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Dirty Harry of the Philippines has a plan, but will it work?

Leila de Lima is a senator from the Philippines, the former Secretary of the Department of Justice, and a human rights activist. In late February, she was arrested by the Filipino police for alleged involvement in drug trafficking. Coincidentally, she is also one of the fiercest opponents of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and his infamous war on drugs. De Lima has denied the allegations repeatedly and continues her vocal criticism while being detained. But the story of her arrest is part of a broader tale of legislative upheavals and vigilantes, whose main character is the populist president of the Philippines, Duterte.

Long before assuming office in June 2016, he already had his fair share of controversies. During his 22 years as the mayor of Davao City, a populous Filipino metropolis with a history of political unrest, Duterte was known as “the Punisher” for advocating the extrajudicial killing of drug users and criminals. Davao City is home to the notorious “Davao Death Squad”, allegedly responsible for the killing of more than a thousand people between 1998 and 2008. Duterte had made some attempts to disassociate himself with the group, although he himself admitted on several occasions to be involved in the killing of at least three individuals. A substantial part of his ticket to the presidency was his vigilante-murderous attitude towards crime and punishment, “Duterte Harry” if you will.

Before he won the election, Duterte had promised to end crime in the country in six months. As the new president, he embarked on a campaign to eliminate the drug trade in the Philippines. “Embarked on a campaign” are somewhat subtle words when Duterte used a more crude description, saying that he wanted to do to Filipino drug addicts what Hitler had done to the Jews. Beside his colourful remarks, he also promised an ambitious infrastructure renewal plan and further economic growth for the country. In fact, the Philippines is doing quite well economically. In the past years, unemployment has been falling steadily, and foreign direct investment has been growing, although Duterte’s actions and remarks scare off some investors. Generally speaking, the country is known to benefit from globalization. Duterte’s drug policy is more pragmatic in that sense: targeting the drug trade is easier to comprehend than addressing vague macroeconomic issues.

As promised, Duterte gave the police a free hand to kill suspected drug dealers and users. According to The Economist, as of early March 2017, Duterte’s campaign has killed about 7,000 people allegedly involved in the drug trade and arrested many more. They were killed by the police, vigilantes and business rivals; obviously, drug cartels are happy to exploit the easy hand on the trigger in their mission to eliminate potential informants and competition. Many citizens support the crackdown, others are terrified, and rightly so.

The crackdown on the Filipino drug trade has deeper consequences, some of which are expected to linger. The drug trade is a black market, and like any other market, it thrives on demand and supply. Since the 1970’s, economists have had a growing interest in the analysis of crime using an economic framework. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker was the herald of such analysis: in his seminal paper Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach (1968) he discussed the “optimal amount of enforcement” for combating crime. The optimal amount is the one which minimizes social losses, that is the costs of damages, conviction and punishment. In the realm of crime, the drug trade is a fascinating case, economically speaking: the main policy objectives are to reduce the number of drug users and the crime that follows drug use. Drug dealers are not necessarily the main target of enforcement, as opposed to robbers or murderers, and like other forms of crime, it is considered impossible to eliminate the phenomenon completely.

Becker and other economists have strongly opposed the famous American “War on Drugs”, a set of anti-drug enforcement policies originating in the office of President Richard Nixon. In this war, there were evidently no real victories; and for Becker and his peers, the reason for that was simple: heavy punishment is not effective when attempting to reduce drug usage and distribution. Repression might create vacuums in supply or change the practices of trading, but only temporarily. Addicts find it harder to fight their addiction by seeking help because they fear arrests and convictions. Decriminalization or legalization combined with a tax on the consumption of drugs, economists claim, is better than punishing, and the revenues from such taxes could be used in more educational anti-drugs programs. Drug policy experts have noted that drug trade indicates pressing social problems such as unemployment and lack of access to healthcare. In many cases, the drug trade is a symptom of poverty, not its cause.

But back to Duterte and his own war on drugs: the president estimated the number of vaguely-defined “drug addicts” in the country to be around 3.7 million, while other estimates claim the number to be much smaller, around 1.6 million regular users (the Philippines’ population is more than 100 million). The country itself is not considered to be a major player in the global drug trade, however; it has a strategic location in the course of global trafficking. A war on drugs could seem acceptable in the eyes of the Filipino public but, as mentioned, repression and zero-tolerance are doomed to fail on a societal scale. Aggressive policies may temporarily affect the margins of Filipino suppliers and users, but not in the long run. Remember, this is not the first aggressively executed anti-drug war: it has been tried in the US, in Latin America, and in other Asian countries. Everywhere, the market only partly diminished or not at all, and when extrajudicial violence was extreme, the situation got even worse. Such violence shakes the very core of the democratic institutions in the country, its stability and its ability the fight corruption. Duterte’s actions have underlying political motives such as the ability to pin down possible political rivals on account of alleged involvement in the drug trade. Just ask senator de Lima.

And yet, there is something tempting about a vigilante policy against criminals. Popular culture teaches us to adore these brutal enforcers of the law who fear no one. In the long run, and beyond fantasy-land, such policies have devastating economic and social implications. They form a distraction from the actual causes of poverty, they deter development assistance, and quite importantly (though not as outspoken as other reasons): such policies are incredibly immoral. The Philippines has a growing economy with a potentially bright future. In order to attract subsequent foreign investors, the Filipino government could attend to the red tape problem it is suffering from, that is the massive web of regulations deterring citizens from buying a piece of land or starting a business. Further violence is not only impractical in eradicating drug trade, it also has devastating consequences for the rule of law and for Filipino democracy.


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