People in the Philippines support the Drug War, and it is not surprising to see slum residents voicing support for the anti-crime crusade, says Monsoon contributor Miguel Galsim.
In reality, it is often the poorest in Philippine society who have to deal with drug-related crime and experience in the flesh the destruction of families and communities by the shabu industry. Accordingly, many votes for Duterte were votes against the spectre of drug crime. Many people hoped for a better future.
Yet, hope quickly morphs into anxiety when the brutality of the war does little to alleviate the poverty of those on the receiving end of drug crime. So long as the poor remain on the periphery of policymaking in the Philippines, the same problems of drugs and crime will persist, and the poverty that breeds this criminality will remain entrenched if genuine structural reform centred on the Filipino poor is ignored.
Many have argued the Drug War is a war on the lower class. President Duterte denied this, and recently Philippine National Police Director General Dela Rosa stated that the war would soon target the higher echelons of the drug trade. What is undeniable, however, is that slum dwellers are often caught in the crossfire with little say in the war that is often touted as being waged for their benefit.
The police enter the slums and arrest and/or kill whoever is named on a list provided by the barangay (district/ward) captain, although it is rarely verified how the information was gathered, or if it is even accurate.
Concurrently, the encouragement of vigilantism has given unprecedented impunity to contract killers, regardless of the purpose of the hit. The contraventions against due process within these operations also go without saying, further entrenching power in the hands of the state, pushing the poor further into the periphery.
Maximo Garcia was one day labelled a pusher by one of these lists, and hurriedly declared to the police that while he had used shabu in the past, he was not involved in its distribution. He thought he was safe. Four days later gunmen on a motorcycle attempted to kill him. His five-year old granddaughter, Danica, died instead.
A contract killer, profiled by the BBC, kills on the order of a police officer, her boss. Also impoverished, contract killing became a way to feed her family. However, leaving the field appears not to be an option as she claims the officer “threatened to kill anyone who leaves the team.”
Both situations are not only symptomatic of a wider disenfranchisement of the urban poor, but indicative of ignorance surrounding the root causes of drug crime and usage, particularly poverty. Killing 100,000 pushers may decrease crime for a while, but when people continue to live in crushing poverty the urge to use narcotics as an escape mechanism, or to kill and extort in order to survive, remains constant.
Across the ocean, the example of Colombia demonstrates how underlying political problems can prevent effective solutions to crime. Even though the government conducted an all-out assault on the Medellin Cartel, destroying it by 1993, crime rates did not suddenly decrease, nor did narcotics operations.
Income inequality and the incapacity of the state to monopolise security resulted in the continuation of organised criminality to present. Similarly in Mexico, the collapse of certain cartels does not spell peace, as the underlying issue of “anaemic public institutions” remains unresolved.
In general, a greater distribution of wealth and extension of services needs to be achieved. In July, the Duterte administration announced plans for rice subsidies benefitting the country’s poorest, although the effectiveness of its implementation remains unknown.
Additionally, the administration should consider expanding its CCT (Conditional Cash Transfer) program, contrary to its July announcement, and refining its scope to prevent wastage. Moreover, the government would do well to incentivise infrastructure providers to extend critical services like electricity and water to slum districts. A concerted effort from the government and relevant private sectors is necessary to gradually lift the nation’s lowest socio-economic bracket.
From the perspective of slum residents, a more effective strategy against crime would be to include the urban poor in decision making, especially by engaging grassroots community leaders and unionists.
Reinforcing and elongating the proposed rehabilitation and incarceration programs for surrendered drug users – which are often under-resourced and ineffective, further demonstrating the state’s ignorance of underlying issues – would also be critical for reducing recidivism within impoverished communities.
Failing to understand the situation of the poor, especially in urban slums, the Drug War is doomed to continue marginalising these people and trapping them between the extremes of poverty and a hail of bullets.
The crusade may destroy the current syndicates, but crime will continue to spring out of the neglected margins. If these shortcomings remain unrealised, innocent boys and girls will continue to be made unnecessary sacrifices in a brutish government policy.
Miguel Galsim is a third year International Relations and Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies student at the Australian National Universtiy.