The front page of Thursday morning’s New York Times offers a graphic glimpse of a brutal extrajudicial “war on drugs” that apparently has a fan in President-elect Donald Trump. A body lying in the street, doused by pouring rain. The headline, a quote from a Filipino at one of many graphic murder scenes depicted in the report, too scared to give his name: “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.”
In a massive report, photojournalist Daniel Berehulak documents Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s savage crackdown on anyone suspected of drug involvement in his country — a crackdown that has reportedly claimed thousands of lives at the hands of police and thousands more at the hands of vigilantes empowered by the anti-drug crusade. He’s not the only one. Vital journalism on Duterte’s war has also come this week from Reuters, which focused on 51 shootings by police in drug busts. Those 51 shootings resulted in 100 suspects dead and three wounded, a 97 percent kill ratio — enough for Reuters to conclude that “officers are summarily gunning down suspects.”
For the New Yorker, Adrian Chen wrote a profile of Duterte, tracking his rise as a populist demagogue and detailing his position now, as a president delivering on violent promises. From a piece in the Atlantic by Ana P. Santos on the widows of Duterte’s drug war, here is a summary of how the Filipino leader pitched his effort on the campaign trail:
When he campaigned for the presidency of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte promised to wage a deadly war on drugs. In fiery speeches, he called drugs “the evil that will destroy the country,” and said users were sub-human beings who deserve to die. “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” he said in one speech. With hyperbolic flourish, he committed to killing 100,000 criminals and dumping so many of their corpses in Manila Bay that the fishes would “grow fat” by feeding on them. “The funeral parlors will be packed. … I’ll supply the dead bodies,” he bragged. Duterte was pledging to do what no other president had managed to do: Go after drug traffickers and end drugs and criminality, all within a self-imposed timeline of three to six months.
All of this would be important reporting anyway, but it has taken on an added significance since last week, when Trump spoke with Duterte over the phone and, according to Duterte, invited him to visit the White House next year and praised the war on drugs in the Philippines as the “right way.”
We should leave open the possibility that foreign leaders will misrepresent their conversations with Trump to advance their own goals. After all, there is almost no statement that could be attributed to Trump at this point that many in the world wouldn’t believe, and the apparently casual nature of these phone calls leaves them open to manipulation.
But we have little evidence to doubt that Trump would see something in a strongman, or his tactics, to admire. He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and defended his own past comments in which he spoke of the violent crackdown on Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square almost as if it were an inspiration.
Duterte and Trump have apparently bonded to such a degree that Duterte unveiled a friendly impression of Trump on Wednesday. The two share a disdain for journalists, although Duterte has expressed his in more violent terms, once defending the killing of journalists. The way he did it, though, was positively Trumpian: “You are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a b—-,” Duterte said.
In some ways, Trump’s friendliness to Duterte is yet another example of his habit of making the implicit explicit. Although President Obama has offered tepid criticism of Duterte’s atrocities, Philippine police stations behind the killings continue to receive millions of dollars in aid from the United States. If Trump did tell Duterte that this was the “right way,” he would, in a sense, only be verbalizing what U.S. dollars flowing into the Philippines suggest.
That doesn’t make it any less disturbing, particularly as Trump continues to fill his Cabinet with generals and anti-drug crusaders like presumptive attorney general Jeff Sessions. For all the problems with America’s own disastrous drug war, this is not the Philippines. But we’ve seen just this week that some Americans are willing to excuse what amounts to an extrajudicial killing if it involves the right sort of people. It would bring some measure of relief if the president-elect didn’t strike up friendships with leaders who see such killings as a best practice.