MANILA, June 29, (Agencies): Two things catch the eye in the office of Joselito Esquivel, a police colonel enforcing a national crackdown on drugs in the Philippines’ most crime-ridden district: a pair of boxing gloves in a display cabinet and an M4 assault rifle lying beside him. “It’s all-out war,” the Quezon City officer says of a spike in killings of suspected drug dealers by police across the country since last month’s election of Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking city mayor, as the country’s president. “Duterte has already given the impetus for this massive operation.”
Duterte has vowed to wipe out drug crime within six months but, according to Chito Gascon, head of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the aggressive rhetoric behind his promises has already instilled a sense of impunity among the police.
“Basically, you have Mr. Duterte saying: ‘It’s okay, I’ve got your back’,” said Gascon. On average, at least one person has been shot dead by police or anonymous vigilantes every day since the May 9 election that swept Duterte to power, an escalation from the first four months of the year when the rate was about two a week.
Handwritten warning signs have been left on some corpses. Duterte, who will be inaugurated on Thursday for a six-year term, has cheered the police on: after a druglord was killed in a northern province recently, he travelled there to congratulate them and hand over a reward worth about $6,000. Critics, including leaders of the influential Roman Catholic church and human rights advocates, fear a spiral of violence could lie ahead for the Philippines if vigilantism and summary executions become an accepted norm after Duterte takes office.
“My concern is that instead of law and order, what we will see is lawlessness and fear,” said Gascon. “What will result is an increase in the bodybag count.” On Monday, Duterte branded as “stupid” human rights groups and lawmakers who have complained about his draconian plans to crush crime and re-introduce the death penalty.
“When you kill someone, rape, you should die,” he told his last public meeting as mayor of Davao City, where death squads have killed hundreds of drug-pushers, petty criminals and even street children since 1998, according to rights groups. Duterte denies any involvement in the vigilante killings.
A political outsider whose coarse defiance of the traditional ruling class has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump, Duterte has even figured in commentaries on Britain’s vote to leave the European Union as an example of a global trend towards populism triumphing over the establishment.
Duterte’s pick to be the country’s police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, concedes that some recent killings may have been carried out by officers involved in the drugs business who were covering their tracks so that the new president does not go after them. “That could be true,” he told Reuters. “Some police officers are shifting from drug protectors to drug punishers.” But dela Rosa added that so much work towards wiping out drug crime has been accomplished recently that his job will be easy when he takes over at the end of this week. Railing against critics, he said most of the victims in the recent wave of killings were shot by police in selfdefence. “I have no problem how many people die in legitimate police operations, the police have a right to defend themselves,” he said. “We are police officers, we are not hard killers.” Only two of the roughly 60 recent killings took place in Quezon City, a crowded and gritty part of sprawling Metro Manila that has the country’s highest crime rate.
Most were in areas outside the capital that are less intensively policed. Esquivel, the officer in Quezon City, said his force has also adopted a softer tack by inviting drug peddlers and addicts to surrender and go into rehabilitation. Just last week, over 1,000 gave themselves up there, he said. Despite that gentler approach, police in the Philippines are open about their readiness to use guns. Outside Esquivel’s headquarters there is a police firing range and a banner cheerily announces a monthly “shoot fest”, a contest for officers where sometimes winners receive a gun. According to data from the University of Sydney, the number of guns in the Philippines is a small fraction of the total in the United States, but Filipinos seem much more inclined to use them.
Gun deaths per 100,000 people in the United States was at 10.54 in 2014, but the Philippines’ rate of 7.2 in 2008, the last year for which figures were available, was not far behind. Duterte has predicted that if the tide of drug addiction in the Philippines is not pushed back, it will become a narco-state.
The bodies of dozens of suspected drug peddlers have turned up in the Philippines in recent weeks, providing an eerie backdrop to the swearing-in on Thursday of Rodrigo Duterte, who has warned of a bloody presidency in his bid to eradicate crime. Some of the dead were killed in gunfights with police; others mysteriously turned up on the street. One was dumped with sign: “Don’t follow me or you’ll die next.” The numbers of bodies have spiked since Duterte swept the May 9 elections on promises to wipe out crime and corruption within six months.
That bold pledge won him huge support but also sparked concerns about vigilante justice and a lack of due process. Nicknamed “Duterte Harry” after a Clint Eastwood character with little regard for rules, he says he plans to fulfill his promise despite criticism from human rights advocates and church officials and dares his critics to impeach him. “If I couldn’t convince you, I’ll have you killed. Just imagine if I kill 10 persons a day for the next six years,” he was quoted as saying by Cebu Daily News in his native Visayan language, referring to drug suspects. “If you’re into drugs, I’m sorry. I’ll have to apologize to your family because you’ll surely get killed.”
So far, the threats seem to be working to some extent: Hundreds of drug pushers and addicts have surrendered to police in recent days, signing pledges to reform. National police data show 39 mostly drug peddler suspects were killed since the start of the year until the election. But since then, 72 killed have been killed, bringing the yearly total so far to 111 deaths.
Outgoing national police chief Ricardo Marquez dismissed speculation that the spike in deaths was timed to the beginning of Duterte’s presidency, saying he already promised an intensified anti-drug campaign when he took over last year. “There is no truth to what is being said that it is only now that the police have stepped up the fight against drugs,” he said.