World Asia Pacific First Look

Philippines suspend anti-drug campaign to root out police corruption

Some 7,000 Filipinos have been killed in the government's anti-drug campaign since President Rodrigo Duterte took office this summer.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) listens as Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald Dela Rosa whispers to him during a late night news conference at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines on January 29, 2017.
Ezra Acayan/ Reuters
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Filipino leaders have temporarily halted the country’s controversial seven-month long anti-drug campaign as officials seek to cleanse corruption from the police departments responsible for investigating drug allegations.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has shown support for police throughout his war on drugs initiative, said Sunday that he believed 40 percent of the force was tainted by corruption that made them as “lousy as drug lords.” On Monday, Ronald dela Rosa, Mr. Duterte’s police chief, announced that he had halted the use of the national police force in anti-drug operations, and disbanded all police anti-narcotics units following the alleged use of the anti-drug campaign as a cover by officers who held and killed a foreigner for money.

Since the crackdown, which began soon after Duterte took office on June 30, some 7,000 people have been killed in drug-related incidents, based on data from the Philippine National Police. More than 2,500 of those deaths have resulted from clashes with police, and include 35 officers and three soldiers in addition to the alleged drug users and dealers. The remainder are under investigation, although human rights groups have accused the government of allowing, and even encouraging, extrajudicial killings.

The campaign has led police to visit more than 7 million households of drug suspects, and prompted more than 1 million people to surrender and consent to drug rehabilitation programs.

The suspension comes after an investigation into the death of a South Korean businessman. Officials say the man, Jee Ick-joo, was taken by officers who used a fake warrant to arrest him on a drug offense and hold him for ransom. Police allegedly killed Mr. Ick-joo while holding him in Manila in October. They collected the ransom without telling Ick-joo’s wife he had died, cremated him, and disposed of his ashes, officials say.

"To all the rogue cops, beware! We no longer have a war on drugs. We now have a war on scalawags," Mr. Dela Rosa told reporters. The president "will instruct us to go back to our war on drugs" when he considers it appropriate, Dela Rosa added. 

Duterte says he plans to continue the unprecedented and expansive crackdown until his presidency ends in 2022. With police officers removed from the investigation, the bulk of enforcement would shift to the much smaller Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

For many critics, the program’s suspension and investigations into police forces isn’t enough. The temporary halt in police anti-drug operations "is nothing less than an empty public relations gesture unless he seeks meaningful accountability for the more than 7,000 Filipinos killed" in the campaign so far, said Phelim Kine, the deputy Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, as the Associated Press reports.

Earlier this month, Duterte threatened to impose martial law to fight the nation’s drug problem. The last time martial law was imposed in the country was under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

No one can stop me,” Duterte said on January 15, as The New York Times reported. “My country transcends everything else, even the limitations.”

The Philippines' constitution permits martial law to be declared in the event of an invasion or rebellion. Congress and the Supreme Court can revoke a president's decision to impose martial law.

Days later, Duterte appeared to clarify that he did not plan to impose martial law, but could in the future.

"I will not declare martial law, and if I declare martial law, I will not make noise," he said on January 18, as Reuters reports.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.