FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

A small debate has erupted on the sidelines of the blooming electoral campaign over whether the “drug war,” centerpiece of the Duterte administration, was a success or a failure.

It is probably a useless debate. Both sides of this debate could be correct and both sides wrong.

Fighting the scourge of drugs is a complex undertaking. More than law enforcement, it requires mobilizing communities and rehabilitating those addicted. It calls for broad public education on the perils of illegal drugs.

The debate about the success or failure of the anti-drug campaign recalls an old Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. Each of the men approached the beast and touched different parts of it. In their minds, they had different images of the elephant and spent the rest of the day disagreeing about how the beast looks like.

So it is that in relation to the anti-drug campaign, the various groups recall different aspects of it to the neglect of the others.

Human rights advocates focus on the deaths associated with the campaign and allegations of instances of extrajudicial killings. We have heard inflated numbers, some larger than all the homicides combined, and others assuming that all of those killed were disposed of extra-judicially.

Law enforcement officers, for their part, focus on the amount of drugs confiscated and the criminal networks neutralized. They associate the dramatic reduction in crime volumes (57 percent over the past five years) to the sustained anti-drug campaign.

To be sure, citizens do feel safer in the streets these days and there are less of those horrible stories about drug-crazed people slaughtering their own parents because they were not given money to support their vice.

To be fair to the government effort, no country every fully eradicated the drug menace – only reduce it to manageable levels. The continued incidents of street sales of drugs do not mean the anti-drug effort was entirely fruitless.

To have a fair assessment of the anti-drug campaign, we have to put some context to the problem.

A few years ago, the US Drug Enforcement Agency was so concerned about the volume of drugs being transshipped through the country they asked for a meeting with some of our officials. They were worried about the drug trade here enjoying the protection of powerful officials. Because of that, large volumes of illegal substances were moving through our ports and along our long coastline.

The street price for crystal meth is a reliable indicator of supply. Just a few years ago, the substance was so abundant it sold cheaply on the streets. Large laboratories were discovered and dismantled shortly after the Duterte anti-drug campaign was launched. Today, crystal meth costs substantially more and supply is said to be markedly less.

Drug lords made so much money from the almost unbridled sale of illegal substances, they were able to buy political protection. Narco-politics was a real and substantial threat to our democracy.


In its first stages, when Bato de la Rosa headed the PNP, the anti-drug campaign was called “Tokhang” – a contraction of two Cebuano words for “to knock” and “to plead.” It involved police officers going house-to-house, pleading with those hooked on drugs to enroll in rehab facilities. That word has gained notoriety, being unfairly equated with extrajudicial killing.

The campaign was eventually renamed “Oplan Double Barrel” to more aptly capture the twin goals of reducing both the supply and the demand for illegal drugs. Along with the renaming, the PNP doubled its effort to reduce the volume of violence accompanying drug suppression campaigns.

Police officer Rhodel Sermonia was provincial director of the PNP for the province of Bataan when the “war on drugs” commenced. He understood immediately that the campaign required a delicate balance between public education and crushing the drug syndicates. He was convinced a holistic approach to this complex social problem would be the more sustainable one.

Bataan became a model for its demand reduction strategy and the enrollment of drug-users in rehabilitation centers. The same strategy was copied elsewhere, leading to not only a reduction in drug supply but also fewer instances of violent encounters between policemen and drug-dealers.

The provincial director is now a police major general and currently chief of the PNP Directorate for Operations. This office oversees the operation and support activities of the police organization. Sermonia must have done something right.

It is true that, at the onset of the “war on drugs,” some police units were overly aggressive. This resulted in the high body count in the initial stages of this campaign.

It is also true that a lot of deaths, especially the gorier ones, were inflicted by rivalry between the drug lords or by drug lords taking out police informants. The violence that accompanied the early stages of this campaign has been substantially reduced by improvements in procedures and more selective targeting of drug peddlers.

In this highly politicized environment, the gains and failures of this campaign could tend to be distorted or unfairly characterized. The PNP should better articulate its position and concerns. We cannot afford the drug war to lose public support.

As the campaign period looms, there seems to be lesser indications money from the drug syndicates will play a decisive role in the outcomes. The situation was so different from the 2016 electoral period where drug lords dictated the outcomes in many localities.

This should be counted as a success for the anti-drug campaign. It certainly was not a wasted effort.

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