President Rodrigo Duterte gives a press conference on the ongoing drug war in the Philippines in July 2016. 
 

© King Rodriguez, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

At about 4 p.m. on August 18, 2016, a police anti-drug raid swept through the neighborhood in Metro Manila’s Navotas district where Angelo Lafuente, a 23-year-old small appliances repairman, lived and worked. Two uniformed policemen accompanied by four armed men in civilian clothes detained Lafuente and took him away in a marked white police van. Twelve hours later, police at the Navotas police station presented Lafuente’s panic-stricken family members with photos of Lafuente, dead from gunshot wounds. The police report attributes his death to “unknown” gunmen and ignores the fact that he was last seen alive in police custody.

On September 27, local government officials in the Manila slum where Virgilio Mirano lived with his wife and two children accused him of being a drug user and ordered him to appear at a “mass surrender” ceremony three days later. Mirano never made it. Instead, just hours later, four armed men in civilian clothes and face masks burst into his home, dragged him into the street, and shot him six times execution-style while his family looked on. Police allowed the gunmen to leave the scene unimpeded through a nearby checkpoint. A police report attributes  Mirano’s death to a shootout with anti-drug police that ended with Mirano dying in an “exchange of gunfire.” Witnesses dispute that account.

23-year-old Aljon Mesa and his brother, 34-year-old Danilo Mesa, were casual laborers in a fishing port in Metro Manila’s Navotas District until their deaths in September. On the afternoon of September 20, six masked, armed men in civilian clothes detained Aljon and took him away on a motorcycle. About 30 minutes later, a uniformed policeman notified Mesa’s relatives that he was “breathing his last breath” under a nearby bridge. When family members arrived on the scene, they found him dead from gunshot wounds while the masked armed men who detained him stood nearby. Those men remained on the scene when uniformed police investigators arrived, indicating they were coordinating with the police.

Six days later, uniformed and plain-clothes police detained Danilo Mesa and took him into custody at the local municipal government office. His family could not afford the required bribe to free him, but assumed he would be safe in the custody of municipal authorities. At about 6 p.m., a group of masked, armed men in civilian clothes dragged him from the office. Shortly afterward, passers-by found his body. His entire head had been wrapped in packing tape and he had been shot execution-style through the mouth. There are no police records of his killing.Welcome to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

The details of the killings of those four people provide grisly context for the cold data of the more than 7,000 suspected drug users and drug dealers killed by police and “unidentified gunmen” since Duterte took office on June 30, 2016. They also challenge the Duterte government’s persistent denial that police are committing extrajudicial killings. That death toll also doesn’t include the victims that Duterte calls “collateral damage” – children shot dead in anti-drug operations. The extraordinary brutality of the Duterte drug war is undeniable. Many of the victims are found in back alleys or street corners wrapped in packing tape, their bodies bullet-ridden or bearing stab wounds and other signs of torture.  Duterte justifies his anti-drug campaign as a life-or-death struggle against a “drug menace” that he claims threatens to transform the Philippines into a “narco state.” He is untroubled by the fact that the statistics he brandishes to back up this hyperbole are flawed, exaggerated, or fabricated.

The Philippine National Police has claimed responsibility for 2,615 of those killings, an astronomical rise from the 68 killings by police in anti-drug operations between January 1, 2016 and June 15, 2016. Police justify that surge in killings on the basis that the victims uniformly “fought back.” Police attribute another 3,603 killings to “vigilantes” or “unidentified gunmen.” An additional 922 killings are classified by police as “cases where investigation has concluded,” despite a lack of any publicly-disclosed evidence of the results of those investigations and whether they resulted in any arrests or prosecution.

Human Rights Watch research into the deaths of Lafuente, Mirano, the Mesa brothers, and 28 other people killed since Duterte took office exposes the narrative of the Duterte drug war as a blatant falsehood. Interviews with witnesses and victims’ family members and scrutiny of police records indicate an alarming pattern of unlawful police conduct to cover-up extrajudicial executions. Despite the Philippine National Police’s efforts to differentiate between killings by “unidentified gunmen,” or “vigilantes,” and those shot dead while resisting arrest, Human Rights Watch determined there were no meaningful differences in the cases investigated. In several incidents, suspects last seen alive in police custody who were shortly after found dead were categorized by police as “found bodies” or “deaths under investigation.” These discrepancies undermine government assertions that rival drug gangs or “vigilantes” are responsible for most killings.

The incidents analyzed by Human Rights Watch demonstrated police coordination and planning, in some cases with the assistance of local government officials. Those elements of active police and government complicity undermine official assertions that the killings are the work of “rogue” officers or “vigilantes.” Research suggests that police involvement in the killings of drug suspects extends far beyond the officially acknowledged cases of police killings in “buy-bust” drug operations. That research paints a chilling portrait of Filipino victims, the majority of whom are impoverished urban slum dwellers, who have been gunned down in state-sanctioned death squad operations that demolish rule of law protections.

Duterte has defied the highest profile international criticism of the drug war killings.  In August he threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the United Nations in response to criticism from UN officials, including Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In October, comments by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) criticizing “high officials” of the Philippine government for public statements that “seem to condone such killings and further seem to encourage State forces and civilians alike to continue targeting these individuals with lethal force” prompted Duterte to threaten to pull the Philippines out of the ICC.

Duterte has also effectively eviscerated meaningful domestic opposition to his drug war. Duterte and pro-Duterte lawmakers have politically attacked his most vocal domestic critic, Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary and chairwoman of the official Commission on Human Rights. Duterte’s Senate loyalists ousted de Lima from the chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights in September 2016 in an apparent reprisal for de Lima’s move to convene Senate hearings into the drug war killings.

The hearings prompted a torrent of hateful, misogynist invective from Duterte and other government officials. In August, Duterte went so far as to tell a crowd of supporters that de Lima should “hang herself.”  Duterte’s political vendetta against de Lima climaxed in February with her arrest and detention on politically-motivated charges of violating the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act, which prohibits the “sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution, and transportation of illegal drugs.” De Lima is in prison awaiting trial, but is fearful that her safety is at risk while behind bars.

Despite the thousands of often gruesome killings linked to Duterte’s drug war, his often profane defiance of international criticism, and his steamrolling of domestic critics, he maintains high public popularity ratings. In January, the Pulse Asia polling firm released data that indicated his “trust and approval” ratings were at 83 percent, considerably higher than those of other senior elected officials.

However, surveys on Philippine public assessments of Duterte’s drug war express concern about its death toll, with 94 percent of those polled in December 2016 expressing support for the arrest, rather than the killing, of drug suspects. These apparent statistical contradictions reflect how conceptions of the sanctity of life among a relatively pious Catholic-majority nation coexist with the persistent public appeal of Duterte’s plain-speaking populist style. Those popularity polls also fail to take into account the influence of a pro-Duterte online “keyboard army,” who harass, intimidate, and try to silence any public expressions of opposition or dismay to the drug war killing campaign on social media.

Duterte’s pursuit of his drug war despite international opprobrium and its skyrocketing death toll is dismaying but not surprising. Duterte’s presidential electoral platform included lurid pledges of near-biblical scale extrajudicial violence and promises of mass killings of tens of thousands of “criminals,” whose bodies he would dump in Manila Bay. And Duterte had a specific model for that approach to “crime control,” which he honed during his two decades as mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao.

Davao City is synonymous for many Filipinos with the Davao Death Squad, a shadowy group of gunmen linked to the killings of hundreds of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children as young as 14. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Duterte marketed his links to Davao and the existence of the Davao Death Squad as a vote-grabbing branding opportunity rather than a career-derailing political handicap. On the eve of the May 9 presidential elections, which Duterte won against four other candidates with nearly 40 percent of the vote, Duterte told a crowd of more than 300,000 people exactly what to expect if elected. “If I make it to the presidential palace,” he said, “I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”

Human Rights Watch did not uncover any direct evidence of Duterte’s participation in any of the Davao Death Squad Killings in a 2009 investigation. But that probe did uncover involvement of Davao City officials and police. Duterte himself has done little to distance himself from allegations of involvement in the death squads. In May 2015, he publicly admitted having a role. “Am I the death squad? True. That is true,” he said.

Duterte retracted that admission days later, but has made numerous statements over the past few decades that seek to justify the extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects. In 2001-2002, Duterte frequently took to local radio or television in Davao to announce the names of “criminals.” The Davao Death Squad would subsequently hunt down and kill some of those same people. In December, Duterte told an international business gathering that he had personally killed criminal suspects while mayor of Davao City, and that he would cruise the city on a motorcycle “looking for a confrontation so I could kill.” There have yet to be any successful prosecutions for the killings linked to the Davao Death Squad. Meanwhile, the killings in Davao City continue, and in other Philippine cities the Davao Death Squad has apparently inspired copycat death-squad operations. Since September, two self-confessed former members of the Davao Death Squad have come forward and testified to the Philippine Senate that Duterte was the mastermind behind the killings. Duterte has dismissed their allegations and insists that all killings in Davao during his time as mayor were the result of “legitimate police operations.”

Duterte’s pursuit of his drug war has not been diplomatically cost-free. The US Embassy in Manila announced on December 14 that a US government foreign aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), would deny the Philippines’ government new funding due to “significant concerns around rule of law and civil liberties in the Philippines.” The statement justified that decision on the basis that criteria for MCC aid recipients “includes not just a passing scorecard but also a demonstrated commitment to the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights.” That funding denial by MCC, which disbursed US$434 million to the Philippines from 2011 to 2016, will most likely lead to the cancellation of a second five-year funding grant for large-scale infrastructure project development agreed to by the MCC in December 2015.

Duterte got more bad news in March 2017, when visiting European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malström warned the Philippine government that human rights-abusing policies, including the drug war, pose a threat to exports to the EU. She specified that unless the government took action to address the EU’s concerns, the Philippines risks losing tariff-free exports of up to 6,000 products under the EU’s human rights benchmarks linked to the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) trade program. A Philippine presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, dismissed those concerns as evidence of EU ignorance about the Philippines.

But Duterte also has enthusiastic foreign supporters who are untroubled by the human rights implications of the Duterte government’s signature policy. The Chinese Embassy in Manila issued a statement in July 2016 vowing unconditional support for the drug war. A China Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, echoed that position ahead of Duterte’s state visit to China in mid-October by stating, “We understand and support the Philippines’ policies to combat drugs under the leadership of President Duterte.”

On November 30, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines expressed unconditional support for Duterte’s war on drugs, saying he was “deeply impressed” with the president’s efforts to build a relationship with Russia and stating that, “We sincerely wish you every success on your campaign [against drugs]. We understand well your legitimate concerns. As for the methods, we refrain from any comments,” explaining that as a Russian diplomat, he had no right to comment on “domestic developments” in the Philippines.

Duterte has also benefited from the reticence of close bilateral allies to publicly criticize his drug war. Exhibit A for that approach has been Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who during his January visit to the Philippines announced a five-year, US$800 million Japanese government Overseas Development Assistance package to “promote economic and infrastructure development.” He also promised unspecified financial support for drug rehabilitation projects in the Philippines. In Manila, Abe stated that, “On countering illegal drugs, we want to work together with the Philippines through relevant measures of support,” without elaborating. But during his visit and afterward, Abe made no public reference to the “war on drugs” and its skyrocketing death toll.

The support of Russia, Japan, and China may help the Duterte government offset the impact of aid and trade curbs imposed the United States and the EU. But they will not negate the lingering threat to his longer-term legitimacy posed by the threat of eventual domestic or international prosecution for killings linked to his anti-drug campaign. No evidence thus far shows that Duterte planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings. But his repeated calls for killings as part of his drug campaign could constitute acts instigating the crime of murder. In addition, Duterte’s statements that seek to encourage vigilantes among the general population to commit violence against suspected drug users would constitute incitement to violence. Duterte and senior officials in his government may also face possible charges of crimes against humanity for their repeated calls encouraging the killing of alleged drug dealers and users, indicative of a government policy to attack a specific civilian population.

In January, Duterte vowed to extend his drug war, opening his statement with a promise that it “will solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months,” until the end of his term in 2022. Duterte may well find that domestic or international efforts for justice for the drug war killings may derail that goal.