OPINION: Filipinos see fatal flaw in Duterte’s war on drugs

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Dec 19 2016 03:49 PM

Filipinos have found their footing six months into the turbulent rule of President Rodrigo Duterte, telling him they want an end to the bloodbath that has left thousands of suspected drug addicts and pushers dead.

The latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, conducted conducted from December 3-6 and released today, showed an overwhelming number of Filipinos, 94%, want drug suspects captured alive, while almost 8 of ten respondents say they fear ending up a statistic in the autocratic leader’s “war on drugs.”

The survey results are a big victory for human rights advocates in the country, who have been jeered at and threatened by Duterte and his loyal supporters.

FATAL FLAW

No longer can Duterte and die-hard fans scoff at growing concern by citing the 16 million who voted him for office.

The results of the survey do not surprise me. In social media threads, even those who still support him have acknowledged growing concern over the strategies and tactics employed in the crackdown. Privately, more express worries at the contradictions in the President’s promise to rid the nation of the scourge of drugs.

At the heart of these worries is the fatal flaw of Duterte’s war – a contempt for an admittedly flawed justice system.

At the onset of the official campaign, Duterte and his national police chief, Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa shrugged off the killings, even as they washed their hands of murders supposedly instigated by vigilantes or henchmen of narcotics kingpins.

It is a strange position. Duterte has acknowledged corruption as the root of the spread of narcotics gangs in the country. Yet he has done little to arrest and charge the big guns he accuses of protecting the drug syndicates.

None of the police generals he tagged as drug protectors have been charged even as he has hinted strongly that many of the killings were launched by drug gangs cleansing their ranks of their weakest members.

In fact, Duterte has insisted he will defend any cop charged with extra-judicial killings until they are proven guilty by the courts.

He invoked this pledge, claiming he does not want to demoralize cops, when senior police officials in Eastern Visayas were implicated in the prison murder of Albuera Mayor and suspected drug dealer Rolando Espinosa Sr.

Duterte, touted by fans for his “strategic brilliance,” has long boasted that he plants evidence and manipulates rival drug personalities into taking out each other. 

But these are discredited tactics, cited as among the reasons behind the creation of virtual narco states in Latin American.

Letting the deaths of pushers go unpunished does not lessen the power of the drug gangs. It only allows the strongest to consolidate their power. 

By the time Duterte unleashes his rage on lords of drugs and their lieutenants – IF he actually does – the wages of impunity will have allowed criminals to take over law enforcement agencies.

As a result of the perceived impunity enjoyed by law enforcers, there has been a sea change in the one-time blind trust given to Duterte and, by extension, law enforcers.

The SWS survey results showed 78% of respondents are worried they or anyone they know will die due to the drug campaign. Almost half, 45% say they are “very worried” and 33% “somewhat worried.”

Only 10% were not too worried and 12% “not worried at all.” Not too long ago, many believed only the guilty need to worry.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents are worried about the seriousness of extra-judicial killings; 22% are undecided. Only nine percent do not see this as a serious problem.

CAVALIER APPROACH 

Duterte’s crackdown against drug syndicates has been characterized by incendiary messages from the President, a cavalier regard for “intelligence” and record-keeping, and what citizens increasingly perceive as double standards in the treatment of suspects and rogue law enforcers.

While Duterte takes pleasure in lugging around a thick file of supposed drug coddlers and dealers in government agencies and local bureaucracies, his first announcements included long dead judges. The Supreme Court, which initiated a probe into a few judges named by Duterte, has cleared them of wrong doing.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) claims that 6,000 have died in the anti-drugs campaign. ABS-CBN’s investigative team, however, reports that the confirmed dead number 2,102 people with 40,932 others arrested, according to official police rosters that identify the victims.

Almost as many of the dead were killed by mysterious riding-in-tandem assassins or abducted by unknown parties and then dumped dead, their bodies showing signs of torture. 

Duterte repeatedly cites numbers and claims to defend his bloody purge. Yet, investigative news reports have showed the data sets to be flawed.

He says there are almost 4 million addicts in the country. Yet official government data shows only 1.8 million drug users – which probably explains the police goal of getting 1.8 million surrenders.

But a third of these have taken drugs only once in the previous 13 months. Fewer than half have touched the dreaded shabu or crystal meth. 

Experts also note that only a third of drug users are true dependents in need of medical rehabilitation; the others can be set straight by some counselling and community and family support.

This penchant of the administration has cost substantial trust in the anti-drug campaign. Forty-two percent of respondents are now undecided about believing PNP claims, with 29% expressing disbelief and almost the same number still believing cops.

DANGEROUS WORLDVIEW 

Beyond the question of sound strategy, it is Duterte’s dangerous justice worldview that needs to be challenged.

He stands on very shaky ground when he claims persons who have used drugs for a year or two have no hope of rehabilitation. 

The problem in the country is the dearth of affordable rehab centers – only more than 3,000 beds available for an estimated half a million dependents, if you get a third of 1.8 million.

While Duterte is building mammoth rehab centers, his war has also snuffed out the lives of thousands who may yet be saved – and, according to families of reformed users, has also killed those who have actually pulled themselves out of the drug abyss. 

Operation Tokhang, the witch hunt for drug suspects, also leaves no innocent wriggle room. The police knock on doors with an implied threat against anyone who does not obey the summons to surrender and pledge never to do drugs again. Everyone who obeys gets a mug shot and is logged on to a government data base. They are only allowed two questions – whether they are addicts or users. Those to protest their inclusion in the drugs watchlist will have to wait three months to be cleared. Meanwhile, they are sitting ducks.

It is too easy to see that Duterte’s draconian methods can be used by unscrupulous government officials to take out pesky parties like anti-corruption advocates.

This is already happening to militant activists and advocates of good governance at the grassroots.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), taking advantage of a unilateral ceasefire by the National Democratic Front (NDF), are entering rural communities, demanding surrenders by perceived supporters – or inclusion in the feared drug lists. 

Duterte prides himself on being a former prosecutor who knows how to read the fine print of laws. But increasingly, what he has shown is hostility towards concepts of justice enshrined in the country’s constitution, concepts that millions of Filipinos have fought for – and died for.

Like most autocrats, however, he is faced with one enduring truth about Filipinos: for as many times that we flirt with disaster, we always manage to set ourselves straight and pull bank from the brink.

Duterte can show his mettle as a leader and heed his people. Or he can go sneering and cursing over the edge of that abyss.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.