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Proud to Murder: Duterte's War on Drugs in the Philippines

After being elected President in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte began a bloody campaign to restrain drug use in the Philippines, ultimately resulting in the deaths of thousands of Filipino citizens. Though many experts were hopeful that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., his successor, would end this violent crusade, the death toll has continued to rise.

Children abducted in the middle of the night. Rampant bloodshed and lawlessness. This nightmare is a daily reality for many Philippine citizens. Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s crusade against drug use and criminal activities has led to the death of thousands of citizens under his regime. The country has only recently begun to recover.

Duterte was elected to be the president of the Philippines in 2016 with campaign promises to be tough on crime and drugs. He took office having served as the mayor of the city of Davao since 1988. In this political position, he established a reputation for being a ruthless combatant of drug use. Human Rights Watch estimates that over 1,000 people were killed by the government without any trial in Davao under Duterte’s authority. Duterte’s actions made him popular among many conservative Filipinos, although many progressive Filipinos viewed his campaign as unnecessarily cruel and fanatic. Duerte even went so far as to state during his campaign that he would murder his own children if they ever used drugs. 

“All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” Duerte said a month before being elected president.

True to his word, Duterte, once elected, continued his efforts to eradicate drug use in the country — resulting in the death of over 12,000 Filipino citizens. Many of those targeted by Duerte lived in impoverished urban areas and were denied any legal due process. They were frequently murdered in their homes by hired hitmen, although the Philippine government has denied any involvement in these killings. Duterte’s regime created a culture of violence that devastated underprivileged communities and normalized state-sanctioned murder. 

During his presidency, Duterte maintained authority through widespread corruption and suppression of free speech, utilizing a variety of unsavory political tactics to silence any dissidents. Duerte would commonly accuse his opponents of supporting communist regimes and use this as a reason to imprison or execute a variety of individuals — including activists, reporters, and lawyers who spoke out against his violent regime. This tactic is known as “red-tagging” and allowed Duterte to demonize his political opponents through misinformation and fearmongering.  Further, Duerte created the National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict, a militarized governmental agency that was created to violently subdue activists and political opponents. 

Duterte’s presidential term ended in July of 2023, and he was replaced by politician Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Marcos, the son of a former Filipino dictator who led a violent regime but was ousted by the “People Power” revolt 36 years earlier. Given this transition of power, many were hopeful for an end to the rampant violence that took place during Duterte’s presidency. Marcos committed himself to reimagining solutions to the issue of drug abuse. In September 2022, Marcos said he is “looking more for, in the upstream of the problem, the prevention,” and that he is “trying to formulate what is the latest, what's the best way for the rehabilitation.” 

Since then, however, such promises have largely failed to materialize, and there continues to be a disturbingly high number of Filipinos with drug addictions who are murdered under mysterious circumstances. According to Dahas, a research group that is part of the University of the Philippines Third World Studies program, there were 152 drug-related killings during the first five months of Marcos’s presidency — three more than during the last six months of Duterte’s administration. This troubling statistic reveals a continued pattern of violence on the part of the Philippine government and reflects little change made to the government’s approach to the war on drugs. 

Nevertheless, many experts argue that the nature of these killings has changed. The war on drugs in the Philippines has largely moved underground, perpetuated by mysterious middlemen rather than by more direct efforts from Marcos. Now, murders are typically perpetrated by masked gunmen on motorcycles carrying out a contract rather than by police officers. While Marocs may have limited the state-sanctioned brutality that defined Duterte’s presidency, the continued murders of drug users demand scrutiny of who exactly is hiring the gunmen.

The Philippine government’s indiscriminate use of violence against its citizens has garnered international attention and condemnation. In September of 2021, the International Criminal Court authorized an official investigation into the crimes against humanity that were perpetrated by Duterete’s administration during his war on drugs. While this decision marked a clear attempt to bring Duterte to justice for the human rights that his administration conducted, the new administration was not cooperative. Marcos pushed back against the ICC’s authorization, requesting instead that the investigation be conducted internally by the Philippine government, ultimately resulting in the suspension of the ICC’s investigation. In July 2023, the ICC rejected this appeal and allowed prosecutors to reopen the investigation into Duterte’s regime. Once again, Duterte’s administration refused to comply with this ruling, and the Philippines’ Secretary of Justice Jesus Crispin Remulla openly stated that the government would not recognize any arrest warrants that might result from the ICC’s investigation. This refusal to cooperate has made many experts worried about the possibility of Duterte ever facing justice for the crimes of his administration.

Politicians perpetrating the war on drugs in the Philippines focus on eradicating drug use through violence and murder. New administrations promising a new era of rehabilitation and prevention rather than criminalization — juxtaposed with refusal to cooperate with the ICC and the continued murders of drug abusers — stirs pessimism for improvement. Drug addiction is ultimately an individual health problem that should be addressed with compassion to help overcome dependency, but has instead become a deadly humanitarian crisis in the Philippines. 

Writer’s Reflection:

The disastrous war on drugs and its myriad repercussions throughout American society has been a topic that I have researched and talked about extensively, both in academic settings as well as not. As such, I wanted to use this piece to learn more about the way that drug policy has been weaponized in places outside of the U.S. Too often I forget that many of the issues that are happening in America are also happening abroad and that they also deserve global attention. Indeed, recognizing this commonality is an important step in tackling this global problem.

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