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?