The Philippines - President Rodrigo Duterte’s Violent Police State

By Morgan Stage

On June 30, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte took office as the President of the Philippines.[1] Since becoming president, Duterte has made it his mission to face and eradicate Philippine’s drug problem.[2] The President sees the drug problem as a “major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress.”[3] In 2015 it was said that 3% of the Philippine population were drug users, equating to 3 million people.[4] Using these statistics President Duterte has carried on a violent war on drugs.[5] But is the drug problem in the Philippines really bad enough to justify the level of President Duterte’s violence?


It has since come to light that the statistics used to justify the President’s drug policies were largely inflated. In 2015 the Philippine Dangerous Drugs Board estimated that only 1.8 million people in the Philippines were drug users rather than the previously stated 3 million.[6]  While this is not to say that drugs were and are not still a problem in the Philippines, it is likely that the problem is overstated.


President Duterte continues to wage his war on drugs, despite reports that the numbers are inflated.[7] His violent “war on drugs” has led to the extrajudicial kills of at least 12,000 people.[8] His actions have caught the attention of the rest of the world as international human rights groups have now been looking into the matter.[9]


While some may see this as a police force gone wrong, President Duterte is to blame by sanctioning and encouraging police actions. Shortly after he was elected, President Duterte stated, “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”[10] He has since apologized for the statement, but the statement shows the President’s propensity for violence.


Criticism by others has not been taken well. Opposition by human rights advocates has been met with a similar level of violence.[11] Filipino Senator Leila de Lima, one of the President’s biggest critics, has been jailed since February 2017 on “politically motivated drug charges in apparent retaliation for leading a Senate inquiry into the drug war killings.”[12] President Duterte also encouraged the police to respond violently to human rights advocates telling the police to “shoot them if they are obstructing justice.”[13] The President also vastly underreports deaths due to the police in official international documents.[14]


This “war on drugs” is also being disproportionally carried out among the Philippines’ lower socio-economic levels. Of the estimated 12,000 extrajudicial killings, most were from “poor families in urban centers” across the Philippines[15] The president has also been criticized for “targeting the urban poor and failing to take down any kingpin drug dealers.”[16]


Publicly, the President’s office responds to the criticism by saying death is “a necessary evil” and a natural problem when dealing with a drug problem.[17] Derrick Carreon, a spokesman for the Philippine drug enforcement agency defended the number of deaths stating, “anti-drugs operations carry the highest possibility of an armed encounter, especially if the suspect is armed and under the influence of illegal drugs.”[18]


While the tragedy in the Philippines’ seems to be out of control, a smaller glimmer of hope shines. In late 2018, three Philippine policemen were found guilty of murder.[19] This was the first conviction of police officers related to a drug pursuit since President Duterte began his crusade.[20] Each officer was sentenced to 40 years in prison.[21]


The victim, 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, was shot by police in an alley in August 2017.[22] The police claimed the teenager was a drug runner and also claimed that he pulled a gun on them while running away.[23] “The official police photograph of the crime scene showed a gun and packets of methamphetamine next to Santos' body — two bullets in his head — to back up their claim.”[24]


Over 12,000 extrajudicial killings[25] have occurred as a result of the President’s “war on drugs” so what made Santos’ the first to result in a conviction of the police? Luckily, neighborhood surveillance footage was available.[26] The footage showed the police dragging Santos into the alley rather than the reported “fleeing police” scenario they gave.[27] “Human Rights Watch called the decision of the court a ‘triumph of justice and accountability and a warning to members of the Philippine National Police to respect due process and the rights of civilians as they do their job.’"[28]


But two police convictions are not enough. Global attention should be brought to a State leader that readily compares his efforts to that of the Holocaust.[29] As seen in many other times and places, a violent police state is not the proper response to a drug epidemic. This violent response is even more unjustified when it is likely that the drug problem itself is overstated.[30] President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crusade against drug offenders is a Human Rights violation of massive proportions.


[1] “Philippines’ War on Drugs,” Human Rights Watch, (last visited Jan. 13, 2019).

[2] Interview by Michelle Xu with Josh Gershman, expert on Philippine’s Politics, Council on Foreign Relations  (Dec. 16, 2016)

[3] Id.

[4] Gideon Lasco Just How Big is the Drug Problem in the Philippines Anyway?, The Conversation, (Oct. 20, 2016)

[5] “Philippines’ War on Drugs,” supra note 1.

[6] Lasco, supra note 4.

[7] See Emily Sullivan, 3 Police Officers Found Guilty Of Murder In Philippines' War On Drugs, NPR (Nov. 29, 2018)

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Lasco, supra note 4.

[11] See “Philippines: Duterte’s ‘Drug War’ Claims 12,000+ Lives,” Human Rights Watch (Jan. 18, 2018)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Duterte's Philippines Drug War Death Toll Rises Above 5,000, The Guardian (Dec. 19, 2018) “The official toll falls well short of estimates given by human rights groups and campaigners for victims, which vary from 12,000 to 20,000.” Id.

[15] “Philippines: Duterte’s ‘Drug War’ Claims 12,000+ Lives,” supra note 11.

[16] Ellis-Petersen, supra note 14.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Sullivan, supra note 7.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] See Lasco, supra note 4.

[30] See id.