[ANALYSIS] The glaring contradictions in Duterte’s war on drugs

JC Punongbayan

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[ANALYSIS] The glaring contradictions in Duterte’s war on drugs
It’s been more than two years already, and otherwise pious and caring Filipinos seem largely unconcerned with the drug war


Wars on drugs cannot be won. That much we know from the lessons of history, the principles of economics, and the experience of other countries.  

Even President Duterte himself, at one point, already publicly expressed his helplessness on the matter. 

On August 12, 2017 he said, “Hindi makaya nga ng iba, tayo pa kaya? (Others couldn’t do it. How much more for us?) We can’t control it.”

Despite this, many of his subordinates still seem intoxicated with the idea that the war on drugs can still be won. 

In this article I point out some of the glaring contradictions – based on recent events – that betray the fact that Duterte’s drug war has miserably failed.

1) The price of shabu has dropped even as inflation has risen.

In a time of accelerating prices (inflation is highest in nearly a decade), there’s one product whose price has dramatically gone down: shabu or crystal meth.

According to Aaron Aquino, chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), shabu prices have plummeted in recent weeks to P1,600 to P2,000 per gram, from a high of P6,800 per gram. That translates to a 71% to 82% price drop.

Aquino believes this to be a direct consequence of the P11-billion shipment of shabu that recently slipped past the supposedly watchful eyes of Bureau of Customs officials.

A year ago, another large shipment of shabu worth P6.4 billion came washing onto our shores, again passing through the porous gates of Customs.

This periodic influx of imported shabu – which now seems to be an annual thing – is symptomatic of a failed drug war. Rather than make illegal drugs less accessible to users, shabu is now cheaper and more accessible than ever, defeating the drug war’s original, ostensible purpose.

The truth is, drug syndicates and cartels tend to thrive (rather than perish) where drug wars are being waged. This is something that’s completely predictable, if only Duterte knew his history and economics. (READ: War on drugs? Other countries focus on demand, not supply)

2) As street-level pushers die, high-level Customs officials go scot-free.

Just as baffling as the incessant arrival of shabu is Duterte’s overly lenient response to the gross ineptitude of his drug operatives and officials.

For instance, rather than punish his past two Customs chiefs who let past tons of shabu that flooded the local market, Duterte simply moved them to other government posts without even a slap on the wrist. 

The first, Nicanor Faeldon, was first transferred as deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense. Now he’s the new chief of the Bureau of Corrections.

Meanwhile, the second, Isidro Lapeña – former chief of police of Davao City during Duterte’s mayorship – has been assigned as new head of TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority). This being a Cabinet-level post, Lapeña’s transfer is in fact a promotion.

Duterte even went out of his way to make excuses in behalf of Lapeña, saying the latter was the victim of a “vilification campaign” and “nalusutan lang” (the perpetrators really just got past him).

At the same time that such transfers and promotions are happening, people continue to die in the streets for carrying a few grams of shabu, whether planted or not.

Latest police records show that as many as 23,518 homicides are under investigation from June 1, 2016 to June 11, 2018 (around 33 per day). Meanwhile, 4,854 drug suspects have been killed up until August 31, 2018.

These days, therefore, carrying a gram of shabu could spell death, but letting past tons of shabu into the country could even land you a promotion.

3) Drug operatives themselves are committing the crimes they vowed to fight.

Duterte originally justified his drug war by saying it will work to prevent the spread of drug-related crimes, such as rape or murder.

But it seems that drug war operatives themselves are liable for the crimes they vowed to fight.

For instance, last week, a policeman confessed to raping a 15-year-old girl in exchange for the release of the girl’s parents, who were being held as drug suspects. 

Upon being presented to the chief of the NCRPO (National Capital Region Police Office), the offending policeman boldly said, “Sir, hindi na po bago sa ’ting mga operatiba ‘yung gano’n kapag may nahuhuli po tayong drug pusher, sir.” (This is nothing new among our operatives whenever we catch drug pushers.)

Previous reports by various groups (local and international) have directly linked the police to several cases of extrajudicial killings (EJKs). 

In Rappler’s new “Murder in Manila” series, Patricia Evangelista documented the fact that in certain places police units seem to be outsourcing the conduct of EJKs to vigilante gangs.

The truth is, many Filipinos – especially among the poor – cannot help but see the police as a greater threat to their lives than drug addicts themselves. 

4) Human rights abuses abound, yet we won a seat in the UN Human Rights Council.

This month, the Philippines also surprisingly won its bid for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a coalition of countries supposedly “responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.”

Former foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano hailed this development, saying before the UN General Assembly this is “proof that many in the international community remain convinced the Philippines respects and protects human rights and have seen through the efforts of some to politicize and weaponize the issue.”

Some groups, however, have tried in vain to oppose this bid for a seat in the UNHRC. 

Indeed, why did UN member-states vote for the Philippine government’s continued inclusion in the Human Rights Council, knowing full well that the Duterte administration has perpetrated and condoned human rights abuses left and right?

Heck, Duterte already confessed recently that his “only sin is extrajudicial killings” – an admission that some legal experts say could be a ground for his impeachment.

Will the country’s continued membership in the Human Rights Council at least coax the Duterte government into stopping its bloody drug war? Good luck with that.

Failed drug war

The PDEA chief recently said that “maybe the Philippines is the first country that would win the war on drugs.” 

But 28 months into the drug war, we seem no closer to eradicating drugs than when Duterte first declared he can do it in just 3 to 6 months. 

This epic failure stems largely from the false premise that drug wars can be won in the first place. But it’s high time we disabused ourselves of that fatal misconception, and took the Duterte government to task for the failed drug war. 

Unfortunately, it’s been more than two years already, and otherwise pious and caring Filipinos seem largely unconcerned with the drug war – as well as the plight of the thousands of victimized families – at least until the bullets rain on their own relatives and friends.

Could this be the most glaring contradiction of all? – Rappler.com

The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com). 

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.