Duterte: ‘Of course’ poor are biggest casualty in drug war

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 dropped all pretenses that his infamous drug war is anything but a war on the poor.

“They say, ‘Duterte kills the poor.’ I haven’t heard of the children of [billionaires]Lucio Tan or Gokongwei selling drugs,” the president said in a speech on Saturday, according to Rappler. “Of course it will be the poor people, because the poor are ignorant and more likely to be hit.”

Recent reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reuters all found police squads targeting poor communities in the president’s vicious anti-drug campaign. More than 7,000 people have died since July at the hands of vigilantes or police.

“President Duterte’s comments are chilling,” Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, wrote to Humanosphere in an email. “Duterte’s admission ends the fiction that he and his government have sought to perpetuate over the past nine months that the victims of the drug war – many of whose bodies are found on street corners wrapped in packing tape, riddled with bullets or perforated with stab wounds – have been ‘drug lords.'”

Instead, the “vast majority” of the victims have been “urban slum dwellers – some of the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalized citizens of the Philippines,” Kine added.

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But Duterte unabashedly blamed the victims. According to his speech, the poor – the suspected addicts – are an obvious and necessary casualty in order to stop the illicit drug trade.

“People who have addictions are like monkeys clinging to your back,” he said. “Now, if you don’t kill these ones, there will always be people looking for a supply so there will always be the temptation to cook.”

He added, “You say that they are only killing the poor people. Well, I am sorry, I have to clean up, and until such time that the drug lords are dead, are out of the streets, walking at night, you’ll all be consumed.”

According to the Philippine Inquirer, arrested drug users and dealers have said in “countless” TV and radio interviews that poverty drove them to drugs – usually ‘shabu,’ or methamphetamine mixed with caffeine – as a way to fight hunger pangs or earn a living. But in his speech, Duterte said poverty is not an excuse.

“I’m sorry. You say you’re poor; that’s not an answer,” he said. “I have a problem: 4 million addicts. Do you want 4 million more? In my time, who will answer for those children who were raped and killed? Who are the ones who do hold-up in the jeep, shoot the passengers? Who will answer for those? Who will answer for the innocent lives?”

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He also claimed that drug dealers rape and kill the daughters of Filipino migrant workers and get their sons high.

“Amid the poverty of the Filipinos, these devils get rich and earn money. So screw you. I will kill you,” Duterte said.

The president’s “grotesque logic” for targeting the poor “exposes his contempt” for their lives, Kine wrote, and no one is certain where he got the 4 million figure. This “dubious claim,” Kine said, “suggests that he intends to continue this unlawful killing campaign indefinitely.”

After suspending police from anti-drug operations in February amid a corruption probe – a move that some had hoped would signal a winding down of the drug war – Duterte reinstated police to the campaign earlier this month under a newly-formed ‘super agency‘ of 21 state departments chaired by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Human rights organizations have urged the United Nations to launch an investigation into the drug war for the possible commission of crimes against humanity.

In his speech Saturday, the populist president said he would be “happy” to be killed at the “altar” of ridding drugs from the Philippines. “It would be my greatest honor to die for my country.”

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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.