Since taking office in mid-2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has staged a deadly war on drugs that’s claimed thousands of lives, many at the hands of vigilante groups. The European Union and the United Nations have condemned the brutal crackdown, but his support at home remains strong, rebounding after the death of a student in August prompted public outrage. Human rights groups say the anti-drug offensives could amount to crimes against humanity and accuse him of stifling media criticism.

1. How many deaths has Duterte’s campaign claimed?

More than 12,000, according to Human Rights Watch and local media. The government says that’s an exaggeration, with official accounts showing 3,987 fatalities at the hands of police from July 1, 2016, to Jan. 17, 2018. More than 1,800 killings are still under investigation by police. Either way, Duterte in a little over a year has brought about more loss of life than President Ferdinand Marcos did during his eight years of martial rule through 1981. Thaksin Shinawatra’s war on drugs in Thailand in the early 2000s resulted in more than 2,500 deaths.

2. Who is Duterte targeting?

Drug lords, dealers, users: anyone connected to the illegal trade. Duterte estimates there are as many as 4 million drug addicts in the Southeast Asian nation of about 100 million people. The government’s Dangerous Drugs Board puts the tally at 1.8 million. Crystal methamphetamine, known locally as shabu, is the No. 1 scourge, with much of it coming from China. 


3. Is it just drug offenders getting killed?

Hardly. Duterte’s justice chief has said the death of innocent civilians, including children, is unavoidable “collateral damage.” The killing of a 17-year-old in August stirred public anger after CCTV footage showed what appeared to be images of police dragging the student minutes before he was shot dead. Duterte has vowed justice for the student, reminding the police to follow rules of engagement and not to kill unlawfully. The student’s case is being treated as a common crime rather than an extrajudicial killing -- authorities have yet to announce their next move three months after wrapping up the investigation.

4. Do Filipinos support Duterte’s war?

They support the aims more than the methods. Almost all of those surveyed by Social Weather Stations in October said drug suspects should be captured alive. A majority also believes that only the poor are targeted and that police should not be rewarded for the killings. Half are skeptical about the police narrative that the killings result from drug suspects offering resistance. Nonetheless, a December poll showed almost half of Filipinos are satisfied with Duterte’s efforts to fight crime and protect human rights. Overall, his ratings rebounded after a dip in September, with 83 percent of those polled in December expressing “much trust” in him.

5. How is Duterte responding to criticism?

The president, 72, considers narcotics use a national epidemic. He accuses critics of valuing the lives of criminals over the good of society. Refuting allegations that he is engineering a human rights calamity, Duterte said early in his campaign: “When you kill criminals, that is not a crime against humanity. The criminals have no humanity, goddamn it.” However, in a rare admission, he said in August that abuses by police may have taken place.

6. Have the killings subsided?

No. Duterte temporarily limited the police’s role in the anti-drug crackdown in October following the killings of minors caused his popularity to drop. But the police are back on the case now. The police chief chief said the renewed campaign will be “bloodless” and more transparent, supporting calls for cops to wear body cameras during operations. 

7. Who’s taking Duterte to task?

Amnesty International says the poor have been targeted disproportionately, while Human Rights Watch has appealed to the UN to investigate abuses. Then there’s Leila de Lima, Duterte’s fiercest critic, who has ended up behind bars. She was indicted for drug trafficking in 2017 and accused of allowing illegal drugs to flourish inside the national jail during her term as justice secretary. De Lima denies the charges and says her arrest was politically motivated. The lawmaker has a history with Duterte: She led a Senate probe into alleged vigilante killings, beginning in the 1980s, by death squads in Davao City including during the time Duterte was its mayor. Duterte has said testimony linking him to the death squads was fabricated.

8. When will it end?

As a candidate, Duterte campaigned on a promise to stamp out illegal drugs

within six months. Once in office, he said he may need to spend all of his six-year presidential term on the task. More recently, he said it would take longer than that. Cesar Gaviria, who as president of Colombia in the early 1990s took on his country’s narcotics cartels, warned Duterte that throwing soldiers and police at the matter would only make it worse. Thailand’s experience of using force also does not bode well. An official investigation found that more than half of the deaths during Shinawatra’s campaign had no connection to drugs. But Duterte is unbowed. “I have six years to do it and I will kill you,” he said.

Norman Aquino contributed to an earlier version of this article.

--With assistance from Clarissa Batino and Cecilia Yap

To contact the reporter on this story: Andreo Calonzo in Manila at acalonzo1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, Grant Clark

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