War on Drugs

Philippine Anti-Drug Strategy: 'Kill Them All'

Rodrigo Duterte echoes American drug warriors.


Thirty-three countries have laws that authorize the death penalty for drug offenses. The Philippines is not one of them. But since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president last May after promising to "fatten all the fish" in Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals, police and vigilantes have killed hundreds of drug dealers and users.

Testifying before the Philippine Senate last Tuesday, National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa said cops had killed 756 drug suspects since July 1, the day after Duterte was sworn in as president, while 1,160 people had been killed "outside police operations." The death toll rose by 137 between Monday and Tuesday, so by now it is presumably in the thousands.

Duterte's methods may be bloodier than those typically employed by American prohibitionists, but his logic is similar, casting peaceful transactions—the exchange of money for psychoactive substances—as acts of aggression that pose an existential threat to the nation. This is war, after all, so there is no room for legal niceties.

Dela Rosa says the drug suspects were killed because they resisted arrest. Duterte, a former prosecutor whose anti-crime slogan is "kill them all," has repeatedly said police waging his war on drugs should "shoot to kill" if they face any resistance. As mayor of Davao, he declared that criminal suspects are "a legitimate target of assassination," and after taking office as president he urged citizens to kill drug users as well as drug dealers. "These sons of whores are destroying our children," he told a crowd in a poor neighborhood of Manila. "I warn you, don't go into that, even if you're a policeman, because I will really kill you…If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful."

When Duterte was Davao's mayor, hundreds of people died in that city at the hands of vigilantes, homicides he both encouraged and disavowed. Now Dela Rosa says the vigilante killings since Duterte became president will be investigated, but it's no mystery why they have recently exploded. Nor is it surprising that the vigilantes have not been very discriminating about the people they mark for death.

Last month Michael Siaron, a 29-year-old rickshaw driver in Manila, was shot by gunmen who left a cardboard sign next to his body identifying him as a "pusher." His relatives say he occasionally used methamphetamine (the main target of Duterte's drug war), but they insist he never sold it. After The Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a front-page photograph of Siaron's wife cradling his body in the street under the headline "Thou Shalt Not Kill," Duterte seemed unmoved. "There you are sprawled on the ground, and you are portrayed in a broadsheet like Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ," he said in a speech to Congress. "That's just drama."

The police also have been less than punctilious about whom and when they kill. After two small-time Manila dealers, 49-year-old Renato Bertes and his 28-year-old son, Jaypee Bertes, were killed while in custody last month, the cops claimed the arrestees had tried to grab their guns. But an investigation by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights found both men had been severely beaten and were incapable of resistance. The evidence in that case, which a senator described as a "summary execution," was so clear that the government had no choice but to bring murder charges against two officers. Many other cases in which police claim to have killed drug suspects in self-defense will not get the same scrutiny.

Duterte says he wants to reinstate the death penalty, which at this point seems redundant. Why bother making it official when you can execute people much more efficiently in the street?

While the complete lack of due process makes Duterte's homicidal anti-drug crackdown especially appalling, the legal, cold-blooded execution of drug offenders who are duly sentenced to death is horrifying in its own way, since the government feels no need to pretend something else is going on. "The death penalty for drugs is both distressingly common (in terms of the overall number of people killed) [and] incredibly rare (in terms of the number of States that carry out the sentence)," Patrick Gallahue and Rick Lines observe in a 2015 report from Harm Reduction International (HRI). "Hundreds of people are executed every year for drugs, the overwhelming majority of them in just a few countries. Thousands more are sentenced to death. Those few countries that execute people for drugs represent an extreme fringe of the international community."

HRI identified 33 countries that authorize the death penalty for drug offenses, but it classified just seven—China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia—as "high application states," meaning "the sentencing of people convicted of drug offences to death and/or carrying out executions are routine and mainstreamed part of the criminal justice system." Three of those countries—China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—account for almost all known executions of drug offenders: 546 out of 549 in 2013.

The actual total is probably higher, and the list of states that carry out executions may be a bit longer, especially since no data are available for North Korea. But the idea that death is an appropriate penalty for supplying people with products they want—sometimes in cases involving drug quantities as small as a few grams—has increasingly fallen out of favor in recent years. Many argue that the practice violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says the death penalty must be reserved for the "most serious crimes." According to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and the International Narcotics Control Board, that category does not include drug offenses.

But in the United States, it does. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the crime bill that former President Bill Clinton alternately brags about and apologizes for, authorized the death penalty for large-scale drug trafficking, a provision that has never been carried out. It probably never will, since it seems to be unconstitutional under Kennedy v. Louisiana, the 2008 case in which the Supreme Court said the Eighth Amendment requires that the death penalty be reserved for "crimes that take the life of the victim."

As far as William J. Bennett is concerned, that's a shame. Back in 1989, when he was running the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Clinton's predecessor, Bennett said "there's no moral problem" with beheading drug dealers—the preferred method in Saudi Arabia. Although beheading might be legally problematic, he said on Larry King Live, it would be "morally proportional to the nature of the offense." And Bennett ought to know, since he has a Ph.D. in philosophy. "I used to teach ethics," he told Larry King. "Trust me." The following year, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates took Bennett's logic a step further, telling a Senate committee that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot" as traitors in the war on drugs.

Although Rodrigo Duterte is sometimes compared to Donald Trump, he could be taking his cues from Bennett, Gates, and other American drug warriors who heartily endorsed lethal responses to nonviolent actions. Duterte's portrayal of meth addicts as subhuman and unworthy of life also has parallels in American propaganda. His main distinction is that he follows through on the murderous implications of his mindless anti-drug rhetoric—something voters apparently admire. The New York Times reports that "Mr. Duterte's crackdown has been hugely popular."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.