Hundreds of the Philippine National Police’s top brass were asked to resign on Wednesday, in the Southeast Asian nation’s latest attempt to curb the illegal drug trade and related corruption that allegedly dogs law enforcement ranks. It was a directive reportedly recommended in part by the national police chief, Rodolfo Azurin Jr., who submitted his resignation the following day.
Benjamin Abalos Jr., the country’s interior secretary, says that the submission of resignations by some 300 officials is the “only way to make a fresh start” in the country’s fight against illegal drugs. The interior department oversees the 227,000-strong national police.
“This war on drugs will be a difficult battle especially when your own allies are the ones shooting you from behind,” Abalos said in a news conference Wednesday at the police headquarters in Manila.
In the Philippines, a country of 110 million people, the police have been at the forefront of a bloody campaign against drug users and dealers. This “war on drugs” was the brainchild of the country’s former populist President Rodrigo Duterte. Though he had once said the police were “rotten to the core,” Duterte empowered law enforcement officials, and the number of deaths related to anti-drug operations ballooned to thousands in a matter of months.
Despite the campaign’s brutality, Duterte won record-high support for his tough stance on the drug trade, and he became the country’s most popular outgoing president when he left office last June.
But, under new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the latest move to reform the police through mass resignations reinforces what a catastrophe the past six years has been, says Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and international affairs expert in the Philippines. “It really reflects the total failure of the previous administration to really clean up the system,” he tells TIME.
How bad of a problem is drug use and the drug trade in the Philippines?
Duterte once claimed the illegal drug situation in the Philippines was so bad it was at risk of becoming a “narco-state.” But there is limited data to back up claims of how widespread the problem is.
Government data claims almost 11.91 metric tons of methamphetamine, locally called shabu, worth $1.4 billion were seized between July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2022.
A 2019 survey from the Philippines’ Dangerous Drugs Board, extrapolated that two in every 100, or around 1.7 million Filipinos aged 10-69 were using drugs like methamphetamine and marijuana at the time of the data collection.
In the same year, however, only 5,277 recorded admissions in health facilities in the Philippines were related to substance abuse, according to the World Health Organization.
What did the war on drugs do?
When Duterte took office in 2016, the streets became rife with extrajudicial drug-enforcement-related killings, many in low-income and rural areas, with some victims not even involved in the drug trade.
Police data report over 6,200 deaths in anti-drug operations during the past six years, but human rights advocates and independent monitors put the number somewhere between 12,000 to 30,000. They also allege that some errant officers would plant drug evidence to frame victims. The U.S., the European Union, and other international bodies have all raised alarms over the deaths, sparking an International Criminal Court (ICC) probe against Duterte for possible crimes against humanity. At one point in 2017, he asked police to stand down anti-drug operations amid reports of abuse of power, but he reinstated them months later.
Marcos Jr., Duterte’s political ally and successor, has vowed to continue the drug war—albeit less punitively. But the killings have not stopped—police reported 46 deaths in anti-drug operations from when Marcos took office on June 30 last year to Nov. 16. Dahas, a monitoring initiative from the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Third World Studies Center, reports even higher figures: recording 161 killings from June 30 to Dec. 7, 2022.
And despite thousands dead, the drug trade has not stopped either. In the first five months since Marcos Jr.’s term began, authorities seized almost $179 million in illegal drugs. Worse, enforcers themselves have been implicated in the trade: on Dec. 6, in Taguig City, some 15 km away from the capital Manila, authorities confiscated illegal narcotics worth over $164,000—with the local drug enforcement agency chief the suspected culprit.
Why have police generals been asked to resign en masse?
Abalos himself said the move is a “shortcut” to the lengthy judicial process involved in prosecuting police officials involved in the drug trade. It’s also not necessarily going to lead to a significant change in personnel: a five-member panel will evaluate each official’s links to drugs, and may choose to accept or reject their resignation. “What they’re doing is for show,” says Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “It’s a tried and tested tactic by a lot of Filipino politicians.”
A mass resignation of top police officials is not feasible, says Heydarian, who believes the call to resign should not be taken literally but instead be seen as a call for understanding from the public. “There’s clearly a recognition that things were not working under the previous administration, as far as rule of law, public safety, and dealing with the issue of drugs is concerned,” he tells TIME.
But Conde says the Marcos administration is sending “mixed signals” on accountability. More than a dozen police personnel were arrested or removed and investigated last year for their links to the drug trade, and in November, a local court sentenced a police officer convicted of torturing and planting evidence to two terms of life imprisonment, Reuters reported, marking a rare conviction against corrupt drug war officials. However, at the same time, Marcos Jr. refuses to rejoin the ICC over its investigation of Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
“The six years of Mr. Duterte really set the bar so low for human rights,” Conde says, “that whoever replaced him, now Mr. Marcos, can pretty much do anything and he’d still look good.”
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