Duterte's War on Drugs: A controversial centerpiece of a President's legacy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 25) – The main promise that may have catapulted Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency six years ago had to do with eradicating the problem of illegal drugs in the country in three to six months.

The vow helped deliver over 16 million votes for him in the 2016 polls, giving him the mandate to lead the country and start a nationwide crackdown against illegal drugs.

As Duterte steps down from power in a few days, his administration's war on illegal drugs is leaving more scars than healed wounds.

Bloody start to Oplan Tokhang

The relentless war on drugs of the Duterte administration famously called Oplan Tokhang was off to a "bloody" start as over 7,000 lives were killed from June to December 2016 because of police operations, according to the estimated figures of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

"If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful," Duterte said a day after he was sworn in as the nation's 16th president.

Duterte often says that drugs destroy families and eradicating it will bring back peace and order to the society.

Interestingly, the police data on casualties was higher than the 6,252 fatalities reported by government monitoring platform RealNumbersPH as of May 31 this year. Local and international human rights organizations estimate an even higher number of drug war fatalities -- between 12,000 to 30,000.

Duterte's drug war went full blast across all corners of the country, even targeting uniformed personnel and local government officials.

Police would point out that drug suspects often resisted arrest before they were gunned down. Many of the dead bodies from these anti-drug police operations were wrapped with a signage identifying the persons as drug addicts and should not be emulated.

Cracking a can of worms

The momentum of Duterte's drug war was stalled when police came under fire for the kidnapping and death of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo inside the Camp Crame on October 2016. Duterte then ordered the police to stop heading the anti-drug operations and assigned Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency authorities to lead the drug war instead.

The controversial incident opened a can of worms on the government's approach in dealing with illegal drugs, aggravated by the continuous outcry from different human rights organizations and opposition figures in the legislative chamber.

Investigations were made regarding the alleged human rights violations of Duterte's drug war, but those went for naught.

Leading international human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also slammed the Duterte administration's war on drugs for promoting state-sponsored killings. The latter even published a report in January 2017 where they lambasted police officers for targeting poor drug offenders by planting evidence, hiring killers, and fabricating official incident reports to justify their acts.

Recently, forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun found cases of inconsistencies in her re-autopsy of exhumed remains of 46 drug war victims. She added the death certificates declared the victims died due to natural causes, but gunshot wounds were found in their remains. 

The police force itself was embroiled in some controversies in their anti-drug operations, most notably the "ninja cops" who were suspected of recycling illegal drugs they previously seized by selling those to drug dealers.

In defense, Duterte stated he is not afraid to face prison time for the alleged crimes committed in his bloody war.

"If you are human rights and (asking for) due process, you stink and your mouth smells. If you want to criticize, criticize and stop there. But do not give the excuse or do not make it trivial by saying 'human rights.' Yun ang pinaka-bugok [That is the stupidest]... stick [to] one topic," Duterte said during his 2017 State of the Nation Address.

Kian and Carl: faces of collateral damage

The turning point of Duterte's brutal war against illegal drugs came when 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos and 19-year-old Carl Arnaiz were killed on the same day in August 2017 by policemen, triggering more public sentiments against the government's centerpiece program.

A CCTV footage showing that Delos Santos was being dragged by uniformed men before his death nullified the police's claims that the young Grade 11 student was armed and fired a shot in the crime scene in Caloocan City.

Arnaiz, meanwhile, was killed for allegedly being involved in a robbery incident, also in Caloocan City.

Delos Santos and Arnaiz died as collateral damage when Duterte's drug war was at its height. Their deaths apparently exposed the government's lack of transparency in its polarizing crusade.

Most of the cases involving drug war casualties have been stuck or even not reached the lower courts to date. However, RealNumbersPH accounted 345,216 persons were put in jail due to the drug war.

The Duterte government implemented some stop-gap measures to "responsibly" implement its anti-narcotics war, for one creating the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs where outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo became the chairperson for mere 20 days in November 2019.

Duterte withdraws PH from ICC

The Duterte administration's drug war drew mixed reactions from the international community, with 38 member states leading the call in 2018 through the United Nations Human Rights Council to stop the Philippine government in implementing it.

Duterte ignored the plea of those countries and lambasted the International Criminal Court (ICC) for monitoring the developments of his government's drug war.

The ICC is an international tribunal that prosecutes individuals involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The chief executive announced he would withdraw the country's signature from the Rome Statute, which established the international tribunal. The President decried efforts to use the ICC as a "political tool" against the Philippines.

"The acts allegedly committed by me are neither genocide nor war crimes. Neither is it a crime of aggression or a crime against humanity," Duterte said. "The self-defense employed by the police officers when their lives became endangered by the violent resistance of the suspects is a justifying circumstance under our criminal law hence, they do not incur criminal liability."

After a two-year investigation, the office of ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensuoda in December 2020 found a "reasonable basis" to claim that crimes against humanity have occurred during the brutal war.

The ICC temporarily halted their probe on the drug war in November 2021, following a request from the Philippine government, but new ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan asked the court's Pre-Trial Chamber to resume the investigation days before Duterte steps down as president.

Victory or violence

Jennifer*, whose father was killed by policemen, is among those whose families were shattered by the violent crackdown of the Duterte administration.

"I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn't listen to him. That's why I was so angry," Jennifer said in an interview with Human Rights Watch on the impact of Duterte's drug war. She was 12 years old when her father was killed on December 2016.

Such hurt felt by Jennifer and others who suffered the same fate had stained whatever efforts to change Philippine society for the better during Duterte's time. The war led to a perceived culture of violence and cast doubt on the government's capability to protect its citizens.

Until the last days of his administration, Duterte remained firm there was nothing for him to be sorry about his war against illegal drugs.

"Kill me, imprison me. I will never apologize," Duterte said in a speech in January this year.