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Deadly Philippine Drug War Takes Gentler Turn, For Now

In this photo provided by the Presidential Photographers Division, Malacanang Palace, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to erring policemen during an audience at the Presidential Palace grounds in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 9, 2017.
In this photo provided by the Presidential Photographers Division, Malacanang Palace, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to erring policemen during an audience at the Presidential Palace grounds in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 9, 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has softened his deadly anti-drug campaign following police mishaps and signs of public skepticism.

Duterte, a 71-year-old, harshly-spoken former mayor, had vowed to kill 100,000 criminals and eradicate drugs by next month. However, Duterte's office announced in late January the police side of the campaign against drugs was suspended.

That shift followed the kidnapping and slaying of a South Korean businessman in October at the Philippine National Police’s Camp Crame headquarters in Manila. The incident raised Duterte’s angry suspicion of what he called “scalawags” in the police and a resolve to root them out.

National police Chief Gen. Ronald dela Rosa announced in late January he would dissolve the anti-drug units to go after corruption instead. “We will cleanse our ranks,” the news organization Foreign Policy quoted the chief as saying.

Duterte’s suspension of the anti-drug campaign, during which an estimated 7,000 people were killed, marks his first retreat from a policy criticized by Western countries, human rights groups and most recently, the Catholic Church.

“The really sad irony of what has happened in the Philippines is that the deaths of more than 7,000 Filipinos in President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs didn’t bring any kind of change in policy,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

“But it took the kidnapping murder of a single South Korean businessman in the Philippines to cause the government to tap the brakes on the drug war,” he said.

Public opinion is also wavering, though still believed to be widely supportive of the earlier anti-drug effort.

Eighty-six Philippine Catholic dioceses have condemned the suspected extrajudicial killings and called for reforms in law enforcement. A unified statement released in early February, the first issued by multiple dioceses and read at masses around the country, called the drug eradication effort a “reign of terror in many places of the poor.”

About 83 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, making the Church influential in much of the society. “We hope that as a statement it should have some bearing on the Catholic faithful themselves,” said Antonio Ledesma, archbishop in the southern city of Cagayan de Oro.

The Korean national’s killing was just one police “foible,” said Jay Batongbacal, associate law professor at the University of the Philippines. “The people agree that the drug problem is something that is serious and needs to be solved, but do not agree with the method of killing thousands to address it,” he said.

A survey by Manila-based polling group Social Weather Stations found in December that 78 percent of Filipinos fear they or someone they know will become an victim of the extrajudicial killings.

Observers in the country say the president is serious about stripping the power of officers who overstep bounds and reducing police corruption.

Anti-corruption work falls in line with Duterte’s pledges before the May 2016 presidential election and his inauguration in June, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

“Inside the police is where they’re looking. They’re cleaning house,” said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school and part of a political family on the southern island Mindanao.

“They’re still running after the people who really are very overtly in the drug business,” Canoy said. “But in terms of like the neighborhood things that they were doing before, that’s toned down a bit.”

The special Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency is still pursuing drug crimes, local media say. A broader campaign is expected to resume once Duterte believes the police are better disciplined or he finds another agency to take charge.

Drug dealing once occupied neighborhood streets and spawned petty crimes against common people, many Filipinos say. Some were afraid to go out at night. According to a 2012 United Nations World Drug Report, the Philippines had East Asia’s highest abuse rate of the methamphetamine strain called “shabu.”

Presidential office spokesman Ernesto Abella suggested to Philippine media late last month that Duterte might form a police constabulary, which would include military participation, to solve drug crimes.

“The campaign itself is still going on,” Casiple said. “I don’t think it will end. The anti-drug campaign is receiving a big support from the public.”