The death toll from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs continues to mount. While the campaign — or at least the president — enjoys public support, there are growing signs of concern and unease, with prominent members of the Roman Catholic Church denouncing the policy. It is too early to say if this is the beginning of a more significant break with the president or an isolated incident, but this policy of murder and lawlessness — by state authorities — must be condemned.
Duterte put the war against drugs front and center during his campaign for president last year and he wasted no time in putting that policy into effect after he won that election. He warned drug users and suppliers that they put their life at risk by continuing and declared open season on any person involved in or even suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Reportedly, there are bounties for bodies brought in — not for people captured alive — and “lists” of traffickers and associates tends to align quite conveniently with those of the president’s critics and detractors.
Human rights groups charge that more than 12,000 people have been killed since the campaign began a little over a year ago. Authorities say that a little less than a third of them — about 3,500 people — were shot by police acting in self-defense. The human rights groups argue that the remainder of the dead have been killed by vigilantes and death squads operating with a wink and a nod from the police, and in some cases are the police in disguise.
Earlier this month, more than 70 people were killed by the police in a single week; 32 people died in one day, the deadliest spasm of violence since the campaign began. Duterte applauded that toll, saying “the 32 that died, in a massive raid, that’s good,” adding “if maybe we can kill another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
Unfortunately for the president, evidence makes plain the lawlessness of his program. Last week, a 17-year-old high school student was shot and killed by police. The official story is that he was shot after firing at the police and running away. Video footage shows him being dragged away by security officers; witnesses say that he was beaten, given a gun and then shot. The police chief of the town where he was killed has been suspended pending an investigation.
That murder has galvanized opinion. The cardinal of Manila, Luis Tagle, declared that “we knock on the consciences of those who kill even the helpless … to stop wasting human lives.” Adding that “the country is in crisis,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas then said that church bells would ring every night for three months to raise awareness of the crackdown. Thus far, however, the bells will ring out in only one archdiocese north of Manila. It is unclear whether the rest of the country will join.
The sad truth is that the campaign enjoys broad public support. Drugs are a problem for the Philippines. It is estimated that the country has the highest rate of methamphetamine use in East Asia and one of the highest addiction rates in the world. In 2010, the Philippine government reckoned the country’s illegal drug trade was worth about $6.4 to $8.4 billion annually.
Duterte continues to command high approval ratings. And while it is tempting to dismiss that support as merely another manifestation of the anxiety and unease generated by flagging growth prospects, the Philippines economy is in excellent shape and sets the pace for many Asia nations.
Some assert that the Philippine people have lost their tolerance for tolerance, and that their recent success has created a middle class that is less indulgent of the poor and their problems. When charged with waging a war against the poor, Duterte conceded that “of course it will be the poor people because the poor are ignorant and more likely to be hit.” It is also revealing that this war offers precious little assistance to those who want to escape the clutch of drugs. Imprisonment without treatment and training only moves the problem; it has been estimated that 75 percent of drug deals in the Philippines now takes place in one prison.
The decision by Tagle and Villegas to denounce the campaign could be a turning point in this fight. The Catholic Church has considerable authority in the Philippines, but it will take much more than the daily tolling of bells to bring solace to those who suffer and end the impunity that has produced stunning levels of violence.