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Only the Law Can Stop Duterte’s Murderous War on Drugs
Local lawyers are fighting to hold the Philippine government accountable. To win, they need international human rights groups to give them more help.
MANILA, Philippines — The murdered man lay in a pool of his own blood. At around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, two men on motorcycles shot Manny “Buddy” Wagan outside his small shop selling junk metal just outside Manila. He was killed instantly with two bullets to the head. A witness recalls seeing the killers get off their bikes, approach Wagan, and shoot him at point-blank range — a common method of execution in the Philippines. Police called the case a “death under investigation.”
It has become a familiar sight in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in June 2016 and launched his war on drugs. As Wagan’s corpse was photographed, examined, and eventually removed by police, young children stood speechless with their parents. A relative of the deceased began weeping loudly. Onlookers shot video and photos with their smartphones. Once Wagan’s body was taken to the morgue, a man lit a solitary candle on the ground beside a puddle of congealed blood. It was just another bloody evening in Manila, a city that has seen a massive spike in drug war-related violence.
It is impossible to say with complete certainty that Wagan was killed because of his drug use or connection to the narcotics trade. But over the past 18 months, many victims of Duterte’s war on drugs have been innocent, only tangentially involved in the drug world, or simply users of crystal meth. And as with thousands of other deaths, the police investigation into Wagan’s killing is unlikely to be properly conducted.
Instead, Wagan will end up a mere statistic in a brutal war that has received support from U.S. President Donald Trump, fierce opposition from the global human rights community, and large though diminishing backing from the Filipino people, especially those in communities most affected by the government’s extrajudicial killings. Duterte has created an effective social media army, with the help of Facebook, to bully enemies and rally his followers. And the country’s war against the Islamic State has brought international backing for the Duterte government.
The exact number of people who have died in Duterte’s war is unclear. The police suggested in October 2017 that only one person had been killed extrajudicially since July 1, 2016, a claim ridiculed by both local and foreign rights groups. The real figure could be as high as 20,000. In January, Human Rights Watch said more than 12,000 drug suspects had been killed, mostly the poor in urban areas from either police operations or vigilante-style killings — sometimes by plainclothes police.
The Philippine government has repeatedly violated international law because it does not hold fair trials, or any trials, before executing its citizens. After a brief lull in deaths in late 2017, the last months have seen a sharp upturn in drug war killings.
Duterte has created a culture of impunity, learned from his years as mayor of Davao City on Mindanao Island, where the so-called Davao Death Squad committed multiple rights abuses (with echoes of vigilante violence from the U.S.-backed, anti-communist purges many decades ago). In February, the president told soldiers to shoot female rebels in their genitals.
The government claims that its drug war has drastically reduced crime across the country, alleging that fewer than 4,000 suspects have been killed. The crime reduction narrative was confirmed anecdotally when traveling around Manila; many citizens told me that they felt safer walking the streets at night and less afraid of gang violence. But this apparent reduction in unrest in some areas has come at a tremendous cost, especially for the country’s poorest citizens. When I visited Binondo in Manila, one of the bloodiest areas during the drug war, the first thing I noticed was not violence but extreme poverty. Residents lived in tin sheds and defecated in the nearby Pasig River. Meth, known as “shabu” in the Philippines, was still sold in the area. A printed sign asked residents to call a police hotline to report drug activity.
Unlike other global drug war hot spots — such as Honduras, where vast sections of the country are unsafe, and Guinea-Bissau, where narcotraffickers control parts of the state apparatus — the Philippine drug war has targeted society’s most disadvantaged groups. Other parts of Manila, sprinkled with Starbucks and high-rise office buildings, do not witness state-sanctioned murders on the street.
Not many local groups have challenged Duterte’s murderous policy, but there are a few human rights lawyers attempting to bring justice to the aggrieved victims. The Center for International Law (CenterLaw) in Manila has bravely taken on five cases related to the drug war. Gil Anthony Aquino, one of the center’s attorneys, told me that 99 percent of such cases would never go to court. He acknowledged that he and his colleagues have taken precautions to protect their personal safety, as the government has become increasingly brazen in its attacks on opponents, including trying to shut down critical media by force if necessary. During the Duterte era, at least five journalists have been murdered while working, mostly in Mindanao. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters.
The lawyers have therefore been strategic in their work against the president. “We don’t personally attack Duterte,” Aquino said. “We don’t call for his ouster. We skirt around the issues. We try to get accountability from the police.” Aquino’s colleague, Gilbert Andres, explained how Duterte’s drug war was inspiring other nations, including Indonesia, to implement similarly harsh policies against drug suspects. Andres said Duterte had created a dangerous atmosphere in his country. “If you’re a drug suspect, you don’t deserve rights,” he said of Duterte’s mindset. “If you’re an advocate for human rights, you’re an enemy of the state.”
Duterte’s presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, dismissed Human Rights Watch’s concerns in the Philippines because, he said, financier George Soros supported HRW and was a “lobby” against the country’s drug war. Duterte made the same argument in 2016. Roque was simply following the playbook against Soros perfected by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, using anti-Semitic imagery to conjure a global Jewish conspiracy run by the billionaire.
Andres is not oblivious to the dangers of narcotics; he has seen the tragic cost of drugs. “I lost my father, who was killed by a drug addict in Manila in 1989, so this is personal for me,” he said. But the lesson he took from that incident was that “human rights and crime busting can operate together.”
Both he and Aquino are critical of some local and international human rights groups that only document drug war killings and don’t invest in local lawyers to defend victims’ families, prosecute trigger-happy police, and litigate the thousands of crimes that have occurred in the last 18 months. “At the end of the day,” Andres argued, “INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] should put their hands where their mouths are by helping local lawyers in whatever way. In the end, it is us local lawyers who will risk life and limb for human rights.”
One of the five drug-related cases taken on by CenterLaw involves the police murder of Emiliano Blanco (and others) on Nov. 30, 2016, in highly suspicious circumstances. Residents of the area where he was killed filed a writ of amparo in 2017 — a legal concept originating in Mexico to safeguard individual rights — to protect their community from any further police-led violence and intimidation. The action was partially led by Blanco’s brother, Francisco Blanco Jr., who is now the primary guardian for his brother’s 7-year-old son.
Francisco Blanco was defiant but scared. At times, he was on the verge of tears when describing his brother’s death and tough life. He acknowledged that his brother was a drug user but said he had surrendered to police months before his death. Since the drug war began, police and district heads have collated “watch lists” of suspected drug users, a dangerous and secretive practice that has led to thousands of killings.
He now faces constant police harassment and threats to his life, a common problem for family members of victims. “If I was there on the night of the murder, I would have been killed for sure,” he said. Police visited him a few months later, gesturing to suggest they’d slit his throat and asking him, “Do you want the same fate as your brother?”
Until there is a legal remedy for the Duterte government’s gross human rights abuses, including police being held accountable for their violent crimes, citizens will remain in a precarious position. With few viable options available to victims, and the threat of retribution if they launch legal challenges, it’s not surprising that so few cases are being pursued. Those that have been filed are a crucial check on government abuses.
Blanco’s case is now winding through the courts, and CenterLaw hopes to get resolution this year. The government’s solicitor general, Jose Calida, has condemned the attempt to use a writ of amparo, claiming it would set a “dangerous precedent” and could be used as a “tool by drug personalities in order to ‘fish’ for evidence in the guise of protecting their human rights.” Calida is a defender of Duterte and argues that law enforcement would be impeded in their drug war investigations and the legal move would allow “groundless” accusations against police.
For all the country’s flaws, the Philippine courts are one of the few relatively independent institutions left in the Duterte era, so Blanco’s case still has a chance. Others do, too. Local human rights lawyers desperately need more international backing for such litigation. Without it, they won’t be able to continue their dangerous but necessary work.