On the supposed gains of Duterte’s “war on drugs”: Did bloody policy bring down crime rate?

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IT SEEMED like a small matter, another one of those  moments when a politician or public official let slip a thought that perhaps was best left unsaid. But CMFR took note of it and felt it was a moment that mattered, offering a chance to examine the message about how the drug war had supposedly done so much good by improving peace and order in many communities where drugs had reigned until Duterte came along. 

Interviewed on DWIZ on September 10, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa was asked to comment on the rise of kidnapping cases and other crimes reported in the news. His answer: It means the illegal drug problem is “coming back.” Subtext: The Duterte administration had successfully eliminated illegal drugs and with it, lowered criminality in the country.

CMFR  noted that the cases of abductions and disappearances that Dela Rosa was asked to comment on had made the rounds in social media since June 2022, the last month of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. Social media accounts passed around news of such incidents involving a group that used a white van.  Photos of several females, who reportedly went missing, went viral, prompting the police to investigate. 

Media had already reported earlier that, according to the Philippine National Police (PNP), these cases were not connected and that some of the victims were neither missing nor abducted. However, the Police told the media that from January 1 to August 31, 2022, their records show 27 cases of kidnapping: 15 were related to cases involving persons in offshore gaming operations; one case was linked to a casino deal, and 12 were “kidnap-for-ransom” cases. The police did not describe any case as being drug-related.

Dela Rosa’s response to the interview was clearly aimed at praising and highlighting the “success” of Duterte’s war on drugs, a policy which fulfilled the promise he made during the 2016 presidential campaign in 2016.  Whether or not it was intended, the Senator’s remarks also “shaded” the new administration, which has not undertaken the “war-on-drugs” policy with vigor.

Dela Rosa’s opinion did recall the narrative that social media influencers had peddled— that the drug war has brought down drug use and drug dealing, and that people supported Tokhang because it was driving away criminal elements from the streets and making public areas safe. 

Gaming the numbers?

Several groups criticized the drug war as anti-human rights because it promoted the killing of drug suspects. The policy triggered the ongoing case on crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Based on the government’s #RealNumbersPH data, from July 1, 2016 to February 8, 2022, the police recorded 6,235 persons killed during anti-drug operations. Human rights advocates cite 13,000 including extrajudicial killings still under investigation. But only 12 police officers were indicted for only one case — the August 17 murder of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos which was recorded by a close-circuit TV camera.

Throughout Duterte’s Presidential term, official presentations highlighted the drug war and its role in cutting down crime statistics.

In February this year, Ret. Gen. Eduardo Año, then chief of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), in a press briefing said that the crime rate dropped by 73.76 percent from 2016 to 2021 and noted significant drops in 2020 and 2021. The presentation conveniently left unmentioned the extended lockdowns and the fear of COVID-19 as conditions that contributed to the decline.

PNP annual reports examined 

CMFR reviewed the PNP annual reports from 2016 to 2021 and found a downward trend in crime volume during the six years, except for a  notable spike in 2019. The declines were not compared to other periods in the past when Police agencies also claimed decreased rates in index crime.

CMFR also noted that data recorded in previous years were changed in the annual report the following year – resulting in more dramatic decline.  

Each year from 2017 to 2021, more than 10,000 cases were added to the previous year’s data. (See table below) For example, the 2018 annual report reported the crime volume at 473,068 cases. In the 2019 annual report, the 2018 crime volume was changed to 511,903. The numbers in the two annual reports (2018 and 2019) show a discrepancy of 38,835 cases from what was originally reported in 2018. Based on this alteration, the PNP claimed a reduced crime volume in 2019 instead of what would have been a slight increase.

The changes were not explained;  these could have been due to delayed reporting of backlogged cases or errors in data entries. Media reports did not even note the alterations, as news accounts merely quoted official statements.  There were no questions asked.

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CMFR also recalls that in 2019, the PNP began using the Peace Order Indicators (POI) as a sub-category in reporting the “crime volume.”  According to the PNP, POI “covers (sic) the crimes that reflect the true crime picture and peace and order situation of a community. . .”  The PNP used another sub-category – Public Safety Indicator (PSI) to comprise “the totality of the vehicular incidents and other quasi-offenses punishable under the Revised Penal Code.”  

In 2017, the PNP had also changed the “categories” in reporting killings related to the drug war, effectively limiting the data to show only drug suspects killed during police operations. At the start of the campaign in 2016, the number of “drug-related killings outside of police operations (such as the so-called “vigilante killings)” were included in reports; but the PNP later used “death under investigation” (DUI) and “homicide cases under investigation” (HUI).  In 2018, these cases were excluded from all packets of information in 2018. (See: “ Focus: Duterte’s Bloody campaign on Illegal drugs”)

After Duterte: Reviving the narrative

It has been only two months since Duterte stepped down, and police data for the past eight months would not prove Dela Rosa’s claim that the ‘return of drugs’ figured in the numerous cases of abductions/kidnapping. 

CMFR’s quick look at PNP crime statistics from January to August 2022, showed that the pattern in the crime volume had no significant increase or decrease between the administrations as Dela Rosa suggested. There was a 2,224 drop in May (election month) and a peak at 2,654 in July (government transition) but the numbers dropped again in August.

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The numbers also showed that the monthly index crime cases were consistently below 3,000 in the past eight months. It was at its highest in June (still under the Duterte administration) at 2,859 cases.

Index crime as defined by the PNP are “offenses considered as serious in nature with sufficient frequency and regularity including murder, homicide, rape, robbery, carnapping, physical injuries, and eight other special complex crimes.” Authorities often link index crimes to the drug problem.

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Marcos Jr.’s take on Duterte’s drug war

After Marcos Jr. was declared President-elect, he vowed to continue Duterte’s drug war but said he would undertake changes to observe due process and the rule of law. But so far, no concrete changes in the policy have been announced. 

According to  Human Rights Watch (HRW), extrajudicial killings related to the  “drug war” have continued, pointing out that 72 drug-related killings have been reported since Marcos Jr. took office on June 30. Reports have not noted these as continuing Duterte’s drug policy.

Conclusion: Assessing crime data

A drop in crime statistics is always welcome. But at this point, journalists need to examine the statistics to establish  whether the gain is genuine, as well as to check whether the gain may be marred by gross violations of human rights. When the Police release data without reference to past statistics, the media should be ready to ask questions. Journalists must check the claim against the larger and longer timeline of previous records.  

Dela Rosa’s statement repeated the message sustained through the six-year term of the Duterte administration that the greater safety on the streets, especially in poor neighborhoods, justified the bloody drug war. It cast aside concerns about the government’s commitment to the human rights of those they accuse of being drug personalities. 

But the data suggest the need to examine the claim.  It is not too late  to check the length or depth of the lie about the greater safety in the streets supposedly produced by the war on drugs.