Photographer: Zeke Jacobs/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Duterte's War on Drugs Kills Almost 2,000 in Echo of Thai Battles

  • Philippine leader says drugs a pandemic; nearly 2,000 killed
  • Popular for now, Duterte could suffer as list of enemies grows

Edgar Acebuche made around $32 a week driving a garbage truck and selling old bottles and papers in his Manila shanty town. It wasn’t enough to provide for his two children, help his younger sibling through school and pay for his mother’s hypertension medicine, so he sold drugs.

When Acebuche, who dreamed of opening a billiards hall, realized that Rodrigo Duterte might win the Philippine presidency with his pledge to start a merciless war on drugs, relatives say he stopped dealing. "He left Manila" to lay low, said his cousin Alicia Danao, returning home occasionally to see his kids and wash their clothes.

On one visit on July 18, Danao says police took Acebuche, 42, away. Two hours later they returned with his body. According to the police report, Acebuche "suddenly grabbed" an officer’s gun. Sensing "imminent danger,” the officer shot him. Danao said in an interview in the shanty town in early August that when police returned Acebuche’s body, one of them told her: “‘Sorry, the president ordered this’." Manila police did not answer calls for further comment.

Armed guards outside a Manila jail where a blast killed 10 inmates on Aug. 12.
Armed guards outside a Manila jail where a blast killed 10 inmates on Aug. 12.
Photographer: Zeke Jacobs/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Acebuche is one of 756 people killed in police operations since the tough-talking Duterte was sworn in on June 30 and launched his war on illegal drugs. A further 1,100 have been killed outside police operations, in echoes of a crackdown in Thailand over a decade ago.

Despite criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, Duterte has vowed to continue with the campaign that has proven popular with a public sick of prior leaders failing to tackle crime.

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As mayor of Davao City, Duterte earned the nickname "The Punisher" for his shoot-to-kill crime crackdown that left hundreds dead. As president, Duterte is after bigger fish. He has already named and shamed over a hundred government officials as allegedly involved in the drug trade, among them five retired or active senior police officers.

That raises potential political risk for Duterte from powerful forces in the country. Already there is a Senate inquiry into extrajudicial killings and Duterte has picked a very public and messy fight with the senator heading that probe.

‘Honeymoon Period’

"It is hard to see how this can continue and be beneficial for the president," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "Local political opponents, once Duterte’s honeymoon period is over though, could easily make use of this campaign to attack the president."

Duterte has defended his efforts, calling illegal drugs a pandemic. “In life, there’s always a price to pay,” he said in a speech this week. “Is it the comfort or safety of the population or the lives of the criminals, you choose?”. He questioned why he was being given grief over how many people were killed.

Antonio Trillanes
Antonio Trillanes
Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Still, "no state leader in history was ever successful in employing such methods," said Senator Antonio Trillanes, a Duterte critic and member of billionaire Manny Villar’s Nacionalista Party who was jailed for more than seven years for his involvement in several attempted coups against former President Gloria Arroyo. "None of them ended up well. All of them ended up either ousted, imprisoned later on or killed.”

For now, overseas investors don’t appear overly concerned. Since the May election, foreign funds have pumped $1.2 billion into the nation’s shares amid optimism Duterte will accelerate infrastructure development and spur economic growth, though some of that money has recently been taken off the table.

"As long as corruption isn’t endemic and the economy grows at 7 percent per annum, I don’t see problems,” Alan Richardson, a Hong Kong-based fund manager at Samsung Asset Management Ltd., said by phone. “World history is full of atrocities and nature itself is a killing field. Yet life moves forward.”

Neighboring Thailand may provide a cautionary tale for Duterte in his goal of wiping out drugs. Then-Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra embarked on his own drugs war in 2003 that included blacklists and ultimatums for officials to capture or kill those named. Figures at the time showed 2,200 people died violently, though the government said only a few dozen were killed by police, and in self-defense.

The military ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup, and his opponents said the drug war was one of the reasons he was unfit to return to politics.

Thaksin Shinawatra in March 2003.
Thaksin Shinawatra in March 2003.
Photographer: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the campaign, illegal drugs continue to flourish in Thailand. Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya is considering decriminalizing methamphetamine, saying abuse should be treated as a health issue rather than a crime.

“It has been wrong all these years,” he told a forum this month, according to the Bangkok Post, referring to anti-drug efforts. “If not, why do 70 percent of drug offenders remain in prison? Why does the problem persist despite thousands of deaths? And why do people still complain about drugs in their community?”

‘Culture of Impunity’

Thaksin’s campaign emboldened police and government officials to use "heavy-handed" tactics, said Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Thailand, who investigated the deaths. One effect “is the culture of impunity that kind of lingers on.”

“Even after Thaksin was ousted, successive governments never put an end to extrajudicial killings related to the war on drugs.”

Tanapong Rukongpasoet was eight in May 2003 when his parents were killed near their home about 500 kilometers north of Bangkok. His father had previously accused an officer of seeking a bribe over the family trucking business. Their car was riddled with bullets as they returned from a police station. In between his parents’ bodies -- next to the manual gear shift -- police said they found a box with methamphetamine.

The family business was seized by the Thai government. "They took everything," Tanapong recalled in a recent interview in Bangkok. "They took money, the trucks, land, everything. All they left was me and my brother."

‘See Me’

One of a handful of cases that Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation looked into, investigators found no evidence Tanapong’s parents were dealers. Tanapong is seeking to clear his parents name and recover the family’s assets, which he said were worth 60 million baht ($1.7 million).

Of Duterte’s campaign in the Philippines, he said: "When I look, I see me."

In Manila, Acebuche’s two young sons will also grow up without a father, and their future is uncertain.

"He was very caring with his kids," his cousin Danao said. "He did not want his kids to turn out like him.”

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