On the eve of his election victory last May 9, 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told a crowd of around 300,000 people, “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”
He was not kidding. His emotional campaign that tugged at the heartstrings of the Filipino people proved to be effective. The problem, however, was the general lack of foresight as to where his pronouncements in the past would lead the country today. Nonetheless, many continue to support the president, hoping that his “messianic” image will finally save the Philippines from the illegal drug trade.
Reigniting public outrage
Since the start of the drug war in May 2016, majority of the operations conducted by the PNP focused heavily on small-time illegal drug dealers. As what we see in the news every single day, these small-time dealers come from the poorest communities in the country. These people are killed either during police operations or by unidentified assailants. What is worse is that the drug war spares no one—even minors and college students are caught in between the bloodbath.
A recent example that reignited the public’s conscious outrage against the drug war is the killing of seventeen year-old Kian Lloyd Delos Santos. Throughout social media, people once again began condemning the government’s drug war. On August 21, The Lasallian Mission at DLSU, together with the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, organized a mass at 4 pm at La Salle Greenhills and a march at the People Power Monument at 6 pm to work towards “building a just and humane society”.
On the same day, Lasallian East Asia District Auxiliary Visitor Br. Jose Mari Jimenez FSC released a statement which asserts, “I am inviting you to raise our voices in silent protest over the deaths that have gone unmourned since our government undertook its efforts to eradicate the menace of illegal drugs from our communities.”
“We can’t control it.”
The prophetic image of President Duterte the masses perceived during the campaign period began to change, however, when he recently stated, “Hindi makaya nga ng iba, tayo pa kaya? Iyong drugs na iyan, we can’t control it… give me another six months. That self-imposed time of three to six months, well, I did not realize how severe and how serious the problem of drug menace in this Republic until I became President.”
It revealed a major weakness in the government’s war on drugs. Despite this, however, the government continues.
As of July 26, 3,451 suspected drug personalities have reportedly been killed, at least according to the Philippine National Police (PNP). However, the Commission on Human Rights, together with other human rights groups such as the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, cites that there are now around 12,000 deaths, including those killed by vigilante operations. The actual number, however, cannot be identified as there are no independent statistics available and comprehensive data provided by the police.
It is tragic that these people, regardless of whether they were innocent or guilty of trading illegal drugs, have been reduced to mere statistics while the higher-ups caught in the drug war are entitled to the due process of law. If there is one major initiative that the human rights groups can do together with the public, it is to hope and keep voicing out their utmost condemnation of these unnecessary killings.
But of course, the government fails to listen to these groups. It perceives these groups as mere “parasites” pervading their “messianic calling” for the country.
As the war on drugs continue to show no sign of slowing down, we continue to ask: why does the government keep on increasing the crackdown on illegal drugs among small-time drug dealers?
Have they not considered that by doing so, vigilante killings would inevitably increase as well, as unidentified assailants become confident that the government condones these acts?
Why do we not see efforts by the government to identify and track down the drug lords in the country?
Why do we not look into how these illegal drugs are actually being distributed throughout a highly elusive and intricate supply chain?
Indeed, these are questions that should be left with people like those from the PNP and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). In the long run, it becomes a daily nightmare suffered by the poorest communities in the country. Focusing on small-time dealers will only exacerbate the drug problem. The government should consider shifting their focus to the complex, underlying mechanism by which the drug trade operates.
In a published volume by Tom Wainwright called Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, he explains how drug lords are essentially like entrepreneurs. They face typical business challenges such as competition, management, technology, and government regulations. Wainwright cites that the international narcotics trade amounts to $300 billion a year and caters to over 250 million narcotics users worldwide. In the volume, several insights from the war against drugs in Latin America may also be relevant for the Philippines.
One of Wainwright’s insights is that attacking the production chains of illegal drugs does not, in itself, work. For instance, 350 kilograms of dried coca leaves worth $385 in Colombia can produce one kilogram of cocaine worth $800 in the same country. The price of this cocaine increases when they are transported several times until they reach the hands of drug dealers in several countries. This shows that attacking the production side of the drug trade has minimal effects on the final price.
Meanwhile, technology has been a prime mover for drug syndicates. PDEA reports that African and Mexican drug cartels were able to penetrate the Philippine market mainly through using technology in their production. PDEA adds that the use of this technology reduced the drug cartels’ production cost by almost 70 per cent in recent years. Like businesses, the drug cartels have also segmented the Philippine market, enabling people from different socioeconomic classes to purchase drugs.
Drug lords also have the capacity to gain the sympathy and support of the people. Among notable examples are Pablo Escobar and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, well-known drug lords from Latin America who provided health care, dole outs, and jobs to their communities. It is no wonder that hundreds of people attended the funeral of Jaguar Diaz, a top drug lord in Central Visayas, in June 2016.
But what if the drug dealers themselves are found within the government agencies? Termed as ‘narcopolitics,’ drug lords also have the capacity to influence and control the government. According to the PDEA, up to 200 government officials are involved in the illegal drug trade. There are also allegations of drug involvement within the PNP and local government units.
If the government has one thing to realize about the drug war, it is that a complex system lies behind it. Knowing that the drug trade is not just a domestic problem, but an international one, more efforts and alliances could be initiated at least within the ASEAN region, where the drug trade is lively and at large.
Been there, done that
In a New York Times column last February 2017, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria urged the Philippine president to avoid the same mistakes that the Colombian government made in dealing with the drug problem.
“Illegal drugs are a matter of national security, but the war against them cannot be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone. Throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users is not just a waste of money but also can actually make the problem worse. Locking up nonviolent offenders and drug users almost always backfires, instead strengthening organized crime,” Gaviria states.
He adds, “The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable. I also discovered that the human costs were enormous. We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one.”
As the Philippine government further increases its crackdown against illegal drugs, more lives are doomed to end and the future of the Filipino people remains bleak and uncertain.