5 Things You Need to Know About Duterte’s Drug War in the Philippines

by Jamie Sims

24 January 2019

PCOO EDP/Wikimedia Commons

Since coming to power in July 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a nationwide ‘drug war’ in which police, paramilitaries and vigilantes have killed suspected dealers, users and other criminal suspects with impunity.

The president built his political reputation as mayor of Davao, a city in the south of the country. He was credited for cleaning up the city, which gained him much goodwill among Filipinos who face genuine problems with drug addiction and rampant crime. 

This supposed improvement, however, came with a heavy price – Duterte unleashed a wave of extrajudicial killings on suspected criminals and their families. Showing utter contempt for human rights and for the law, he boasted publicly prior to the presidential election that he personally murdered three alleged burglars. Here are five things you need to know about his drug war in the Philippines.

1. The ‘drug war’ is a war on the poor.

The vast majority of victims of Duterte’s death squads are found among the urban poor, some of the most marginalised and impoverished members of Filipino society. Despite the stated target being drug dealers, big traffickers and crime bosses are rarely targeted – especially when they are politically well-connected. Duterte’s son was suspected of being a major drug trafficker, although the charges were not upheld in court. Of course it is right we treat him as innocent until proven guilty – but this is not a right extended to drug suspects without money or political connections.

In the slums of Metro Manila and other cities the police are notoriously brutal, and under Duterte’s drug war they act with even greater impunity. Human rights group Karapatan describes drug charges as the “infamous lie at the top of every police’s list of justifications for killing poor Filipinos”. Up to now they are estimated to have killed over 20,000 people.

2. There’s a wider context to the extrajudicial killings.

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for progressive activists. In 2017, the country had the highest rate of killings of land and environmental defenders in Asia, according to Global Witness. Big agribusiness, mining, and other extractive industries face resistance from Filipinos and often foreign corporations resort to extremely violent measures, with the complicity of the Filipino state.

In rural areas, well-established landlords can operate with impunity when faced with peasant resistance. In October of last year, nine peasants were massacred after fighting for their land rights under agrarian reform legislation. Their landlord is suspected of hiring the killers. Since the massacre, an attorney representing the victims has been assassinated and union organisers have faced murder charges on the surreal pretext that they are to blame for the peasants’ deaths for pushing them to challenge the landlord’s authority. The ongoing conflict between the government and the Communist party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), a Maoist insurgency deeply rooted in peasant and indigenous communities across the archipelago, provides the justification for many killings.

3. Attacks on progressive activists are increasing.

Extra-judicial killings of drug suspects reflect the attitude of the government and police to the rule of law: mere suspicion is enough to mete out a death sentence. The approach to political opposition is increasingly along the same lines. Filipino activists face ‘red-tagging’, the branding of progressive activists as Communists in order to justify harassment, state repression, and even murder against them. Left-wing and progressive trade unions, peasant associations, women’s groups, and even human rights groups and think tanks are denounced as ‘legal fronts’ of the CPP-NPA. Civil resistance, strikes, and progressive educational programmes are equated with armed struggle against the government. A government list of 600 ‘terrorists’, released last year, originally included former lawmakers, priests, and a UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Last year, the president openly called for a ‘Duterte Death Squad’ to combat the New People’s Army. Given the ‘red-tagging’ of such a wide variety of activist groups, this is likely to be a licence to kill opponents of the government. The army responded by objecting to the language of ‘death squads’, but not to the content of the proposal. ‘Liquidation squad’ would be more appropriate, said Edgard Arevalo, an Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson.

4. Britain is complicit.

Arms companies based in Britain have continued to export weapons, surveillance equipment and other military technology to the Philippines despite the horrendous human rights abuses of the Duterte regime. In 2016 £150k worth of surveillance equipment was sold to the Philippine National Police by the UK government, leading Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle to accuse the government of being “complicit in the deaths of thousands of Filipinos”. Further arms sales to the Filipino army run into the millions, according to data on export licenses gathered by Campaign Against the Arms Trade. It is utterly abhorrent that British companies are selling weaponry to facilitate a brutal regime which wages war on the poor and on progressive activists under the cover of anti-drugs and anti-terrorist policies.

5. People are resisting.

Across the Philippines, resistance to Duterte’s drug war and to the wider problems of Philippine society is widespread. The urban poor join progressive organisations like Kadamay, taking part in a collective struggle to defend their lives and communities in the face of police violence and capitalist developers. Workers are striking across the country, taking the struggle against precarity into their own hands as Duterte’s promises on this issue have proved empty. Peasants fight for better working conditions and land rights. There is a long history of class struggle and popular resistance against tyranny. Many Filipino activists point to the mass popular uprising that overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, and believe that Duterte will be ousted too.

Duterte may be waging a war on the poor, but the poor are fighting back.


Build people-powered media.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.