Philippines: Duterte must end his “war on drugs”

Gener Rondina never stood a chance. When the Philippine police arrived at his home in the middle of the night, he tried to push an air conditioner out of the wall and flee through the opening. The police were waiting on the other side and shone a flashlight on his face.

Terrified, he retreated inside, began pleading for his life, and offered himself up for arrest. Family members said he had been trying to quit his use and small-scale sale of drugs. “I will surrender, I will surrender, sir,” a witness said Rondina shouted. The police told Rondina to get on his knees and hold his hands over his head. They told his family to leave the room. Moments later, gunshots rang out.

Rondina is one of more than 7,000 people who have been killed in the Philippines’ “war on drugs” over the past seven months. Since President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power, on a platform of uplifting the poor and ridding the streets of crime, he has incited people with his murderous rhetoric to take the law into their own hands and kill anyone they suspect of using or selling drugs.

The Philippine police claimed, as they did in the vast majority of cases Amnesty International documented, that Rondina resisted arrest. The witnesses we spoke to told a different story, that of an unarmed man stricken with fear in what he knew were the final moments of his life. When he was killed, a witness said the police dragged him outside “like a pig” and left his corpse by a sewer before loading it into a truck.

Every day, families arrive at morgues in the Philippines to search for the dumped bodies of their loved ones. The victims are overwhelmingly from the poorest sections of society. They are not powerful drug traffickers or leaders of drug syndicates, but people whose names were added to “hit lists” by local political bosses on suspicion that they used or sold drugs, no matter how little or how long ago.

The killings have become so common that there is almost a casual air of business at the morgues and funeral homes. The police and other officials look on indifferently as they process paperwork, unmoved by the relentless loss of human life. The only value they attach to them is as commodities in an economy of murder. Dignity for the victims is even denied in death—one officer speaking to us said some police officers have entered into a racket with local funeral homes, taking a cut for each body sent their way.

As a Metro Manila anti-drugs police officer revealed to us, the police are paid “per hit” by their bosses. These under-the-table payments can be as much as $300 for each alleged drug offender they kill. As a result, there is no incentive to arrest people like Rondina and submit them to due process. When there is a shootout during a drugs raid, the police officer said, an alleged drug offender is always killed.

Safe in the knowledge that they will not be held accountable for the killings, the police prey on victims in other ways. During a raid, several people told us, they often plant “evidence” even as they snatch possessions. Rondina’s father, who himself served on the police force for 24 years before retiring, said the police took a laptop, a watch, a cell phone and cash after they killed his son. (On Monday, police chief Ronald dela Rosa conceded that there is corruption in the force and said they will “cleanse” the ranks.)  

There are times when the police prefer to operate in secret. Trading in their uniforms for disguises, they roam the streets on motorcycles in pairs. “Riding in tandem,” as it is known locally, they approach their target, kill them, and speed away. This way, they have no questions to confront, and no paperwork to fill in or reports to falsify.

At other times, the police recruit paid killers to do their dirty work for them. As two paid killers we spoke to said, they’re managed by an active police officer. Their gang includes a number of former police officers. “For a user,” one of the paid killers told us, “it’s 5,000 pesos (US $100).” For a “pusher,” she added, it can be twice or three times as much.

Following the police killing of South Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo on the grounds of the national police headquarters, Duterte said he was disbanding the police’s anti-drug unit. But he has vowed to press ahead with his violent campaign, until the end of his term in 2022. The problem is not just a few police officers, but the policy as a whole, which will continue to claim lives.

On Tuesday night, a day after the police said they had abandoned their anti-narcotics operations, the body of 24-year-old Aldrin de Guzman was found near his home. The killers left him out on the street, in what has become a hauntingly familiar sight for Filipinos. Each morning, people walk along the streets, past the bodies, touched by the fear the killers left for them.

It’s a fear that now pervades every impoverished neighbourhood in the archipelago, where residents worry that they or a loved one may be next. The same police that are supposed to protect them are hunting them down, acting on the instructions of the president who was supposed to be their greatest champion. “If you are poor,” as one victim’s relative told us, “you are killed.”