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Bodies Pile Up in Duterte's Deadly War on Drugs: QuickTake Q&A

Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs has resumed. The U.S., the European Union and the United Nations have all condemned the Philippine president’s crackdown on suspected dealers and users, serving only to rile the expletive-prone lawyer-turned-politician. The reaction at home so far appears less critical, even supportive, while a senator who led a backlash has ended up in jail. Duterte suspended anti-drug operations in January, but the hiatus is over and the death toll is rising again.

1. How many deaths has Duterte’s campaign claimed?

More than 7,000, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The government says that’s an exaggeration, with police reporting about 2,600 fatalities in the seven months through Jan. 30. That was the date when Duterte removed police from the operations after rogue officers were implicated in the murder of a South Korean businessman. Police have blamed about 1,400 more drug-related deaths on vigilante groups. Either way, Duterte has brought about more loss of life than former president Ferdinand Marcos during his eight years of martial rule and Thailand during its war on drugs that began in 2003.

2. Who is Duterte targeting?

Dealers, users, drug lords -- anyone connected to the illegal trade. Duterte estimates there are as many as 4 million drug addicts in the Southeast Asian nation of about 100 million people. The Dangerous Drugs Board puts the tally at 1.8 million, with crystal meth -- known as shabu -- the No. 1 scourge for Duterte, much of it from China. As part of the campaign, police say they have made 7 million home visits to persuade suspects to mend their ways.

3. Do Filipinos support Duterte’s war?

They support the campaign more than the methods. Eight out of 10 Filipinos polled in December were satisfied with Duterte’s anti-narcotics drive, although that was before a Senate investigation brought to light police abuses. On the other hand, 78 percent of Filipinos worry that they or someone they know may die in extra-judicial operations. Nine out of 10 Filipinos think drug suspects should be caught alive.

4. How is Duterte responding to criticism?

The 71-year-old has termed narcotic use a pandemic and promises to pardon police officers who are convicted of killing drug suspects in self-defense. He accuses critics of valuing the lives of criminals over the good of society. Debunking allegations that he is engineering a human rights calamity, Duterte has said: “When you kill criminals, that is not a crime against humanity. The criminals have no humanity, God damn it.”

5. Will the resumption of the war take a different tack?

A national police chief said the renewed campaign -- called "Project Double Barrel, Reloaded” -- would be “less bloody, if not bloodless.” At the same time, the military has said it will act as a “force provider” to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Barely a week after the campaign resumed in early March, police said law enforcers had killed 27 drug suspects in 679 operations.

6. Who’s taking Duterte to task?

Amnesty International says the poor have been targeted disproportionately, while Human Rights Watch has appealed to the UN to investigate abuses. Then there’s Leila de Lima, the senator who’s now in prison. She was indicted for drug trafficking in February and accused of allowing illegal drugs to flourish inside the national jail while serving as justice secretary. De Lima denies the charges and says her arrest was politically motivated. The lawmaker had led a Senate probe into alleged vigilante killings by death squads in Davao City from the 1980s. Duterte, who was Davao mayor for more than two decades from 1988, says testimony linking him to the death squads was a fabrication.

7. When will it end and who’s going to win?

Duterte campaigned to make fighting crime a cornerstone of his government, vowing to stamp out illegal drugs within six months. He now says he may spend the rest of his presidential term on the job because the situation is worse than he had thought. Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa said that, win or lose the war, at least the country has done something to address the problem. A former Colombia president warned Duterte that throwing soldiers and police at the drug problem will only make it worse. Thailand’s experience of using force also does not bode well, but Duterte is unbowed. “I have six years to do it and I will kill you,” he said.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Dangerous Drugs Board offers statistics and a briefing on its survey of drug use.
  • A Bloomberg interview with the Philippine National Police chief.
  • Website of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which is in charge of Duterte’s crackdown.
  • Human Rights Watch reports on alleged police deceit, while Amnesty International recounts the “murderous war” on the poor.
  • Social Weather Stations’ poll on Duterte’s anti-narcotics drive.
  • César Gaviria, Colombia president in 1990-1994, says Duterte’s repeating his mistakes; The Conversation recalls Thailand’s failed drugs war.
  • A QuickTake explainer on the Philippines and a Q&A on its closure of mines and another on populist leaders.
  • A Bloomberg profile of Duterte’s anti-crime methods as mayor of Davao.
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