After Kian slay, Duterte tempers messaging on drug war

MANILA, Philippines – In President Rodrigo Duterte's own words, was there a "miscalculation"?

His headline-grabbing threats against drug suspects and equally controversial vows to protect police spectacularly backfired on him the moment the public expressed outrage over the death of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos.

Here was CCTV footage that challenged his administration's narrative: that police anti-drug operations are above-board, that police only shoot when the suspect fights back.

To make matters worse, Delos Santos is the son of an overseas Filipino worker, the very demographic whose support Duterte continues to count on. 

The President knows Delos Santos' death is not just another statistic he can afford not to mention in public, or a statistic he can spin to fit his agenda.

Rather than wave it away, as his own justice secretary attempted to do, Duterte has condemned the incident.

In fact, the Caloocan teen’s death last August 16 is already changing the way Duterte talks about his anti-drugs campaign in general.

From admitting to his “mistake” about the drug problem to emphasizing he never tolerated abuses by police, Duterte backtracked on his tough talk in two public speeches after Delos Santos’ death.

In these speeches, he spent a significant amount of time talking about Delos Santos and clarifying his previous remarks about his drug war – kill threats included. (READ: Shoot to kill? Duterte's statements on killing drug users)

To be sure, he still says he is determined to continue his drug war. But the usual bluster is gone. Duterte is more defensive than ever as a grade 11 student’s death challenges his government’s narrative about the good guys and bad guys in his war.

Here are some direct quotes:

Admits ‘mistake’

“We have to fight drugs. We have to fight drugs because if I do it – if I stop now… We can commit mistakes. Eh kaya nga [inaudible] ‘yung mga insidente, kaya’t nagkakamali. But this thing about sa –  itong droga, ‘yong ruckus ngayon kay delos Santos ba ‘yan?” (August 22, Malacañang)

Kung nagkakamali ako, (If I committed a mistake) then fine. Someday I will face the consequences. I’m ready to face the consequences.” (August 22, Malacañang) 

“You know, I promised during the elections: I will finish the drug problem in 3 to 6 months. I admit that I committed a mistake in my estimation. You know why? Ang environment ko kasi, ‘yung nasa paradigm ko about law and order, about drugs, ang Davao. Ang template ko Davao. I never expected that noong ako na ang maging presidente, ang haharapin ko right at the start were 9 police generals who were into drugs.” (Because my environment, my paradigm about law and order, about drugs, was Davao. Davao was my template. I never expected that when I became president, I would face right at the start 9 police generals who were into drugs.) (August 23, Batangas) 

“I thought all the while that it was in Davao na takot lahat to commit a mistake. But I did not know that corruption and all nandoon. So tama sila, mali ako (So they are right, I am wrong). I have no illusions.” (August 23, Batangas)

Kian case different from the rest

“I’m not justifying ‘yung sa (the one in) Caloocan. It was really bad. Hindi naman performance of duty ‘yung ganoon (That is not performance of duty). Do not commit a crime.” (August 23, Batangas) 

Itong sa Kian (In the Kian case), I have ordered the arrest. Hindi lang alam ng media (The media just doesn't know it), but right after it happened, I called Bato to arrest the guys and place them in jail, to wait for inquest at tuluy-tuloy na ‘yan (and it will go on and on) if it’s murder.” (August 23, Batangas)

No promise to protect abusive cops

“Now, let us be clear on this, mabuti’t nagpunta rin ako dito (It's good I came here). I said I will protect those who are doing their duty. I never promised to protect those who are supposedly engaged in doing their duty but committing a crime in the process, abuses. That cannot be done.” (August 23, Batangas)

“When I said ‘I will help you’, it does not really say na springing them out of jail. I will provide for their lawyers – dapat lang! (Rightfully so!) Nagtatrabaho sila sa gobyerno tapos hayaan mo (They're working in government and then you drop them).(August 23, Batangas) 

“What I reminded again the military and the police is that it should be in the performance of duty. That you are not allowed to kill a person who is kneeling down, begging for his life – that is murder.” (August 23, Batangas)

While it’s not the first time Duterte has told cops not to abuse their power, this reminder was often drowned out by more colorful threats against drug suspects and promises of protection for police.  

His speeches post-Kian inverted things – his reminder to cops to be responsible took centerstage while his kill threats took the backseat. 

Back then, he was also less careful about his words, often saying them in a joking manner such that interpretation could go any which way.

Take the time he told police they can kill a suspect whether or not they fight back. 

"Pagka bumunot, patayin mo. 'Pag hindi bumunot, patayin mo rin, putang-ina, para matapos na. Eh kaysa mawala pa 'yung baril. Ako na ang bahala sa inyo," he said in September 2016. (If they pull out a gun, kill them. If they don't, kill them still, son of a whore, so it's over, lest you lose the gun. I'll take care of you.)

Or months later when he said if a suspect doesn’t have a gun to fight police with, police should give them a gun so they can say the suspect “fought back.”

O, 'pag walang baril, walang – bigyan mo ng baril (If he has no gun – give him a gun). ‘Here's a loaded gun. Fight because the mayor said let's fight,’” he said in December of that year.

In his recent speeches, this flippant manner of telling police what they are allowed to do in his drug war is gone.

What makes Kian case different

As Duterte himself admitted, it’s hard to ignore CCTV footage belying claims of policemen that everything in that Caloocan drug operation was above-board.

While he said the video still has to be verified, he claimed that his first reaction after seeing it was to call his PNP chief and demand that the police involved be thrown in jail. 

An actual recording of events is much harder to dispute than mere allegations by witnesses. Duterte has time and again shown he is capable of waving off hearsay, a luxury he does not have in Kian’s case – unless someone proves the CCTV footage is fraudulent.

OFW SUPPORT. OFWs in Saudi Arabia welcome President Rodrigo Duterte during his visit to the Middle Eastern country. Presidential photo

OFW SUPPORT. OFWs in Saudi Arabia welcome President Rodrigo Duterte during his visit to the Middle Eastern country.

Presidential photo

Kian is also the son of an overseas Filipino worker. Not just any OFW at that – a domestic helper from Saudi Arabia, the country with the most number of OFWs.

This is exactly the demographic which mobilized for Duterte during elections and helped ensure his victory. The President knows this.

What’s more, he knows he needs to tweak his messaging to appease supporters who now face a moral dilemma. How do they support a President whose drug war killed the very person he swore to them he would protect?

Duterte’s speeches to OFW communities in his foreign trips almost always include a promise that his drug war is meant to protect their kids back home from the scourge of addiction. 

To OFWs in Hong Kong in May 13 for instance, he claimed that a third of OFW’s children are into drugs.

“I said, son of a bitch, this kid’s dad is in another country killing himself at work. This kid’s mother is in another country and sometimes they are raped, abused. They just tolerate it so they can send money to the Philippines,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

But in the case of Delos Santos, Duterte’s police force, far from protecting an OFW’s son, may have snuffed out his life. 

There are more questions citizens are waiting for Duterte to answer: Does he still have control of the police? Can the police, who Duterte continues to reward and stand up for, still be trusted? 

Changing tact

Kian is hardly the first possible victim of extrajudicial killing, and not even the first minor casualty of Duterte’s drug war. But his death, because of the CCTV footage and family’s circumstances, made him a rallying point for Duterte’s critics.

Duterte knows this. Tables were turned on him when opposition leaders, led by Vice President Leni Robredo, visited Delos Santos’ wake. Before then, it was Duterte most often seen visiting the wake of policemen or soldiers. It was Duterte’s turn to appear callous in the face of tragedy.

Commenting on his absence in Delos Santos’ wake, Duterte told reporters, “Pumunta raw si Vice President. Good. Sana isinali na lang niya ‘yung pangalan ko, kasi nasa gobyerno naman kaming dalawa.

(The Vice President went to the wake. Good. She should have included my name since we are both in government anyway.)

Unable to defend his drug war with the same conviction as before, Duterte caved, at least in his messaging.

But Dutere’s speeches don’t show what he is thinking, only what he wants the public to think he is thinking.

The President verbally folded on his drug war once before – after the murder of a South Korean businessman by police.

The controversy prompted him to admit his mistake in setting a deadline for his drug war. It led to him temporarily strip the police of their leading role in the campaign. 

But soon, the colorful threats against criminals were back. One evening in August, Duterte even praised police for the record-high death toll of simultaneous anti-drug operations in Bulacan. 

A few hours later, in Caloocan, a teenager named Kian Delos Santos was shot in an alley. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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