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Philippine President Duterte Pauses ‘War on Drugs’ to Start ‘War on Scalawags’

No, really.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
duterte-crop
duterte-crop

If the Philippines’ war on drugs isn’t working, it’s because of the corrupt “scalawags” on the police force. Or at least that’s what President Rodrigo Duterte says.

Over 7,000 people have been killed by police and vigilante groups since Duterte started his country-wide anti-narcotics offensive in June, 2016. For months, he rebuffed harsh criticism from human rights groups and international leaders, who accused him of promoting vigilantism and giving cops authority to kill and arrest at whim.

Now, he appears to be backtracking. The murder of a South Korean businessman by rogue Filipino police officers in October, 2016 has given ammunition to Duterte’s critics and pushed him into an embarrassing diplomatic rift with the South Korean government. His response? Start a war on crooked cops.

If the Philippines’ war on drugs isn’t working, it’s because of the corrupt “scalawags” on the police force. Or at least that’s what President Rodrigo Duterte says.

Over 7,000 people have been killed by police and vigilante groups since Duterte started his country-wide anti-narcotics offensive in June, 2016. For months, he rebuffed harsh criticism from human rights groups and international leaders, who accused him of promoting vigilantism and giving cops authority to kill and arrest at whim.

Now, he appears to be backtracking. The murder of a South Korean businessman by rogue Filipino police officers in October, 2016 has given ammunition to Duterte’s critics and pushed him into an embarrassing diplomatic rift with the South Korean government. His response? Start a war on crooked cops.

“You policemen are the most corrupt. You are corrupt to the core. It’s in your system,” Duterte said Sunday in a press conference, a seeming retreat from his steadfast support for Filipino police. “Cleanse your ranks. Review their cases. Give me a list of who the scalawags are,” Duterte said Sunday evening.

Duterte is no stranger to incendiary speech. He once called former President Barack Obama and Pope Francis “sons of whores.” He also boasted about killing people by throwing them out of helicopters — two weeks after political opponents tried to get him impeached for, well, boasting about killing people.

Some human rights experts dismissed Duterte and dela Rosa’s pledge as a stunt. Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called it a “cynical PR gesture.”

But stunt or not, Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Ronald dela Rosa announced Monday he was dissolving anti-drug units to instead tackle corruption. “We will cleanse our ranks…then maybe after that, we can resume our war on drugs,” he told press. “Rogue cops, beware! We no longer have a war on drugs; we now have a war on scalawags.”

Though Duterte previously pledged to eradicate the country’s drug problem by March, on Monday he said he would continue his anti-narcotics offensive to the end of his term in 2022. After he eradicated police corruption, of course.

Also on Monday, the Philippine senate also (conveniently) suspended the legislative inquiry into the South Korean businessman’s murder, saying it needed to refocus its efforts on observing the new war on corruption. Scalawags, beware.

Photo credit: Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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