With public on his side, Duterte pushes ahead with drug war

While the growing death toll from the Philippines’ anti-drug campaign has drawn harsh criticism abroad, most Filipinos hope that President Rodrigo Duterte’s iron-fisted approach will bring the same boost in security and economic prosperity nationwide as it did in his hometown of Davao.

Nicknamed Bato — “rock” in Tagalog — for his shaved head and large physique, Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa spearheads the campaign. He torched a pile of seized marijuana about 3 meters high on Sept. 2 for the public to see.

Duterte has ordered the police to gun down drug suspects that resist, effectively sanctioning extrajudicial killings in his war on drugs. Dela Rosa faithfully obeys. Some 1,000 have been slain since he became police chief about two months ago.

A five-year-old girl who had just started kindergarten was caught in the crossfire and killed in late August. But the public steadfastly supports the government. A 26-year-old office worker in northern Manila is struggling with her brother’s cocaine addiction. “I don’t think he will quit unless he’s threatened with death,” she said.

Drug abuse has become a serious problem across the Philippines. Signs warning of the dangers of crystal meth are ubiquitous in the poor, western corner of the island of Mindanao.

President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte remains unapologetic for the deaths. Many Filipinos are counting on the president to eliminate drugs through force, like how he reduced crime during his time as the mayor of Davao, where he purportedly created vigilante groups to kill criminals.

His outlandish statements often draw criticism abroad, such as for demeaning women. But at home, his tough rhetoric has captured the hearts of Filipino women who are drawn to strong, macho men. He jokes a lot whenever he is interacting with the public, usually surrounded by young women begging for a photo together.

The Philippine president also seeks to revise the constitution to create a federal system, with the goal of easing the concentration of people and resources in the capital city of Manila. He continues to spend half the week in Davao even after taking office at the end of June. He has set up a state guesthouse there where he met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in August. The government even announced the country’s gross domestic product in Davao for the first time ever that month. It is as if he is trying to move the capital.

Despite a bombing on Sept. 2, Davao became one of the safest cities in the Philippines over the two decades Duterte stood at its helm. U.S. and European companies are setting up call centers there, while local conglomerate San Miguel is planning to develop a massive industrial park nearby.

Better public safety will help attract foreign investment, said Ernesto Pernia, director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority. He believes Davao would not lose out to Manila if ports and other facilities were developed.

Duterte in one leap went from the mayor of a regional city to the Philippine president. He eyes the nationwide implementation of his model in Davao — quashing public safety concerns by force in order to bolster the economy.

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