A Presidency Bathed in Blood

One year into President Duterte’s term, the Philippines’s populist moment has also been a bloody one.

By Sheila S. Coronel

Tagged Human RightsPhilippinesRodrigo DuterteWar on Drugs

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late June, Rosa Justo, a barangay (village) captain in one of Manila’s many shantytowns, buried yet another of her constituents killed in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Joel Marasigan, a 39-year-old father of four who made ends meet by peddling goods from house to house, was gunned down on June 14 by two men who walked up to him while he was fixing his bicycle in front of his home. By the time Justo arrived at the scene mere minutes later, Marasigan was already lying dead on the street, held in a tight embrace by his wife who had rushed to his side. “This was after 5 p.m. but it was still light,” the village captain recalled, “and he and his wife were both bathed in blood.”

On June 30, Duterte marks the end of his first year as Philippine president fighting a war on two fronts: one against drugs, waged in the shantytowns of Manila and other big cities, and the other against ISIS-inspired rebels battling the army in the streets of Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao.

The casualties are rising on both fronts. The drug war, which Duterte officially launched on his first day in office, has claimed the lives of as many as 9,000 suspected drug dealers and users like Marasigan who have been gunned down by the police or by masked men linked to them. In Marawi, over 400 civilians and combatants on both sides have died since soldiers began pitched street battles against Islamist militants on May 23. On both battlefronts, the end is not in sight.

When he was elected last year on a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the country’s entrenched political elites, Duterte proposed a new social contract. He promised to bring order, security, and prosperity, albeit at a high price: human rights, the rule of law, and all pretensions of political correctness. He would rule with an iron hand and his men would kill with impunity—“slaughter” was the word he used—but he would purge the country of drugs and criminality.

One year later, that message still resonates with many Filipinos. Duterte’s popularity remains at a high 75 percent. His exhortations to soldiers and police, urging them to kill and assuring them they had his support even if they committed excesses, including rape—whether in the alleyways of the drug war or in fierce combat with Islamists—have been met not with anger but applause.

There is much that the Philippines shares with other countries going through their own “populist moments”: an autocratic leader who eschews political correctness, rising popular disdain for democratic norms and institutions, and a desire for strong, effective government that delivers, even if it breaks the rules. Like Turkey’s Recep Tayipp Erdoğan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, Duterte has derided the West’s hypocritical preaching on human rights and democracy. Like them, he has embraced China and Russia. Like them, he, too, benefits from a changed media landscape dominated by troll armies, misinformation, and propaganda.

But what truly sets the 72-year-old Duterte apart from the rest of his populist cohort is his open call to violence. The ferocity of his words has been matched by real bloodletting. The threats of annihilation on social media are quickly translated into facts on the ground.

As mayor of the southern Philippine city of Davao for 22 years, Duterte consolidated political control by forming alliances with communist and Muslim insurgents and targeting petty criminals for assassination by the so-called Davao Death Squad, made up of ex-rebels, former gangsters, and ex-policemen as well as paramilitary troopers funded from the city’s coffers.

Duterte’s template for governance is Davao, where the mayor was the Boss and “The Punisher.” His “iron fist,” he claimed, brought peace and prosperity to that once violence-wracked city. There is a reason for such strongman appeal: Filipinos are tired of criminality, gridlocked government, and a broken justice system. Many of them want The Punisher to be in charge.

Duterte has identified drugs as the country’s central existential threat. He believes all criminality stems from unbridled drug use; and so, in the towns and cities alike, a killing machine has been let loose. In the dead of night, and even in broad daylight, hooded men riding pillion on motorcycles hunt down suspected shabu (crystal meth) users on street corners, alleys, and sometimes right in their homes.

More recently, Duterte has also blamed drugs for the Islamist resurgence in Mindanao. Drugs, he said, are the “gasoline” of terrorism. “They are driven by shabu,” he said of the Maute Group, ISIS-affiliated militants entrenched in neighborhoods in Marawi, Mindanao’s most Islamic city. “The money they use to finance their wars was from producing shabu and throwing it everywhere in the Philippines. That’s why we are in a bind.”

This drugs-are-the-root-of-all-evil worldview simplifies the causes and consequences of criminality and terrorism. But it suffices for establishing political hegemony and mobilizing popular support. Since Duterte took office, the police have activated a grassroots intelligence network that keeps a watch list of drug users and targets some of them for murder. As the army racks up casualties in Marawi, police reinforcements from Luzon, where the drug war is at its fiercest, are now being sent to Mindanao, which has been under martial law since May.

More humane and holistic approaches, including pursuing the political settlement with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao and taking a public health approach to drug use have been consigned to the back burner. Critics have been cowed or compromised, and human rights defenders attacked for advocating for slain addicts while apparently being heedless to the plight of crime victims.

There is, however, resistance from some sectors of Congress, the Catholic Church, and civil society. But there remains a failure in political imagination: The inchoate opposition has been unable to articulate an alternative to Duterte’s populist authoritarianism that addresses the insecurity of people’s lives and their yearning for effective government.

Justo, the village captain, says her community is in a bind: Six of her constituents have been slain in the drug war over the past year, but the drug trade flourishes because it’s easy money for poor folks. Her own family has not been spared. A cousin who was on the drug watch list was arrested and jailed; she was grateful he wasn’t killed. Not long ago, she picked up a relative from a morgue. His body was found stashed in a suitcase, its head was wrapped in a plastic bag, there were two stab marks on his chest—all the marks of an extrajudicial killing. “We shake every time we hear shooting,” she says. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood since birth and I’ve never seen this kind of killing.”

In the Philippines, the populist moment is also a bloody one. One year after assuming the presidency, the Punisher is on a roll, while the many Filipinos who bat for him continue to believe that fear and brute force will finally root out terror and crime.

Read more about Human RightsPhilippinesRodrigo DuterteWar on Drugs

Sheila S. Coronel is academic dean and the Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University's Journalism School. She was co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and has written about politics and governance in the Philippines.

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