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New Wine, Old Bottle: The Philippine Drug War in 2020

21 Nov 2019
By Dr Lowell Bautista
Leni Robredo Pays Courtesy Call To Rodrigo Duterte. Photo by King Rodriguez, Malacañang Photo Bureau. Source:

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo attempts to address the various shortfalls faced by Duterte’s war on drugs.

Rodrigo Duterte was catapulted to the Philippine presidency in 2016 under what is aptly described as a “vote against disorder.” Unlike his predecessor Aquino, who underscored vertical problems (i.e., from above, such as elite corruption and state tyranny), the maverick mayor from conflict-ridden Mindanao highlighted “horizontal” threats: coercive non-state actors such as drug lords and criminals who terrorise law-abiding citizens and stymie the country’s development.

An anti-criminality centrepiece is, by itself, non-contentious. However, Duterte ran on a vigilante justice approach to the problem. “When I become president, I’ll order the police and the military find these people and kill them… The funeral parlours will be packed. I’ll supply the dead bodies,” he told during a campaign rally. His program to end drugs is called the “double barrel.” The first barrel is against “high value targets” like drug kingpins, and the second one is popularly known as “Tokhang” (knock-and-plead) wherein police search house-to-house for suspected drug users and pushers. Both depend on aggressive anti-narcotics operations against personalities named in government-drawn watchlists.

Recently, Vice President Leni Robredo, who has been critical of the drug war, accepted President Duterte’s dare to become the country’s “drug czar.” She is now the co-chair of the Interagency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) which steers the anti-narcotics campaign.

Will her entry catalyse a paradigm-shift to a more humane drug policy? This article tackles the possibilities and limits of reforming the Philippine’s heavy-handed drug war. How will new wine fare in an old bottle?

Rigid Goals, Flexible Means

Overall, there are four broad criticisms to the current approach. First, Duterte’s “penal populism,” which does not distinguish between drug addiction and production, stigmatises a rehabilitative approach. Second, are concerns about due process on criminal apprehension, which result in “collateral damage” of innocent bystanders. The Philippine government has acknowledged some 6,600 killings by police, and even more by unknown assailants.

Third, poor intelligence has led to contradictory numbers, dangerous misidentification of targets and misdirected efforts. The President claimed in 2017 that there are 4 million drug users, whereas the Dangerous Drugs Board’s own survey put the figure at 1.7 million. International human rights advocates label Duterte’s violent war on drugs as a “large-scale murdering enterprise.” Fourth, law enforcers are accused of colluding with drug lords and of reusing confiscated drugs to sell or use for blackmail. Police chief General Albayalde recently resigned over a senate probe regarding his alleged involvement in drug recycling by law enforcers. The drug war is a case of dangerous new wine in an old bottle: the President empowered the force prior to any major internal reform or cleansing. Duterte gave the police a blank cheque in the drug war in 2016, when as recently as 2013, Filipinos rated the police force as the “most corrupt institution in the country.”

A recent study by RAND Corporation on drug policy in Asia, highlight the lack of a definitive assessment of the effectiveness of Duterte’s counter-narcotics operations. Despite this, midterm surveys show that an overwhelming 82 percent of Filipinos are satisfied with the war on drugs. David Timbermann writes that “the drug war, despite its excesses, is seen as a welcome example of government responsiveness,” especially when the endeavour involves multiple national agencies, local officials, and even civil society. The public clearly appreciates the effort, and appears to be oblivious of the erosion of the rule of law, police abuses, normalisation of extrajudicial executions, and the victimisation of the poor in the country.

When Law and Order becomes Order over Law

Robredo has fresh ideas which the Duterte administration is quick to dismiss. She suggests adopting a “medical-sociological” approach, which is not solely punitive, focusing instead on rehabilitating and reintegrating people using drugs into society.  The government estimates that some 1.4 million drug users have surrendered. However, drug rehabilitation facilities have low occupancy, and those who have not surrendered are reluctant, given incidences where those who have voluntarily surrendered were killed by police or vigilantes.

The Vice President has also acknowledged that the police and other law enforcers of the drug war suffers from a serious credibility issue highlighted by General Albayalde’s drug recycling scandal that led to a massive shuffle of its top brass. Proper documentation in the form of video cameras in buy-bust operations and stronger inventory protocols of confiscated drug paraphernalia will help law enforcers dispel doubts over “nanlaban” (resisting arrest) justifications for fatal encounters, and hinder prospects of drugs being planted as evidence or used by the police.

The accountability issue stems from a transparency deficit in the conduct of the war. This year, the Supreme Court overruled the government’s refusal to divulge documents pertaining to drug operations. The police sees law as a nuisance, and precisely for this reason, it struggles to finish the justice process: between 2016 to 2017, “close to 60 percent of drug cases were either dismissed or resulted in acquittals of suspects because of weak case build-ups, or cases where arresting officers did not comply with the law’s requirements.”

In sum, the government faces twin problems of its iron-fisted approach to the drug war and lack of transparency and weak compliance with constitutionally protected rights and processes, which prevent successful rehabilitation programs, injure innocent bystanders, and fail to convict criminals. The current administration views these as necessary shortcuts in the speedy delivery of Duterte’s brand of justice. In the long run, these lapses make the campaign more brittle, vulnerable to legal challenges, and limited in its results.

Complementation, Not Paradigm-Shift

Robredo could redirect the course of the drug war.  The fresh approaches she brings, could counter-balance the entrenched deficits of tunnel-vision and lack of transparency identified above. Whilst a late comer in the picture, her presence will not be easy to ignore. Her initiative towards potential cooperation with international law enforcement, particularly the United States, has not has not been received well in Malacanang. Nonetheless, the transnational nature of drug trade necessitates cooperation across borders.

However, expectations of a paradigm-shift may be misguided.

Robredo’s suggestions are not novel. Focus on supply constriction, prioritise high-value targets, and adopt a public health approach to drug use. A drug policy which is merely supply or demand focused is flawed.  A public health approach whilst an effective demand-reduction strategy, is not a blueprint to defeat narcopoliticians, which needs to happen.

The administration wants Robredo to focus on rehabilitation programs and public advocacy clusters of the drug campaign. Those who expect that Robredo will trigger a paradigm-shift in the drug war will be disappointed. The political capital of the administration, alongside the massive popular support it enjoys, will likely result in complementation of her and Duterte’s approaches.

Robredo cannot afford to be perceived as being weak on public order, nor ignore the salience of the issue to the public. Herein lies the prison, or some say “poisoned chalice,” that came with her drug czar post: Robredo has chosen to engage rather than deny the validity of the anti-crime discourse and in so doing, is constrained by it. In having a share in the decision-making process, Robredo’s ability to call-out the drug policy will be diluted.

There is a distinction between the idea of a war on drugs, and Duterte’s particular approach to the subject. Robredo must certainly be aware of this. The war on drugs, despite the partisan divide, must not be depicted as a battle between Robredo and Duterte.

Ultimately, Robredo’s appointment is no greater than what it is: an opening. There is a chance to improve the conduct of the drug war, in as much as there may also be fall-out from deep-seated antagonisms. Both will stem from the political difficulty of trying to put new wine in an old bottle.

Dr Lowell Bautista is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and a staff member at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.