The menace had not been too obvious in the small coastal villages lying side-by-side in this rural part of the Philippines where the old romance of the sea still beckons. But one day just recently, there was a commotion out on the road. Neighbors gathered to hear the news:
A young man had been shot and killed. He was a drug “pusher” who had sold meth in tiny plastic packets to his townmates. He had surrendered to the police on the wave of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs, was released, and then went back to selling drugs again. And so they got him.
The spate of vigilante killings has reached these remote places not far from the origins of Duterte’s political clan in the island province of Cebu, where targeting drug users and peddlers had already claimed the biggest “lord” of them all in the capital city of the central Philippines.
In the little corners of the villages, the spread of drugs is not a secret. “They sell it like candies,” says a retired police officer I will not name because he has been a friend for the past decade I have been coming here on random occasions. He says he approves of the extrajudicial killings – “It’s better this way” – because he had seen from his work that due process was filled with loopholes that allowed those selling drugs to get away.
He tells me of at least one officer-turned-politician who has been marked in dossiers as “noted” for involvement in drugs. The man is somehow connected to illicit shipments, the goods dropped in a secluded marine sanctuary where small outriggers wait to collect the drugs to be sold. The modus operandi sounds like a thriller.
Now, Duterte’s personal crusade has unleashed a nationwide bust against illegal drugs, which actually began even before he was sworn into office more than a month ago. The killings started well before he took the oath.
A politician in one of the towns is on the list that Duterte had announced publicly, the first of his witch-hunt style that had worked for him when he was mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. Here, in the poor villages where most everyone knows each other, they have always suspected who the “pushers” were but could do nothing about it. The local government tried to curb them, putting up warning signs in markets, on bridges and transport terminals.
This seems to have failed, and the signboards disappeared over time except for the one I see at the primary school where children wave at me as I bike past. It was Duterte’s campaign promise to rid the country of drugs that roused the townsfolk into believing that a strongman could wipe out the problem and solve the petty crimes afflicting their lives.
That strongman — Duterte — on August 9 showed just how strong a man he could be, in a speech to troops at Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro City. He threatened to declare martial law after Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, in a stern response to his naming of several judges as connected to the drugs trade, said it was up to the courts and not the president to discipline judges, and that the rule of law must prevail.
In the poverty-stricken villages, Duterte’s message resonates. The women selling moringa leaves have had enough of the motorcyclists huddling in the middle of the night across the street where something bad must be afoot. The baker’s wife speaks of the festering ills of society that no previous governments had bothered to fix, and she want them fixed right away. The girl who cooks at the roadside eatery is fed up with cousins stealing money to buy drugs and men wasting hard-earned money for an addiction that only worsens their poverty.
In their lives, where the sound of karaoke music and fiestas deaden the feeling of remoteness and neglect, the slowly growing outcry over the extrajudicial killings carries a hollow sound. How can they quibble over human rights when their poverty offers little justice?
What has been happening in these parts of the Visayas and other towns elsewhere in the country represents a microcosm of the wide latitude given the president, who won on a populist agenda. People have given him a 91 percent trust rating in the polls. None of the laws have been changed, but he has craftily given the police the verbal imprimatur to carry out his war on crime, and that none of them would be punished.
The body count of “drug-related” incidents has risen to more than 500 this week, according to the police and news reports. It is a figure that appears to saturate the minds of the people in a country where news of violence are regular items the evening news, where insurgencies and disasters speak in the numbers of the dead. There was hardly any public outrage until photographs of weeping women bent over their dead, cardboard signs identifying corpses as “pushers,” went viral on social media and the world outside took notice.
It is hard to explain, and it is quite numbing to try to understand. Still, in his honeymoon period, the president has said he doesn’t care about the rise in the killings because he knows what he’s doing. His countenance changes when he speaks of drugs ruining the nation. He elevates it into a crisis, the word “kill” loosely slipping off his tongue. In the next breath he expresses compassion for the lowly people – and this is what his hardcore followers like about him.
The shock effect is in place. “At some point it’s going to stop, but we just don’t know when,” says Professor Resil Mojares, an intellectual who teaches at the Cebu campus of the University of the Philippines.
“If he’s doing this, capitalizing on the fact that he has done it in Davao, people will give him leeway. At some point they will stop after they will have judged they’ve been conveyed the images of boldness and seriousness and maybe then people will pay attention to issues,” Mojares adds.
Duterte’s supporters are steadfast, confined by the black-and-white frame of wanting to see the end of the drug problem within six months, as the president’s campaign had promised. Until this week, few had come out to challenge the drive on the grounds of human rights and the rule of law.
The Catholic Church had been meek until influential archbishop Socrates Villegas spoke out in the name of humanity, his little voice “drowned out by the louder voice of revenge or silenced by the sweet privileges of political clout.”
When the president once again read out a list of alleged culprits over the weekend, naming mayors and judges among others, he put himself under a microscope of his own choosing. The list was meant as an ultimatum for them to surrender to his chief of police. This time, Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno urged the judges against surrendering in the absence of a proper arrest warrant. Rebuffed, Duterte threatened to impose martial law.
The list the president read out while visiting army camps – ostensibly courting soldiers this early in his term – included some people who have died, been killed, or misidentified. Police chief General Ronald de la Rosa dismissed the mistakes as “little things” – little things, he did not seem to realize, that put into question the credibility of the president’s zealous campaign.
Vice President Leni Robredo, elected on a different ticket than the president, has spoken out repeatedly, most recently on August 8, to condemn the killings and to say that at least two people she has known personally have been targeted by the death squads, and that they had nothing to do with drugs. There were reports that two college students have been gunned down by mistake.
Thirty years of desultory democracy have thus brought us to this point where confusing principles lie scattered about. The provincial road on which I go biking through fishing villages in the Visayas hasn’t changed much in a decade. The walls of the rich are still built high to fence off their lands, and the lesser families continue gleaning the beach at low tide just to put food on their table.
What we know of Duterte’s sudden rise to power is that it was a consequence of past leaders losing touch with the people and their frustrations. Politicians and entitled civil servants had gone too far with uncaring.
Duterte knew what the people wanted to hear, and his war or drugs is the first step to proving himself. He boasted of it, as he had done in Davao where checks and balances were much simpler. With the future of the entire nation and its democracy in his hands, we don’t know where it will take us.
First published with the title “Contradictions in Philippine President Duterte’s War on Drugs” in Asia Sentinel, August 9, 2016. Reprinted with author’s permission.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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