Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday announced a major shift in the country’s infamous drug war, instructing the national police to end their operations and handing control to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
In a vitriol-filled speech, Duterte said the move would be “better for the bleeding hearts and media” that have consistently criticized the enormous death toll and police abuses of the crackdown. Police have killed nearly 4,000 people since Duterte took office in late June of last year, while emboldened vigilante groups have murdered thousands more.
The change in policy is a sign that Duterte’s administration may be beginning to bend under the increasing weight of domestic and international pressure, despite the president’s characteristically belligerent reactions to criticism and attacks against human rights groups.
“What’s different now is that opinion polls are indicating a softening in support for Duterte, and there have been very large, loud and public displays of opposition to the drug war,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Recent weeks have seen protests, falling approval ratings and threats of international economic repercussions over Duterte’s violent 15-month anti-drug campaign. The high-profile extrajudicial killings of three teenagers this summer put an increased spotlight on the brutal nature of anti-drug operations.
The death of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August drew special outrage as it appeared to provide clear evidence of a police cover-up. Officers involved claimed to have shot Santos after he fired on them while resisting arrest, but closed-circuit TV footage revealed two plainclothes policemen had the teenager in custody and fully restrained before his death. Santos’ body was found in an alley near his house, shot twice in the head and once in the back.
Human rights groups and critics of Duterte’s government have consistently condemned the police for carrying out extrajudicial killings with impunity, often planting evidence or falsifying accounts of how the deaths took place. Duterte even briefly suspended police involvement in the drug war once before, in January, after anti-drug squad officers kidnapped and murdered a South Korean businessman.
But the highly publicized killing of Santos, along with those of two other teenage boys in the past two months, has brought new levels of opposition to the drug war. A Social Weather Stations poll released earlier this week showed a significant drop in public support for Duterte, with trust in him hitting the lowest point of his presidency, albeit remaining mostly favorable.
Adding to Duterte’s woes are falling foreign investment, continuous martial law in the island of Mindanao over conflict with extremists, and pressure from the European Union that it will end a preferential trade deal if the killings don’t stop.
Duterte responded to the EU officials’ warnings in his speech on Thursday, calling them “bullshit” and saying, “We are past the colonization stage. Don’t fuck with us.” But human rights groups say that despite Duterte’s bellicose rhetoric, the economic consequences of his drug war are a major concern for the Philippines.
“It’s clear that people in his government, people in the business community are telling him that he needs to pull back ― that there’s about to be an economic price to be paid for this war on drugs that is going to be considerable and painful,” Kine said.
In response to the growing discontent around extrajudicial killings, Duterte’s administration has made overtures toward investigations into police conduct and tried to manage the public image of the drug war. Officials have denied abuses as “fake news” and tried to downplay the statistics on drug-related killings since Duterte took office.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency taking control of operations has the potential to slow the rate of extrajudicial killings, as the group has only about 1 percent of the forces of the national police, but the deaths won’t stop entirely.
Human rights groups say that one of the most dangerous ramifications of Duterte’s drug war has been a breakdown in the rule of law as vigilante groups have felt emboldened to carry out killings without fear of reprisal. During the brief halt in police operations earlier this year, bodies of victims still piled up in the streets. Their heads were wrapped in packing tape and they were lying next to cardboard signs accusing them of having links to drugs.
“You can get away with murder in the Philippines. Anyone with a gun and a grudge can kill someone and it can be attributed to a drug killing,” Kine said.
“The war isn’t over until there are some meaningful moves toward accountability.”