been killed in the current crackdown on drugs. Of that number, he has said that police were responsible for killing 756 drug suspects. Speaking last Tuesday before the Senate, the police chief was quick to emphasize that there was no official policy to kill drug users and peddlers. After all, he stated, police were “not butchers.”

    The number of killings is not a measure of success. It is a tragedy.

    I am curious to know what officials like Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, Senator Panfilo ‘Ping’ Lacson, or former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada, might be thinking right now. Perhaps they should speak up. This bloody war on drugs should be sounding horribly familiar to them.

    In the early 1970s, Enrile was chief of the Department of National Defense, Ramos was heading the Philippine Constabulary and Integrated National Police (PC-INP), and heroin was the fashionable drug. According to official police figures, there were about 150,000 heroin users in the country. Since heroin abuse at the time was largely prevalent among the moneyed children of Manila’s elite who could afford the expensive habit, there was nationwide panic. The middle and upper classes called on the government to act swiftly. Marcos, who was elected on a law and order mandate much like Duterte, his political descendant, passed strong narcotics laws and set up the Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) on the advice of Enrile and Ramos.

    As Alfred W. McCoy describes in his book Policing America’s Empire, the CANU was successful in identifying members of Chinese drug syndicates and the Manila operations of major heroin-making laboratories, but corrupt officials, from congressmen and customs officers to police, bribed to take a cut or a blind eye, hampered prosecutions. The Unit did manage to catch one big fish. A Chinese businessman, Lim Seng, a top heroin trafficker, was executed to great fanfare.

    It did little to satisfy wealthy families, however, who remained incensed and desperate. They banded together and formed a secret organization – KAP, or Kill A Pusher, that targeted suspected heroin dealers for assassination. Adding to the climate of moral panic over drugs was the fear and disorder fomented by the spate of bombings that occurred all over Metro Manila.

    In 1998, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada was swept to power on a populist platform of anti-poverty and law and order. As head of the presidential task force against organized crime formed under Ramos, his predecessor, Estrada had proved himself to be adept at orchestrating bloody campaigns against the robberies and kidnappings that were terrorizing Filipino and Chinese business elite.

    As President, he too contended with the scourge of drugs. This time, heroin was out and shabu, methamphetamine hydrochloride, the drug of choice for the poor, jobless and uneducated, was most definitely in. Estrada pronounced shabu to be “public enemy number one” and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference couldn’t agree more, backing the President’s war against drugs. Estrada vowed to rid the country of drug trafficking within six months. How familiar can all this get?

    Estrada’s so-called “seek-and-destroy” operations against shabu syndicates, as McCoy relates, had widespread appeal. With an estimated number of 1.7 million amphetamine users in the country, the Philippines had one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world. The heroin labs that secretly operated in anonymous Manila rentals of the past were, by this time, decidedly small scale. According to the US State Department reporting in 2001, every year $1.2 billion worth of shabu from southeastern China was being smuggled into the country to supply almost 2 million users, who spent $5 billion annually. Chinese syndicates lorded it over the imports and local production. The operations of Filipino dealers paled in comparison. Under Estrada, drug seizures amounted to P2.7 billion between 1998 and 1999.

    Ping Lacson, once Estrada’s favorite policeman and head of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF), was senator in 2001, having rather masterfully evaded a host of criminal charges, including one for mass murder. Lacson and his police coterie within the PAOCTF were accused of massive involvement in drug trafficking. Stories of Lacson’s PAOCTF boys allegedly making big money from abducting Chinese suppliers, murdering them, and robbing their bank accounts, jostled with newspaper reports of the pitiful lives of poor drug addicts, drug killings, and the finding of chopped-up bodies of drug pushers. Colonel Victor Corpus, who then headed the military’s intelligence service, compared the Philippines to the narco-state of Colombia. How familiar can all this get?

    President Duterte’s war on drugs doesn’t seem to be tackling the tenacious roots of the problem – the entrenched operations of drug syndicates and traffickers, the intricate web of graft and corruption that implicates elite businessmen and government officials at all levels, the successful prosecution of the accused, and the vulnerability of the very poor.

    The country’s drug problem is of deep concern to us all, and talk of it remains on everyone’s lips. Not so long ago, at a dinner, a retired professor told of his son’s battle with drugs. The professor spoke softly and sadly. His son, he said, had been introduced to drugs as a student at university. The son had quickly become both a user and a pusher.

    At the time, the professor and his wife were going through their own troubles and would later separate. As they sorted out their marital issues, neither fully comprehended the extent of their son’s tragic situation. To their great shock, they discovered how their son had dropped out of school, had taken up with a young woman who was also an addict, and both were living in sordid conditions in a Manila slum. The boy was rescued by his parents and put into a rehabilitation center abroad.

    That’s the big difference: unlike his impoverished peers, this boy, the son of a professor, was not in danger of being killed by helmeted gunmen at point blank range. His corpse would not turn up on a grimy street bound with packing tape, with a cardboard sign pinned to it saying “Huwag tularan.” This is the unique and grisly feature of the drug campaign under the current President.

    Do we really think that such tactics – killing the poor and powerless – will lead to success?



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    1. Wake up and smell the roses Ms. Reyes, your continued righteous indignation, prevents you from having some common sense and making your brain impotent to say the least.

    2. The Phils is not unique. Other countries have similar problems, to a greater or lesser degree, so what will happen in this war can be predicted. At best the methamphetamine usage across certain sectors of society will be diminished, but not eradicated. Many battles will be fought, and won, but until we reduce poverty, and widespread corruption below a certain threshold, the war against drugs will continue. The longer it takes to reduce poverty and corruption, the more victims there will be – victims of bullets, and drug addiction, as well as the victims who are not addicts or pushers- the ordinary Filipino who lives in a society where the politics, economy, progress are at the mercy of corrupt officials who help run the drug trades. Drugs empower corruption, corruption fuels the drug trade. Power corrupts… The true victim is the Philippines. She is being held hostage by the drug trade, and prostituted by corrupt Filipinos. The President may not be effective in the long run, but he fights for Her. Everyone else up till this point has either ignored, denied, or procratinated. His response is harsh, but he did not set up the problem. He should only be held responsible for the outcomes. My prediction is: many poor will die, the drug problem will be reduced, but not eliminated, and like the end of Martial Law, after his term in office, the drugs will resurface, the press will long for his harsh but effective control (not elimination) of the drug problem, and they will complain that he failed to rid the country of corruption. (controlling a drug problem is a piece of cake compared to controlling established, embeded, widespread corruption in a oligarchal controlled country).

    3. Khix Fernandez on

      Over the years just as how you narrated in this article, the drug menace in the Philippine setting has gone more stubborn and widespread despite various efforts from government to curb them. On the early 90’s I could only read or hear news of illegal drugs incidents within the capital region. But now the menace has studded places from tip North down to the South of the archipelago, so shocking to find out there were thousands of drug dopes and pushers surrendering to authorities. It implies that previous government efforts, if any, were useless. Now in Duterte’s administration, it would be unwise to continue the same way as in the past administrations of dealing the drug problem. There’s a saying that doing the same thing but expecting a different result is craziness. This time boldness and real focus is direly needed which I could see now and being televised in the news daily. Result is obvious.

    4. Sixty days in office and you sound like the war on drugs is already a failure. Oh, I get it. Like Senator De Lima and her minions, you Madam is included, doesn’t like the fact that the new President is making your party look inept because you didn’t do anything the last six years.

    5. A former mayor knows better than a writer what to do. Your analysis is faulty as you did not outline what factors you’re looking at in gauging the drug programs.

    6. RACHEL A.G. REYES either belongs to the Liberals or CHR. You don’t know how the majority of Filipinos are in support of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Do you have any other suggestion?

    7. Who cares if other drug wars failed. At least we have a president who is hell bent on trying and doing something. Unlike, previous administrations who failed because they were actually supporting drugs and did very little to address it. Would you like Duterte to stop the war on drugs and just copy on how PNOY handled it for 6 years?

    8. President Duterte will succeed because the Filipinos were behind him and want to finish drug menace to our people in this country. You know why?? He is the only President of the Philippines after EDSA 1, had taken seriously of this drugs problem which is now a major problem of our nation. I cant imagine na almost 5 million ang users ng droga, kasama ang mga pushers and most of them were unemployed. They made drugs as their earn for a living in their daily life…Protector pala ang mga ating mga politicians na kaya pala nagsiyaman ng dahil sa droga…

    9. How many times Thomas Edison failed inventing a simple light bulb? A 1000 times, that’s right!

      Is there any other way than wage war against drug menace? War is brutal, bloody and gruesome. There will be casualties on both sides and worst the collateral damage (innocent civilians). Bloodless revolution will not solve it, in fact illegal drug enterprise thrive in this environment. Drug criminals are like antibiotic resistant bacteria that feeds on the very medicine’s last line of defense. There is no recourse, no stopping now, every blood spilt is worth when the “welfare and the greater good of the law abiding citizen of the nation” is in the balance.

    10. In the news is a professional basketball player getting sympathetic write ups and messages of support from other athletes.

      If he were in the NBA he would have been suspended twice, once for domestic violence and also for drug abuse.

      A woman beater and drug user needs to be put in place and punished for violation of various laws , not babied and presented as a victim, just like drug users are being presented. Users are also violating the law.

    11. Drugs does not have the luxury which one to be inflicted with this disease, rich, poor, old, young, male or female, public officials etc so the war on drugs has no choice or boundary to adhere into. For those who are living in subdivisions the police are cautious not to alarm the residents but those who were listed on the slum places the cop has the authority to imposed their authority considering that who settle on those places are squatters meaning the area is own by the government. Will the project succeed maybe yes not totally but at least its controllable and atainable. By comparing those drugs before and now is quiet different. Heroin, marijuanan addicts can be treated but shabu once it affect the brain is beyond redemption. That condition will lead to commiting crimes without exceptions the casualties may the family members and others. Those who are also affected has the tendency to be become paranoid and the surrounding is considered as a threat to his life. Thats the reason why most of them dies during captivity because the tend to wrestle out to escape from that condition. In other the war on drugs has no exceptions.

    12. Your story about that “supposedly” druggie son of a professor is all hearsay until you give out pertinent information about him and his parents. Using this kind of flimsy stories to justify a point only makes your letter more shallow than it already is.

      Poor and powerless? Funny. Which group do you belong to, CHR or De Lima’s? Moneyed drug pushers rarely give out a fight knowing they can somehow ‘bribe’ their way out of it. Poor drug pushers don’t follow the same line of thinking. Obviously you don’t know that since you are so much into this fiction story writing. #JustSaying

    13. He will succeed because he is not a wimp like the yellows you anti-Digong geniuses idolize, its that simple.