Column: Duterte’s math: the ‘tokhang’ surrender fallacy

The politics of the so-called war on drugs is addition. Column No. 431, published on February 28, 2017.

Before the Duterte administration resumes its so-called war on drugs in earnest, we should ask ourselves: Is the “surrender” of a “drug personality” addition or subtraction? Let’s say there are 1,000 residents in a barangay. The local police and barangay officials agree that an estimated 100 residents are into drugs, whether as user or as pusher. If 50 residents surrender to the police when the authorities conduct what is now known as a “tokhang” drive, how many drug personalities will the barangay now have? Is it now 50, because the number of 50 surrenderers has been subtracted from the estimate? Is it still 100? Or is it 150, because the number 50 has been added to the base?

Allies and supporters of the President have called on those who criticize the war on drugs for its high death toll to consider the bigger picture—starting with the number of surrenderers. On Jan. 18, the Philippine National Police spokesperson gave an update: Since the national “tokhang” plan went into effect (it is officially known as Oplan Double Barrel), the police have visited some 6 million houses, and processed over 1 million surrenderers.

What does it mean to surrender?

Command Memorandum Circular No. 16-2016, issued by PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa on July 1 (the first full day of the Duterte administration), does not offer a single or specific definition, but if the purpose of the entire operation is the “neutralization of illegal drug personalities” (as we read in No. 2), then surrender must be understood to mean any voluntary step that would lead someone to stop using or pushing drugs.

In 5 (a) 4 of the memo, “Processing and Documentation Stage,” we find various references to surrender:

“(a) All suspected drug personalities who shall voluntarily surrender shall be required to fill-out a Voluntary Surrender Form.

“(b) Personalities who voluntarily surrendered shall be urged to subscribed (sic) under oath before a notary public …

“(c) All suspected drug personalities who shall voluntarily surrender themselves to the visiting team shall be referred/invited to the local police station for interview, documentation, and other alternative actions …

“(d) All suspected drug personalities who shall surrender any dangerous drugs or its derivatives and drug paraphernalia shall be processed accordingly.”

The memo includes Annex A, a diagram of the “Stages of Project Tokhang,” and here the consequences of surrender are clearer: Users are referred to local governments for voluntary rehabilitation, pushers to local police stations for documentation. Pushers who surrender drugs are referred to the local police for “interview and undertakings.” Drug pushers classified as “hostile/denial” are referred to “anti-illegal drugs units for case build-up.”

Now, to go back to our example: If 50 of the estimated 100 drug personalities in a barangay surrender to the police (and to simplify matters, all 50 are pushers who surrendered themselves and their drugs), what would the new barangay total be? Less 50, plus 50, or still the same?

Most of us would either choose the same (because change takes time) or perhaps 100 less 50 (because surrender means neutralization). But President Duterte follows a different math. For him the answer would be 150: To the base of 100, he would add the 50 who have surrendered.

This is why he raised the estimated total of drug users and pushers in the country from 3 million (based on who knows what) to 3.7 million last September. Because 700,000 had surrendered by that time, he said.  Now it’s 4 million, because 1 million have surrendered. Does this even make sense? Either he deducts the 1 million from the total, or he keeps it even. Surrender is part of his administration’s own success criteria; why use it to paint a picture of greater failure?

The PNP memo itself states: “According to the [Dangerous Drugs Board’s] 2015 National Household Survey, there were around 1.8 million drug users in the country …” But if most of the 1 million who surrendered have in fact given up drugs, that would mean Mr. Duterte’s war has by and large succeeded. Why is the President so invested in the war’s failure?

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