If you are tracking global events, particularly in one small Asia Pacific nation called The Philippines, you may have heard of its president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his mailed fist approach to illegal drugs. The Human Rights Watch claims that the death toll of his ruthless drug war has reached over 12,000, including young children, which has been loudly condemned by local and international human rights advocates.
One of those vocal critics is Vice President Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer by profession who belongs to the party of the opposition. (In the Philippines, you can elect a Vice President who is not allied with the President.) Her public statements in late October suggesting that the drug war “is not working” may have prompted Duterte to offer the position of “drug czar” to Robredo.
She accepted the post.
Many of us, who have been silent about this issue but working silently to help the victims, was surprised by her decision. For me personally, it seemed like a proposal designed to set her up for failure given the magnitude of the problem that Duterte’s erstwhile law enforcement officials are leaving in its wake: underpaid cops recycling confiscated drugs for an extra buck, the then Chief of Police sanctioning the long, drawn-out practice with impunity, and the seemingly relentless extrajudicial killings reminiscent of the dark days of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos. Robredo, in her announcement, mentioned the disapproval of this potential trap by those in her closest circles, but she ultimately decided to give it a shot, especially if that one shot meant “one innocent life saved” from the bloodshed.
It was enough to get me out of my foxhole and express my full support.
As soon as Duterte assumed office in June 2016, many people in my country instantly earned the license to exercise savagery. I vividly recall reports of random killings suddenly sprouting on my newsfeed within a few days after his inauguration. Cadavers hurriedly wrapped in flattened cardboard and duct tape with a sign “I’m a pusher” littered the streets. Just a few kilometers from the peaceful suburb where I live, assassins powered by their killing machines and balaclavas reveled in shooting sprees, their identities still unknown to journalists suddenly banned from accessing police reports. Even owners of the funeral parlors, where dead bodies lay unclaimed and could provide some evidence, refused to share what they knew for fear of retribution from trigger-happy marauders. Duterte’s orders were crystal clear: shoot every drug user and killer in sight. “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.” I still shudder at the thought. If this had happened in my partying heyday, I am finished. If you had smoked marijuana, as I and most people I know have at least once in our lives, you are in the crosshairs, so get lost. I did and hid in my foxhole in silence.
It made sense to go into hiding when the bloody orders came. Those who are known in their communities to be actively using drugs were forced to immediately surrender to avoid untimely death. Those who are not known were revealed in a dropbox where villagers aware of their neighbors’ drug use were asked to put in their names. Such an arbitrary method of identifying drug users led to abuse, wherein villagers who had a mere ax to grind with some of their neighbors who are not known to be using drugs or may have not even tried them, can freely write their names and drop them in the box. The resulting watchlist from a whirlpool of falsehoods is contaminated by the names of innocent people who are not supposed to be there.
But the law enforcers are on red alert and must have something to show for, stat. A corrupted watchlist was better than nothing. As a consequence, a total of 1.3M drug surrenderees who may or may have not used or pushed drugs suddenly emerged. According to the Dangerous Drugs Board, 90% of that total are one-time, experimental, level 1 users. They do not qualify for any of the 50 state-run in-patient drug rehabilitation facilities reserved for the heavier level 3 and 4 users. Absent enough working drug rehabs to handle the load, much of the 1.3M surrenderees had to then compete for jail space while awaiting trial on their drug cases. In a country with only 933 prisons and a total prison population of 188,278 inmates, this created another inhumane scenario where hardened criminals are mixed with petty drug users in extremely cramped spaces. 75.1% of the prison population are pre-trial detainees, which is the status of most surrenderees after undergoing drug screening.
But even the drug screening process cannot handle the sudden surge in demand, because only doctors accredited by the Department of Health (DOH) are allowed to screen, even if 90% are likely first-time users. The DOH is merely complying with extant policy: they cannot be held liable for a flawed, life-changing diagnosis. What sort of control would they have if a non-physician determines that a level 2 drug user is actually a level 3?
Thankfully, close to a year after an “all-out war” on illegal drugs was imposed, none of this violent ruckus was raised in my neighborhood. There were no cops knocking on doors in our own gated haven north of Quezon City. There were no corpses and flies feasting on coagulated blood in the nearby streets. The gruesome media reports that came to my attention felt distant, but it did not feel right. It seemed that the law did not apply to all. At least I know it did not apply to me. I may not be actively using drugs, not even the medicinal kind, but I have used them before and could still be using drugs. Why was I spared? Why spare my neighbors? I may have nothing to hide, but how would the cops know that? Are they not supposed to be making a sweep of every village, municipality, and city? Did I read the policy incorrectly?
There had been reports of drug raids and arrests in gated villages, but they seemed very few. And they were, as confirmed by the drug killings database which was launched by a prestigious university in Manila. It had found that most of the victims are low-level drug suspects: tricycle drivers, construction workers, vendors, farmers, jeepney barkers, and garbage collectors.
There is a logical reason why, despite being in dire straits, a tricycle driver, who would be lucky to make $100 a month, could still use drugs: small doses of the local methamphetamine shabu can remove hunger pangs and keep them awake when they have to work at night. It is a common narrative for many people who are barely surviving their abject poverty and still have mouths to feed.
And yet it was this desperation to make a living that cost them their lives.
After reviewing the findings of the drug archive database, I came to the conclusion that the drug war is selective and unjust. It punishes those who could be easily bullied and unable to afford legal services, while the local El Chapos took shelter from their mansions and continued to thrive within their barb-wired fence. Law enforcement needed numbers to show that they are doing their job, but they chose deaths as their metric rather than drug lords caught. Would it not make more sense to rehabilitate those who had resorted to drugs for various reasons, rather than “bury those cockroaches” in one Tony Montana slay?
I was not alone in my rhetorical questioning and soon found like-minded people just as disturbed by the situation as I was. The logic for us is simple: no one needs to die. Most people I know do not want to die. Even drug lords do not deserve to die, so they can serve prison time instead. Why then impose a policy that demands the highest price? Why do unto others as you would not have them do unto you? It does not make sense. But nothing really made much sense in the free world in 2016.
Killing solves nothing and only makes things worse.
I know some people, artists mostly, who have undergone voluntary drug rehabilitation, struggled through it, persevered, graduated, and are now leading peaceful lives. They just hit a snag and were able to overcome it, with a little help from their friends and family. They are no different from us who confront daily shortcomings and are trying to survive them. They just made a mistake because they are not perfect. Homo sapiens is imperfect. That is the grand design. So those who support the shoot-to-kill order of drug users are really just signing their own death warrants, and they will only realize this when the drug killings start hitting close to home.
The imposition of a kill-all-drug-users policy was clearly bereft of careful thought, as the lack of rehab facilities and prisoners packed like sardines that followed have shown. This called for creative makeshift alternatives designed by concerned citizens, many of them non-experts in the fields of mental health and pharmacology. One particular stop-gap solution to the killing sprees is the community-based drug rehabilitation (CBDR), which is espoused by a loose alliance called CoBRA (short for Community Based Rehab Alliance). The first of these CBDRs was established by Fr. Luciano Felloni, an Argentinian missionary priest based in Camarin, North Caloocan, in September 2016. The rehab is conducted within the parish to create a safe space for drug users intent on getting help. Caloocan City and Quezon City followed suit, implementing their own CBDRs with the full support of the church. Running a community-based drug rehab for low-level users within church grounds makes sense in a predominantly Catholic country where there are over 7,000 parishes nationwide.
As I write this, I cannot help but spare a thought to the invisible cost of the drug war on our society, as the widows and orphans left behind by the tragic deaths of their husbands and fathers reel from the trauma and the loss of their breadwinners. Many of them witnessed the actual killings. One orphan interviewed by a priest friend vocally expressed his newfound desire to become a police officer, “so that someday, I can exact vengeance on the police officer who killed my father.” There goes our future.
Perhaps, under a more rational leadership of the drug war, the spate of killings can stop. That is truly my hope and why I fully support the Vice President. But I cannot help but wonder how a nation can help alleviate the psychological damage a violent drug war has had on young, innocent children. Are they dealing with the loss well or are they growing up to become our country’s future criminals?