Why Duterte’s drug war is still popular despite its brutality

October 18, 2018 18:29
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte still enjoys strong public support, based on recent popularity polls, despite his brutal war against drugs. Photo: Reuters

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is undoubtedly a larger-than-life political figure who adheres to the principle that “the end justifies the means”.

And perhaps nothing exemplifies his take-no-prisoners and slash-and-burn approach to governance more than his nationwide war on drugs.

Recently I have met some Filipino elites at a gathering, during which they told me some fascinating stories about their country’s drug war, and many of the plots would normally appear only in movies.

For example, they said, in the Philippines, many popularly elected officials at the local level are themselves powerful gangsters.

Over the years the central government in Manila has been largely unable to bring these local barons into line.

However, things have begun to change ever since Duterte took office, with the drug war he has initiated targeting exactly these powerful local politicians.

So far, around 20,000 people across the country have been put to death because of illegal drugs, including drug dealers and users. However, perhaps little known is that among the executed drug lords, 11 were actually mayors and six deputy mayors.

Since many of these corrupt local government chiefs were well-entrenched and operating in their own spheres of influence, taking them out would often require unconventional means.

In July this year, Antonio Halili, the mayor of Tanauan city in Batangas province, was shot dead by a sniper from far away during a flag-raising ceremony held in front of the city council building.

After that, most pro-government commentators claimed Halili’s assassination could have been perpetrated by local drug cartels in retaliation for his order to parade a group of drug dealers along the main streets of the city.

However, some local opposition politicians believe Duterte could have been the mastermind behind the assassination because it fitted his pattern of eliminating suspected drug traffickers by rubout.

Many ordinary Filipinos appear to favor eliminating drug dealers through summary executions. Because they have lost faith in their country’s judicial system, for them extrajudicial killing is the only way to effectively combat the nationwide scourge of illegal drugs.

However, public opinion isn’t always necessarily on Duterte’s side when it comes to executing drug dealers without proper court sanction, particularly when these extrajudicial killings have gone terribly wrong.

For instance, in August 2017, a huge number of Filipinos took to the streets to protest against the government’s relentless drug war after a 17-year-old boy suspected of drug dealing had been killed by the police without any judicial authorization.

Amid public pressure, the government had to relinquish the responsibility of combating drugs to the national narcotics control authority.

According to an opinion poll held in September, Duterte’s trust ratings saw a 15 percent plunge, suggesting that even though his overall ratings still remains high, the effects of his brutal and relentless war on drugs have already begun to show signs of diminishing.

But still, although Duterte has come under heavy fire from the United Nations and human rights organizations around the world over the summary executions of suspected drug dealers, there is still substantial public support within the Philippines for his iron-fisted war on drugs, at least for now.

Many ordinary people believe that since drug lords have powerful connections, it is almost impossible to bring them to justice through legal procedures.

One notable example was Reynaldo Parojinog, former mayor of Ozamiz city in the southern island of Mindanao who had been publicly criticized by Duterte for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, but who had used his influence and connections both in the government and the underworld to escape justice.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before Parojinog eventually ran out of luck: he and his wife, along with four subordinates, were shot dead by the police during a surprise raid.

These high-profile cases have grabbed headlines across the Philippines, and, as expected, drawn fire from critics.

Yet the reality is, those who approve of Duterte's campaign that led to the downfall of these drug lords still outnumber those who are dismayed at his brutality against these people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal