Public opinion against Duterte's war on drugs intensifies in wake of continued killings

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody fifteen-month war on drugs has left thousands of people dead over alleged drug trafficking or use. Over a year since the violent crackdown began in July 2016, on 12th October 2017 President Duterte ordered the police to desist from the anti-drug operations, leaving all future narcotics investigations to the smaller Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). With human rights groups claiming that between 7,000 and 12,000 people have died since July 2016, the cessation of police involvement in anti-drug operations has been viewed as a modest step in the right direction. 

Since assuming power, Duterte has provoked alarm among the international community as a result of his brazen disregard for human rights and threats against human rights defenders.

After repeatedly shunning international scrutiny, Duterte has overseen volatile vigilantism, while fostering a culture of total impunity for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings. As efforts begin to pick up the pieces from a bloody chapter in the Philippine's history, many civic groups claim that the most vulnerable in Filipino society have paid the highest price for Duterte's war on drugs. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the imposition of martial law in Mindanao until the end of 2017 has also concerned human rights groups. Human rights violations against civilians and human rights defenders have worsened since the declaration of martial law on this southern island on 23rd May 2017. International and domestic groups have reiterated calls for security forces to protect the civilian population by exercising caution and restraint when conducting military operations. Worrying reports from the region have documented the rampant use of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture against civilians and militants alike. 

Peaceful Assembly

The recent killing of a 17-year old during the war on drugs prompted a huge mobilisation against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. In one of the bloodiest weeks since the war on drugs began, Kian Loyd Delos Santos was shot dead by police on 16th August 2017 near his house in Caloocan City, outside Manila. The events leading up to Delos Santos' death generated controversy across the Philippines and have been viewed as a turning point in public opinion against President Duterte's war on drugs. While police claim Delos Santos was killed in a shootout, CCTV footage later emerged of the 17-year old being abducted and manhandled by security forces, who then executed him after handing him a gun and ordering him to run. Forensic reports later contradicted the authorities' version of events and confirmed the CCTV footage as well as witnesses' testimonies. The video below documents his final moments. 

While three police officers were later investigated in connection with the killing, the death of a minor with such brazen impunity has become emblematic of the reckless war on drugs in the Philippines. In an outcry from civil society, local rights group, Rise Up for Lights and for Rights, commented on the incident in a statement:

"The supply of drugs through drug-lords, suppliers, producers and narco-politicians must be dismantled; this is what ails us. The poor need and deserve livelihood programs and social services, including rehabilitation for those dependent on drug-use. We must address the roots of what makes for the proliferation of the illegal drug trade and not just give the police a license to kill”.

In the aftermath of Delos Santos' death, a coordinated response from civil society has prompted a wave of protests across the Philippines against extrajudicial killings and the war on drugs. In addition to this, on the 26th August 2017, over a thousand people attended a funeral march to demand justice for his killing. With protesters holding signs reading: 

"Stop the killings," "Police, murderers" and "Justice for Kian" 

Widely regarded as one of the largest mobilisations against Duterte's war on drugs, the incident was broadly considered a a turning point in public opinion against the methods used by security forces in the Philippines. 

In a separate incident on 25th August 2017, an LGBTI pride march was held in Davao City, attracting over a hundred participants. Wearing colorful costumes and holding rainbow flags, the participants called for an end to discrimination. There was no evidence that the protest was unlawfully interrupted. 


As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, a number of journalists have been killed in the Philippines since President Duterte took office in June 2016.  In August, two more journalists were shot to death and one seriously injured by unknown assailants. The cases are detailed below: 

  • On 6th August 2017, radio host and local councillor Rudy Alicaway was shot and killed while he was on his way home in Molave town, Zamboanga del Sur province, on the southern island of Mindanao. The motive behind the killing is still unclear. 
  • The next day, columnist and reporter Leodoro Diaz was also shot dead by unknown assailants in in Sultan Kudarat, also in Mindanao. While Diaz was believed to be compiling a report on drugs, it is unclear whether this was the motive behind his murder. 
  • On 10th August 2017, columnist Crisenciano Ibon survived an attacked by a lone gunman in Batangas City. After being shot in the back, Ibon was quickly rushed to hospital. Ibon's driver, Gerry Ebreo, was also severely injured in the attack. While the motive is still unclear, some have speculated that his attempted murder was a reaction to a recent post criticising gambling. 

As concern has grown over recent killings, several international journalists’ organisations have called upon the government to do everything necessary to identify and punish those responsible for the crimes. 

In another deeply worrying example of a declining environment for media freedom in the Philippines, President Duterte recently threatened to block the renewal of ABS-CBN's franchise license, which expires in 2020. The threat has been condemned as an attempt to persecute critical media outlets. The move is the latest revelation in a long running feud between Duterte and ABS-CBN, which started in 2016 after the broadcaster refused to play the president's political advertisements. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric from Duterte, concerns over self-censorship among media outlets have continued to grow in the Philippines.