MANILA - The Philippine police are suspending all anti-narcotics operations, which have sparked public outrage over the deaths of thousands of mostly poor suspects. Growing anger over the violence, including deaths from hit squads, has also caused President Rodrigo Duterte's popularity to plummet.
Mr Duterte on Wednesday (Oct 11) took his war on drugs away from the 170,000-strong Philippine National Police (PNP) and designated the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) as the sole agency responsible for it.
"Everybody is directed to adhere to the presidential directive," Superintendent Chai Madrid, PNP deputy spokesman, said on Thursday (Oct 12).
Director-General Ronald de la Rosa, PNP chief, told reporters all drug-related missions, including the controversial Operations Plan Tokhang (Knock), which cracked down on small-time drug pushers and users in metropolitan Manila's rundown districts, would be turned over to the PDEA.
He said the police would instead focus on non-drug related crimes, and on cleansing its ranks.
A particular target would be motorcycle-riding assassins that human rights groups blame for most of the extrajudicial killings.
"Those riding-in-tandem (shooters), brace yourselves. We will come at you. Go ahead and keep on shooting. I will ask my policemen to focus on you. They're the ones doing bad things, and the police get blamed," said Director-General De la Rosa.
Police say at least 3,900 drug suspects have been killed in purported shootouts. Human rights activists say vigilantes, riding pillion on motorcycles, were responsible for over 7,000 more.
A poll conducted in June showed that three out of five Filipinos believe only the poor were being killed in the drug war, and that many of the suspects were not resisting arrest or shooting back when they were gunned down.
The killings have dragged Mr Duterte's popularity to its lowest since he assumed office in June last year, according to a survey released on Sunday (Oct 8).
This is the second time the PNP is opting out of the drug war. It refocused its efforts in January (2017) on purging its ranks of rogue officers following a scandal over the kidnap and murder last year of a Korean purportedly by anti-narcotics officers. It resumed its narcotics crackdown a month later, promising a "kinder, gentler" campaign.
But in August, law enforcers killed nearly 100 suspects in a series of "one-time, big-time" drug raids across metropolitan Manila and in nearby suburbs.
The death of a 17-year-old in one of these raids stirred public anger after security footage showed what appeared to be images of police dragging the teen into an alley where he was shot and killed.
Chief Superintendent Dionardo Carlos, the police spokesman, said all precinct-level drug enforcement units would be dissolved, but the PNP Drug Enforcement Group would be retained to gather intelligence for the PDEA.
"Everything they have right now, everything they are developing, this will be forwarded to the PDEA," he said.