Send in the troops.
That’s Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s follow-up to the announced pause earlier this week for a pause in the Philippine National Police’s “drug war” following revelations this month of the brutal killing of a South Korean businessman by alleged anti-drug police.
On Tuesday, Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to take a frontline role in the anti-drug campaign in which more than 7,000 Filipinos have been killed. Duterte said the deployment was necessary to fill the gap created by the suspended police operations. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon confirmed that the government had approved the assignment of military units to “arrest drug personalities” in cooperation with the official anti-narcotics agency.
Using military personnel for civilian policing anywhere heightens the risk of unnecessary or excessive force and inappropriate military tactics. But there is also a deeply rooted culture of impunity for military abuses in the Philippines. Data from the Department of National Defense indicate only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general, marked a rare challenge to the impunity enjoyed by military personnel who commit serious crimes, and which multiple presidential administrations have failed to adequately address.
Military units in the Philippines have a long history of masking extrajudicial killings of suspected leftists and communist New People’s Army rebels as “legitimate encounters.” That modus operandi has sinister parallels with police anti-drug operations. Police have reported killing 2,551 suspected drug users and dealers in the past seven months. Police have attributed those killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have not provided further evidence that police acted in self-defense. The police have failed to investigate or prosecute any personnel responsible for those deaths despite compelling evidence that some police units are summarily gunning down suspects.
Duterte’s decision to deploy military units confirms his vow that his “war on drugs” – and the appallingly high death toll it’s inflicting – will continue.