Column: Question: Will vigilante killers follow Bato?

Published on January 31, 2017.

The details are still scarce, but the big picture is clear: Upon instructions of President Duterte, the chief of the Philippine National Police has ordered a temporary stop to the administration’s so-called war on drugs. This is a good thing. Even if it is only temporary, it is welcome news, because it means—very simply—that fewer poor people will die in police shootings in the next several days.

I had joined my voice to the chorus of concern about the killings continuing even as the country hosted the Miss Universe beauty pageant, for only the third time in the competition’s history. We urged a temporary stop to the killings, to avoid the demoralizing, indeed immoral, spectacle of an entertainment extravaganza conducted against the backdrop of antipoor violence.

This much was clear to many of us from the start: Mr. Duterte’s war is being waged largely against people who are guilty of the crime of poverty. Take a look at the casualty lists; read the news stories; listen to the witnesses. Very many of the killed were poor. To have more of them die in the streets—without benefit of due process, under the murkiest of circumstances—while the world’s most beautiful women paraded in their swimsuits and evening wear made for an even greater scandal.

The order of Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, announced the same morning the nation was avidly following the finals of the Miss Universe pageant, is belated then, but bracing.

Will the order lead, in actual fact, to a stop in the killings? It is possible that the offensive will be continued by other means. Only last week Dela Rosa told the Senate, during the first day of the inquiry into the kidnapping and killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo, that it was not possible to stop the administration campaign (“I think hindi po puwedeng ipapahinto”). And only the other day the President himself extended the deadline he had set himself for the war on drugs. “I will extend it to the last day of my term. March (his second deadline, after the original six-month target) no longer applies.”

It is both sound policy and good practice to keep a skeptical eye on Dela Rosa’s announcement. The devil, truly, is in the details.

To be sure, Dela Rosa is breaking up his Anti-Illegal Drugs Group. “That is why starting today I dissolved the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group, all antidrug units from the national, local to the police station level.” Even though the PNP chief can easily reconstitute this operational structure, dissolution was not and could not have been a minor decision. “No more antidrug operations; we have to focus our efforts towards internal cleansing.”

The President said the other day that he personally believed that as many as 40 percent of all policemen were corrupt. (“You are corrupt to the core. It’s in your system.”) We may quarrel with the proportion (I believe there are many more honest cops), but whatever the numbers, the lack of “internal cleansing”—a phrase used in the Senate hearing—had always been a source of deep concern for many Filipinos worried about the violence of the administration’s war on drugs.

Here is one statistic we need to keep close tabs on: the number of killings of “drug personalities” that the police will attribute to vigilante or nonpolice groups, which they aggregate under the label of “deaths under investigation.”

About three-fifths of the 6,000 or so killings since June 30 are categorized by the police under DUI. (The rest are Kipo, or killed in police operations.)

Will the DUI numbers fall as a result of Dela Rosa’s order? That would mean that these vigilante or nonpolice groups take their cue from official instructions; why else would DUI killings drop? Again, we should welcome this drastic decline, too—but more citizens will question the true nature of the relationship between Kipo and DUI.

Or will the DUI stats rise dramatically instead? That could possibly mean that the official police role in the war on drugs is now performed by the vigilantes and nonpolice groups. We should keep an eye out for signs of outsourcing.

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