Cops Already Acting on Philippine President-elect’s Death-to-Thugs Vow

As expected, the shooting has already begun in the Philippines, eight days before Rodrigo Duterte is sworn as President on a public promise to support police who take out criminals in gunfights instead of allowing them due process. Alleged drug dealers are turning up dead with signs written by vigilantes stuck to their chests.

According to several reports in the Philippine press, as many as 40 “drug dealers” have been killed “resisting arrest” in Manila, Laguna, Bulacan, Rizal and Cebu, with bloodthirsty local mayors and other officials sanctioning police to open fire well before Duterte arrives on the scene.

“We think it’s just begun,” said an intelligence official with a major country risk firm. “There’s going to be a lot of this before it’s over.”

Duterte swept to a decisive victory in the May 9 presidential poll, winning 39.02 percent of the vote to 23.45 percent for President Benigno S. Aquino’s chosen successor Manuel A. Roxas and 21.39 percent for Grace Poe. He was the favorite of a Filipino population tired of street crime and corruption, although the Philippines doesn’t rank much above most of the other ASEAN nations in terms of street crime, and in fact is well behind several.

In flamethrowing speeches both before and after his May 9 election, Duterte vowed to start a campaign to kill “tens of thousands” of criminals and offered bounty money to police, replicating his effort to clean up Davao City, where he served as mayor for 22 years. Duterte famously turned police loose in similar fashion, with an estimated 1,400 suspects killed by death squads. Some were killed openly in broad daylight by murderers who have never been prosecuted. This week he promised the deployment of a special detachment of police who will be given special assignments by him personally,

The president-elect has publicly denied complicity in the shootings, although not very convincingly. However, his spokesman, Salvador Panelo, issued a statement on June 11 in response to criticism by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Duterte “has not endorsed — cannot — and will never endorse extrajudicial killings, they being contrary to law."

According to one report this week, a shootout in Rizal province east of Manila between undercover police officers and drug dealers ended up with suspects dead – for dealing all of PHP500 (US$10.75) worth of drugs. Although Duterte this week warned unnamed city mayors they would be shot if they are involved in the drug trade, most critics believe it will be these petty dealers who end up at the wrong end of the gun barrels, and not the major manufacturers, who are protected by layers of political and government insulation from either being shot or prosecuted.

The carnage predicted by the country risk official has ominous parallels to Thailand in 2003, when the government of newly crowned Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched its own “war on drugs,” in the process killing 2,819 people in just three months without arrest or trial. An official investigation – which has never been made public -- by the government of General Surayud Chalanont found that more than 1,400 were unrelated to drug dealing or had no apparent reason for their killings. They were more likely people the police found troublesome. According to one report, more than 300 unidentified bodies found along the Thai-Cambodian border, many of them believed to be members of the Lahu hill tribe, were attributed to police brutality during the crackdown on suspected drug dealers. In the end, after Thaksin called off the drug war, there was no appreciable drop in either drug use or petty crime.

As with the Thai police, police in the Philippines are often in league with the criminals or in fact are members of criminal gangs. Crimes simply go uninvestigated. Far too often “shootouts” between Filipino police and criminals turn out to be simple executions without waiting for the niceties of trial. Many fear that Duterte’s tough talk is going to amount to a license to kill. There indications that it already has.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has expressed alarm at the sudden rise of police killings and the offering of bounties. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the head of the conference, issued a public statement saying: “We are disturbed by an increasing number of reports that suspected drug-peddlers, pushers and others ... have been shot, supposedly because they resist arrest. It is equally disturbing that vigilantism seems to be on the rise.”

Duterte himself, however, has dismissed the Catholic Church, which prior to the election dubbed him a “morally reprehensible candidate” who has shown little or no regard for human rights. He called Pope Francis a “son of a whore” during the Pope’s visit last year for massive traffic jams and has threatened to expose priests as pedophiles, saying he had been molested himself as a child by a priest.