Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte answers a question during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30, 2017.  Photo: AFP / Noel Celis
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte answers a question during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30, 2017. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte backing down from his controversial war on drugs campaign? His decision earlier this week to disband anti-drug units after the kidnapping and murder of a South Korean businessman by rogue police officials represents the first sign the populist leader may reconsider a policy that has contributed to an estimated 7,000 deaths since he assumed office seven months ago.

Duterte’s order came in response to the killing of Jee Ick Joo, a shipping company executive who was abducted on October 18, 2016, by police who claimed he was involved in the illegal drug trade. Jee’s abductors reportedly demanded an eight million peso (US$160,000) ransom for his release. His family paid five million pesos but withheld the rest of the ransom unless his police captors proved he was still alive.

Senior Police Officer Roy Villegas, one of the police accused in the abduction, said Jee was strangled to death after his head was wrapped in packaging tape while being held at Manila’s police headquarters, according to local news reports. Jee’s body was later cremated and his remains flushed down a toilet, according to workers at the crematorium where his body was reportedly burnt.

The brutal killing has raised uncomfortable questions about whether Duterte’s campaign is providing cover for official criminal activity, including extortion, by rogue police who wrongfully accuse people of involvement in the drug trade. The revelations surrounding Jee’s kidnapping, torture and murder have dented the credibility of Duterte’s drug war and threaten to crimp his until now strong public approval ratings.

Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa announced the suspension of anti-drug unit operations until the police force is purged of rogue elements. “Right now, no more drug operations until we cleanse our ranks…We will have no other mission but to run after scalawag cops. Put up a fight so you die,” Dela Rosa said in making the suspension announcement.

Dela Rosa had submitted his resignation after details of Jee’s killing came to light but Duterte refused to accept it, ordering him instead to conduct an “internal cleansing” of the police rank and file. Duterte said cops found to have “tainted” records would be sent to the front-lines of the government’s fight against Islamic terror groups in the country’s violence-prone southern region.

There were no reported drug war related killings the day after the official announcement that anti-drug police units would at least temporarily be dissolved. At the same time, Duterte insisted his war on drugs would continue until the end of his term in 2022 despite a growing global chorus of criticism the campaign has given rise to massive rights abuses, including cases of state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.

President Rodrigo Duterte listens to National Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa during a late night news conference. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

More egregious abuses could soon come to light. Teresita Ang See, a member of the Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order (MRPO), a nongovernmental organization, said they received information that 11 Chinese nationals were recently forced to pay ransom to police to not file false drug cases against them. See said each of the alleged victims paid as much as three million pesos (US$60,000) to avoid trumped up charges. They have not gone public due to concerns for their safety, she said.

Those concerns are warranted. There have been widespread reports that several of the estimated 2,250 drug suspects killed in police operations had already been handcuffed or detained. Four drug suspects in Albuera town, Leyte province, including a former mayor, were shot and killed inside prison, according to news reports. Police have consistently claimed that killed suspects either shot first or attempted to snatch their firearms. Many of the killed suspects have sustained gunshot wounds to the head, according to reports.

There are also questions about rogue police involvement in the surge of vigilante-style killings of alleged drug suspects, estimated at nearly 5,000, or 30 per day, since the campaign began. Police have classified most extrajudicial killings as “death under investigation.” They have also claimed that many of the deaths are caused by inter-gang drug violence caused by rising official pressure on their illicit trades.

In one case, two police officers in plainclothes and wearing masks were later captured and arrested for the assassination of a city official on Mindoro island. One of the officers involved had earlier received an award of excellence from police chief Dela Rosa. Police claimed the vigilante killing by fellow police was an “isolated incident”, according to reports.

Deadly toll. Philippine policemen investigating at a crime scene after receiving a message from a concerned citizen of the existence of a drug den. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte has roundly estimated that 40 percent of the Philippine police force consists of “scalawags”, while 60 percent are true to their mandate of fighting crime within the limits of the law. That mandate, however, has been blurred by reports that police receive a 25,000 peso (US$500) bounty for every dead drug suspect they gun down. Police and government officials have denied the existence of bounty bonuses.

Even before Jee’s death, Duterte’s dissolution of anti-drug units and Dela Rosa’s internal probe of the police, public skepticism was rising about the circumstances surrounding anti-drug killings. In a December survey conducted by Social Weather Station, an independent polling agency, 42% of Filipino respondents said they were undecided on the credibility of police claims that killed suspects had resisted arrest.

Government opponents in parliament could soon shine more unfavorable light on the campaign. “We have a problem,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police director general. “If many incidents are happening, this is a big problem not just of the police but of all of us…The implication is that there might be impunity and [the police] are using the fight against illegal drugs for their self-aggrandizement.”

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