Is This the End of Duterte's Drug War?

The death of a 17-year-old is shifting public opinion against the Filipino president’s deadly campaign.

Activists display placards during a rally after 91 people were shot dead in the Philippines.
Dondi Tawatao / Reuters

The tide of public support for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war may have finally turned. In a special operation last week, police killed more than 80 people in three nights, the highest death toll since Duterte came to office last summer and pledged to eradicate drug traffickers. And he’s kept good on that promise: While official estimates put police killings at about 3,500, human-rights groups and activists estimate that it’s between 7,000 and 13,000. Many of the country’s poorest citizens live in fear, not of criminals, but of police who are accused of committing extrajudicial killings. Even so, Duterte, the tough-talking populist, has enjoyed wide support—in fact, a poll last month showed the highest public support since he took office. But this may be changing after the apparent police killing of 17-year-old Kian Lloyd delos Santos.

Last Wednesday, officers shot and killed delos Santos in a special operation, saying he was a drug trafficker. They even claimed the young man fired a gun at them. Then security footage emerged that seems to refute this story.

In many similar instances, Duterte’s critics say police fire indiscriminately on people in poor neighborhoods, or target addicts, not traffickers, then plant guns on them to make it appear like they fired on police. This is what the footage in delos Santos’s killing seems to capture. Witnesses said that after officers grabbed the teenager he begged to be let go, saying, “Please can I go home, I have school tomorrow.” Security footage also shows officers dragging him down an alleyway, where they allegedly handed delos Santos a gun and told him to run. An autopsy found delos Santos was shot first in the back, then twice more at close range into the side of the head, suggesting he was executed. Duterte’s critics say this same act has played out thousands of times since the drug war began. But delos Santos’ story has struck a chord.

Over the weekend and on Tuesday, a confluence of opposition voices put the normally bombastic president on the defensive. First, a prominent Catholic leader, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, demanded an end to the killings and pushed citizens to do so as well. “Why are we no longer horrified by the sound of the gun and blood flowing on the sidewalks?” Villegas asked. "The country is in chaos. The officer who kills is rewarded and the slain get the blame.”

The Philippines are one of the Catholic Church’s last bastions of power in the region, but church leaders have struggled to turn popular opinion against Duterte. Criticism even seems to embolden him, and he once called the pope a “son of a whore.” After delos Santos’ death, Villegas and Catholic leaders in his district said that beginning Tuesday they would ring church bells each night for a month to remind people of the the drug war’s toll.

Tuesday was a significant date for the nation, marking the death of Benigno Aquino Jr., a pro-democracy hero of the 1980s who fought against the two-decade dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Thousands of people marched in the streets Tuesday, braving a tropical storm to protest the Duterte’s drug war. They carried signs that read “Resist the Fascist” and “Stop the Killings!” in what was a rare show of mass denunciation. The death of delos Santos has even prompted some of Duterte’s political allies to take a critical tone—if not against Duterte personally, then against the lawlessness of police under his leadership. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, “If the allegations of foul play are proven then the perpetrators must be brought to justice. They must be made to account for what they have done.”

The anger over Delos Santo’s death even has Duterte criticizing police. It’s a drastic change, because he once said he’d  pardon any officer found guilty of murder during the drug war (last month he even reinstated police officers accused of killing a politician who’d been jailed on drug charges). In typical fashion, Duterte had first gloated about the killings. “If we can kill another 32 every day,” Duterte said of the death toll, “then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.” Then the video emerged. Talking with reporters Monday night, Duterte suggested the video could be a fake. But with widespread public anger, he also acknowledged the police could be in the wrong. “Well, I saw two presumably policemen. How do I put it? Moving a person … ” he said of the footage. Then he added, “I cannot discount the possibility, as I said, in my reply that there is a possibility that in some of the police incidents, arrests, there could be abuses. I admit that.”

This is a remarkable statement from a president who has admitted to personally killing suspected criminals. But it’s uncertain if delos Santos’ death will bring about any lasting change in Duterte’s policy, because his actions at times have been erratic. He entered office on the promise he’d reclaim fishing territories in the South China Sea from Beijing by force if necessary. Then he made a historic trip to China and signed $24 billion in deals. People may also overlook his drug-war tactics in the long run, because he has kept the economy thriving, and the Philippines is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

The great irony of Duterte’s drug war has always been that it attacks his largest base: the poor. When he first took office, supporters were eager for Duterte to clean up crime-plagued cities and to put an end to rampant drug use in their country, which has the highest methamphetamine abuse rates in the region. Duterte had promised to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of traffickers, but support for his drug war may flip once people realize that many of those killed are not heartless criminals, but regular people, and sometimes the innocent.