The killing by Philippine police of a South Korean businessman is an ominous indicator of the breakdown of rule of law under President Rodrigo Duterte.
A government investigation released this week concluded that the Philippine National Police (PNP) officers who killed Jee Ick-joo were members of its Anti-Illegal Drugs Group. The officers had kidnapped Jee on October 18, 2016, after raiding his home in Angeles City using a fake arrest warrant that falsely implicated him in illegal drug activities. They reportedly strangled Jee to death that same day, but two weeks later demanded – and received – a US$100,000 ransom from his family.
Jee’s killing is notably grotesque even amidst a “war on drugs” that has killed thousands, including children as young as 5, in the past six months. Since Duterte took office on June 30, his anti-drug campaign has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people. They include 2,250 “suspected drug personalities” killed by police between July 1, 2016, and January 17, 2017. Police have attributed those killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have not provided evidence that police acted in self-defense. An additional 3,603 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed by “unidentified gunmen” between July 1 and January 9. Jee’s extrajudicial execution bolsters allegations that “death squads,” composed of police personnel operating in civilian clothes, are committing some and perhaps many of those killings.
Philippine police have good reason to believe that they can literally get away with murder. Duterte has pledged effective immunity for police who kill in the name of his drug war. He underscored his own personal contempt for human rights and rule of law on December 12 when he publicly announced that he had personally killed suspected drug users and dealers while mayor of Davao City.
Yet our previous research in the Philippines shows that those given a license to kill with impunity will eventually start doing so for personal profit. In 2014, Human Rights Watch exposed the existence of a “death squad” in Tagum City, on the southern island of Mindanao, which was linked to hundreds of killings. At first, it operated as a salaried arm of the municipal government to target suspected drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children. It eventually took on freelance for-profit killings, including those of a journalist, a judge, and businesspeople.
Duterte’s “war on drugs” has widened the gateway for similar abuses. Until the Philippine government stops the drug war killings and seeks meaningful accountability for its thousands of victims, Jee Ick-joo’s murder may portend a flood of for-profit killings by cops.