Philippine drug war sees more blood but no victory

MANILA •Launched a year ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs has resulted in thousands of deaths, yet the street price of crystal methamphetamine in Manila has fallen and surveys show Filipinos are as anxious as ever about crime.

Mr Duterte took power on June 30 last year, vowing to halt the drug abuse and lawlessness he saw as "symptoms of virulent social disease".

Thanks to his campaign, government officials say, crime has dropped, thousands of drug dealers are in jail, a million users have registered for treatment and future generations of Filipinos are being protected from the scourge of drugs.

"There are thousands of people who are being killed, yes," Metro Manila's police chief Oscar Albayalde told Reuters. "But there are millions who live, see?"

A growing chorus of critics, however, including human rights activists, lawyers and the country's influential Catholic Church, dispute the authorities' claims of success.

They say the police have summarily executed drug suspects with impunity, terrorising poorer communities and exacerbating the very lawlessness they were meant to tackle.

The drug war's exact death toll is hotly disputed, with critics saying the toll is far above the 5,000 that the police have identified as either drug-related killings, or suspects shot dead during police operations.

Most victims are small-time users and dealers, while the masterminds are largely unknown and at large, say critics of Mr Duterte's ruthless methods.

If the strategy was working, the laws of economics suggest the price of crystal meth, also known as "shabu", should be rising as less supply hits the streets.

But the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency's own data suggests shabu has become even cheaper in Manila. Last July, a gram of shabu cost 1,200 pesos to 11,000 pesos (S$33 to S$310), according to agency's figures. Last month, a gram cost 1,000 pesos to 15,000 pesos, it said.

The wide ranges reflect swings in availability and sharp regional variations. Officials say Manila's street prices are at the lowest end of the range. And that has come down, albeit by just a few dollars.

"If prices have fallen, it's an indication that enforcement actions have not been effective," said Ms Gloria Lai of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of non-governmental groups focused on narcotics.

The problem is, according to Mr Derrick Carreon, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency's spokesman, that while nine domestic drug labs have been busted, shabu smuggled in from overseas has filled the market gap.

Surveys by Social Weather Stations (SWS), a leading Manila pollster, reveal a public broadly supportive of Mr Duterte's anti-drug campaign, but troubled by its methods and dubious about its effectiveness.

Its surveys in each of the first three quarters of Mr Duterte's rule showed a "very high satisfaction" with the anti-drug campaign, said Mr Leo Laroza, a senior SWS researcher.

In the most recent survey, published in April, 92 per cent of respondents said it was important that drug suspects be captured alive. A 6.3 per cent rise in street robberies and break-ins was also reported.

More than half of those polled said they were afraid to venture out at night, a proportion that had barely changed since the drug war began.

But public and police perceptions of crime levels seem to diverge.

The number of crimes committed in the first nine months of Mr Duterte's rule has dropped by 30 per cent, according to police statistics cited by the President's communications team.

Mr Albayalde said people, particularly those in the capital Manila, felt safer now, especially due to a crackdown on drug users who, he said, commit most of the crimes.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Philippine drug war sees more blood but no victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe