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Philippines: New ‘Drug War’ Declared in Davao City

Inaction from Manila as Ex-President Duterte’s Son Threatens Surge in Killings

Sebastian Duterte, currently the mayor of Davao City, delivers a speech at a campaign rally in Davao City, the hometown of his father, then-President Rodrigo Duterte, May 10, 2019. © 2019 Kyodo via AP Images

(Manila) – The mayor of Davao City in the Philippines, Sebastian Duterte, recently declared a new “war on drugs,” suggestive of the abusive campaign of his father, former President Rodrigo Duterte, Human Rights Watch said today. Local authorities killed five people in the 24 hours after he made the declaration and at least seven within a matter of days.

The failure of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to end the violent anti-drug raids that underpin the “drug war” has emboldened local leaders such as Duterte to adopt measures in violation of international human rights law.

“Davao City Mayor Sebastian Duterte may have sparked another round of police summary executions by reenergizing his father’s abusive ‘drug war,’” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the sad reality is that these killings never ended, and the thousands of victims and their families in Davao City and elsewhere struggle without a remedy or justice.”

On March 22, 2024, Mayor Duterte declared a new “war against drugs” in Davao. He gave a speech at an event for the city police in which he conveyed a message to drug users: “If you don’t stop, if you don’t leave, I will kill you.”

Hours after the speech, Davao City media reported several killings by the police during drug raids, in which the police alleged that the victims had “fought back,” the same claim that Philippine authorities have used for years to justify “drug war” killings.

These recent killings in Davao City are merely a spike in a “drug war” that has never stopped, Human Rights Watch said. The University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center has reported that since Duterte became mayor in June 2022, Davao del Sur, the city’s greater provincial area, has had more drug-related killings than any other area in the country, including Metro Manila.

Out of the 342 killings the center recorded from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, 53 (15 percent) occurred in Davao del Sur. By comparison, there were 44 killings in Cebu and 43 in Metro Manila, or the National Capital Region. An updated figure published by Rappler indicates that from July 1, 2022, to March 15, 2024, a total of 96 people were killed in “drug-related” incidents in Davao. All but one were committed by police and anti-drug agents during police operations.

Human Rights Watch in 2023 interviewed families of victims of recent drug-related killings in Davao. The 20-year-old wife of a shooting victim said that in April 2023, the authorities had accused her husband of theft and small-time drug dealing: “We had just come from a 7-Eleven to buy food that night when about six men came to our house, dragged my husband to the second floor, where they shot him in the chest.”

She said that a police car, not an ambulance, arrived to retrieve her husband’s body even while about 15 armed men and local officials remained nearby, indicating the authorities were involved in the killing. 

Local activists said that the killings under the current mayor were no different from in previous years. “The killings here have been regular,” said a member of a Davao human rights group. “The perpetrators often just wear civilian clothes, but they are always in groups. It reminds us of the days of the ‘Davao Death Squad,’ that’s how bad it is.” 

Human Rights Watch in 2009 reported on the “Davao Death Squad,” a shadowy group allegedly responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions over two decades when Rodrigo Duterte was mayor of Davao City. After he became president in 2016, police conducted sweeping raids and “buy-bust operations” across the country, resulting in thousands of fatalities, most being of poor drug users and small-time drug peddlers. The International Criminal Court is investigating these killings in its ongoing investigation into crimes against humanity in the Philippines. 

President Marcos has continued the anti-drug campaign begun by his predecessor. He has said repeatedly that the campaign against drugs will focus on rehabilitation but killings have continued. Although the rate of killings has dropped since Marcos became president in June 2022, the Third World Studies Center found that more than 600 people were killed in “drug-related” incidents in the 19 months he has been in office.

Marcos appointed a new chief of the Philippine National Police, Rommel Francisco Marbil, who at a news conference on April 2 said he would pursue the anti-drug campaign, although he said he did not want to call it a “war on drugs.” He vowed to abide by the rule of law in achieving “100 percent drug-free” communities and to ensure accountability and transparency in the investigations of drug-related killings such as those in Davao City.

Unless President Marcos clarifies publicly that he has ordered a policy shift to end targeted killings of alleged drug dealers and users, and states clearly that those responsible for unlawful killings will be fully prosecuted, local officials like Duterte will continue to try to justify such killings, Human Rights Watch said.

“The new spate of killings in Davao City and elsewhere shows that President Marcos has not done enough to end the ‘drug war,’” Lau said. “The Marcos administration needs to take stronger action to demonstrate that the ‘war on drugs’ is officially over.”

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