How does someone this crazy get elected?
by Jack Archambault
Staff Death Squad
For once, a politician is making good on a campaign promise. Only this time, that might not be such a good thing. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who based his campaign around eradicating his country’s illegal drug trade, has employed secret police teams and death squads to kill anybody they suspect is associated with the drug trade. These extrajudicial killings, of which there have been over 3,000 since Duterte’s inauguration on July 1, and people’s reactions to them have brought to light a complicated dynamic between Duterte, Philippine citizens, and the international community.
To fully understand this story, it is necessary to know a little bit about the Philippine President. Duterte is no stranger to politics, having held positions as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, Vice Mayor, and finally Mayor of Davao City, where his infatuation with death squads as a political tool was born (more on this later). His brash and unapologetic style drew the support of Philippine voters this election year, as his promises to fight a drug trade that has been fueled by decades of government corruption is seen by many as a necessary response to a growing problem. Among other things, Duterte has likened himself to Hitler, saying he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts, and during his run for the Presidency, Duterte routinely made uncouth comments regarding rape victims, homosexuality, and foreign leaders, even calling Pope Francis a “son of a bitch.” If any of this reminds you of a certain orange boy that may or may not be our next President, well, it probably should. But Duterte is going further than even the Donald ever would (hopefully). In the past three months, Duterte’s extreme brand of justice has begged the question of which is more dangerous: drugs, or the fight against them?
The three groups responsible for the majority of the killings are the Philippines National Police (PNP), unidentified vigilantes, and highly organized state-sanctioned death squads. In fact, Duterte has given permission for anybody to “go ahead and kill them yourself,” in reference to those involved in the drug trade. Killing criminals at all is enough to make many people cringe, but Duterte has exceeded this, encouraging a Purge-like environment in his country.
There is no question that illegal drug use is a major issue in the Philippines. A 2015 study by the Dangerous Drugs Board found that 1.8 million Filipinos use illegal drugs, and political rhetoric has caused this number to grow to as high as 7 million. Duterte’s agenda is based around killing all drug users and dealers within six months, but since most shabu (crystal meth) users don’t run around in matching jerseys, getting the right people has proven to be a bit tricky for the secret police squads, which is where things really start to get scary.
The prevailing system of justice in the Philippines has become to kill first and ask questions later. As such, it is no surprise that many Filipinos, especially those whose family members have been killed by death squads, are questioning the validity of these killings. As people are executed without evidence or a trial, it is not uncommon for police accounts and those of witnesses to have glaring incongruences. After Jaypee Bertes and his father, Renato Bertes, were killed in early July, police claimed that they were killed because they tried to grab an officer’s gun. Forensic examinations, however, showed that both men were beaten and incapacitated before they were shot. Incidents like this point to a larger trend of police corruption and indicate that democracy and rule of law have gone out the window under the Duterte Administration.
The use of death squads to fight crime is nothing new for Duterte, who utilized the 300-person Davao Death Squad (DDS) during his time as Mayor of Davao City. This group killed over 1,000 people in Davao City between 1988 and 2013, and Duterte admitted to being part of it in a 2015 television broadcast, a statement which he later retracted. Duterte’s approach has, astoundingly, not fazed Filipinos in the slightest, with an approval rating of 91%. (Just for reference, the highest Post-WWII approval rating in American history, that of George W. Bush in September, 2001, was one point lower at 90%.) Despite such support from his countrymen, Duterte’s actions have not been met with the same enthusiasm from other world leaders. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have been especially quick to condemn the President, and as a result, Duterte has threatened to leave the UN. Furthermore, he has “dared” the UN, European Union, and United States to withdraw their aid from the Philippines. Well, let’s just hope he doesn’t up the ante, because everyone knows you can’t turn down a triple dog dare.