Controversial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has removed the country’s police force from its lead role in his violent crackdown on drugs, the Philippine government has announced.
The lead agency in the ‘campaign against drugs’ will now be the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Duterte stated in a memorandum, with the police, armed forces and ‘ad hoc anti-drug task forces’ instructed to leave the PDEA as the sole agency in all anti-drug operations. The move has been seen by some as an attempt to soften the country’s stance in the wake of widespread condemnation.
Duterte was elected president in May 2016 after promising to ‘fatten the fishes’ in Manila Bay on the bodies of dead criminals. By September that year more than 3,000 suspected drug users and dealers were estimated to have been killed by either police or vigilante groups (DDN, October 2016, page 8), with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon issuing a statement condemning the president’s ‘apparent endorsement’ of extrajudicial killing. The number of dead was estimated to have risen to 7,000 by the beginning of this year.
Duterte previously suspended his violent crackdown in order to address problems of police corruption after a Korean businessman was allegedly murdered on police premises (DDN, February, page 5), and there were widespread protests this summer, as well as condemnation by the country’s powerful Catholic Church, after an unarmed 17-year old student was shot dead by police.
Hopes that the Philippines is taking a completely new direction in its drug war are perhaps premature, however. This month its supreme court voted to uphold the detention of former justice secretary Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic of Duterte’s war on drugs whose arrest earlier this year was condemned as ‘politically motivated’ by Human Rights Watch (DDN, March, page 5), and Duterte has also issued a threat to expel all UN and EU diplomats from the country.