Dela Rosa and Duterte puppets
The puppet versions of Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald dela Rosa and President Rodrigo R. Duterte were introduced during the 24th founding anniversary of Police Community Relations Group at Camp Crame in Quezon City on August 1, 2016. The puppets are being used for the anti-drug information and education campaign of the PNP. (Toto Lozano/PPD)

The Philippine National Police (PNP) says that “only” 1, 398 individuals have been killed in the course of the Rodrigo Duterte regime’s “war” on the illegal drug trade out of a total of 6,011 killings in the country from July 1, 2016 when Mr. Duterte began his watch as President, until March 24, 2017, or a little more than eight months into his six-year term.

Of the killings that have been investigated, 823, said the PNP, were not drug-related. Three thousand seven hundred eighty-five (3,785) cases are still under investigation. Even if all of the latter turn out to be drug-related, the total — 5,183 — would still be less than the 7,000 that human rights groups, local and international media and Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo say have been killed by the police in the anti-drug campaign. On the basis of these numbers, PNP Chief Ronald de la Rosa’s expressed his “irritation” over what he said were “sensationalized and misinterpreted” data about the number of deaths among drug users and dealers, which have been characterized by human rights groups as extrajudicial killings (EJKs).

PNP spokespersons and de la Rosa say the 7,000 number did not come from the police, but from the media and other sources, implying that the best source of data on the killings is the PNP. It’s the same PNP that on January 31, when Duterte suspended the anti-drug campaign because of the killing by police officers of a Korean businessman whom they kidnapped for ransom, had reported that 2,555, not 1,398, drug users and petty drug dealers had been killed since July, 2016.

This is also the same PNP that has reported fewer killings of journalists compared to the number known to journalists’ and media advocacy groups, the same PNP that every year manipulates crime statistics to make itself seem more efficient than it really is, the same PNP that together with the military is named every year by the US State Department report as the worst human rights violator in the country, and the same PNP that after every election in these isles of unreason declares the exercise as “peaceful” because “only” a few dozen people had been killed.

It stands to reason that the very same institution accused of carrying out EJKs can’t be relied upon to provide anyone with accurate statistics on the subject, it being in its interest to make the numbers smaller than they’re widely thought to be. But both the PNP and some regime flunkies in the media insist that it’s the only reliable source of information. Both have been in the middle of a propaganda campaign to convince the public that there have been no EJKs in the course of the murderous “war” against drug users and small-time drug traders that’s in reality a war against the poor, and that, in any case, the number of killings has been exaggerated.

But does it really matter if “only” 1,398 individuals have been killed rather than 7,000? Isn’t one extrajudicial killing alone already one killing too many not only because of what it says about the state of law and order in this country but also because every human life matters?

The police and military habit of making it appear that what really matters as far as killings are concerned is not the fact that someone has been killed but that “only” a few have been slain, is another measure of how little life is valued by the country’s so-called security forces. The PNP demonstrated that when some of its personnel killed Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo right in PNP national headquarters, while the military has been demonstrating how little it values the lives of the Filipino people by bombing the communities it claims support the New People’s Army (NPA). In their calculation, the loss of a few dozen lives is acceptable so long as it meets their core purpose of keeping things the way they have been in this country for decades.

What’s worse is that, for the first time in living memory, a sitting Philippine President has declared that if poor people are being killed in the course of the anti-drug campaign, that’s because they’re the ones behind the illegal drug trade. That’s what Mr. Duterte said in one of his usual rambling speeches delivered March 25 in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon province.

“If you get killed, then I’m sorry,” said President Duterte. He went on to say that the rich don’t need to sell drugs to make a living while poor people have to do exactly that because they have few or even no choices. But, apparently unaware that he was contradicting himself, he also said poverty is not an excuse for selling drugs. At one point, Mr. Duterte in effect also said the poor are the drug lords when he declared (apparently without meaning it) that he was “sorry” if the poor are being killed, but that he had to “clean up until the drug lords are eliminated from the streets.”

He also repeated what he has said on other occasions: that the rich don’t sell drugs. “I have never heard that a son of Lucio Tan or Gokongwei sold drugs,” because being already rich, they don’t need to do so to survive.

There is something terribly wrong in these statements. He might as well have said that only the poor commit crimes. Neither Lucio Tan nor John Gokongwei or any other high-profile business tycoon may be involved in the drug trade, but isn’t it more than likely that the financiers of the drug trade, though less visible, are as rich or even richer than either or even both put together?

The small-time drug dealers Mr. Duterte is blaming for the persistence of the drug trade are nothing compared to the financiers and manufacturers of illegal drugs who’re both wealthy and well-connected, some of their protectors, as Mr. Duterte has declared in the past, being local politicians and in some instances, the very same high-ranking police officers in command of the police campaign against illegal drugs. By declaring open season on the poor, Mr. Duterte is practically saying that because he can’t reach the drug financiers and manufacturers, he’s concentrating on ridding the streets of those the police can kill with the usual impunity.

Not only does that approach guarantee the failure of the anti-drug campaign; it also penalizes the poor for being poor. In another one of those ironies rampant in this country, it’s the same government that now wants to kill them that, for its failure to end poverty, is ultimately responsible for the legions of the poor among whom committing petty crimes is often the only alternative to starvation.

The only sane option to end the drug problem is to arrest, imprison, neutralize — whatever — the financiers and manufacturers of illegal drugs, whom Mr, Duterte should know are richer than most taipans. Killing a petty drug dealer who’s into the business because, while he and his family have to eat, legitimate work is hard to come by, dooms his family to even worse poverty once he’s killed — only to be replaced by some other poor citizen, of which this country has an endless supply.

It’s the worst kind of class warfare. The poor are punished for being poor, the wealthy financiers of the drug trade, their protectors and their organizations get off scot-free, and the government, like Pontius Pilate, washes its hands, as bloody as they may be, of any responsibility. No wonder the poor are fighting back.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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