TO characterize President Rodrigo Duterte’s savage campaign against the people who use, distribute, manufacture, and profit from illegal drugs as a source of national discomfort sounds like a tremendous understatement, but it really is not.
The number of people who are unequivocally convinced it is completely wrong, should be stopped at once, and the country returned to something resembling the status quo before May 9 of this year is actually quite small. And for many of those people, their dissent is less about morality and more about their disappointment at having their preferred political order dismissed with prejudice at the polls, and quickly mocked and forgotten in the aftermath of the election.
For everyone else, even those who are otherwise properly horrified by what is going on – as of now, about 1,900 people have been killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs” – the national atmosphere is contradictory and confusing. No decent person wants the drug trade to continue to flourish, and continue to contribute to the general lawlessness and corruption that afflicts the country. No decent person wants the sun to rise on 10, 20, 30 freshly bullet-riddled corpses every day, either.
Especially not when some of those corpses are tragic collateral damage – a 5-year-old girl killed when the ubiquitous “unknown assailants” targeted her grandfather, who was on a drug “watch list,” a 15-year-old girl killed when her companion at the mall, the attorney of a wanted “drug lord,” was also targeted by hit men – and not when the campaign is recklessly pursued on the basis of flimsy evidence. A word by a disgruntled personal rival to the local barangay captain or police is enough to get one put on a “watch list,” and that’s enough to get one killed. How many of the victims 1,067 “unexplained” killings – the figure given by National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa in Senate hearings this week, describing deaths not attributable to police action – were not actually “drug personalities” but people on the wrong side of a personal dispute will probably never be known, as all but a handful of the drug-related killings have involved the faceless masses, people for whom the story, and any available evidence to support it, tends to die with them.
One gets a sense of the contradiction when talking to business people or the more objective members of the media community. The general perspective seems to be an inclination to look at Duterte through binoculars, with one eye shut: On one side is the whole drug “thing,” and that’s a mess, so let’s disregard it for the time being at least, and focus instead on the other things that are happening under his nascent reign, all of which is interesting, and some of which shows a lot of positive potential. But in every conversation like that, there is an undercurrent of discomfort – the “drug thing” is the elephant in the room and everyone knows it, and there is an unspoken recognition that sooner or later, it’s going to become too big to ignore.
Duterte himself encouraged this kind of bifurcated thinking by presenting his critics with a rhetorical choice: Which should he defend, the peace and safety of communities, or the lives of criminals? That may be melodramatic, but it is not quite the false dichotomy Duterte’s detractors make it out to be. The vast majority of the population (present company included) that finds unrestrained killing and uncontrolled drug trafficking equally distasteful, or nearly so, realizes that on some level, and finds it difficult to either condemn or reject completely. And so the elephant in the room continues to sit there, quietly growing fatter.
Ideally, none of the 1,900 or so who have been killed so far should have died. The government ought to have been able to aggressively investigate, pursue, and capture “drug lords,” their networks of corrupt officials and police who cover for their activities and profit by doing so, the local pushers, and the irredeemable users who commit petty crimes to support their habits. For the redeemable ones who fell into the habit through bad luck or poor choices but have harmed no one but themselves, the government ideally ought to be able to provide effective intervention and care for what is, in those cases, a public health problem and not a criminal one.
Things don’t go ideally in the Philippines.
The menace of methamphetamine hydrochloride – what we call crystal meth in the US and what is commonly referred to as “shabu” here – in the Philippines is hard to overstate. Cheap and relatively easy to produce in quantity from readily-available materials, it is a perfect drug for a market like the Philippines, which has a vast impoverished population – the target market for almost any sort of drug trade, human nature being what it is – because it is powerful and addicting even in small amounts. It is everywhere in the Philippines, has been for years, and anyone who has even the vaguest awareness of what goes on in the world beyond his front door knows it.
No one can really “handle” shabu; if it doesn’t kill you immediately because it’s poison – manufacturing skill and quality control are not big priorities in shabu production – it is incredibly destructive to the human body and mind, and addiction is financially and socially ruinous as well. The great tragedy of the shabu epidemic here in the Philippines is that it preys on the least healthy and poorest part of the population; that is not a unique situation, but because that part of the population is proportionally so much bigger here, so is the problem.
In a sense, then, there is an effective rationale behind the strategy being employed by Duterte, brutal though it may be. The lower reaches of society are the least able to defend themselves against the campaign, and are the easiest targets; by swinging at the lowest-hanging fruit, Duterte is cutting off the market for the vast network of profiteers above it – the “drug lords” and those who protect and even actively participate in their trade, and who have always been much tougher to bring to heel.
It’s almost brilliant, and maybe the only way to handle a situation that has gotten completely out of control. For all the ululations against extrajudicial action, one inconvenient truth cannot really be avoided: Sometimes, circumstances grow to become so unmanageable that they transcend legality. A friend and mentor who works with me at The Manila Times – and who happens to be one of the most peaceful men I know, and finds the killing morally objectionable – gave a thought-provoking analogy: The murder of Osama bin Laden was, by definition, an extrajudicial killing. Yet very few if any complaints were made about it for that reason, because Osama bin Laden was a universally-acknowledged evil and enemy of mankind. While he believes the killings are wrong, the intent behind the anti-drug crusade is sound; given that pervasive impunity and corruption of every sort are the biggest obstacles to the country’s development, destroying one of if not the largest single sources of that impunity and corruption is entirely rational.
Be that as it may, the anti-drug campaign does not necessarily require that people die, and the fact that so many have is a bitter indictment of its one glaring flaw: The instrument Duterte must use to carry out his campaign is its own enemy. There are far too many police involved in the drug trade for that force to be trusted to carry out the strategy faithfully and efficiently. It is, to use another, duller analogy, much the same as giving the accountant who has been embezzling for years the job of auditing the company’s books; his priority is not going to be conducting an honest audit, but covering his tracks.
And so it is with the police: The ones who have the ‘intelligence’ on who the drug traffickers are and where they can be found are most likely those who are involved in some fashion. To be fair to the PNP, they represent a tiny minority of the whole force; but that tiny minority is the one the rest must rely on to tell them where to go and who to look for. PNP Chief Bato Dela Rosa has made a great show of arresting a few officers on the wrong side of the law, and few have even gotten themselves killed after being cornered and fighting back; several hundred others whose reliability is suspect have been reassigned, usually to terrifying areas in the Muslim parts of Mindanao; and in his typically colorful fashion, Bato has sworn that the “unexplained” killings – many supposedly carried out by police-directed assassins, as this recent BBC article suggested – will be investigated and appropriate consequences meted out.
And yet the killings continue – according to my news feed, in the time I’ve taken to write this, four more have died, including one not far from where I live. It has to end; at some point Mr. Duterte will have to decide that he has delivered the message he intended, and put a stop to the mayhem. He can serve both purposes by cleaning the PNP’s house, because the efforts that are being made now are clearly not enough.