Duterte’s Drug War and Abuse of Power

True to his style, President Rodrigo Duterte held a late-night press conference on Jan. 30 at the presidential palace, wearing a denim jacket and flanked by his men, among whom was his chief of police Roland de la Rosa, who subsequently announced the infamous drug war will be put on hold after “internal cleansing” in his ranks.

One way or another, this may have been inevitable: The 71-year-old Duterte himself gave the police draconian powers in unleashing his drug war, so obsessed was he in “saving my country” and banking on his political wherewithal for the success he envisioned. They have abused that power abysmally. He had said in his campaign that he could solve crime spawned from the drug problem in six months; instead what he has to show for is this – a police force corrupted by the ability to murder at will.

His view was rather myopic. “When I was bragging about stopping drugs, my paradigm was limited to Davao,” the southern city where he was mayor for about 20 years, he said, using his alleged death squads to stamp out crime and violence there. It was easy for him to know the people around and roam the streets on his nocturnal rounds. But taken as a whole, weaknesses in the entire police organization are as systemic as the narco-politics that he said are eating away at the heart of the country.

He may have achieved the goal of creating fear – a warning to the drug lords – but the bigger picture was lost in the one thing the police do not possess: integrity and professionalism.

“The brittle crust of duty and discipline in the PNP (Philippine National Police) has now broken, the leadership collapsing under a wave of impunity that has engulfed the police force,” Rappler, an online news site, said in its editorial.

The President’s brutal campaign, which has claimed 7,000 killed and which was the be-all and end-all of the presidency, has boomeranged. Duterte won’t give it up nevertheless, saying he will pursue this “to the last day of my term” in 2022. It now remains unclear what form the next step will take.

The anti-drug operations taking place in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Manila have had no letup since Duterte became president seven months ago. As it turned out the police force that was at the forefront of his order was “corrupt to the core,” he said – an understatement for an organization that has had such a reputation for decades.

It took a police officer with the equivalent rank of a sergeant to put the drug war into a tailspin, one who was part of the anti-narcotics group that allegedly planned the murder of a South Korean businessman inside the police headquarters itself. Jee Ick Joo was kidnapped last October in Angeles City outside Manila under the guise of the drug campaign. He was strangled to death even before ransom was paid.

What is known as “Oplan Tokhang,” the colloquial term for the police to knock on doors seeking drug users, has reached a “lull.” Colonel Bert Ferro, chief of the national police’s currently disbanded anti-illegal drugs group, said the drug enforcement agency and some units of the military might take over.

“This is a nightmare, trying times for us, and we have to be more professional,” he said.

As of January this year, about 2,500 suspected drug pushers were killed in police operations. The rest were reported as those “under investigation” but incidents that were widely believed to have been carried out by criminal syndicates or vigilantes with the help of police that might also have been involved in drugs. Several families of victims have claimed the killings were done execution-style.

What comes next after the suspension of the drug war? The drug enforcement agency from which the president obtained his list of politicians and officials supposedly involved in the drug trade does not have enough manpower, and getting a military task force to come to the aid of this campaign would put the armed forces at odds with police missions, risking if not making the same mistake with just a change of recipe.

President Duterte said he would have the bad elements of the police thrown to hardship posts in conflict areas of Mindanao – which in itself might also prove ineffective in the counter-insurgency drive. Parts of Muslim Mindanao have already seen a steady flow of illegal drugs taking root in local governance and among clans and rebels combined.

His vow to extend it until his term is over showed he does not want to give up what had been badly executed in the first place. He has stuck to his police chief de la Rosa, refusing his offer to resign, as previous presidents have done to avoid sacrificing personal friendships. De la Rosa has come out of the drug war as a celebrity wannabe rather than taking the responsibility of pushing for strong reforms. Nicknamed ‘Bato,’ which means rock, he did not quite have the solid following of the police hierarchy.

“What if the killings suddenly stop because they stopped the ‘war’”? asked poet Marne Kilates, who has been outspoken on Facebook against Oplan Tokhang. “They are in trouble. It will show that they have been doing all the killings after all, which they have been denying from the start. Will the people prosecute?”

It is not likely that Duterte will let this slip out of his hands unless absolutely given no choice. His popularity still gives him the edge and he said he doesn’t care if his ratings slip, “I do not give a shit, I have a duty to do and I will do it. You know I won (the election) because I carried the message of law and order and drugs.” His playbook may yet take another turn.

He might want to look at other avenues of success, wrote columnist Joel Ruiz Butuyan in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He must make a dent in the lives of poor Filipinos who were expecting more out of him than from past presidents regarded as from the elite and fix the dysfunctions in the public service. “These must be the focus of his energies, and the subject of his rants,” he said. “Not the terrible, continuing killing of his poor constituents.”