Body Count Piles Up in Philippine Drug War

The drug war and President Rodrigo Duterte remain overwhelmingly popular among Filipinos

Two alleged drug dealers stand next to drug paraphernalia confiscated during a police operation conducted in Manila on March 15, 2018.
Two alleged drug dealers stand next to drug paraphernalia confiscated during a police operation conducted in Manila on March 15, 2018.PHOTO: NOEL CELIS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Philippine drug enforcement officials said on Tuesday that nearly 4,100 people have been killed in shootouts with police in President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody anti-narcotics campaign.

The drugs war launched by the increasingly authoritarian president after he took office in June 2016 has drawn constant international condemnation but Mr. Duterte has persisted with it and cursed his critics, calling those from Europe “white idiots.” Last week was one of the bloodiest, with 13 killed in one night and more than 100 arrested as police raided homes and staged sting operations near the capital, Manila.

The criticism accompanying the killings, which human-rights groups say has claimed thousands more lives than police admit, has driven a wedge between Mr. Duterte and Manila’s traditional Western allies including the U.S., creating an opening for China to increase its military and economic influence in Southeast Asia.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary, James A. Walsh, who monitors the international narcotics trade, said in January that Washington had reduced its support for the Philippine police force because of human rights concerns.

Police deny allegations that they have summarily executed drugs suspects. In February, the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court launched a preliminary examination into claims of crimes against humanity in the Philippines, the first phase of a process that in other countries has led to the prosecution of heads of state.

Mr. Duterte promptly ordered the withdrawal of the Philippines from the court, a process that takes a year, and said he would not cooperate with its probe. He slammed Western democracies for lecturing him and praised China for its growing support, which includes billions in investment commitments and donations toward drug rehabilitation facilities.

Officials told a press conference Tuesday that nearly 124,000 “drug personalities,” a term the government uses to refer to dealers and users of drugs, had been arrested and that 2,620 tons of methamphetamine had been seized during the drug war. Over 46,000 cases are backlogged in the creaking legal system, which lawyers say is at the point of collapse.

Mr. Duterte says the bloody crackdown is necessary to save a generation of Filipinos who have become hooked on drugs, especially methamphetamine, which ravages poor communities. “We have been swallowed with drugs,” he said in a speech last week. “Our children are in jeopardy.”

Mr. Duterte’s spokesman said Monday that the government believes human rights groups “have become unwitting tools of drug lords.” Rights groups denied the claims. Human Rights Watch called the allegations “shockingly dangerous and shameful.”

The drug war—and Mr. Duterte—remain overwhelmingly popular among Filipinos; more than 70% were satisfied with his performance at the end of last year, according to local pollster Social Weather Stations. His allies dominate Congress, where his opponents have faced a string of impeachment charges. Lawmakers are discussing changes to the Constitution in a way that critics say would undermine democratic checks and balances.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at


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