Duterte’s new anti-drug ‘super agency’ includes health, education, welfare

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, salutes with Philippine military chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya during departure honors at Manila's International Airport, Philippines on Nov. 9, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has revived his bloody war on drugs, and it’s bigger than ever. Last week, the strongman president signed an executive order published Friday that pulls 21 state agencies into the drug war under the joint command of a new “super agency.”

Led by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the Interagency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD) includes the justice department, armed forces, police and coast guard as well as the departments of health, education and social welfare among others.

In addition, Executive Order 15 calls on the new super-agency to create a National Anti-Illegal Drug Task Force, “which shall undertake sustained anti-illegal drug operations.” The task force will be composed primarily of law enforcement officers also under the authority of the drug enforcement agency.

Just last month, the Philippine National Police had been suspended from drug operations following the kidnap and murder of a South Korean businessman by police officers. A damning report by Amnesty International that same week alleged deep-rooted corruption and systematic extrajudicial killings of the poor.

Some had hoped the police suspension and corruption probe would signal a winding down of the highly controversial drug war, in which more than 8,000 have been killed since Duterte took office eight months ago. But on March 6, police resumed anti-drug operations – the same day the president signed Executive Order 15.

According to the order, the super agency is tasked with the arrest of “high-value drug personalities down to the street-level peddlers and users.” But its purpose also expands beyond law enforcement to ‘justice,’ ‘advocacy’ and ‘rehabilitation and reintegration.’ The super agency is expected to organize itself into four clusters corresponding with each function.

By including the rehabilitation and reintegration cluster, the agency appears to be taking a more comprehensive approach to illicit drugs. But rehabilitation programs in the Philippines as they currently exist in are woefully underprepared for the task at hand, and the order does not address avenues to scale up or improve health solutions.

Besides, the language regarding the other functions makes it clear that the ICAD exists to support – even expedite – Duterte’s militant crackdown.

For example, the justice cluster is tasked with making sure public attorneys are available for all defendants, namely in cases of voluntary surrender or warrantless arrests. However, it is “primarily responsible for the expeditious prosecution of all drug cases and the provision of legal assistance to law enforcers.”

Likewise, the advocacy cluster exists to promote the drug war through a “nationwide advocacy campaign for the government’s anti-illegal drug policy and all implementing programs.”

Additionally, any and all agencies must assist the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in anti-drug operations when called upon, according to the listed function of the enforcement cluster.

The expansive authority of the PDEA over the other 20 state agencies raises concerns of a broad consolidation of power under the banner of the drug war. But this move is consistent with the many times he has made reference to declaring martial law, even as recently as Sunday.

Meanwhile, the body count continues to climb. Despite the president’s insistence that he is targeting “drug lords” and “drug pushers,” rights groups are saying most of the victims are the urban poor.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch investigated 32 cases of drug-related killings in which all but one of the victims were poor, the exception being a case of mistaken identity. Many of them were not even dealers, the organization said – just suspected drug users.

“Almost all were either unemployed or worked menial jobs, including as rickshaw drivers or porters, and lived in slum neighborhoods or informal settlements,” the press release for the report said.

Bringing agencies like the departments of health, education and welfare under the mandate of the drug war may leave the poor even more vulnerable than they already were.

In a speech last Wednesday, Duterte defended targeting of the poor. The poor, he said, are the illegal drug trade “apparatus,” because the rich have no need for street-level peddling.

“We have to destroy the apparatus. It needs people killed,” he said, according to ABS-CBN News. “…That’s just how it is.”

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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.