SONA 2021: A look at President Duterte's war on drugs five years on

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Ending illegal drugs was a campaign promise that President Rodrigo Duterte failed to fulfill in his first three to six months in power. It was a self-imposed deadline that he repeatedly extended and a war he started but later on admitted he cannot finish.

On numerous occasions, the President explained he never thought the drug problem in the country was so vast and deeply rooted, even within the government system.

"Sabi ko nga na [I said before] I can solve the problem in six months. Little did I know that I will be fighting my own government," Duterte said in his sit-down interview last June 8.

Five years since the drug war began, over 52% of the country's 42,045 barangays have been cleared of illegal drugs while more than 31% have yet to be cleared based on government data.

"Kahit napakarami pa nating nahuli, kahit masasabi nating napakarami na nating na-confiscate, and yet meron pa ding drug user doon, hindi pa rin pwede i-declare na drug cleared. [Even if we arrest many or confiscate a lot of drugs, we cannot declare an area cleared if there are still drug users left in an area]," Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief PGen. Guillermo Eleazar said. "It needs a whole of community approach where the police or the enforcement is just part of it."

With this, the controversial "Tokhang" operations continued, where authorities knock on the doors of supposed drug peddlers and users, and ask them to surrender and avail of government rehabilitation programs.

As for high value targets, Eleazar said there is no let-up in their efforts to bring them to justice.

The PNP also noted the continuous drop in crime rates since the drug war was launched. For example, total crimes from November 11, 2020 to March 31, 2021 went down by more than 15% compared to the numbers from November 11, 2019 to March 31, 2020.

Bloody drug war

In September 2016, Duterte said: "Mag-massacre kayo ng isang daan, isang daan rin kayo, eh di pardon lahat eh [You massacre one hundred, and you're also one hundred. All of you will be pardoned]. Restored to full political and civil rights plus a promotion to boot. Basta gano'n mga lalo na, high profile. [Just like that, especially with high profile cases]. We have to remove them from the syndicates or remove them from this planet."

Based on available government data, 293,841 drug suspects were arrested while 6,147 were killed in the 203,715 anti-illegal drug operations conducted from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2021.

That is apart from the more than 20,000 deaths under investigation that the PNP reported in 2018. CNN Philippines requested an update on these cases, but it has yet to be granted.

Lawyer Krissy Conti, who is handling the cases of some drug war victims, said the President himself encouraged and emboldened policemen to kill.

"Hindi lang niya basta inutos na ubusin ang droga. Inutos nya rin na ubusin ang drug addict, na patayin ang drug addict. He encouraged it. Inengganyo niya ang mga pulis, ipinasok niya ang konsepto sa kukote ng mga pulis na ok lang na mapatay niyo, patayin niyo," Conti said.

[Translation: He didn't just order police to wipe out drugs, he ordered them to wipe out all addicts. He encouraged it. He introduced the concept that it was OK to kill them all.]

But the PNP insisted there was no such order from the President. Eleazar said policemen need to defend themselves when a drug suspect resists arrest and fights back.

Eleazar also said respect for human rights is part of police training and whoever violates this will face the long arm of the law.

Victims' quest for justice

For some of the families of drug war victims, justice remains elusive, like in the case of 17-year-old Joshua Laxamana. His mother Christine Pascual has not yet moved on from the brutal death of her son.

Laxamana, an online gaming player, was killed in a supposed police operation in Pangasinan in 2018. Police claimed Laxamana was a notorious member of a burglary gang, and that drugs and a firearm were recovered from him — something that Pascual and other witnesses disputed.

Pascual said her son joined a DOTA tournament in Baguio City with two companions. The incident occurred while the victims were walking home to Tarlac province.

"Pinangarap niya na makilala siya bilang isang magaling sa ganong kakayahan niya, bilang 'yun ang hilig niya. Ang saklap po talaga 'di ba? Isang araw, makikila siya sa ganong pamamaraan pa, may baril may drugs, samantalang 'yun ang pinakaayaw niya," Pascual said.

[Translation: He dreamed of one day becoming famous for what he loves and what he does best, but what's tragic is that he became known for allegedly carrying a gun and drugs. He hates those things.]

Murder charges were filed against six police officers for Laxamana's death. However, the Ombudsman dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. Pascual said the case filed against President Duterte and the PNP before the International Criminal Court (ICC) is her only hope to attain justice for her son.

"Wala naman pong imposible pag pinursige, 'di ba po? 'Pag talagang pinush, wala pong imposible marating 'yang hinahangad namin, napakasarap po sa pakiramdam. Siguro doon lang po kami makakatulog na ang anak namin o sinumang pamilyang may kamukha namin na masarap pong matulog na napaglaban mo po at merong nagdusa sa nangyari samin," Pascual said.

[Translation: Nothing's impossible if you pursue it, right? Pursuing and attaining what we long for will make us feel good inside. I think the only time we can get a good night's sleep is when we or any family that has gone through such a horrible thing like we did, gets justice, and until the people responsible suffer for their crime.]

Before stepping down on July 15, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda sought a full investigation on the drug-related killings in the Philippines. Should the ICC proceed with the formal investigation, Malacañang said the Duterte administration will not cooperate.

"I believe that the decision to move forward into a formal investigation stage is legally erroneous and politically motivated...Hinding-hindi magko-cooperate ang Presidente hanggang matapos ang kanyang termino sa June 30, 2022 [The President will never ever cooperate until his term ends on June 30, 2022]," said a fuming Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque in one of his press conferences.

Quest for transparency: Body-worn cameras

Police have started using body-worn cameras for their operations. Eleazar said it was a change introduced to make police operations more transparent.

"Napakalaking bagay nito kasi magbibigay ito ng proteksyon hindi lamang sa sinasabi nating suspects, pati na rin sa mga pulis na binibigyan ng maling akala o malicious accusation. In effect, ito ay para sa kabutihan ng lahat," the PNP chief said.

[Translation: This is of great importance because this will not just protect the rights of suspects, but also protect our policemen from false and malicious accusations. In effect, this is good for everyone.]

With controversies hounding the government's bloody war on drugs, former PNP chief, now senator, Ronald Dela Rosa said things could have been different if there were body-worn cameras during his time. Dela Rosa was the poster boy of the Duterte administration's "relentless" campaign against illegal drugs.

"Since may namatay, at nagke-claim ang pamilya na hindi talaga lumaban, nagke-claim naman ang pulis na lumaban, merong doubt ang publiko. Pero kung meron na sana 'yun, na-establish na sana na ito talaga may ginawang kalokohan ang pulis, mali ang ginawa nila, established kaagad. Ma-file-an agad ng kaso. Kung wala naman, kahit na anong claim ng other side, sa victim o sa suspect, naka-counter agad 'yung claim nila dahil merong ebidensya," the senator said.

[Translation: There is doubt among the public when police say a suspect died after fighting back, and the family says otherwise. But if there are body cameras, evidence can be established quickly and allegations of any wrongdoing can be proven or disputed.]

Recently, the Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines in the use of body-worn cameras in serving search and arrest warrants. These guidelines may help improve public trust in law enforcement, according to the Commission on Human Rights.

CHR Spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said they fully support the creation of this legal framework since the introduction of new technology in the criminal justice system promotes transparency and accountability.

"We push for the use of body-worn cameras as a preventive measure to reduce lethal force during police operations; to achieve improved resolution of complaints; and more effective evidence in judicial proceeding," De Guia said.

Human rights group Karapatan also welcomed the use of body-worn cameras or alternative recording devices, but said it will continue to keep careful watch for possible gaps and loopholes that may be used by law enforcers in their operations.

The PNP created a technical working group (TWG) to incorporate the Supreme Court rules into their existing policies. Eleazar said the TWG is also expected to create a module that will be used in training their personnel.

"Sa panig ng inyong PNP, tinitiyak namin na ang panuntunan na pinaghirapan at pinaglaanan ng mahabang oras ng ating mga Mahistrado ay isa sa mga magiging instrumento upang gawing normal ang konsepto ng transparency at accountability sa isip at sa gawa ng bawat miyembro ng inyong kapulisan," the PNP chief said.

[Translation: We in the PNP will make sure that the guidelines set forth and given full attention by our honorable Justices will be utilized so the concept of transparency and accountability will be instilled in the minds of our policemen.]

Currently, the PNP has a total of 2,696 body cameras that were distributed to 171 police stations and offices. But Eleazar said they need around 30,000 more to cover all police stations and units of the national police force.