War on Drugs

What America Taught a Murderous Drug Warrior

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte follows prohibitionist logic to its deadly conclusion.


The masked gunmen came for Paquito Mejos, a 53-year-old electrician and father of five, two days after he had surrendered to police in Manila, identifying himself as an occasional user of methamphetamine, known locally as shabu. Police, who arrived shortly after Mejos had been shot dead, later claimed he was a drug dealer who drew a gun on them. Relatives say the cops planted the gun, along with a packet of shabu.

This is what Rodrigo Duterte's murderous war on drugs looks like, which is why his critics were dismayed that Donald Trump seemed to bless it during a "very friendly" telephone conversation with the Philippine president on Saturday. But Trump's chumminess with Duterte, while it fits a pattern of admiration for authoritarian leaders around the world, is a logical extension of prohibition policies the U.S. government has been pushing for more than a century.

According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), more than 7,000 people have been killed by officers, vigilantes, or other unidentified gunmen since Duterte took office last summer. As of last week, 2,717 of the dead were described as "suspected drug personalities killed in police operations," a category that supposedly includes Paquito Mejos.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which investigated that case along with 31 other deaths, found "a damning pattern of unlawful police conduct in these killings, designed to paint a veneer of legality over summary executions." Peter Bouckaert, author of the HRW report, said "police routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene."

As of January 9, according to the PNP's numbers, another 3,603 people had died in "extrajudicial, vigilante-style, or unexplained killings." HRW says many of these homicides "are in fact death-squad-style extrajudicial executions by police and police agents."

The carnage, which has drawn international condemnation, is only a down payment on Duterte's campaign promise to "kill them all." Since his election he has publicly urged people to murder drug addicts, likened his own bloodthirstiness to Adolf Hitler's, and told police they needn't worry about being investigated for excessive use of force.

"My order is shoot to kill you," Duterte told drug dealers last August. "I don't care about human rights, you better believe me."

Trump's reaction to all this, according to the official summary of his call to Duterte, was to praise his Philippine counterpart for "fighting very hard to rid [his] country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world." The president also invited Duterte, who according to HRW could be "held liable for crimes against humanity," to visit him at the White House.

Trump surely can be faulted for either not knowing or not caring what "fighting very hard" means in the Philippines. But Duterte's main sin is taking the rhetoric of American prohibitionists a little too seriously.

Back in 1989, when he was running the Office of National Drug Control Policy, William J. Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, cited his expertise in ethics while explaining to Larry King on CNN that "there's no moral problem" with beheading drug dealers, since the penalty is "proportional to the nature of the offense." The following year, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates took Bennett's reasoning 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.

Duterte is implementing the program outlined by Bennett and Gates, extirpating anyone who dares to flout the government's pharmacological taboos. His portrayal of meth addicts as subhuman and unworthy of life also has parallels in American propaganda.

Like U.S. drug warriors, Duterte casts peaceful transactions—the exchange of money for psychoactive substances—as acts of aggression that pose an existential threat to the nation. Drug prohibition by its nature requires unjustified violence, and the prevailing metaphor for enforcing it only magnifies the potential for bloodshed. After all, this is war.

© Copright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.