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A POPULIST DICTATOR AND HIS WAR AGAINST DEMOCRACY: Updates on the War on Drugs in the Philippines

By: Tetay Mendoza

Harm Reduction Conference | Porto, Portugal | 29 April 2019

Duterte’s “War on Drugs” is supposed to be a three-to-six-month campaign.

The promise was to eradicate crime, improve peace and order, and finish the reign of the oligarchs by the rise into power of a supposedly common Filipino who came all the way from impoverished and underrepresented Mindanao, south of the most disdained Imperial Manila.

Almost three years later, the War on Drugs has unraveled into anything but a war against illegal substances. It has become a platform for a populist dictator who in a span of only 33 months was able to undermine democratic institutions our leaders thought we built over the last 30 years.

Here is how he did it/has been doing it:

He began by issuing a Police Memorandum Circular and a DDB Regulation which allowed police officers to knock on every door of suspected drug offenders to “ask” them to “voluntarily” surrender.

He then tasked the local government units particularly the village chiefs to come up with a list of known drug offenders and even commanded people to submit names through a drop box which the police will use as targets for their operations.

Then he ordered the Department of Education, the Commission on Civil Service, Department of Labor and other government agencies to conduct drug tests of students as young as high school, and employees with the threat of insubordination and termination for non-compliance.

Then with his allies in the legislative, he was able to institute regressive drug policies: the reinstatement of death penalty, the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to 12, the police issuance of subpoena, the construction of mandatory rehabilitation centers.

THEN, the Philippine Anti-Drug Strategy was issued with the obsolete objective and problematic approach of demand reduction by eradicating drug use and supply reduction by launching intense police operations. All towards a DRUG FREE PHILIPPINES BY 2022.

What was supposedly a three-to-six-months campaign, was extended to two years, three, became a long-term, institutionalized, well-funded pseudo war which centralized all governmental powers to one strong man who through effective social control, was able to damage democratic principles such as checks and balances, accountability and transparency, the civilian nature of the police force, the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights.

And this democratic reversal did not come without a price.


As of February 2019, 29000 suspected drug offenders were killed. An average of 33 a day.

The police already admitted that 5,176 died during their operations, by their own hands. The rest they call, HCUIs or homicide cases under investigation, formerly known as DUIs or deaths under investigation. Deaths, they wouldn’t give their proper term: EJK.

Academic institutions already profiled the victims: they are more or less in their 30s, bread winner, working as pedicab driver or construction worker. Most of them are meth users. Most of them live in the slums of Metro Manila.

A high school graduate who can’t afford a college education, who has not seen a doctor or a lawyer in his lifetime, much less afford their services.

Out of the 29000 deaths, 5000 killed by the police, 24000 are still to be investigated. (because if the police are the suspects, would we expect them to just investigate?)

After almost three years and 29 thousand deaths, so far we only got ONE conviction.

Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year old senior high school student, suspected as a drug runner, was gunned down a few blocks away from his home. His last words were reportedly him begging the police to let him go because he has exams the next day.

One conviction and it was all because of a CCTV footage which showed police officers dragging him into a dark alley where he was found dead. Police said the boy fought back. A 17-year old against three grown police officers. Those police officers in the CCTV were convicted. Duterte had to invite the boy’s parents to the palace. The operations were suspended for a while. A brewing resistance became felt. Activists went to the streets. Church bells began tolling at 8PM. Hashtag “stop the killings” became the national call.

And because the resistance became felt, the government had to retaliate.

Senator De Lima who wanted to investigate the killings has been in jail for 794 days today.

Senator Hontiveros who called for a public health approach to drug use was stripped of her committee chairwomanship and was charged with kidnapping and wiretapping.

Chief Justice Sereno who has been a dissenting voice in the judiciary, was ousted.

Maria Ressa, a journalist, TIME Person of the Year, founder of Rappler, who has been consistently exposing the abuses of the drug war, was charged with 11 cases, from cyber libel to tax evasion.

Bishop David and other priests who have been speaking against the killings and providing sanctuary to the widows and orphans, were sent death threats and berated by the President on an almost daily basis on national TV.

Other opposition leaders, local officials are linked to a narco list, media practitioners, critics, were all suspected of being connected to an alleged ouster plot.

Activists are tagged as communists, lawyers, killed.

Indeed, it is helpful to remind ourselves of what Voltaire said. That “it is a dangerous thing to be right when the government is wrong.”

In a span of 33 months, since the launch of his drug war, Duterte was able to spur a human rights crisis of unprecedented magnitude in Philippine history on the basis of the singularity of his narrative:

“That drug users are not humans. They are not entitled to human rights.”

“All those protecting them are either drug lords and/or drug coddlers.”

“They are all enemies of the State.”

While six out of seven Filipinos are reported to worry about extrajudicial killings, it is puzzling to think why the “War on Drugs” has remained to be popular.


“People who use drugs are not humans” remains to be the dominant narrative. Duterte even promised his last three years in office to be as chilling as ever. He even increased the number of targets from 3 Million to 7-8 Million Filipinos. He even prodded the main architect of his drug war, the former Chief of Police, Bato Dela Rosa to run in the midterm elections this May. (He is now number four in the survey and if the midterm elections were a referendum of this anti-drugs campaign, it seems that majority of Filipinos approve of it so much that they are even willing to hand over that berdugo, a seat in the Senate. It seems that we’ll soon be losing the independence of the the last frontier of our democracy.

It has also been a year since the withdrawal from the ICC was submitted and it has now taken effect. Although this will not excuse liability for crimes against humanity committed during our membership, the investigation has yet to start. The killings continue and has spread out in the country side. Again, that’s still 33 deaths a day.

Though the next three years will probably remain to be grim, bleak, and definitely do not spark joy, there remains small, few but growing forces of resistance. These groups have been doing underground human rights work amidst threats to their security.

There are:

Faith-based groups which provide safe spaces for people who use drugs, EJK victims and their families.

Artist groups that continue to challenge the narrative of the drug war through films, performance art, poems and visual arts.

Photojournalists, such as the Nightcrawlers. (In fact, the speaker today is supposed to be one of them, Raffy Lerma, who unfortunately had his visa denied. He has been at the site of the killings since the war started and has kept on documenting and sharing the stories of the victims)

The Academe which spearheaded DRUGARCHIVEPH and CSOs like NoBox Philippines which have been doing pioneer work in harm reduction research and training.

Local government officials who in the exercise of their local autonomy are brave enough to do community-based harm reduction programs that have been saving lives of those in the drug list.

Groups of lawyers who have been challenging the constitutionality of the police memorandum, working with communities in documenting EJK cases, and providing access to justice services and legal assistance to people who use drugs.

This war actually gave birth to StreetLawPH, a group of lawyers who saw the need to protect the rights of Filipino drug users. We educate them of their rights, we train them to be paralegals, and we will be starting to provide direct legal services for strategic litigation that will hopefully open spaces for drug policy reform.

And of course, our glimmer of hope, our source of inspiration, an organization of people who inject drugs in Cebu City, which has set up a drop in center and conducts outreach under our HIV program. (Their director Pangki Nadela is supposed to join us in this conference today but his visa was not granted) With the new HIV and AIDS Policy Act of 2018, we hope that their harm reduction work will be protected and supported by our Department of Health.


The War on Drugs in the Philippines has not only caused the loss of thousands of lives but has also caused the demise of our democratic ethos. In 1986, we ousted a former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, through people power revolution, which started a wave of democratization. Thirty-three years later, we elected a new dictator, who is now leading a trend of democratic reversals in neighboring countries launching their own violent campaign against drug offenders, Duterte-style.

As human rights activists pick up the pieces and continue to push back, we can only remain hopeful that international pressure will keep on pouring; that the movement continue to struggle; and that we remain angry. Realizing, that the best way to protect our rights is to exercise them. Most especially what’s left of it.

As of now, there is nothing left to do but to continue with our work, and in Thomas Dylan’s words, to rage rage against the dying of the light.

Obrigada. Thank you. Maraming Salamat!


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