A Warning Against Populism: Rodrigo Duterte and the Philippine Drug War

Quashon Avent
Staff Writer

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PC: Pitpisit / Wikimedia Commons

What image comes to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘War on Drugs?’ To some it conjures images of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon declaring a war against illegal substances on national television. To others, it reminds them of a failing political campaign that led to an explosion in America’s prison population.

Today I will focus on a different war on drugs, specifically one found outside of the U.S. I’m talking about the Philippine Drug War, a large-scale campaign instituted by Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

Rodrigo was born into a wealthy family. His father was a governor, and his mother was a community activist. From a young age he was prone to violence and misconduct, allegedly bullying fellow students, and even carrying a gun on school grounds. By his own admission, he committed his first murder at 16, and shot a classmate while in college.

Ironically, in 1977 he became the special prosecutor of Davao City. He worked his way up from prosecutor to Vice mayor and finally to mayor. He served as mayor from 1988 to 1998 and was elected again in 2001. He retired again in 2010 but not without a huge amount of criticism and suspicion. In 2009, Human Rights Watch published a damning report on his use of paramilitary death squads in Davao.

The 2009 report details a particular pattern in all of the death squad killings. The killers drive in twos or threes on a motorcycle, with a helmet or cap obscuring their faces, and long shirts or jackets to obscure their weapons. They would assassinate their targets, mostly in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses.

The report also details the massive amounts of political corruption involved in the management of the death squad.

Most members were former communist insurgents. The handlers of these assassins were current or former police officials, who often supplied these killers with weapons and gear. The police also failed to collect evidence or interview suspects after the killings. There were even some cases of mistaken identity, with the youngest victim being 14.

In spite of the report and Duterte’s actions on the campaign trail, he was still elected president in the 2016 election. During Duterte’s inaugural speech, he discussed his plans to eradicate drug crime. One plan included issuing shoot-to-kill orders and paying out bounties to any security officer who killed a suspected criminal. The second phase of the plan was to encourage private citizens to shoot criminals. He also discussed his goal of killing 100,000 criminals and dumping their bodies in the Manilla Bay. Sadly, his dream is slowly becoming reality.

According to a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch, the drug war death toll was over 12,000. In early 2018, opposition members on the filipino Senate said the death toll had reached over 20,000. According to both of these sources, the majority of killings were committed by unidentified gunmen.  

Shockingly, Duterte still has the support of his people. Even our President has commended his actions. This is all because Duterte and his drug war are the symptoms of an even larger problem-populism.

Populism is a political ideology that represents the “will of the people.” To many populists, the “will of the people” means destroying the political establishment. They do this by portraying their opponents as corrupt political elites who are out of touch with their supporters.

This creates an “us vs. them” mentality that a populist leader can use to their advantage. Duterte did all of this during his 2016 campaign. He promised an end to corruption, an end to poverty and an end to drug crimes. As we can see, his administration has exterminated large swaths of the population and has created a government more corrupt than the last.

Duterte shows another populist quality- fearmongering. He was able to sway voters by scaring them into believing that mass extermination was the only way to eliminate drug crime. Fear is a powerful tool for manipulation. When people are scared, they will look to anyone with a solution. We’ve seen examples of this with far-right populism gaining traction in both Europe and America.

Duterte’s drug war is a cautionary tale for America, as well as the rest of the world. That warning is against populism and the leaders that subscribe to it. The Philippines was once a country that escaped the totalitarianism of the Marcos regime. In 30 years time, they voted themselves into another dictatorship.

How long will it take for America to elect a Duterte? All throughout human history, there has been cycles of tyranny and revolt. I fear we grow closer to both every day.



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