Over 6k lives later, what has the drug war amounted to?

Duterte’s deadly drug war was one of his major platforms, but did it work?

Coming into the 2016 presidential elections, President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign would revolve heavily around the promise of eliminating the use of illegal drugs in an effort to make the Philippines a safer place. His infamous line, “I hate drugs,” rippled across the nation—a clarion call that further cemented his identity as a strongman leader.

The President would then begin a brutal campaign against illegal drugs the moment he assumed office. Mired in controversy and bloodshed since its inception, the war on drugs has had a profound impact on the lives of the everyday Filipino. What has become of this campaign? And, more than 6,000 lives later, has it really succeeded in making the Philippines a safer place?

‘Balanced’ as all things should be

The current national anti-drug policy is laid out in the Philippine Anti-Illegal Drugs Strategy (PADS), which was supposedly designed to take a balanced approach between reducing the demand for and the supply of illegal drugs. In it, demand-side interventions like establishing rehabilitation centers are coupled with supply-side tactics such as intensifying drug clearing operations.

“It (PADS) places a significant premium on both drug supply and drug demand reduction,” says Michael Miatari, a program manager for the PADS at the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), reasoning that the government recognizes that the demand and supply aspects of its strategy “could not be as effective without the other.”

Together, these were expected to produce medium-term outcomes like better access to drug abuse treatment and prevention, more aware and more vigilant localities, and higher prosecution and conviction rates for drug offenders, which would, in turn, lead to having drug-free communities by 2022. But for the DDB, this end goal does not actually mean the complete eradication of drugs; Miatari explains that, instead, the target is simply to institutionalize the mechanisms to curb illegal substances.

“Eventually with the consolidation of these medium-term outcomes, makikita natin ‘yung big picture if we are attaining ‘yung definition natin ng drug-free communities,” he expounds.

(We will see the big picture of whether we are attaining our definition of drug-free communities.)


But while the PADS provided for a supposedly balanced national strategy, it was not formally adopted until late 2018. And despite the DDB having issued guidelines for treatment and rehabilitation in 2016, the anti-drug campaign then had been heavily driven by the Philippine National Police’s Oplan Double Barrel, which took a completely punitive approach.

It would only take months for the war on drugs to claim the lives of thousands. Less than five years later, the total number of anti-drug operations casualties would reach 6,117 as of April 30, 2021, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. But human rights groups believe the actual number may be much higher.

Fr. Peter*, who has worked closely with victims of the war on drugs, imparts how this has impacted victims on the ground. Because many of those killed were breadwinners for their families, those left behind were often left to fend for themselves.

Children have also had to face a heavy emotional impact. The Jesuit priest recounts the experience of a child who lost his father to the drug war. “Sabi ko, ‘Paglaki mo anong gusto mo maging?’ [Sabi niya], ‘Gusto kong maging pulis para gagantihan ko yung pumatay sa tatay [ko].’ So merong mga naiipong mga galit,” he shares.

(I asked them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ They said, ‘I want to become a police man so I can take revenge against those who killed my father.’  There is built up anger.)

Even with its social cost, the overemphasis on punitive action fails to address some of the root causes of the problem. Mendoza points out three “imbalances” in the implementation of the anti-illegal drugs campaign, namely the initial lack of focus on apprehending big-time suppliers, the shortfall of health-based approaches, and the inability to strengthen the judicial system.

So even as the police apprehend users or small-time drug pushers, illegal drugs still continue to flow unabated. “If you go just after distribution networks without going after supply, even on a police action level, it’s very much an imbalance,” observes Mendoza.

So was the drug war a success? Mendoza believes it was not. “All I see is an exposed weakness in our system, in the way that we approach policies, and in our challenges ahead in terms of capacity-building for our agencies,” he shares.

Changing the bigger picture

A health-based approach would have arguably been far more effective in combating illegal drugs. Mendoza notes that “many countries who use the very punitive police action-based approach quickly recognized that…they are not addressing the main root of the problem if they don’t have a health-based approach.”

Thus, for the anti-drug campaign to see better results, he recommends that the government must use a “systems-wide perspective,” where individual agencies establish coordination and execute their efforts in the context of the government as an interconnected system. Additionally, he suggests that the “imbalances” he identified should be corrected, which would entail going after major sources of the drug supply—though he does admit that this had already been addressed—improving the anti-drug campaign’s health-based aspect and strengthening the courts.

However, Rebecca Arambulo, officer in charge of the DDB’s Policy Studies, Research and Statistics Division, denies that there is an imbalance in the administration’s anti-drug efforts. Instead, she and Miatari agree that what the government needs is merely to harmonize the data gathering and reporting systems of different agencies and for the academe to conduct local research on illegal drugs and share their findings with the public sector.

In the end, the DDB acknowledges that the administration may not be able to clear the country of illegal substances by 2022—or ever, according to Arambulo. But perhaps it might have seen more success had its policy been better designed from the start, and the thought of which is one that holds much gravity for the families who have lived through the brutality of the drug war. 

“That’s why they keep on looking for every inch of space where they could be noticed…But of course, one coping mechanism is to just bury the dead [and] start all over again, but you have scars from these wounds,” Fr. Peter says.

So if, after all that, achieving the “drug-free communities” vision still seems muddy, even with the DDB’s adjusted definition of the term, then what was it all for? And could it ever justify the cost of the at least 6,117 lives lost?

*Name with asterisk (*) is a pseudonym

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