Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for September, 2017

On the ‘War on Drugs’

Posted by butalidnl on 6 September 2017

The logic behind President Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ is attractively simple: The drug problem can be solved by a radical approach of arresting or killing (or threatening to kill) addicts, pushers and traffickers. This will result in people stopping with their drug activity and/or surrendering to the authorities. This way, the drug problem will be solved (just like Duterte did for Davao, some will say). Simple.

A year on the ‘War’ has resulted in 1.3 million surrenderees and some 7000 deaths (3000 plus claimed to have been done by police).  The total amount of seized drugs is worth Php 14. 5 billion, which is a small proportion of the estimated Php 120 billion value of the total drug market.
So far, only 10,000 people have completed a drug rehabilitation program.

Not so Simple 
When people are faced with a complex problem that seems intractable, there is a tendency to embrace simple solutions that are offered. Invariably, the simple solution ends up ‘too good to be true’ – it does not really solve the problem.
The drug problem is not simple. There are just too many drug addicts – much too many than can be accomodated in prisons or rehabilitation centers. Drug trafficking is done in myriad ways, and it has ‘enablers’ from within the government apparatus – local officials, police, even officials tasked with fighting drugs. And the government knows so little of what is going on – quite often it acts blindly.
To make things even more complicated, there are cases where policemen are the drug traffickers, and they kill their clients so that they could not testify against them. In such cases, drug killings end up protecting the drug traffickers.

The rush to solve the drug problem is problematic in more ways:
Selective Due Process. People are wondering why it is that suspected big-time traffickers are handled with velvet gloves , while (suspected) poor addicts are summarily killed.  The resulting impression is that the ‘War on Drugs’ is effectively a war on the poor, because those who end up dying are almost invariably poor people. It seems that ‘due process’ is being selectively applied.

Impunity. The police, which has been granted the authority to kill drug suspects (supposedly, those who resist arrest) have so far been immune from prosecution. They can kill practically anybody they wish, as long as they claim that they were drug couriers or addicts. People whom the police have personal grudges against, or who may be suspected of another crime, or another reason, can be killed. Of course, not all police are killing people left and right (or there would be a lot more deaths); but there are a lot of people dying who are not connected at all to drugs.

Then, there are the large number of deaths due to vigilante groups, which are not answerable to anybody. Police have not been going after these groups (which include some off-duty policemen); thus these vigilantes also enjoy impunity. Vigilante killings are an extension of the government policy; since, if they were not, the police should have arrested these people.

Death Penalty Restored.  In 2006, the Philippines abolished the death penalty. The death penalty was abolished then because studies showed that it does not deter crime (certainty of arrest is what deters crime), and for human rights (specifically, the right to life) reasons.
The present policy against drugs has restored the death penalty by the back door. Killing the suspect is a tempting shortcut for the police. Since there is the chance that an arrested suspect will evade conviction, they feel that it is ‘better’ to just kill him.
This unofficial restoration of the death sentence for even the possession of small quantities of drugs is harsh, to say the least. In other Asian countries, one could indeed get a death penalty for trafficking in drugs – but only if one is caught with kilos of drugs, and only after one has been found guilty in a trial.

‘War’. The idea of waging a war brings with it some alarming consequences. One of these is the idea of acceptable collateral damage. Thus, if there is a drug suspect riding a tricycle, it is alright to shoot him; if the driver or innocent co-passengers are hit, they are mere ‘unfortunate’ collateral damage in the drug war.
A ‘war’ implies a single-minded determination to achieve a goal at all costs, without regard to human rights or social harmony.

Breeding Criminals. The hundreds of thousands of people in crowded prisons who have surrendered to the police to avoid being killed are in a very dangerous situation. Most of them are not criminals at all, or mere petty criminals; but in prison, they are being mixed with hardened criminals. If they are kept too long in jail,  many of the surrenderees will leave prisons as potential criminals.

Roots rather than Leaves. The campaign seems to be disproportionately hitting drug addicts, and it seems very few (if any) big-time traffickers have been killed or caught. This is  approach is wrong. If one wants to kill a tree, one should attack its roots instead of just the leaves and twigs.
Going after big-time drug traffickers is difficult, since they are protected by armed guards, government connections and highly-paid lawyers. Instead, the police resorts to hitting the ‘retail’ end (i.e. small time users and pushers).

‘All Addicts are Dangerous’
Pro-government online and offline media keep hammering the point that addicts are a danger to everybody’s life and limb. Stories abound of addicts murdering people – these stories are used to convince people that all addicts deserve to be killed. This reasoning is faulty and dangerous. People who commit crimes should indeed be caught and punished; but not everybody else with similar characteristics.
Similarly, a lot of crimes are done by drunk people; but this doesn’t mean that it is alright to kill every drunkard.  Or, there are Muslims who commit terrorist acts, but this does not mean that all Muslims should be killed. Demonizing whole categories of people, and condemning them to death, is not right.

Declaring that all addicts are dangerous creates an atmosphere of mistrust among the people, since there could be ‘enemies of the people’ among their midst. Police reliance on informers and anonymous tips adds to the problem.

The policy of demonizing a whole category of people (addicts, in this case) is one that is on a slippery slope towards fascism.  The imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima ( a leading critic of extra-judicial drug killings) on trumped-up charges is a sign that the government has expanded the targets of the ‘War on Drugs’ to include those who are opposed to it.  Similarly, the Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman have been attacked in President Duterte’s speeches and by his online supporters for some months. Now, there is an attempt to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Sereno on petty charges; but the reason is that she could oppose the ‘War on Drugs’ in the future.
These are dangerous signs.

Stopping the War
There is still hope for those who call for an end to the ‘War on Drugs’. The public outcry at the killing of Kian delos Santos has pushed the issue of police killings of drug suspects to the center of public discourse.  So much so that President Duterte has promised that the government will not interfere with the trial of the 3 police officers accused of killing Kian. Police impunity will hopefully be reduced if they are found guilty.

But this is not enough. The whole campaign against drugs needs to be restructured. The biggest change needed would be the recognition that drug addicts are sick people, not criminals. The criminals are the drug traffickers. A first step in this would be to release all ‘surrenderees’ who are merely addicts, and schedule them all for drug rehabilitation.
The government should also release Senator de Lima and others who have been imprisoned because of their criticism of the ‘War on Drugs’.

Then, all sectors of Philippine society should be mobilized in order to eradicate the drug scourge. The church, NGOs and local governments could then be called on to fully participate in a more deliberate, thorough and humane ‘Campaign against Drugs’.





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