War on drugs: Learning from experience

In an editorial piece published in the New York Times, former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria had some words for Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, that is avoiding the mistakes he committed in leading his country’s war on illegal drugs which the Philippines has done since Duterte took office in June last year.

It is noted that during Gaviria’s time drug lord Pablo Escobar was put to jail (inside a facility built in his specifications) and jailing numerous suspected drug users, which of course has led to numerous casualties and suspected human rights violations.

Days after this was published, in a televised address, Duterte who is known to shrug off any form of criticism against the war on drugs, called Gaviria “an idiot”, and said that “he will not commit mistakes” because “he is not stupid as him”. In most cases he has also noticed the contrasts between Latin America and the Philippines, with Colombia as well as Mexico and other countries in the region being flooded by cocaine (with some help from the US because the of huge consumption in the US market and supplies coming from these countries), while the top drug of choice in the Philippines being shabu (or methamphetamine hydrochloride), being sold by Chinese syndicates.

With the drug war enjoying popular support in the Philippines despite the growing international criticism, and the growing casualties (both from legitimate operations by police and vigilante killings), it is yet to be seen whether Duterte’s administration will change tack in his approach in this campaign.

The police force’s participation has already been tainted by scandal, with the death of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo in the hands of rogue policemen, as a result the duties of overseeing the drug war transferred to the military.

In the course of this campaign, we have seen (from official data from the PNP) the crime rate cut down 49% (with the murder rate going up), almost 1 million users and pushers surrendering to authorities, and the vigilante killings being blamed to syndicates trying to turn in on each other and rogue policemen trying to cover up their tracks.

In light of these criticisms, it really is hard to explain the Philippine war on drugs to the international audience, as the experience in Latin America and Thailand have shown were entirely different in what the authorities intends to do.

Coupled with the black-and-white mentality prevailing now, it really is hard to speak up on these issues. What we should do is that we focus more on rehabilitation efforts and treating drug abuse as more of a public health and poverty issue, and instead of running after the low-level users and sellers, we must focus our energies in running after the large-scale syndicates and their sources of finances. Otherwise, we will achieve nothing in this campaign.

Again, things are easier said than done and we never know what happens next, so we just wait for things to unfold.

Clarifications: The author supports the present campaign against illegal drugs although with the growing number of casualties and the prevailing corruption in our police force we must instead change tactics and focus our energies towards rehabilitation. I do not want to be tagged as some sort of a fanatic by both the “yellows” and the supporters of the administration, as I have my own set of principles and political beliefs. For our international audiences,  I know it’s difficult to justify the conduct of this campaign but we’d like to present as much as possible a full picture. We will encourage everybody to rely on research and form your own conclusions and not relying on everything we read, from news media to blogs like these.

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