Duterte’s Drug War Stumbles on Allegations of Teen’s Murder

The apparent Aug. 18 assassination by police of a 17-year-old student appears finally to have kicked off widespread objection to President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug war and its spate of extrajudicial killings.

The killing of Kian Delos Santos, who was dragged from his home, handed a gun and told to run as he screamed that he had a test in school the next day, has generated a Philippine Senate hearing into the affair and even chastened Duterte, who called for a full probe of the killing, vowing that heads will roll with those responsible ending up behind bars.

The Senate investigation saw the opposition outraged at remarks at another hearing by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, a Duterte fraternity brother and appointee, that media coverage of the death had been "blown out of proportion."

Opposition lawmaker Risa Hontiveros, who took protective custody of witnesses including two minors with information about the killing, called Aguirre's remarks repulsive. "How will they protect the witnesses if they themselves don't believe in the case?" Hontiveros asked in a statement. Hontiveros also expressed scorn over previous remarks made by government lawyers that there have been no extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration.

Aguirre turned down a proposal by Minority Floor Leader Francis Drilon to turn the case over to the independent Ombudsman, saying “it will make us look bad.“ He and Roland dela Rosa, the director of the Philippine National Police, defended Duterte and his drug war before the Senate panel, emphasizing that Duterte and the local police still have the backing of rank-and-file Filipinos if surveys and crowd behavior are any indication.

Although the police say Delos Santos is the only one of 518 minors nabbed for alleged links to the drug trade who ended up dead in police operations under the Philippines anti-drug campaign, the Human Rights Commission said it is currently probing at least 6 cases. Independent monitoring by other groups also shows 3 minors, including one only 3 years old, have been shot in drug-related killings including by unidentified assailants who witnesses say are also policemen.

Tide Turns Slowly

The teenager’s death has finally sparked public outrage in the Philippines not seen in over a year of drug-related slayings since the start of Duterte’s presidency. Although he remains formidably popular in opinion polls, even supporters of the tough-talking chief executive are becoming more vocal in their dismay since the launch of the controversial leader’s bloody drug war.

“This is not the Philippines I imagined,” wrote one Duterte voter, Leo Migraso, on a social media post as he shared images of dead bodies from the government’s anti-narcotics campaign.

The country has seen gruesome, headline-grabbing deaths of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. Independent estimates peg the number of deaths at over 12,000 at the highest. Authorities say there only 3,451 “drug personalities died in anti-drug operations” from July 1 last year to July 26 this year.

But collective anger has swelled on the heels of dozens of deaths – an average of one per hour – for two days last week. This is among the highest recorded during local police routine sweeps of drug-infested neighborhoods in poor districts.

“After these endless killings – and there are even kids affected – I could say that my beliefs were shaken,” explained Migraso in a mix of Filipino and English in an interview.

Delos Santos’s slaying is slowly becoming a rallying point against the thousands of deaths in the police drug busts that authorities tag as a “normal” part of the Duterte administration’s anti-drug drive.

Senate allies of the president who signed a resolution last weekend condemning the killing and urging a legislative probe into the “unnecessary” killings backed the termination of a similar inquiry last year when public clamor had yet to brew.

“His so-called war on drugs has gone awry,” said Sam Rosales, another Duterte voter, whose support of the president and his policies has since waned.

Police reports in these drug-related killings bear the oft-used narrative that the suspects fought back. But the operations leave many of these suspects dead, deprived of their day in court. State figures show an average of 51 drug suspects have ended up dead for every government operative killed in these drug busts.

The former Duterte supporter Rosales called for the president’s resignation, using the same expletives routinely used by the president in his speeches.

“His promises and pronouncements almost dovetailed with my aspirations for our country, neighbors and family,” Rosales admitted of his 2016 vote. Rosales said that “among the presidential candidates at that time, he represented the ‘change’ against corruption, pro-poor, pro-Filipino policy, the end of patronage-politics, etc. we all have wanted.”

Until last week, the recurring deaths were a phenomenon that shocked the world but attracted little domestic opposition. But Duterte’s consistent rhetoric since his electoral campaign of murdering without trial suspected criminals has been criticized by rights groups as having incited the bloodshed.

Duterte in speeches has urged government troops to "massacre" even defenseless criminals and assured them of a presidential pardon, and has warned of the impending slaughter of illegal substance users.

Duterte's aides and allies say his brash language should be interpreted simply as a display of his rustic style, which is partly what drew many to his unconventional leadership. Those criticizing his threats as an endorsement of widespread violence are told they are taking Duterte's remarks out of context.

"For me, until the last pusher is out of the streets, this campaign will continue, even if it will cost me my life, my honor, and even the Presidency itself," Duterte said in a speech October last year before the Philippine army.

On national television this week, Delos Santos’ father – who claimed he had voted for Duterte – cried for justice for his slain boy.

"Look at his face. Does he look like he is using illegal drugs? He's innocent," he told state-run PTV network of his son.

Although the country has yet to see a dip in Duterte’s ratings, supporters like Rosales and Migraso as well as the kin of victims in the drug war are now articulating their rage and regret.