Philippines

What America Taught a Murderous Drug Warrior

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

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

This is what daily life during 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 in April. Trump's chumminess with Duterte fits a pattern of admiration for authoritarian leaders around the world. But it is also a logical extension of the 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 April 23, some 2,717 of the dead were described as "suspected drug personalities killed in police operations," a category that supposedly includes Paquito Mejos.

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

Besides the police killings, the PNP's numbers indicate, another 3,603 people had died in "extrajudicial, vigilante-style, or unexplained killings" as of January 9. 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." As a candidate, he said he would fatten the fish in Manila Bay by filling it with the bodies of criminals. Since his election, he has publicly urged people to murder drug addicts, described children killed in the drug war as "collateral damage," 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 said in remarks aimed at drug dealers last August. "I don't care about human rights, you better believe me."

Trump's reaction to all this, according to a transcript of his conversation with Duterte prepared by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, was to "congratulate" Duterte for his "unbelievable job on the drug problem" while criticizing Barack Obama for expressing reservations about it. "What a great job you are doing," enthused the U.S. president, who also invited Duterte to the White House.

Trump surely can be faulted for either not knowing or not caring what Duterte's "great job" entails. But Duterte's main sin is taking the rhetoric of American drug prohibitionists a little too seriously.

Back in 1989, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, William J. Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, cited his expertise in ethics while declaring 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. Like U.S. drug warriors, he 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.