Duterte’s War on Drugs: What Has He Achieved?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte promised a savage drug war, the capstone of the campaign that made him the head of the government. With a year now under his belt, indeed change has come but not the kinds of changes he expected. Seven thousand killed before the newspapers stopped counting, perhaps daunted by the scale of the massacre. Some count up to 10,000 dead.

While there are no reliable numbers, drug use has undoubtedly declined, demand and supply are both down, but not enough to match the ferocity of the campaign. When it slows, the enormous profits will drive supply back up. For now, we can chalk this up as an “achievement,” but at what cost. With a couple of notable examples, all of those who have been killed are the poorest of the poor. It is almost certain that the cocaine snorters at the upper reaches of Philippine society are continuing their recreation.

It is even debatable how big a problem the Philippines has with drugs. The president fired the chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Benjamin Reyes, in May, when Reyes used the drugs board’s official figures for drug users – 1.8 million, according to a 2015 survey. Duterte has continued to use the figure of 4 million addicts – not users.

“You’re fired today. Get out of the service,” Duterte was quoted as saying. “You do not contradict your own government…You’re just a civilian member of a board.”

Duterte has savaged human rights work, attacking rights activists, saying drug addicts are not human so they have no rights. Institutional damage is long term. The heaviest is what the campaign has done to the police. When you have a president ordering you to kill, kill, kill, you begin to think you can do whatever you want. Killing a kidnapped South Korean businessman within the office of the police anti-drug task force within Camp Crame, the national police headquarters, is only the most blatant example. There are surely many more.

What adds to the sense of impunity is Duterte’s promise that no policeman will go to jail when they follow his orders. When a police team entered the Baybay Sub-provincial jail in Leyte and murdered Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa and Raul Yap, the National Bureau of Investigation and a Senate investigation called it premeditated murder. Duterte publicly asked them to plead guilty so he could then pardon them. The Department of Justice downgraded the charge to homicide, allowing them to be released on bail. The Senate, including erstwhile supporters of the administration protested, triggering yet another cross-branch fight.

Past administrations have struggled to reform the corrupt and incompetent national police force. Duterte’s drug war has wiped out all these gains. Statistics show that in 2016, cops patrolled neighborhoods less frequently, conducted fewer investigations, slowed down in serving arrest warrants to wanted persons, and captured fewer high value targets, compared to 2015.

Yet, last year, the Philippine National Police spent PHP11.754 billion (US$226.8 million) more than the year before that – PHP127.153 billion in 2016, from P115.399 billion in 2015. Murders and homicides under the present administration have risen by 40 percent over the same period the previous year (7,022 in July-November 2016, versus 5,019 in 2015), mostly with the poor as victims.

The president promised he would stop corruption and he makes a lot of drama about firing people even if he only gets a “whiff” of corruption. He fired two long-time associates, Pete Lavinia and Mike Sueno. Halmen Valdez was collateral damage. But there are reports that all three were victims in vicious factional struggles in the administration. There are persistent rumors that the factions who dominate several agencies are busy making money. In the end, how can Duterte do anything about corruption when he has taken the poster boys and girls of corruption, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Marcoses into the fold?

Duterte’s unpredictability and the lack of a policy center in the top rungs of the government make it difficult to come to any conclusion about the future. The only certainty is that Duterte will be around for a while. When he recently disappeared from public view for a few days, rumors about his health circulated. He continues to say that he does not really want to stay president for long. But it is wishful thinking that he will be gone before the end of his term for whatever reason. It is clear he is warming to the position, enjoys the perks and power of the presidency.

He gave himself a massive Malacanang budget, PHP20.03 billion (US$430.3 million) for 2017 – an increase of more than PHP17 billion, or about US$370 million from the PHP2.87 billion in the last budget of President Aquino. He also enjoys political tourism – 21 foreign trips in one year compared to eight under Aquino. He spent P386.2 million, almost twice what Aquino and GMA spent in two years. And Marawi has given him an excuse to spend more time in Mindanao.

There is a backlog of crucial tasks. More than a month after it started May 23, the siege of Marawi continues. The military operations will probably end soon, but the political task, finding a formula that will engage the restive Moro population, is just beginning. He seems to have realized that he has to revive the Bangsamoro Basic Law giving autonomy to Mindanao Muslims. Hopefully it will pass the legislature expeditiously. What he can offer the Misuari faction of the MNLF is not yet clear. But even if he is able to find formulas to satisfy the Maguindanao (MILF), and the Tausug (MNLF Misuari), he has to devise something for the Maranao who are the ethnic base of the Maute. It is difficult to say how far talks with the NDF will go other than it will continue because it is in both side’s interests to continue talking.

A number of Duterte initiatives – restoring the death penalty, lowering the age of criminal accountability, have been overrun by controversy. A more important initiative, postponing barangay elections yet again, and giving Duterte the power to appoint barangay officials is being revived. But sources in the House of Representatives, which will not resume sessions until the day before SONA (State of the Nation Address) in the third week of July, doubt whether it can be passed before the scheduled barangay elections in October. The same sources say it is not likely that representatives will support giving up the power to determine who will become barangay captains.

Duterte has to do something about the disarray in his cabinet. He cannot benefit from “divide and rule” within his inner circle. The problems in rice policy, exacerbated by lack of rapport between executives, will spill over into other areas of anti-poverty work. Duterte has to decide what to do about Speaker Alvarez who is fast making enemies within the Duterte camp. It is one thing to fight hard against opponents of the regime, another to weaken the pro-Duterte ranks by fighting against factions within. Lawyer Duterte has to make up his mind what to do with his Solicitor General, who has become an object of ridicule among lawyers. He has to crack the whip on a grossly inefficient “Office of the President.” Eventually time and approval will run out on him, as it has on too many other Filipino strongmen.

Joel Rocamora, former co-director of the Transnational Institute, has worked for several decades on issues of democracy, governance, and social movements within the Philippines. He was Secretary/Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission in the cabinet of former President Benigno S. Aquino.