The General Running Duterte’s Antidrug War


Despite the general’s promises to make the country safer, there are conflicting signs of whether Filipinos feel that way. A recent survey suggested they are satisfied with the violent crackdown on drugs inaugurated by President Rodrigo Duterte, but that they do not feel more secure.

Still, General dela Rosa, 55, says he is certain that he is right in carrying out the president’s antidrug campaign. As the head of the national police force, General dela Rosa, who built his career as a front-line soldier, is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the undertaking, which has left thousands of Filipinos dead, many of them executed on the streets.

Mr. Duterte, elected to the presidency on the promise of ridding the country of drugs and crime, has publicly urged citizens to kill drug addicts, offered immunity to police officers for actions during the antidrug campaign and said of the country’s drug users, “I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

General dela Rosa nevertheless professes surprise at criticism from Western governments, United Nations agencies, the European Union and the International Criminal Court. All have condemned the antidrug campaign and threatened punitive actions should the human rights violations continue.

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General dela Rosa at a news conference in Manila last year. At the time he took the job, he said he did not anticipate the international attention, shock and criticism his antidrug campaign has invited.

Credit
Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In April, a Filipino lawyer filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court requesting indictments against General dela Rosa, as well as Mr. Duterte and other administration officials, for crimes against humanity.

“I did not expect it,” General dela Rosa said of the backlash against the slaughter.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, a leading opponent of the Duterte administration, described General dela Rosa as Mr. Duterte’s foot soldier, “operationalizing the thoughts and intentions of President Duterte.”

Under General dela Rosa’s command, the police have killed more than 2,600 people in antidrug operations, police statistics show. At least 1,400 more people have been killed by unknown assailants in relation to drugs, and 3,800 more are awaiting investigation.

General dela Rosa forged his friendship with Mr. Duterte over three decades. They met in 1986, when General dela Rosa graduated from the Philippine Military Academy and Mr. Duterte was appointed vice mayor of Davao City, then a provincial backwater with rampant crime and bloody rebellions by communists and Muslim separatists. By 1989, Mr. Duterte, who was already cultivating an image as a tough-talking mayor who valued bravery and ferocity, was the godfather at General dela Rosa’s wedding.

Like Mr. Duterte, General dela Rosa is a native of the province of Davao. He was raised in rural poverty — his father drove a motorcycle pedicab and his mother was a fish vendor — and made his way up the chain of command by earning a reputation as a soldier who never backed down from a fight.

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“That’s how I became Bato,” he said, referring to his nickname, which means “Rock.” “Wherever there was trouble, I was there.”

He rose through command positions, becoming the chief of police of Davao in 2010. In that capacity he developed Oplan Tokhang, a prototype for the nationwide antidrug campaign.

“The people here consider me their local hero,” General dela Rosa said. When he goes out in public, people pull out their phones to take selfies with fists to their chests, in a gesture of support for the general.

When Mr. Duterte became president, it was no surprise he tapped General dela Rosa to become the chief of the Philippine National Police.

“I am his most trusted senior officer,” General dela Rosa said, in an interview. “I know deep in my heart.”

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General dela Rosa, center, displaying confiscated drugs to the media in Trece Martires last year. “If there is no war against drugs,” he said. “the Philippines would be in a sad state. Pitiful. Drugs would devour us.”

Credit
Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

His marching orders, he said, were to replicate nationally what he had done in Davao. “So we can let the whole Philippines feel what it’s like to live in Davao, the same governance, the same law enforcement practices,” General dela Rosa said.

Those practices have been severely criticized by rights advocates, though residents of Davao largely defend them. Davao City is a featureless provincial capital of low buildings, strip malls, humble eateries and fruit stands. Human rights groups estimate that there were 1,400 extrajudicial killings in Davao during Mr. Duterte’s tenure.

What came to be called the Davao Death Squad is reported — by witnesses, former members and human rights organizations — to have killed suspected criminals, often from the back of a motorcycle.

These critics say the Davao police looked the other way while the death squads operated with impunity, adding that in the 30 years that Mr. Duterte ruled Davao, no killer was ever successfully prosecuted.

General dela Rosa says he cannot confirm the existence of an organized Davao Death Squad, and dismissed as urban legends stories by confessed former death squad members, and even Mr. Duterte himself, of criminals thrown from helicopters or fed to crocodiles. He has not been named by witnesses as a member.

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General dela Rosa at an arms show last year. He is the architect of the police operation called Oplan Tokhang.

Credit
Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency

While complaints of police misconduct and accusations of police involvement in vigilante killings have become the norm lately in Manila’s slums, General dela Rosa says he addresses these accusations by entertaining any case filed against the police.

General dela Rosa also says he is trying to rein in the explosive murder rate. “We are trying our best to investigate all these killings,” he said.

Ten months into his tenure, however, General dela Rosa is still speculating that the murders by motorcycle-riding gunmen are drug dealers killing each other. As with Davao, few of the killers are caught, and without solid evidence to support General dela Rosa’s assertion, people in the slums most targeted by the alleged vigilante killings have said, in dozens of interviews and conversations, that the police are involved.

Phelim Kine, of Human Rights Watch, which published a report this March on police abuses, said Mr. Duterte and General dela Rosa, “are unwilling or unable to grapple with this problem of extrajudicial killings by members of the police and death squads associated with them.”

Senator Trillanes says General dela Rosa’s alleged failures to control the police ranks are part of the larger goal. “I believe that is deliberate because they unleashed these death squads within the ranks of the P.N.P. and he’s not stopping them because that is the order,” Mr. Trillanes said.

General dela Rosa has for the most part defended the actions of his men. “My policemen don’t engage in any kind of nonsense,” he told local media last month, after inspecting a windowless cell hidden behind a bookshelf at one of Manila’s police stations that held 12 people without charges, amid accusations that the police were trying to extort money from the captives’ families.

General dela Rosa himself remains defiant in the face of international condemnation and the threat of possible indictment by the International Criminal Court. “I am working for the Filipino people,” he said. “The Filipino people are happy with what we are doing.”

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