Duterte pivots in drug war, calls off police, calls in military

Residents and police gather near the blanket-covered body of a man after he was killed, along with four others in Manila, Nov. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended police from drug operations amid a corruption probe, but his bloody war on drugs will continue under the military and drug enforcement agency until the end of his term in 2022. Despite the investigation, Amnesty International warned in a report released Tuesday that the corruption traces to the “very top of government,” and the resulting killings that target the poor may amount to crimes against humanity.

The “internal cleanse,” as National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa called it, is the first pause in Duterte’s infamous war since he took office seven months ago after winning the presidency on a platform of law and order. Since July 1, more than 7,000 people have lost their lives in extrajudicial killings. More than 2,500 of them have been have been at the hands of police; the rest have been carried out by vigilantes.

Statements from the president on Monday, calling the police “corrupt to the core” are a drastic change in tune. On more than one occasion Duterte has publicly supported extrajudicial killings by police, soldiers and civilians, whether in self-defense, as police almost uniformly report, or not.

“If they pull out a gun, kill them. If they don’t, kill them still, son of a whore, so it’s over, lest you lose the gun. I’ll take care of you,” he told soldiers in September, according to Rappler.

The statement echoed similar ones made to police and civilians in which he vowed to support and protect them. Although he later said he would never order illegal acts, “war is war.”

His sudden turn on police is a reaction to a scandal revealed during the Senate investigation into the death of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo in October. According to Dela Rosa, Jee was abducted by police under a false drug arrest warrant and killed in police headquarters within hours. Jee’s wife said the kidnappers extorted her for ransom weeks later, before she knew her husband was already dead.

“That was not part of the drug war,” Dela Rosa said at a news conference two weeks ago, defending the police tactic of going door-to-door without arrest warrants asking people to surrender, called ‘TokHang.’

“The term ‘TokHang for ransom,’ they’re just using that to ruin the war on drugs,” he said. “TokHang is very, very effective, and it has led to the surrender and accounting of 1.3 million drug personalities.”

But a new report by Amnesty International shows that the corruption revealed in Jee’s killing may be just a peek into a system of rampant abuse.

For the report, Amnesty interviewed 110 people, including witnesses and relatives, and investigated 33 reports in 20 cities that resulted in 59 killings. According to their findings, police routinely entered people’s home without warrants, planted evidence, stole from victims’ homes and killed unarmed suspects, even those prepared to surrender.

One victim’s father, a former police officer himself and supporter of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, told Amnesty that he was “ashamed” of his son’s drug abuse, “but what they did was too much. Why kill someone who had already surrendered?”

The report also alleges that those killed are “overwhelmingly drawn from the poorest sections of society,” as Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director said in a press release. “This is not a war on drugs, but a war on the poor.”

This finding lines up with a Reuters investigation last year, which found that low-level officials in poor neighborhoods help police assemble ‘watch lists’ on which many end up dead. Both Amnesty and Reuters also found police reports to be strangely similar in their accounts of self-defense.

Furthermore, the report describes “an economy of murder,” fueled by pressure to meet the president’s demands.

“We always get paid by the encounter,” a senior officer told Amnesty, referring to extrajudicial killings. “The amount ranges from 8,000 pesos ($161) to 15,000 pesos ($302). …That amount is per head. …We’re paid in cash, secretly, by headquarters. …There’s no incentive for arresting. …It never happens that there’s a shootout and no one is killed.”

Police also allegedly disguise themselves as unknown killers sometimes and contract other killers, paying them $100 to $300 per suspect killed.

“It’s a big difference from before [Duterte],” one officer from an anti-drug unit in Manila told Amnesty. “Police officers are trying so hard to please the president.”

Amnesty warned that as a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Philippines could be charged with crimes against humanity if the killings are found to be “committed as part of widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population as part of a government or organizational policy.” Amnesty encouraged Philippines authorities deal with the crisis themselves before a preliminary examination by the ICC would be pursued.

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella defended the police in a statement today, citing Senate investigations: “The extrajudicial deaths are not state-sanctioned,” he said. “There is relentless effort on the part of the PNP [Philippines National Police] to carry out the campaign properly and within legal processes. Reforms in the PNP will rid the force of rogue cops.”

Meanwhile, Duterte said that the military and Drug Enforcement Agency will continue the war on drugs, past the previously extended deadline of March to the end of the his six-year term in 2022.

“These contradictory statements offer little hope that the wave of extrajudicial executions that has claimed more than a thousand lives a month will end,” Hassan said in a statement on Monday. “The ultimate responsibility for the police’s actions lies at the very top of government. The problem is not a few bad policemen but the government’s deadly anti-drug policy.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.