A supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte is pictured during presidential election campaigning in Malabon, Metro Manila in the Philippines April 27, 2016. Reuters/Erik De Castro
A Rodrigo Duterte supporter during presidential election campaigning in Malabon, Metro Manila in the Philippines April 27, 2016. Photo: Twitter

Despite international criticism of the Philippines’ deadly anti-drug war, the majority of Filipinos continue to support President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign that has ruthlessly killed thousands of mostly poor drug suspects.

Although the net satisfaction rating for the Duterte administration’s war on drugs fell earlier this year on a non-commissioned survey by local polling firm Social Weather Stations (SWS), most Filipinos still gave the government a thumbs up for cracking the whip on illegal drugs.

The SWS survey, involving 1,200 adult respondents across the country, found in March that 78% were satisfied with the administration’s performance in its campaign against illegal drugs, with 43% ‘very satisfied’ and 35% ‘somewhat satisfied.’ Ten percent were undecided, while only 12% were dissatisfied.

This gave Duterte’s campaign a net satisfaction rating of +66, which SWS classifies as “very good.” A previous survey conducted in December gave a rating of +77, or “excellent” by SWS’ metrics. The polling agency has not conducted a more recent poll to reflect recent uproar over alleged extrajudicial killings.

Over a year after Duterte ordered the war against drugs—with funeral parlors piling up with corpses found in the streets or under bridges, and as the attacks became more brazen with masked killers barging into homes to shoot point-blank their targets – many Filipinos do not want the government to stop the anti-drug campaign.

Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a press conference in Davao City, in southern island of Mindanao on May 26, 2016. Photo: AFP /Manman Dejeto/Getty Images

“President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign remains popular despite international lambasting because it is what the people would have wanted to do by themselves had they been given the power to do so. Since there is someone who can do it for them, they support that someone,” Aveen Acuña-Gulo, a popular local commentator, told Asia Times.

“Filipinos continue to support President Duterte because they are the ones who are directly affected by the drug menace, and they are the ones who also directly feel the effects of the surroundings being cleared of drug characters,” she added.

Acuña-Gulo is a long-time resident of Cotabato City, a locality in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao where illegal drugs, particularly methamphetamine, or shabu, is a deep-rooted problem. Cotabato is a known source of shabu in the Central Mindanao region.

The mayor of the city, Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, a lawyer who supported another presidential candidate in the 2016 polls, has nonetheless fully supported Duterte’s war on drugs, mobilizing the city government’s machineries and personally leading anti-drug raids.

“We need the full cooperation of all our communities or else all these efforts will go to waste. The fight against illegal drugs is not just of the government but it is everybody’s,” she said.

The mayor believes that illegal drugs, if not contained, will destroy the youth generation’s future and will contribute to rising criminality, citing cases of drug addicts involved in rape and murder.

Police officers investigating a dead body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape in Manila on June 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

For Acuña-Gulo, Duterte’s no-nonsense war on illegal drugs helps make communities safer from street-level criminals, She has defended police officers in drug operations that turned bloody after the suspects resisted arrest, as law enforcers often claim.

“I feel safer walking in the streets. For as long as one is not involved in drugs, there is nothing to fear,” the mother of three noted.

Respondents on the latest SWS survey were split about police claims that drug suspects often resist arrest. However, 70% believed that the Duterte administration is serious about solving the extra-judicial killings problem, which the European Union, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard have cited to criticize the drug war.

Apart from vigilante-style attacks, some of the killed drug suspects’ bodies have shown signs of torture. Many have been left dead in the streets with cardboard signs bearing the words “Drug pusher ako, wag tularan” (I’m a drug pusher, don’t emulate me).

The SWS survey also noted that 73% of adult Filipinos are worried that they, or someone they know, will be a victim of extrajudicial killing, underlining the campaign’s climate of fear. Still, many gave the Duterte administration a “very good” satisfaction rating, according to the survey.

Residents gather along an alley after a police anti-drug operation killing of teenager suspect in Caloocan city, Metro Manila, Philippines August 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Duterte’s rise to power in June 2016 was fueled by his tough stance against criminality and the drug menace, among other campaign pledges. A trained lawyer and mayor of Davao City for over two decades, Duterte has tried but failed to eliminate the drug trade in three to six months, as he promised on the campaign trail.

During the “Philippine Development Forum: Sulong Pilipinas 2017” on August 9 in Manila, the President admitted before economic and trade leaders the difficulty of eliminating the narcotics trade, which he said was sustained by the protection of crooked politicians and law enforcers and may not be uprooted in his six-year term.

“Look, this shabu and illegal drugs cannot be solved by one man, for a president, for one term. It has bogged nations. How can we stop it if even America can’t?” Duterte said.

In other public appearances, Duterte has waved a thick folder he claims contains names of over 1,000 personalities, including politicians and law enforcers, suspected of drug links.

The government has claimed to confiscate 2,455.80 kilograms of shabu with an estimated street value of P12.66 billion (US$248 million) in the campaign’s first year, including a recent massive shipment from China that slipped through customs to a private warehouse worth P6.4 million (US$125 million), according to data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

PDEA data showed that 327 government workers have been arrested on drug-related charges as of July 26, 2017, of whom 159 are government employees, 142 elected officials and 26 uniformed or law enforcement personnel. At least three of the mayors the president implicated in the drug trade have been killed in the crackdown.

A child cries next to the coffin of her father killed in the drug war during his funeral at Navotas Public Cemetery in Manila, Philippines October 14, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

“The police and the military should make sure that their enemies are dead. Otherwise, if the other guy can still pull the trigger, you will end up with a dead police or a dead military soldier,” the Philippine Inquirer quoted Duterte as saying days after the bloody raid that killed a provincial mayor.

Over the same one-year period, the agency reported that 3,451 drug suspects died during anti-drug operations. Human rights groups, which have strongly criticized the brutal war drug, have low end estimated the campaign’s death toll at over 7,000 when including state-backed vigilante attacks.

Human Rights Watch recently referred to Duterte’s drug war as an “unlawful killing campaign” that has retaliated “against those fearless enough to challenge his assault on human rights.”

Duterte has publicly defended the law enforcers behind the lethal anti-drug operations, noting that the government has also lost operatives in raids. In the 68,214 narcotics operations from July 1, 2016 to July 26 this year, 68 law enforcers were killed and 184 others were wounded, PDEA data showed.

During the same nearly 13-month period, 96,703 drug suspects were arrested and at least 1.3 million surrendered after being accused. Law enforcers also dismantled 154 drug dens and nine clandestine drug laboratories during the period, according to PDEA.

While the Duterte administration has made progress in tackling the illegal drug problem, it has come at a high social and human cost. While the drug menace will undoubtedly outlast Duterte’s tenure, the popular president has made clear he will not relent in a controversial campaign that surveys show still has strong popular backing.

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