MANILA—Thousands of drug dealers and addicts have been surrendering themselves at police stations and flocking to rehabilitation centers across the Philippines, hoping to escape a bloody war on drugs unleashed by newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte. But there’s a problem: Authorities say they can’t cope with the sheer number of drug addicts suddenly seeking help.
A campaign pledge to take extreme action on drugs—primarily by killing thousands of suspected dealers—helped propel Mr. Duterte to a comfortable election victory two months ago. In the first 10 days after he took office June 30, police by their own reckoning shot dead around 60 suspected dealers, compared with 39 killed between Jan. 1 and May 9, the day Mr. Duterte was elected.
Police officials say the officers involved in these incidents followed the rules of engagement and were forced to shoot suspects who resisted arrest. Several lawmakers, however, have called for an investigation into the sudden increase in killings.
During a visit to police headquarters early this month, Mr. Duterte encouraged officers not to hold back. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he said.
Like other countries in the region, the Philippines in recent years has experienced a surge in the use of highly addictive crystal methamphetamine, known locally as “shabu.” The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that methamphetamine seizures in East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania quadrupled between 2008 and 2013.
The Philippines’ Dangerous Drugs Board counted 1.3 million drug users nationwide in a 2012 study, but lawmakers have said the true figure may be nearer 10 million—one-tenth of the population. The U.N. statistics suggest methamphetamine use is more common in the Philippines than in neighboring countries. To see drug suspects surrendering to police or users seeking rehabilitation en masse is a “happy problem,” said board chairman Felipe Rojas. But resources are urgently needed to treat them, he said.
Leaders in some of the Philippines’ poorest communities say that Mr. Duterte’s approach is doomed to fail unless his administration stops viewing the drug problem as a law-and-order issue and starts addressing it as a social one. Otherwise, they say, dealers and addicts will return to their old ways or be replaced by a new generation of offenders. The Philippines has 45 rehabilitation centers nationwide—too few to cope with the number of addicts being driven into the open by the anti-drug campaign, according to people familiar with the challenges of weaning addicts off crystal meth.
“Ever since May 9 there’s been huge demand,” said Guillermo Gomez, program director at Bridges of Hope, a Manila rehabilitation center. “We were full even before Duterte came in.”
Bridges of Hope only has space for 92 patients, Mr. Gomez said. But in the single largest mass surrender of drug dealers and addicts, around 4,000 individuals handed themselves into police in Davao on Saturday, filing into a large hall to sign a giant “commitment wall” confessing their crimes, the police said. In the first 10 days of July, more than 17,000 drug users surrendered to the authorities in the Davao region alone, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency said this week, with thousands more surrendering nationwide.
Parents of addicts, worried their children will be shot by the police, are bringing them in, Mr. Gomez said.
Mr. Gomez, himself a recovering drug addict, said that without well-planned social initiatives to help people beat addiction for good, Mr. Duterte’s purge at best would produce a short-term dip in levels of drug offending. As a young man, Mr. Gomez, now 44 years old, played soccer for the Philippines’ national junior team and majored in journalism. But close to graduation he started dabbling in shabu. For the next 15 years, his life became a morbid cycle of addiction, rehab and relapse, he said. Mr. Gomez finally won his battle with shabu five years ago and started working in rehabilitation to help others, he said.
Mr. Duterte has underestimated the economic power of the drug trade, Mr. Gomez said. When he started using shabu in the 1990s it was a pricey, imported drug available only in Manila, he recalled. But today, cooking shabu is a widespread cottage industry, which has helped to spread the drug nationally and halved the price to $2 for a single hit. Community leaders in the central Philippine city of Bacolod said shabu has become a ubiquitous problem there in recent years.
In the Barangay 2 district, one of the city’s most deprived, community leader Victor Aliguin said one-third of the neighborhood’s 5,000 residents were actively involved in selling shabu, which they obtain in small amounts from the city’s drug networks. Pushing has become the only way to make ends meet in a former fishing community whose waters have been fished out, he said.
“Duterte doesn’t understand the problems we have in small communities where people depend on selling drugs to survive,” said Mr. Aliguin. “Duterte needs to prioritize jobs, not crime—then people wouldn’t need to sell drugs in the first place.”
But in nearby Barangay 26, community leader Tony Arroz said Mr. Duterte’s plan to eliminate drug dealers first and foremost was the correct approach. He identified several local dealers he planned to target in support of Mr. Duterte’s clampdown.
“He’s a pusher,” Mr. Arroz said, pointing to a young man loitering outside a food stall drinking a beer. “He’s a pusher, too,” as another rode past on a flashy motorbike. “Drugs are rampant here. I’ve been shouting about fighting drugs for so long, but until now I’ve been a one-man army.”
By Trefor Moss - The Wall Street Journal/July 14, 2016
Photo: Noel Celis, Getty