War on Drugs: How a Demagogue Created a Phantom Enemy

President Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his consequent stated intention to move the US Embassy there is the latest in a now yearlong pattern of breaking with long established American diplomatic norms. While the issue of Jerusalem is, to put it quite mildly, a long running one and worth much future discussion, other actions by the President on the world stage merit only condemnation: one recent example came in his recent meeting with Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, in which, despite disturbing developments under Duterte, the issue of human rights was never brought up. This is an account of Duterte’s rise to power and international infamy by Marc Vergel Torzar, a student at the University of the Philippines Diliman, that originally appeared on his website That Critical Theorist. – Alexander Sarti


It was on May 9, 2016 when Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential elections, garnering 39% of the total votes. He is the first from Mindanao, and the oldest ever to be elected president.

The result of the election was not at all surprising. Not many people knew Duterte at first, except for those in Mindanao, especially Davao City, which his family ruled for more than 22 years as a political dynasty. He slowly rose to prominence partly due to his toughness—toughness that took over the hearts of every Filipino desperate for change. It is because of his tough personality that he earned the nickname “The Punisher“. Filipinos are tired of traditional politicians; they want someone new, and Duterte professes himself to be exactly that.

The Filipinos want someone new.

The past administration of Noynoy Aquino is considered unsuccessful, proven by the loss of Mar Roxas—his supposed successor—against Duterte in the 2016 presidential elections. The Philippine economy grew highest during Noynoy’s term; it has the fastest growth in Asia at 6.9% in the first quarter of 2016, and this was believed to be a sign of progress. The problem is, it was not. The supposed progress was not felt by the people who needed it most. It was based on the false assumptions of trickle-down economics.

Filipinos grew tired of traditional politicians and their usual rhetoric. They want someone different—someone who has the courage and political will to bring about genuine change; and Duterte made the people believe this “someone” is him.

Even before the campaign period, many have already expressed their desires to have Duterte as a running mate—offers which he all declined. He mentioned on several occasions that he had no intention to run; though he once hinted to the media that it was a possibility, saying that he was still waiting for “divine guidance”. He continued to deny allegations regarding his candidacy up until his official declaration on November 21, 2015, in a gathering held in his alma mater, San Beda College.

Duterte’s campaign style was unconventional, to say the least.

Duterte’s campaign style was unconventional, to say the least. His campaign was marked by incessant cursing and extremely inappropriate remarks. Because of this, he received a lot of criticisms throughout his campaign, but it seemed that every criticism just fell on deaf ears. Unlike most politicians who to their best to appease the people, Duterte did not seem to give much attention to what people thought of him.

Duterte became a subject of controversy when he cursed the Pope for supposedly causing traffic jams in Metro Manila during his visit. There might be other reasons to be angry at the Pope, but causing traffic jams is definitely not the most reasonable one. Women’s rights advocates also criticized Duterte after he made a joke about a rape and hostage-taking incident in Davao City on 1989.

In this video, Duterte said that he “was mad because she was raped”, but also because “the mayor [himself] should have been first”.

He also once made fun of his disabled classmate, saying that he should have just committed suicide, while mockingly mimicking the way he walked. These are just a few examples of Duterte’s awfully stupefying remarks. Despite these, he still managed to maintain the support of his fans.

Duterte leads mock elections.
Image from: Tinig ng Plaridel

Duterte lead the mock elections tour held in the “big four” universities of the country conducted from April 4 to 7, according to Tinig ng Plaridel. Duterte received 1,408 votes out of 3,171, or 45% of the total student voters from University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), University of Sto. Tomas (UST), and De La Salle University (DLSU). Mock elections are not really the final basis of such, but nonetheless, this is an indication that Duterte still maintains his large base of supporters.

Every populist needs an enemy, so Duterte created one.

The Punisher portrayed himself as a maverick: an unorthodox leader running against the elites whose promises turned out to be nothing more than mere rhetoric. Elites who have failed to solve the real problems of the country. Every populist needs an enemy, so Duterte created one.

He claimed, several times in his campaign, that the Philippines is becoming a narco-state: government officials are cooperating with big-time drug lords to further their own agendas; and it’s his mission to stop them. For Duterte, drug abuse is a major obstacle to Philippines’ economic and social progress.

He made the people believe that the main problem faced by our country is the prevalence of illegal drugs, and the media was a huge help in the propagation of this idea. An Oxford study found that Duterte’s team spent around 10 million PHP to hire online trolls tasked to spread propaganda for him and against his opponents. These are bots programmed to spread fake news across social media platforms;

“Social media has become a valuable platform for public life. . . However, social media platforms—like Facebook and Twitter—have also become tools for social control,” (Bradshaw and Howard, 2017, p. 4).

Duterte believes that drug addicts are beyond redemption, saying that “there was little chance that those addicted to the drug [methamphetamine] could be rehabilitated and saved to lead a productive life”. He said that he had attended seminars and was “well versed on the destructive effects of synthetic drugs”. He views drug addicts as simply burdens to society, so the only way to deal with them is to kill them.

Duterte even said that “[he’d] kill [his] own kids if they took drugs“. It seems noble for a leader to be willing to overlook familial ties for the sake of fairness, but the problem is the way he wants to impose fairness. He does not realize that killing drug users will not solve any problem.

It is true that illegal drugs has negative effects on the brains of its users, but a study on behavioral and cognitive therapies for methamphetamine dependence shows that “treatment with cognitive – behaviour therapy (CBT)  appears to be associated with reductions in methamphetamine use and other positive changes”. Methamphetamine usage and dependence can still be addressed using certain methods of psychological intervention. This simply means that drug abusers can still be saved with proper rehabilitation, which is the opposite of what Duterte claims.

Data on the number of drug users and the prevalence of drug-related crime are either exaggerated, flawed or non-existent.

Duterte mentioned during his campaign that there are 3 million drug addicts in the Philippines. And after a month as president, he raised the number to 3.7 million—a figure that is obviously exaggerated.

Official estimates of drug users nationwide.
Image from: Rappler

As shown above, Duterte’s estimate is way off the mark. Data from the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) in 2008 shows that there were 1.7 million drug users nationwide. And by 2015, the figure grew to 1.8 million which is far from Duterte’s estimate.

Based on another study conducted by Reuters on official government data and interviews, data on the number of drug users, the types of drugs used, and the prevalence of drug-related crime are either exaggerated, flawed or non-existent.

The term “war on drugs” was first popularized in the US media during the term of President Nixon. Its aim was to reduce illegal drug trade through the prohibition of illegal drugs, with military aid and military intervention. This was done through the implementation of several drug policies to prevent the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs. Unfortunately, but as expected, it turned out to be unsuccessful. A poll on October 2, 2008 showed that 76% of Americans believed the war on drugs was failing. It is often considered a policy failure.

Drug abuse is not only a personal matter, but also a systemic one.

The best way to solve the problem of drug abuse is to determine the root of the problem, and doing so requires looking at the larger context of the phenomena. Studying the social factors underpinning it is not only obvious but also critical (Galea, S., et al., 2004). Some of the factors which contribute to drug abuse are adverse family conditions, socioeconomic factors, and social support—all of which is not entirely controlled by the abuser.

We cannot ignore the social dimension of drug abuse; thus, studying these factors are critical and necessary to be able to come up with a proper solution. Drug abuse is not only a personal matter but also a systemic one; but until Duterte realizes this, he will never be able to solve the problem of illegal drugs.

Unfortunately, hope isn’t always what it seems.

A woman mourns the death of a loved one victimized by the war on drugs.
Image from: getty images

From the moment Duterte took his oath, the war on drugs has already claimed the lives of around 12,000 Filipinos, including those allegedly killed by vigilantes. Based on the latest Global Impunity Index, the Philippines is seen as the worst in terms of impunity among 69 countries. The study also mentioned that these high rates of impunity may possibly lead to socioeconomic inequality, difficulties to attract foreign investment and tourism, rule-of-law problems, legal inequality, insufficient economic development, and also increase in human rights violations.

According to BBC, “[t]he hallmark of Mr Duterte’s administration so far has been a relentless crackdown on drug dealers and users”; with Duterte saying that he is “happy to slaughter them”. The prevalence of extrajudicial-killings due to the war on drugs caused a public outcry, especially from human rights advocates, both locally and internationally. But Duterte—with his extraordinary ability to disregard facts and expert opinions—still chooses to ignore the public’s call to stop his bloody war on drugs.

Duterte made the people believe that there is hope. Unfortunately, this hope is not what the people thought it to be.

“Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.”
-Francis Bacon

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