(1st of a 2-part special report)
Judging by numbers alone, President Rodrigo Duterte is making headway, if not actually winning the “war on drugs,” the centerpiece of his administration, which marked its first year this week.
While more drug suspects are neutralized and more factories are dismantled everyday, the estimated number of addicts have also increased to 4 million last month from 3 million at the start of the campaign.
Some 1.3 million suspected drug users and pushers have surrendered under the police's "Oplan Tokhang" in Duterte's first year, according to the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs.
But it wasn’t simply a case of people voluntarily leaving a life of drugs.
Police said they arrested almost 85,000 drug suspects and killed 3,000 others who resisted arrest during the one-year period.
There could have been more, according to government critics. When various human rights groups started crying foul over the killings, especially the killing of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo inside Camp Crame, the campaign took a different turn. The President designated the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency as the lead agency.
The police returned to the campaign a month later. But the PDEA now releases to the public the official death toll.
The police have also been more circumspect in documenting their war on drugs. Rather than saying police are winning the war, PNP spokesperson Dionardo Carlos said police are “right on track” in addressing the drug problem.
BIGGEST CATCH EVER
But the government’s campaign against prohibited substances couldn’t have been better. The PDEA has not recorded so many accomplishments in so short a time.
Police have dismantled 9 suspected big “shabu” laboratories and 150 drug dens, and confiscated 2,429.09 kilos of shabu with a street value of P12.49 billion.
WAR ON DRUGS
July 1, 2016 to June 13, 2017:
1,306,389 – surrenderers
84,467 – drug personalities arrested
3,151 – drug personalities who died in anti-drug operations
9 clandestine laboratories dismantled
150 drug dens dismantled
2,429.09 kilos of seized shabu worth 12.49 billion pesos
Source: Real Numbers, Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs
Based on his estimates, PDEA Director General Isidro Lapeña said the drug war has resulted in a 15-percent reduction of shabu supply in the market.
PNP spokesman Carlos agreed. “Makikita natin na talagang bumaba ang supply ng shabu as the main choice,” Carlos said. “Tapos nung bumaba siya, we were hitting drug labs, the local manufacture. Kaya yung nakikita natin, ang dumadating na supply natin, imported.”
Over the same period, another police operation--Oplan HVT--went after high-value targets.
On several occasions, the President bared several lists and matrices of politicians, police and military personnel, even judges who were supposedly involved in the illegal drug trade.
First among those he named was Mayor Rolando Espinosa, Sr. of Albuera, Leyte. Espinosa denied the charge, but linked instead his son to the drug syndicate in the province.
The elder Espinosa showed up before PNP Chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa in August 2016, a day after the President identified him.
But the police had to free him because until then he had no standing warrant. When the police finally charged him, Espinosa surrendered, and the police held him in tight security, instantly making him the poster boy of a big fish in the campaign.
Months later, another police officer gunned down Espinosa inside his detention cell, effectively preventing him to talk no further of what he knew of the illegal trade.
MORE DRUG SUSPECTS
His son Kerwin was arrested in Abu Dhabi a few weeks later. He admitted involvement in the drug trade and linked other alleged accomplices and benefactors in the drug trade, including Senator Leila de Lima, one of the President’s staunchest critics.
In October 2016, police killed another suspected drug lord Mayor Samsudin Dimaukom of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao in North Cotabato.
In February 2017, de Lima was arrested for allegedly accepting drug money from Bilibid inmates. She was likewise accused of running the illegal drug trade in the national prison.
There were hundreds others in the President’s list. But except for some names he has acknowledged to have been erroneously included, the status of the others on the list is not immediately known.
One suspected drug lord that the President identified early on remains at large -- Peter Lim. He has yet to face charges, his whereabouts unknown.
In December, the PNP said that it met its target of reaching out to 70 percent of the 1.8 million estimated drug users and pushers in the country, for the first phase of its campaign.
The 1.8-million estimate of people hooked on drugs was the result of a survey the Dangerous Drugs Board conducted in 2015.
Six months into his administration, the President said he was surprised at the gravity of the drug problem that he raised his own estimate of the number of Filipinos hooked on drugs up to four million.
And so, the President asked for more time to address the problem—from 3 to 6 months during the campaign, then plus 1 more year, then later until the end of his term. It was 4.7 million, according to PDEA in May.
DDB CHIEF FIRED
Upon arrival from a trip to Russia, the President fired the chair of the Dangerous Drugs Board, who made a 1.8-millon estimate, lower by his standard.
Before he was fired, Reyes explained that the differences in the figures did not really matter.
“All of these sources are valid,” he said in an interview with ANC. “So we have a source coming from a survey, we have a source coming from intel figures. As long as they are gathered using a methodology, valid methodology…that means these figures can be used.”
The President obviously didn’t buy the former DDB chair’s explanation.
“Here comes a chairman,” the President said of Reyes. “You’re fired today, get out of service. You do not contradict your own government.”
The PNP now said it has yet to set a target number for its campaign, pending assessment this month.
The PNP spokesperson said the campaign has been more transparent and less bloody, in keeping with PNP Chief dela Rosa’s promise.
“Noong tiningnan po ng directorate for operations, ‘yung first phase, we averaged about 12 suspects killed in police operation. But the latest, we’re averaging eight to nine. Less bloody,” he said.
With the growing number of surrenderers and arrested and with more “shabu” off the streets, the PNP said the neighborhoods were now safer.
According to PDEA, 3,677 barangays were declared drug-free as of June 13, 2017. The agency’s goal is to have 5,272 drug-free barangays by year-end, more than a fourth of the 20,104 barangays all over the country it has identified as drug-infected.
The government has also cited the results of a survey Pulse Asia conducted in December 2016, which showed 82 percent of those surveyed who are living in Metro Manila felt “safer” now.
CRIME VOLUME DOWN
Figures from the PNP showed a 10-percent drop in the volume of total crimes in the country from July 2016 to May 2017 compared with the same period in the previous year. Index crimes fell by 27 percent, particularly robbery and theft.
||JULY 2015 TO MAY 2016
||JULY 2016 TO MAY 2017
Source: PNP, Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs
“Intensified police operations have resulted in reduction of crime incidents and a significant decrease in total crime volume,” said PNP Director for Operations Camilo Cascolan.
However, the same PNP data showed murder cases up by more than 2,500 cases, excluding the around three thousand drug suspects killed in legitimate police drug operations.
In defending an increase in murder cases, Carlos said the public should not take murder cases alone. Take the entire crime index as a whole, he said.
“You don’t assess the crime environment by looking at just the crime of homicide,” he said.
“You look at the entire forest-- or you assess it based on the entire pie: Bumaba ang theft, robbery, and physical injury cases. Including (motorbike theft), malaki ang binaba. Maliit na portion lang yung homicide at murder cases, though it’s a concern for us.”
The high toll of drug suspects killed during drug operations have led critics to suspect that the war on drugs has neglected the public health aspect of the drug problem because of its focus on eliminating drug use.
“By focusing on that alone, we become, parang may blinders”, said Inez Feria, founder and director of NoBox Transitions Philippines, an NGO that advocates a health-based approach in drug policy.
“Parang anything goes, ‘coz we’re trying to eliminate drug use. And what happens? Ang dami nang nasagasaan,” Feria said.
Reyes thought otherwise.
“..[I]t’s a balanced campaign,” said Reyes, the former DDB chair. “It focuses both on the supply side, reduction of the supply side which is the enforcement side, and the reduction of the demand side, which is providing more information, providing more treatment, providing more interventions to the Filipinos,” he said in an interview before he was fired.
Reyes cited rehabilitation efforts spearheaded by the Department of Health, as part of a Philippine Anti-Drug Strategy, a plan of action for eliminating drug use.
Among these is the "Mega-Drug Rehab Center" in Nueva Ecija that can house 10,000 patients.
But more than 6 months after it was opened, only around 300 patients are staying in the facility.
Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said only 1 percent of the total number of drug users need in-house treatment, or 13,000 of the 1.3 million drug surrenderers. The DOH oversees the center.
“Actually, we don’t force the issue,” she said. “If the physician thinks that the patient does not need inpatient care, it’s not as if we need to fill up all the beds.”
DOH records showed only 2,500 surrenderers, both inpatient and outpatient, have so far been admitted to the DOH rehabilitation center.
Ubial have yet to assess if the rest of surrenderers would require inpatient or outpatient treatment or under community-based rehabilitation.
The DILG said there were about 100,000 enrolled in community-based rehabilitation centers as of last week.
For NoBox Transitions Philippines, the current rehabilitation efforts reflect the need to reexamine the whole premise for the government’s war on drugs.
“We really have to weigh if what we’re doing is really helpful to our fellow-Filipinos or not, or are we making things worse?” Feria said.
According to the President’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, the government is determined to eradicate the production, distribution, sale and eventual use of drugs.
“He envisions a drug-free country that is safe and secure for Filipino people. Ang paglilinis ay dapat sinimulan sa sariling bakuran. And that is exactly what the President has done,” he said.
“The fight against illegal drugs will be sustained and relentless until the last drug pusher is out of the streets and put behind bars,” he said.