MANILA – The controversial war on drugs promoted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte caused thousands of deaths this year, was overshadowed by corruption scandals and sparked popular outcry but did not lose its popular support.
After a break for the Christmas and New Year holidays last December, police in January resumed door-to-door raids backed by the president’s order to “shoot to kill” if the suspect put up any resistance.
Almost 7,200 suspected traffickers and drug addicts have died at the hands of the police, according to official data of the Philippines National Police, and about 11,000 have been arrested since the start of the campaign in July 2016, when Duterte came to power after a landslide election victory.
Based on government data, another 4,100 people lost their lives in extrajudicial killings carried out by death squads or hitmen.
However, NGOs have put the total number of deaths, including extrajudicial killings, at more than 12,000, according to a Human Rights Watch report published on Dec. 5, 2017.
On the other hand, more than 1.3 million citizens registered on police blacklists for their alleged links with drugs, have surrendered themselves to the authorities for fear of being killed.
“Do not destroy my country, the youth of my country, or I will kill you,” Duterte threatened in public speeches throughout 2017, and on several occasions he has directly encouraged citizens to kill drug addicts and drug traffickers.
The police campaign against drug trafficking was put on hold twice this year due to corruption scandals.
Duterte suspended police operations throughout February to “cleanse” his ranks of corruption after revealing that some agents had carried out abusive practices such as the kidnapping, extortion and murder of a South Korean businessman.
Then in October, the president restrained the police for a month and a half after new scandals came to light, mainly related to the death of a minor and other violent incidents involving agents in the city of Caloocan, north of Manila.
Following the latest scandal, Duterte handed over the leadership of the campaign to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which is still in charge despite the reinstatement of the police, hence fewer deaths and stricter supervision are expected from now on.
Because of the “war on drugs,” Duterte has faced opposition and strong criticism from the international community and human rights organizations, who have accused the president of crimes against humanity, demanding he be tried before the International Criminal Court.
The tribunal based in The Hague received in April the request of a Filipino lawyer who asked that Duterte be tried for “mass murder.”
In response, the Philippine government has threatened to withdraw from the ICC if an investigation into the war on drugs were to start, considering it a violation of its legal sovereignty.
Contrary to what some analysts predicted, the wide popular support that Duterte enjoyed during his first six months in office has barely declined in 2017, when all polls showed solid backing from over 100 million Filipinos.
According to the latest surveys, 80 percent of Filipinos approve of their president’s leadership and almost 90 percent are in favor of the “war on drugs.”
The government attributes this support to the results of the campaign, since only a year after Duterte came to power, the number of robberies and rapes throughout the country was reduced by half, according to the Philippine National Police.
The Duterte-led government’s tough response to the Islamic State siege of the southern city of Marawi also found strong support among Filipinos, according to official polls.
On May 23, hundreds of militants allied with the Islamic State entered Marawi City on the island of Mindanao and laid siege to it, engaging in clashes with government security forces, blocking off roads and kidnapping civilians.
In response, Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao in an effort to combat the siege, a move which 54 percent of Filipinos saw as necessary, and which 64 percent of poll respondents on Mindanao supported, according to the Social Weather Stations institute.
After the military overcame the militants and re-established control over Marawi on Oct. 23, hundreds of civilians, soldiers and militants had died and much of the city was destroyed, and thousands were displaced while fleeing the violence.