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What America Taught a Murderous Drug Warrior

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

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.

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  • Inigo Montoya||

    You know who else declared that human rights shouldn't stand in the way of the authorities' efforts to promote security?

  • LarryA||

    Every "authority" ever?

  • gaoxiaen||

    To promote whatever.

  • Mark22||

    "Barack Obama for expressing reservations about it"

    Obama told people what they wanted to hear and then did something different. Trump just says random things to random people. Who cares what these people say, what matters is what they do for Americans.

  • jmlandry||

    Robert Mugabe?

  • jmlandry||

    Duck Sessions and his lame assed racheting up of the drug war. Do we even need a DOJ? Or DEA? Certainly not.

    Meanwhile Las Vegas goes green and dark web gives unfettered access to all.

    I never realized that small asset forfeiture cases against minorities were the bulk of the take. Small amounts make it too expensive to go to court and recoup. Pricks.

  • Merl3noir||

    Considering in much of Asia the death penalty is standard practice for drug dealers, it is more likely that these practices where picked up from other Asian countries, than from the US. Add to that the Philippines pretty corrupt police practices and it is no surprise.

  • damikesc||

    Can Reason provide a list of murderous thugs we should deal with and which ones we should not?

    We should be nice to Cuba but mean to Phillipines. Why? What is the difference? Both are terrible, yet the U.S. is criticized for both for opposite reasons.

  • Hoodnick||

    You make a very good point. Reason please be consistent on libertarian principles and practical application on policy based on those principles.

  • Mithrandir||

    Not really. The comparison is a major false equivalency.

  • Mithrandir||

    We can not like Cuban dictatorship but recognize that the Cuban embargo has been totally and completely useless.

    OTOH, there is no talk about sanctioning the Phillipines. That doesn't mean it's a good thing for the POTUS to congratulate a brutal drug warrior on his deadly handling of drug users and dealers.

  • damikesc||

    It's not really our concern. Why should I care if the Phillipine leader is nuts about a drug war? It's not my concern. He was elected on promises to do specifically this.

    If the Castros were actually elected to lead Cuba, I'd give no shits what happened to Cubans either. You have a right to make an asinine choice. But they aren't given that choice. Therefore, Cuba is measures worse than the Phillipines.

  • Mithrandir||

    I'm not making the argument that we should do anything about the Philippines president; I'm making the argument that the president of the United States should not be encouraging the Philippines president when he commits human rights violations. Because he is inarguably committing human rights violations.

    As far as Cuba, again, you don't need to like their regime to realize the embargo has done fuck all.

  • Tom Rice||

    "Deal with"? Trump is sucking his dick you fucking moron.

  • damikesc||

    In what way?

    Asia isn't really into the legalization thing. Get caught bringing pot into Japan and see how well life treats you.

    Saying they had a "friendly phone call" is hardly "sucking his dick".

    It's not like Trump sent airplanes full of cash to him or anything. That'd be sucking a dick.

  • Tom Rice||

    Duterte is a terrorist and Trump provides him with moral and material support. It should be as criminal as helping IS.

  • damikesc||

    What countries is Duterte bombing?

    ISIS has done numerous.

    Don't confuse "terrorist" and "asshole". They aren't the same thing.

  • crufus||

    "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."

    So Duterte is just taking the War on Drugs to its logical conclusion of killing the enemy drug users and dealers. No more messy and expensive judicial trials, just clean efficient killing.

  • AJM13||

    While Duterte's actions should be pointed out and condemned, and his views seem to be shared by a tiny minority of Americans, I think the title of this article is extremely misleading. Nowhere in the article does it show evidence that Duterte took the idea of the drug war to this extreme because of happenings in the US. So stretching this opinion that his ideas are similar to the drug prohibition in the US to imply in the title that this is in fact the case is something I would expect from a CNN or Fox News OpEd, but not from Reason. While I see the authors point that, if not repealed or kept in check, these actions could logically occur in the US, I fail to see how our country is the basis for his current policies as the title implies.

    And Trump is an ignorant POTUS. That's hardly news.

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