License to Kill: The Support of Filipinos for Duterte’s Bloody War on Drugs

It was around 3 a.m. on November 25, 2016 when 38-year old Gener Rondina woke because of a loud banging on his door. A group of policemen surrounded their small house in Cebu City. Gener, a known drug addict and a pusher, knew what would happen next. He quickly rushed to remove the wall air-conditioning unit and tried to escape through the hole. But the police officers were faster— they had already directed the flashlights on him.

This was just one of the 43,593 operations under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Oplan Tokhang, an operation which literally translates to “knock and plead” and targets low-level drug users and sellers. It is a door-to-door strategy where police visits the suspected drug dealer’s house to request people to voluntarily surrender to authorities. Amnesty International documented 33 of these incidents. Gener’s story was one of them.

‘I’ll kill you’

From the electoral campaign to presumption in office, President Duterte has been consistent in his promise to the public: “When I said I’ll stop criminality, I’ll stop criminality. If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you.” He said that he would capture so many criminals and drug addicts that “fish will grow fat in Manila bay and funeral parlors would be packed.” He also gave his blessing to the public: “Do it yourself if you have the gun—you have my support,” he said.

Nine months into the controversial war on drugs, over 7,000 have been killed since July 2016with a bigger share in the death toll coming from vigilante-style killings and over 4,000 murder cases outside police operations based from the National Police data. With dead bodies piling every day, human rights groups have lodged complaints against the war on drugs. In March 2017, an opposition lawmaker filed an impeachment case against Duterte citing murder and crimes against humanity.

Despite the escalating death tolls and condemnations from local groups and international communities, the war on drugs rages on. Backing Duterte are millions of Filipinos who have voted for his brand of “change.” Despite the public satisfaction dipping since assumption in office, Duterte maintains a “very good satisfaction rating” according to the Social Weather Stations. Many also believe that the drug trade and crime rate considerably went low because of Duterte’s policies.

To understand this overwhelming support and populist appeal of Duterte to the masses, it is crucial to take a look at how he rose to power. Duterte’s campaign was grounded on the pervasiveness of crime and drugs in the country. It is an issue that transcended all classes from the problem of criminality in the grassroots to the security woes of the middle class. But while this rhetoric captured the general public’s support, Duterte also had several things going for him. Like a scale waiting to tip, Duterte’s popularity was a case of perfect timing. While the public approval on the war on drugs can be discussed in different layers, this attitude reflects two crucial social factors: culture and political history.

June 27, 2017. Agustin Panes was murdered by unidentified suspects in front of an unmanned barangay outpost in Barangay Addition Hills, Mandaluyong. Photo: Bam Alegre.
June 27, 2017. Agustin Panes was murdered by unidentified suspects in front of an unmanned barangay outpost in Barangay Addition Hills, Mandaluyong. Photo: Bam Alegre.

‘I will surrender’

As flashlights pointed at Gener, a witness heard him yell.

“I will surrender! I will surrender!” he said.

But the police kept charging and ordered Gener to lie down on the floor. Gener kneeled and raised his arms over his head. Moments later, the relatives heard gunshots.

Gener was dead. The police said a shoot out ensued after he tried to fight back with a .45 pistol. Recovered from the scene were 17.02 grams of meth amounting to over 4,000 USD.

Thousands of miles from the crime scene, a toymaker sat on his desk as he carefully put the final touches on a piece he is finishing. Dennis Mendoza had to finish almost a dozen of orders before daybreak. In an interview, he said, “He shouldn’t have fought back. The fault is on him. He already knew there is a war on drugs, and yet he did not surrender himself.”

Duterte: Punisher and Father

An avid supporter of Duterte, Dennis makes a living out of making mini-figures of the President. His “Duterte dolls,” which gained popularity during the 2016 electoral campaign, was his way of showing support for a man he calls “Tatay,” a Filipino term for father. These dolls became so famous he got to meet the President himself.

“I didn’t have a father growing up so I asked him, ‘Can I please call you, Tatay, Sir?’ The President responded, ‘Of course, you can, son,’” Dennis said as he recounted a fond memory of his visit in the Malacañang Palace in August.

While the international media painted Duterte as “The Punisher,” millions of Filipinos lovingly call him “Tatay.” This is Duterte’s charm. He was able to penetrate deep into the patriarchal culture of Filipinos by portraying the typical disciplinarian head of the household — brazen but caring, tough but loving.

This kind of contradiction is even in Dennis’s handcrafted toys. For 100 USD, he can make a mini-figure with Duterte looking like a badass thug or while wearing a simple checkered polo he is usually seen wearing. “More clients prefer the latter. To them it represents his simplicity,” he said.

The strongman approach, however, was equally a hit among the crowd, from the random spewing of expletives during press conferences to the death threats against drug pushers. He is the kind of leader who is unafraid to say “Fuck you, EU!” or to call Former US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” when questioned about the war on drugs.

To many Filipinos, he is just misunderstood. “He is just being true to himself. I think the expletives are his way to express his anger,” overseas Filipino worker Tahara Hansen said. In the Philippines, being able to curse institutions is applauded. Duterte, to the eyes of the masses, is seen as someone who is unafraid to bulldoze institutions. His macho quality translates to a capability of defending the weak as seen in the clenched fist logo symbolizing his campaign. Duterte’s machismo is essential if he is to establish authority in front of his people. His profanity is a part of his popularity; his candor seen as refreshing in the context of Filipino culture.

A maverick mayor from the South in Mindanao, Duterte also quickly gained political traction in the national level by fronting his achievements in the city he led for decades. What had been a haven for criminals, the city of Davao is now the image of peace and order as one of the safest cities in the world. If you’re a politician from Mindanao, entering the national political arena can prove to be tricky and challenging as power is often concentrated in the capital. But Duterte, with his political record, strongman appeal, and ethno-linguistic support, became the first President elected from the region. Of the over 16 million votes, he received more than a third or 6.12 million from Mindanao. He also fluently speaks Cebuano which made 20-28% of the voters, according to Pulse Asia Research.

President Rodrigo Duterte visits for the first time the evacuees of the Marawi Clash in Iligan City. He was warmly welcomed and he charmingly made the audience laugh while sympathizing with their plight at the same time. Photo: Bam Alegre
President Rodrigo Duterte visits for the first time the evacuees of the Marawi Clash in Iligan City. He was warmly welcomed and he charmingly made the audience laugh while sympathizing with their plight at the same time. Photo: Bam Alegre

Search for a ‘Redeemer’

A penchant for a strongman appeal and ethno-linguistic affinity were not the only factors that propelled Duterte’s rise to power. After the 1986 revolution restored democracy from decades of martial law, the Filipinos have been in search for a leader of action, a leader seen as a redeemer from the current plight of the masses. A widowed wife of a dictator’s critic was elected President after the revolution. Former President Cory Aquino was seen as a beacon of hope and democracy in 1986. Joseph Estrada, a former actor, was also voted in 1998 by the masses who believed he can salvage the Filipinos from poverty. Aquino’s son, Benigno Aquino III, later became the President in 2006 carrying the promise of eradicating corruption in the government.

But the search for the “redeemer” proved to be a difficult task as the same social issues continue to plague the country for decades. Despite growing economic rates, poverty, corruption, and criminality remain endemic and only contribute to the public’s growing frustration. While traditional politicians hinge their platforms on solving social inequity or corruption, Duterte played a different game. He presented the problem of drugs as an immediate crisis that needs to be solved. The fact that around 80% of drug cases in the Philippines end up being dismissed or that it takes a decade to successfully get a conviction also helped fuel this narrative.

“From 1986, it is always a series of redemptive moments. Every election is a populist kind of election. We’re always looking for someone who can redeem us from issue we are embroiled in,” sociologist Jayeel Cornelio said.

Duterte’s brand of populism successfully tapped into the public’s frustration on the current institutions and its hope for change. Duterte marketed himself as a “man of action” and his tagline “Change is coming” became a powerful statement to match this imagery. The popular support for Duterte revealed how the long history of frustration in the politics has helped put him in a seat of power. The search for change and promise of justice, coupled with collective public anxiety, made Duterte’s rise to power politically possible.

“The revolution did not fulfill its promise of change and redemption. This compounded frustration on poverty, criminality, and lack of development led to support for populism,” Wilnor Papa, Amnesty International’s campaigns coordinator said.

The voting patterns across history after the 1986 revolution may also explain Duterte’s election and rise to popularity. A psychographic study from 1995 reveals that elections are still largely based on personality where candidates win mainly because of platform, popularity, public image and political machinery.

In a separate 2005 study, however, popularity has downgraded. The benefit factor that replaced it shows a utilitarian approach to politics: people vote for those who they think they can benefit most from. In the case of Duterte, Filipinos see the election of Duterte as a means to stop drugs and crime, a problem that has persisted especially among the grassroots. Duterte’s populist appeal is also especially strong among the frustrated and impatient middle class who wanted security, or the elite who see criminality as a problem for business.

The 1986 revolution once promised change but has failed to deliver lasting growth which opened opportunities for populist leaders like Duterte to offer an alternative model for politics. “Our democracy is in a midlife crisis where we are reassessing our choices as we become more experimental,” sociologist Nicole Curato said.

The Rise of Penal Populism

Some time after Gener was killed, the police read the search warrant aloud. “What’s the point?” the witness said. “He’s dead.” The witness recalled them “carrying him like a pig” before laying the body next to the sewer.

The police said Gener tried to fight back, but a witness said it was unlikely. “The room is just a couple of meters wide and there were so many officers they couldn’t fit. His hands were raised, he couldn’t go anywhere,” the witness said.

Tahara, who only got to hear about reports of killings online, said “If they wanted to stay alive, they should not have resisted.”

“It is better to give justice to the victims of drug addicts. Justice can only be achieved when all drug lords are killed. This is the only way to stop them,” Dhang Esquierdo, founder of online group called President Duterte Supporters, said.

A sociology of deviance theory called penal populism can help explain this attitude. As the public falls into Duterte’s populist rhetoric, it also falls deeper into penal populism, a political approach which uses punitive mechanisms to address the public’s demand to be tough on crime. This aggression stems from the need of the public, especially victims of criminality, to achieve justice and order amidst chaos.

Here’s a leader who promised change, and here are the people ready to follow him. From the campaign, he has already promised bloodshed and set the public expectation. Duterte is a powerful maestro orchestrating the public into fighting for a cause. By painting the victims of the war on drugs as criminals, Duterte spun the narrative into a success story – less criminals translate to peace and progress. “The subconscious of a Filipino tells them to kill a criminal. Duterte just amplified that subconscious,” JV Nakpil, a political scientist, said.

As Duterte encouraged the killings, the society’s norm is altered and violence, is in a way, legitimized. Drug dealers and drug addicts are seen as menaces that needs to be destroyed at all costs. Human rights for the victims of the war on drugs take a back seat as the concept of justice is blurred. As the state itself normalizes the killings, the public becomes more willing to turn a blind eye on the atrocities. Instead of the government acting as the mechanism to tame our most violent impulses, it legitimizes and perpetuates these impulses, Curato explained.

July 9, 2017. Unidentified murdered male in Balintawak Road, Brgy 175, North Caloocan City. Wore a sign saying that he was a pusher and rapist. Photo by Luisito Santos, DZBB.
July 9, 2017. Unidentified murdered male in Balintawak Road, Brgy 175, North Caloocan City. Wore a sign saying that he was a pusher and rapist. Photo by Luisito Santos, DZBB.


But Gener’s family is not willing to turn a blind eye. His father and would-be wife filed a case against the police responsible for Gener’s death. “They didn’t follow the law during the raid. They believe that they are in power because the President is behind them,” Gener’s father, a retired policeman said in an interview with Sunstar.

For Filipinos who support Duterte and the war on drugs, Gener’s death may be unfortunate but also inevitable if they truly want change. After all the President himself said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million addicts if it meant peace and security for his motherland. He likened himself to Hitler who massacred three million Jews.

He apologized, of course, to the Jewish community two days after.

Duterte, however, is not sorry for the over seven thousand lives lost in the war on drugs. If anything, his determination to kill in the name of peace and order only became stronger. In December, he promised to extend the war on drugs until his term ends. The Filipinos who support the purge are not sorry either. This is what they voted for.

“Tatay has really changed many lives. People are more disciplined now. Give him a chance to change the society,” Dennis said as he tinkered in another doll. Four of his uncles, who were former drug addicts, surrendered to the authorities and had undergone drug rehabilitation.

“I have so much admiration for our President. If I could, I would even build him a statue,” the toymaker finally said.

[Entry 235, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Subselfie - Sophia

Hon Sophia Balod is a storyteller. She was previously a News Producer of special reports and features for GMA Network and Reuters. She is a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and recipient of 2016 Gawad Agong and Sarihay Media Awards for Excellence in News Reporting  on  the plight of indigenous people and environmental issues. She is now studying Media and Politics in Aarhus University, Denmark under the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship Program. Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.

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