During the regime of former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine National Police (PNP) played an instrumental role as “chief executioner” in the war on drugs.
By securitizing the drug problem and elevating order over the rule of law, Duterte gave the PNP and vigilantes carte blanche to kill suspected users and traders –exacerbating violence and injustice throughout the Philippines.
Government data shows that a total of 239,218 anti-illegal drug operations were conducted during Duterte’s term in office, resulting in the confiscation of illicit drugs worth over US$1.6 billion.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr won the presidency in the 2022 election through a message of unity — with the help of authoritarian nostalgia, disinformation and weak electoral opposition. Marcos Jr has made no explicit declarations on the war on drugs, but in May 2022 he disclosed that Duterte advised him to continue the drug war.
The picture remains unclear after Swedish Ambassador to Manila, Annika Thunborg, welcomed the new president’s pledge to conduct the campaign within legal bounds and “with the focus on rehabilitation and socio-economic development.”
Should Marcos Jr honor this commitment, he must shift from a policy of securitized and punitive measures to community-based treatment and rehabilitation services for people affected by illicit drug use.
He must also deal with the PNP’s culture of impunity — especially given the Philippine Department of Justice actually admitted in February 2021 to police culpability in drug war killings.
Notable cases in 2022 include the PNP’s arrest of doctor and human rights advocate, Maria Natividad Castro, and the detention of 93 individuals — including agrarian reform beneficiaries — during a collective farming activity in Tarlac. The police claimed the peasants were part of an underground communist movement.
The designation of former PNP deputy director general Ricardo de Leon as Chief of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency does not bode well for social activism. De Leon claimed that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict — widely disparaged for its red-tagging spree — should be maintained for national security and development.
Reforming the PNP and its contentious practices is a tall order, especially for a commander-in-chief who comes with heavy baggage.
Marcos Jr and his family are tainted by domestic atrocities and ill-gotten wealth. During his father’s dictatorship, the Philippine Constabulary Integrated National Police (the precursor to the PNP) earned notoriety for abuses of power.
As chair of the board of Philippine Communications Satellite, Marcos Jr reportedly pocketed between $9,700–97,000 in monthly salary despite having no duties. He also took nearly $500,000 out of the office before fleeing with his family to Honolulu.
Marcos Jr also has a shaky human rights record. He was allegedly among the hawks in the 1986 “people power” revolution who pushed for “aggressive measures against both military rebels and the citizenry.”
They were willing to risk a bloodbath to defend their besieged loyalist forces. When he campaigned for the presidency, Marcos Jr remained unapologetic about the brutalities committed under martial law.
But his large electoral victory brings an opportunity for redemption. Marcos Jr is now in the best position to prove to the public that he is not a brute like his father. As the new commander-in-chief of the state security forces, Marcos Jr carries legitimate authority.
He is tasked with improving the country’s human rights situation amid concerns brought to light by the Commission on Human Rights, the US House of Representatives and the International Criminal Court.
Yet during his first State of the Nation Address, Marcos Jr failed to discuss his specific policy agenda for human rights. This omission, while disappointing, was expected given the overwhelming evidence for the abuse of political authority by the Marcos family.
Hailing the police as “vanguards of peace”, Marcos instructed that the use of force in operations “must be reasonable, justifiable and carried out only when necessary.”
His appointment of Lieutenant General Rodolfo Azurin Jr, who boasts extensive experience in field and administrative work, as PNP Chief should help him rectify the institutional ills that plague the organization.
While Azurin Jr seeks to continue the drug war, he vowed to shore up appropriate rehabilitation programs and shift the focus to supply factors. He claims this will ensure that the entry of illegal drugs “will be reduced, if not cut completely.”
Policing is a thankless job. As “street-level bureaucrats” who interact with people and hold substantial discretion in carrying out their duties, it is essential that the police serve the public’s interests at all times.
The dynamic between the president and the police was distorted under the Duterte regime, with the PNP serving as “the police, prosecutor, judge and executioner.” Only time will tell if Marcos Jr can rebuild the PNP into a truly professional institution.
Kevin Nielsen M Agojo is a PhD student in the Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong.
This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.