A Tale of Two Drug Wars: Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte vs Team USA
Duterte declares open season on suspected dealers and users.
The slaughter unleashed by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s death squads upon his country’s suspected drug dealers and addicts has made such a fearsome noise that you may hear Americans of a certain stripe suggesting that if a particular presidential candidate gains the Oval Office in November, Duterte’s brand of overkill might happen here too.
Known as “The Punisher,” 71-year-old Duterte started out innocently enough. At the beginning of the year, the former mayor of Davao city waged a tough-talking presidential campaign. His boastful promises were based on crushing crime. His sound bites seemed engineered to communicate ruthless and merciless action, rather than fair play and considered justice. For instance, Duterte advised potential voters who might be dealing with pesky drug dealers: “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”
Once elected, Duterte took to national TV and clarified his administration’s policy toward public executions of suspected drug pushers: “You can kill him. Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun. You have my support. Shoot him, and I'll give you a medal.”
“I don’t care about human rights,” admitted the avenging president, as if there had been any doubt, “believe me.”
Within four days of Duterte taking office on June 30, at least 45 drug suspects were killed without trial or arrest. It’s unclear how many of these killings were carried out by police, and how many by vigilantes. In Duterte’s first week on the job, another 170 reputed drug pushers and users had surrendered to police rather than wait at home for a fatal arrest.
That was a warmup. A two-month blitz killed nearly 200 people and convinced 800 more to rush down to local jails and throw themselves at the mercy of incarceration, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte’s office to release a statement titled “Anti-Drug Campaign a Success.”
Success, as it does, bred more success. At last count (August 8), the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported at least 564 people have been killed and 7,418 more arrested in Duterte’s vendetta. “I don’t care about human rights,” admitted the avenging president, as if there had been any doubt, “believe me.”
By any reasonable measure, the Philippine killings add up to a massacre. But in context of the Drug War Big Leagues, the numbers coming out of the Philippines must be interpreted as strictly amateur stats.
The Drug Policy Alliance calculates that 1,561,231 people were arrested on drug violations in the U.S. during 2014, with 1,297,384 of those arrests being for possession alone. The Drug Policy Alliance also points out that more than 100,000 people have been murdered in Mexico’s drug war since 2006. That death toll is directly attributable to American prohibition at home playing out as armed insurrection abroad.
Aside from scale, the primary difference between American drug enforcement and Duterte’s barbarism is that the Philippine president’s policy is spilling his own countrymen’s blood on their own soil. In fact, Duterte has vowed to impose martial law and launch a “constitutional war” if his country’s judiciary, including its Supreme Court, interferes with his maneuvers, which takes his home-front crusade to extremes the most rabid U.S. drug warrior, for now, can only dream of.
There is a sense that President Duterte is after something other than a drug-free Philippines, and a politically motivated War on Drugs would not be unique to the Pacific islands nation.
On August 7, Duterte named 150 police officials, mayors, judges, and national politicians who would face shoot-to-kill orders if they resisted arrest on drug charges. Those on the hit list are taking it seriously: As of August 8, the L.A. Times reported that 18 mayors and 21 police officials on the president’s shit list had surrendered. After one mayor gave himself up, perhaps influenced by Duterte’s promise to have him “shot like a dog,” Philippine commandos gunned down six of the mayor’s bodyguards.
There is a sense that President Duterte is after something other than a drug-free Philippines. Inklings exist that the drug pretext is being used to solidify a powerbase and eliminate or intimidate opposition.
Ulterior motives in government actions are not always farfetched notions, and a politically motivated War on Drugs would not be unique to the Pacific islands nation. As remembered by one insider, the U.S. War on Drugs was instituted as a covert aggression against African Americans and anti-war freaks. A disproportionate targeting of black, other non-white, and poor people has been a hallmark of America’s War on Drugs throughout its existence. If, like Dutarte’s strategy, the War on Drugs has been political all along, is there any reason to think the people waging it have any intention of retreating?
The DEA persists in grouping marijuana, and the people who use it, with heroin, ecstasy, and bath salts abusers. Little if any harm-mitigation logic is apparent in America’s War on Drugs, and we have that in common with the Philippine campaign. Tally up the money diverted from quality-of-life social services and funneled into militarized prohibition. Look at the lives derailed and families torn apart by targeted incarceration and disproportionate sentencing. U.S. prohibition enforcement makes no more sense than Dutarte’s death squads, except as policies for amplifying the Gross National Misery.
If America’s domestic Drug War flares back to full force, don’t be surprised. The privatized prisons need a head count. The rehab industry needs new classifications of for-profit inmates. The people who collected, spent, and pocketed the $2.88 billion in last year’s DEA budget are at least a little dependent upon that cash flow. Law enforcement’s easy civil-forfeiture pickings—which topped $5 billion in 2014 on an ascending scale—would be like squeezing water from stones without a War on Drugs.
The idea that any President of the United States would post a list of American mayors, senators, and judges who must surrender or be shot like dogs, as is happening in the Philippines, seems unlikely for the time being.
Maybe that’s because politics in this country are more sophisticated and subtle. Or maybe it’s because our drug warriors are so much more comfortable punching down.