On 6th January, Philippines’ Vice-President Leni Robredo submitted her report as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee Against Illegal Drugs, bringing into the spotlight incriminating statistics of the Duterte administration’s dismal progress in the 3-year long drug war. “Despite the thousands who were killed, and despite the huge sum and resources spent, not even 1% of the total supply of shabu (crystal methamphetamine) and the money generated from illegal drugs were seized.” As the campaign focused on “street-level enforcement,” it hardly scratched the surface of the drug menace. For context—in 2019, less than half of the estimated weekly consumption was seized the entire year.
JC Punongbayan, a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics, lauds Robredo for bringing back evidence-based policy-making into the drug war discourse. Beyond the statistics, “the true value in her report lies in exposing the fact that the government all the while has been groping in the dark—either these agencies do not know how to crunch the numbers, or they are hiding their incompetence and vested interests—or both.”
Despite the Duterte administration’s assertive contention that they are doing everything in their power to reach the goal of drug-free communities by 2022, and even after Operation ‘Double Barrel’—which was supposed to have already dealt with drug laboratories, suppliers, and pushers— a confounding percentage of shabu is still circulating. Robredo called on the government to drop Oplan Tokhang and favour a “reinvigorated policy on anti-illegal drug enforcement that strongly promotes and ensures accountability and transparency.”
Her searing report was met with widespread renunciation from many national government officials, dismissing it as a “wrong computation of government data” that was “not even mathematically acceptable,” despite failing to offer sufficient justification and apparently without having to read through her 41-page report. Warning her against further discussing the anti-drug campaign with “outsiders,” Duterte called her a “scatterbrain treading on dangerous ground,” in response to Robredo asking for a list of high-value targets in the drug war and naming China as a major source of narcotics.
Beyond the ridiculous counterarguments and shameless excuses of Duterte’s ‘minions’, their disinvested attitude towards the campaign’s success underscores one of the many reasons why Oplan Tokhang has been unable to eradicate the drug menace. The system is rigged against everything necessary to make this campaign fruitful—in ways that serve justice, not fatten politicians’ wallets. Everyone, particularly the authorities, is in a survival game wherein they have more to gain from sacrificing the most vulnerable, voiceless poor of the Philippines so they can uphold the façade of a successful anti-drug campaign. They can afford to murder innocents who are taking a bath or sleeping. They can afford to plant evidence in people’s homes and to fabricate documents stating that ammunition was stolen from victims hours before the police even got there. They can afford to kill whoever as a palit-ulo (changing heads) when the real target cannot be located. But they cannot afford to get on Duterte’s bad side—and god forbid they get a salary deduction.
With an implementation squad that works in terms of gains rather than morality and fears thinner wallets instead of the law, the campaign has gone beyond the question of integrity. As Robredo’s modestly-titled report argued, the lack of guidelines and the amount of police discretion allotted to Tokhang’s house-to-house visits have “provided an opening for unscrupulous individuals to commit abuses, tainting the integrity of the whole institution in the first place.” Cristina Palabay, Secretary-General of the human rights group Karapatan criticized, “How many policemen have escaped accountability? How many are emboldened to murder the poor with a free pass? The poor’s right to due process has been violated over and over again.” The dark reality of this campaign has changed little: the Philippines still has “a prevalent drug trade, a fraudulent police force, and thousands of poor Filipinos dead.”
In these conditions, appeals to human rights violations will not reach the socio-governmental conscience. It is a concept that was never in the game in the first place. In an environment where everything has a price and the majority of the population must move mountains just to put food on the table, justice has become a luxury. Despite the continued ICC probe, the UNHRC’s July 2019 resolution, and vehement criticisms from both national and international advocacy groups, PNP’s officer-in-charge could still defend the drug war’s ‘proven success,’ citing a recent survey which showed an 80% satisfaction rate amongst Filipinos. “But just because a policy is popular does not mean it’s correct or appropriate,” Punongbayan contends. As long as there is a strong divide between the Philippine’s social conscious as to what is morally acceptable in the face of violence, no external criticism will have weight.
Thus, a reformatory overhaul may sound like a joke—and those who are genuinely willing to do something about this crisis must act with certain acceptances. The troubling gaps Robredo presented in her report prove that the Duterte administration’s stands to benefit from a permanent drug crisis. The evidence is unmistakable: the administration’s confounding concession that the number of illegal drug users has only increased during the last three years, Duterte’s menacing reaction to Robredo listing China as a major narcotic source—the list would go on.
The administration itself is compromising data collection, sabotaging efforts like Robredo’s for their own political survival, and will only stand to lose more than they gain should the drug war cease. Therefore, an overhaul in system operations or even a personnel change will still not be enough to counter the muddle of misconceptions, trickery, and intimidation that is rendering this campaign futile. Dismayingly, there is a lot of evidence highlighting this. In an interview with ANC, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said that he is uncomfortable with Robredo’s statements, finding them off-putting “especially if you think of the police risking their lives in the frontlines.” House Speaker Alan Cayetano maintained that it is “very unfair” to blame the government “since it’s near impossible these days to get accurate drug consumption data.” Benjamin Magalong, Baguio City’s Mayor, argued that the war’s success cannot be measured by statistics.
The focus must be shifted towards the reasons for the Duterte administration’s investment in sabotaging the campaign – in what they will stand to benefit from the crisis’ permanency. Until these reasons are addressed, brought under extremely-sceptical light, and tackled, the Philippines will be fighting this crisis with a leader who has no intention to succeed.
If external pressure and international condemnation are not constraining, then it stands that change must be catalyzed from within the country. A plausible point of departure would be a critical analysis of the relationship between institutional corruption and prevalent poverty of the Philippine population. These two have come to be the defining factors of this crisis, particularly due to the majority of the populace being vulnerable to corruption. In the context of the Philippine social structure, it is easy to think that poverty is the root of corruption, when in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Corruption and poverty feed into each other—there is no way to get rid of one alone. Because they are in constant circumstantial survival mode, short-term gratification outweighs concern for the long-term consequences. Through this process, corruption is then morally legitimized. Poverty enables corruption as corruption exacerbates poverty.
While this approach is not a direct solution but instead opens an overlooked avenue for debate, fixing the Extrajudicial Killings and the Anti-Drug War Crisis is not possible without addressing the circumstances it is tangled with. The situation goes beyond a singular phenomenon and instead is deeply-rooted in multiple problematic aspects of Philippine society – Extrajudicial Killings, unfortunately, is only one of the many manifestations of the Philippine’s extremely-muddled socio-political landscape. Taking a step back and looking at poverty and institutional corruption—the two defining factors that are enabling this crisis—is crucial and may be the key to curbing more humanitarian abuses that they might introduce in the future.
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