Philippines’ war vs drugs: It has been bloody

Nicole Curato
Philippines’ war vs drugs: It has been bloody
From social media to the streets, President Duterte’s first month in office has been bloody

“I told you to avoid me,” reluctant presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte warned the nation last year. “It’s going to be bloody.”  From the beginning of his candidacy until his first weeks in office as President of the Republic, Mr Duterte has been consistent in using tough language in his war against crime and drugs. 

True enough, it has been bloody. 

Less than a month into his presidency, over 300 drug-related killings have been recorded. Most have been shot during police operations. Others were killed by unidentified gunmen and vigilantes.  

The profile of the victims varies. Some are known drug pushers – those who have been on the city’s drug watch list and ruined the lives of many poor families. There are possible instances of mistaken identity, like the young scholar sleeping over a friend’s place killed in a drug bust operation. Many are nameless victims, the “unidentified suspects” whose cadavers remain unclaimed in funeral parlors.  

The story we tell

Whether we like it or not, killings have now become integral to the narrative of the Philippines’ war against drugs.  Our President’s remarks have a lot to do with building this narrative, but it is unfair to lay blame squarely on the President for promoting this kind of discourse. 

This narrative is much bigger than Mr Duterte. Underpinning the President’s tough talk on drugs is a deeply worrying public sentiment that affirms, legitimizes and even celebrates the spike on drug-related killings. Carlos Bodoni calls this the Titanic Syndrome: A contagious euphoria while country is sinking. 

A cursory observation of comments in online forums and everyday talk is revealing of the kind of society in which we now live. 

First, it tells a story of a society that has cast doubt on what were once considered inalienable principles of human rights. It turns out that this discussion is far from settled, that there are vocal segments of society who continue to think that some are less human than others, that human rights are particular, not universal and that suspicion is enough to shoot someone dead. 

Today, what we see is a renegotiation of these universal principles. We hear citizens unapologetically arguing that there are lives worth protecting and lives worth sacrificing for the sake of a political project. Some, if not many, have given up on the ideal of building a nation based on principles of social justice and compassion. We are living in times of crisis, where rights and liberties are suspended to save the nation from itself. 

Penal populism

Second, it seems like the discussion of crime and punishment today is overwhelmingly driven by emotions than evidence. Even though there is no compelling scientific evidence that death penalty is a deterrent to crime and no “war against drugs” has ever succeeded, none of these facts matter to an anxious public bent on punishing people they perceive to be scum of society. 

Penal populism is the term sociologists use to describe this phenomenon. It is driven by feelings of anger and disillusionment with the slow procedures of the criminal justice system. Toughness and immediate gratification are prioritised while the long-term and tedious strategy of reforming the criminal justice system is viewed as a policy supported by politicians with no balls and citizens who are biased and out of touch.

The killings have driven a wedge into our society. Instead of cultivating a sense that we are responsible for each other, it has only served to make others feel better about themselves. It perpetuates an individualistic thinking that we do not end up as cadavers wrapped in a garbage bag and packing tape because we are much better people than those degenerates who do not deserve a fair trial.  

What we conveniently forget is how easy it is to fall into the cracks. Alice Goffman’s book On the Run brilliantly documents this in the case of Philadelphia although the insights put forward applies to the Philippines.  Communities with limited life choices can easily be enveloped in the web of criminality, as in the case of too familiar stories of desperate youths ending up as drug mules and children running away from an abusive home only to land in the hands of drug syndicates. 

Anyone can end up as a drug pusher, young sociologistAdrienne Onday has rightfully pointed out. And often, misfortune, rather than deliberate life choices, creates the conditions that makes one vulnerable to summary executions. 

Changing the narrative

DAILY SCENE. In this picture taken on July 8, 2016, police officers investigate the body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape and a placard reading "I'm a pusher", on a street in Manila. File photo by Noel Celis/AFP

So what is it that you want, I am often asked. I think there are two ways to move forward. 

First is to hold our officials accountable. Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa provides hope for his clear commitment to the rule of law and rejection of summary killings. It is good news that our police force has gained morale in performing their duties, as they are now emboldened to go after drug syndicates who used to be untouchable because they are protected by narco-politicians. I want our law enforcers to succeed. I want them to succeed in arresting, filing cases, trying and convicting guilty drug offenders. 

It would be tragic if what we consider as virtuous cops today evolve to be the butchers of the future.  The best assurance that our law enforcement agencies do not spiral into the use of excessive force is to secure the integrity of our checks and balances even if this means subjecting themselves to the investigation of the administration’s political opponents.  “There is nothing to fear if you did nothing wrong,” the police officers often tell us. This must also apply to them when there are calls for congressional inquiries, probes and investigations. 

Second, we need to hold ourselves, as citizens, accountable. I, personally, have been thoroughly impressed with what the Duterte administration has achieved in the past few weeks. These achievements, however, can easily be overshadowed by failing to bring in the voices of the victims of extra-judicial killings in our nation’s quest for change. There is blood in our hands if we fail to speak up and condone the troubling spike of summary killings. It is not unsupportive of this government to say we can do better than this.  

Citizens can still change the narrative of the Duterte administration. It can still be an administration that is competent, efficient and trustworthy while shifting its gears to a firm yet humane and creative but evidence-based approach to crime. My ideal society is one where citizens look after each other, one where we turn others’ misfortune, and even bad decisions, into redemption. 

From social media to the streets, the first month of President Duterte has been bloody. But the next six years do not have to end this way. –


Nicole Curato is a sociologist. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleCurato

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