The Trump–Duterte drug war tango
13 Nov 2017|

President Donald Trump, who is in the Philippines on the last stop of his marathon trip to Asia, has paid his respects to President Rodrigo Duterte. Since Duterte’s inauguration last year, police and affiliated death squads have summarily executed more than 8,000 suspected drug users. Duterte himself has bragged of his role in launching and overseeing these extrajudicial killings.

Trump has already boasted of his close ties to Duterte, and the two men are expected to develop a fast affinity when they formally meet today. What they are not expected to do is talk seriously about human rights. On Wednesday, Duterte told reporters what he would say if Trump broached the topic: ‘Lay off.’

The major question, then, is how explicitly Trump will endorse Duterte’s policy and practice of mass murder. Regardless of whether Trump directly praises Duterte’s program, or says nothing about it at all, his mere presence will be interpreted as a signal to law enforcement there, in the United States, and elsewhere that corruption and criminal violence in the service of a policy goal is acceptable.

Duterte and Trump have much in common. Both take pride in denigrating political opponents and international figures, such as former President Barack Obama and Pope Francis. Both enjoy using crude language in public statements. Both boast of their prowess as womanisers. Both express warm feelings for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And both repeatedly claim widespread popular support, contrary to data (although Duterte does seem to have the edge in actual popular backing).

Of course, Trump has not embarked on a campaign of murder in the US. He has never even hinted at having any intention of doing so, and he could not do it even if he wanted to, given checks and balances on the power of any US government official. Nonetheless, that has not stopped Trump from expressing disdain for his own Justice Department, or from seeking to use the judicial process as a means of retaliating against political opponents. Duterte’s apparent contempt for legal formalities seems to elicit Trump’s admiration. But if Trump expresses support for Duterte’s campaign of mass murder—either directly or by omission—he will also be condoning police corruption.

One reason officials in the Philippines have cooperated so readily in carrying out Duterte’s policy is that doing so includes financial incentives that go far beyond the payments police have reportedly received for executing the president’s ‘war on drugs’. Sheila Coronel, a distinguished investigative journalist and the academic dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has found that the list of illicit rewards includes profits from extortion, property commandeered from victims, ransom for kidnapped suspects, and even commissions from funeral parlors.

These and other motives are fuelling the Philippines’ cycle of corruption, and undermining any attempt to reestablish effective policing. Citizen awareness of police corruption is an important part of restoring credibility, which is essential for effective law enforcement. But as Coronel notes, ‘Filipinos have consistently judged the police the most corrupt of all government agencies.’ By promoting policies that contribute to police misconduct, Duterte is actually encouraging the very criminality that his campaign to wipe out illegal drug use was ostensibly meant to curb.

The mounting death toll from the US opioid epidemic suggests that America’s drug problem is no less serious—and possibly more so—than that of the Philippines. Though the Trump administration has yet to propose an adequate response to its crisis—declaring a national emergency and failing to put any new spending behind the order is clearly insufficient—at least it recognises that using the police to kill dealers and users is not a solution.

If Trump were to think through how Duterte is perpetuating a drug crisis he seeks to end, perhaps he would refrain from expressing enthusiasm for the approach. Maybe he would even go further, ignoring Duterte’s directive to ‘lay off’. But, given Trump’s affection for strongman leaders, Duterte will most likely receive a free pass on murdering his own citizens.