A controversial centerpiece of a president’s legacy

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 25) – The main promise that may have catapulted Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency six years ago was to eradicate the country’s illegal drug problem in three to six months.

The vow garnered him more than 16 million votes in 2016 polls, giving him the mandate to lead the country and launch a nationwide crackdown on illegal drugs.

With Duterte stepping down from office in days, his administration’s war on illegal drugs is leaving more scars than healed wounds.

Sacred start of Oplan Tokhang

The Duterte administration’s relentless war on drugs, known as the Oplan Tokhang got off to a “bloody” start as more than 7,000 lives were killed from June to December 2016 due to police operations, according to estimated figures from the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“If you know any drug addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself because forcing their parents to do that would be too painful,” Duterte said a day after being sworn in as the country’s 16th president.

Duterte often says that drugs destroy families and eradicating them will bring peace and order to society.

Interestingly, the police casualty data was higher than the 6,252 deaths reported by government monitoring platform RealNumbersPH as of May 31 this year. Local and international human rights organizations estimate an even higher number of victims of the war on drugs – between 12,000 and 30,000.

Duterte’s war on drugs raged in every corner of the country, even targeting uniformed personnel and local government officials.

Police reportedly point out that drug suspects have often resisted arrest before being shot. Many dead bodies from these drug enforcement operations were wrapped in signage identifying the people as drug addicts and should not be imitated.

Break a Pandora’s box

Duterte’s drug war momentum was stalled when police came under fire for the kidnapping and death of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo inside Camp Crame in October 2016 Duterte then ordered the police to stop directing drug operations and assigned Philippine Drug Law Enforcement Agency authorities to wage the war on drugs instead.

The controversial incident has opened a Pandora’s box for the government’s approach to the fight against illicit drugs, compounded by continued outcry from different human rights organizations and opposition figures to the legislative chamber.

Investigations have been carried out into allegations of human rights abuses in Duterte’s war on drugs, but these have come to naught.


Leading international human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also criticized the Duterte administration’s war on drugs for encouraging state-sponsored killings. The latter even published a report in January 2017 in which they castigated the police for targeting poor drug addicted offenders by planting evidence, hiring killers and fabricating official incident reports to justify their actions.

Recently, medical examiner Raquel Fortun found instances of inconsistencies in her re-autopsy of the exhumed remains of 46 drug war victims. She added that death certificates said the victims died of natural causes, but gunshot wounds were found in their remains.

The police forces themselves have been embroiled in some controversy in their anti-drug operations, including “ninja cops” who were suspected of laundering illegal drugs they had previously seized by selling them to drug dealers.

In defense, Duterte said he was not afraid to face jail time for alleged crimes committed in his bloody war.

“If you are human rights and (demand) due process, you stink and your mouth stinks. If you want to criticize, criticize and stop there. But don’t give excuses or make it trivial saying ‘human rights’.’ Yun ang pinaka-bugok [That is the stupidest]… to stick on [to] a topic,” Duterte said during his 2017 State of the Nation Address.


Kian and Carl: faces of collateral damage

The turning point in Duterte’s brutal war on illegal drugs came when 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos and 19-year-old Carl Arnaiz were killed on the same day in August 2017 by police, sparking more public sentiment against the program center of government.


CCTV footage showing Delos Santos being dragged by uniformed men before his death has quashed police claims that the young 11th grader was armed and fired at the crime scene in Caloocan City.

Arnaiz, meanwhile, was killed for being involved in a robbery, also in Caloocan City.


Delos Santos and Arnaiz died as collateral damage when Duterte’s war on drugs was at its height. Their deaths apparently exposed the government’s lack of transparency in its polarizing crusade.

Most cases involving victims of the war on drugs have remained stalled or have not even made it to lower courts to date. However, RealNumbersPH counted 345,216 people imprisoned due to the war on drugs.


The Duterte government has implemented stopgap measures to “responsibly” implement its war on narcotics, including creating the Inter-Agency Committee on Combating Illegal Drugs, whose outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo is became the president for only 20 days in November 2019.

Duterte withdraws PH from the ICC

The Duterte administration’s war on drugs has drawn mixed reactions from the international community, with 38 member states leading the call in 2018 through the United Nations Human Rights Council to prevent the Philippine government to implement it.

Duterte ignored those countries’ appeal and lambasted the International Criminal Court (ICC) for monitoring the progress of his government’s war on drugs.

The ICC is an international tribunal that prosecutes individuals involved in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The chief executive announced that he would withdraw the country’s signature from the Rome Statute, which established the international tribunal. The president denounced attempts to use the ICC as a “political tool” against the Philippines.


“The acts I allegedly committed are neither genocide nor war crimes. Nor is it a crime of aggression or a crime against humanity,” Duterte said. “The self-defense employed by police officers when their lives have been endangered by the violent resistance of suspects is a justifying circumstance under our criminal law, therefore, they do not incur criminal liability.”

After a two-year investigation, the office of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensuoda in December 2020 found a “reasonable basis” to claim that crimes against humanity were committed during the brutal war.

The ICC temporarily halted its drug war investigation in November 2021, following a request from the Philippine government, but new ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has asked the court’s pre-trial chamber to resume investigation days before Duterte stepped down as president.

victory or violence

Jennifer*, whose father was killed by police, is among those whose families have been shattered by the Duterte administration’s violent crackdown.

“I was angry with the police because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn’t listen to him. That’s why I was so angry,” Jennifer said in a interview with Human Rights Watch on the impact of Duterte’s war on drugs. She was 12 when her father was killed in December 2016.

Such hurt felt by Jennifer and others who suffered the same fate tainted all efforts to change Filipino society for the better during Duterte’s time. The war led to a perceived culture of violence and cast doubt on the government’s ability to protect its citizens.


Until the last days of his administration, Duterte remained firm that he had nothing to regret about his war on illegal drugs.

“Kill me, imprison me. I will never apologize,” Duterte said in a speech in January this year.

Kevin E. Boling