The Philippines' bloody anti-drug war could be wildly counterproductive

The bluster and vitriol of the Philippines’ recently elected president has captured international attention, as has the wave of violence that has swept the country since he entered office promising to wipe out drug-related crime.

And with that violence and bravado, Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has implemented an anti-drug policy that is likely to be wildly counterproductive, say drug-policy experts.

Duterte, who was elected president in May and took office on June 30, said during his campaign that his policy toward people in the drug trade was “kill them all,” and he promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office. While the violence has yet to reach those levels, about 2,400 people have been killed since Duterte took office.

“This is an exterminationist policy, an eliminationist policy.” Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, said in an interview with CCTV. “This is not a well-thought-out plan.”

The violence has largely affected the poorest parts of the country and targeted low-level members of the country’s drug trade. At this level, targets — and people who appear to be targets — are plentiful, but attacking them is unlikely to seriously affect organised crime in the country, experts say.

“There is a high chance that Duterte’s hunting down of low-level pushers (and those accused of being pushers) will in fact significantly increase organised crime in the Philippines and intensify corruption,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently.

Low-level pushers are common in the drug trade, but the power they hold in the industry is minimal, and eliminating them will probably not seriously erode drug cartels’ and other criminal organisations’ ability to operate.

Instead, according to Tree, it produces a “filtering effect,” where the “sloppy,” “inefficient traffickers” tend to get caught while more potent and capable criminals carry on.

“By eliminating low-level, mostly non-violent dealers, Duterte is paradoxically and counterproductively setting up a situation where more organised and powerful drug traffickers and distribution will emerge,” Felbab-Brown wrote.

Similarly, an atmosphere permissive to violence can embolden criminal groups and civilians to lash out at rivals, using the drug war to legitimise and cover up their actions. The same dynamic can arise among corrupt elements within the government and law enforcement, which would only entrench the rot Duterte has promised to root out.

Many Filipinos involved in the drug trade are likely to flee further underground, which would isolate them from society further and “increase the chance of overdoses as well as a rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and hepatitis,” Felbab-Brown noted.

Almost 700,000 people have turned themselves in to authorities for drug-related matters since Duterte took office, but instead of rooting the criminal economy, packing prisons is more likely to exacerbate the issue, experts say.

One facility in Manila already has five times the number of inmates it’s designed to hold. It is far from the only prison straining under the weight of Duterte’s campaign.

Overcrowded prisons often become recruitment sites for criminal organisations, and the conditions in such prisons, coupled with the lack of treatment provided to incarcerated addicts, frequently causes high recidivism rates.

Similar wars on drugs, according to Felbab-Brown, have ended with countries backpedaling years later, as in Thailand and Vietnam in the early 2000s. Despite such policies’ initial popularity, countries like Thailand are now thinking about decriminalizing some drugs, says Tree.

“They tried the toughest ways, and they have failed,” Tree said.

In Philippines, these policies had large support from the public.

Duterte built his reputation on aggressive anticrime measures as mayor of the southern Philippine city of Davao, an office he held for much of the last 30 years.

The lethal vigilante justice that has swept the country was common in the city during his tenure, and some residents there hold him in high regard, even though Davao is still the murder capital of the country.

A nationwide poll conducted in early July, a month after he took office, found he had a 91% approval rating — and a less than 0.5% disapproval rating.

That Duterte’s tough talk has gained traction is perhaps not surprising. Effective antidrug policies are often counterintuitive and take time to implement. Those factors make such approaches unappealing to people facing these problems on a daily basis.

“They just want this thing to go away,” Tree said.

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