The Philippine War On Drugs

By Fr John Keenan

The author is from Ireland and first came to the Philippines in 1966. He is based in Manila.

Pope Francis with a recovering drug addict
St Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, Rio de Janeiro, 24 July 2013 [Wikipedia]

‘To all of you, I repeat: Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! And not only that, but I say to us all: let us not rob others of hope, let us become bearers of hope!’ (Pope Francis, 24 July 2013, Rio de Janeiro).

The war on drugs initiated by President Rodrigo R. Duterte on 1 July 2016 has made headlines around the world.  The Fifth Commandment, ‘You shall not kill’, is ignored. Most of the extra judicial killings take place among the poor. Even women are killed. Children also are caught in cross-fire. 

I celebrate Mass in a shanty-town in Manila every Sunday morning. After our Mass on 16 October I was invited to bless a house. Filipinos will not sleep in a house where a murder has been committed until it has been blessed. We proceeded along the narrow pathways in the shanty town. Towards the end I was led through a narrow passageway leading to very narrow stairs, which were difficult for me to climb, up to a small room. The couple living there told me that their brother had been shot dead. He slept on plywood in a corner of the shack. A policeman had made his way up the narrow stairs and shot him at close range. Such incidents are all too common in the on-going war against drugs, especially in poor areas.

Since the new government took over on 30 June, some 3,750 have been summarily executed, as of late October. (Another source gives a figure of 2,210). They were suspected of being drug addicts or drug-pushers and denied the due process that was their right. I was asked to bless another home where the man of the house was similarly shot dead as he rested. His wife showed me their small baby. It was a two-storey rickety shack. The wake was held on the street, since the shack was too small for the coffin. Afterwards the woman living downstairs asked me to bless her room. She pointed out to me the ceiling-boards where the victim’s blood had trickled down.

Another woman talked about how her husband was shot in front of their children. He pleaded to be allowed to kiss his children goodbye. This was denied. He was taken outside and summarily executed.

Pope Francis visits a drug rehabilitation center
Rome, 26 February 2016

Even when people surrender they are shot dead in the on-going sustained war on drugs. To add insult to injury, poor people have to raise funds to bury their murdered loved ones. In this Year of Mercy the killing goes on without mercy. The appeals of human rights groups, of the USA, the European Union, the International Criminal Court, to end the summary executions are ignored. The aim is to kill three million!

The root cause of drug addiction is poverty. Many children cannot go to school, remain illiterate, can find no employment and so become involved in the drug trade in order to survive.

Some live on the streets, others in inhumane conditions in one-roomed shacks. They sniff glue and ‘shabu’ to assuage the pangs of hunger because there are no concrete programs to address the problems of unemployment, inadequate housing, lack of subsidised food and education for the poor.

The human cost of the war on drugs is enormous. Families are devastated. Communities are infiltrated by spies and informers. Many become widows and orphans. Even women are killed either by police or vigilante groups. One woman was hired by her husband to become a killer. Not being a suspected killer she can move in and kill at close range. She has already killed six. She regrets what she has done as she herself has children. If she quits her bloody job she fears that she too will be killed.

In theory, suspected drug users are given the choice of surrendering or of being shot. Often those who surrender are shot dead. If not, they are imprisoned in inhumane, over-crowded jails. They are supposed to go to rehabilitation centers, which are few and far between. There is a serious shortage of doctors, nurses and trained counselors to help addicts to recover. They are sick people in need of healing from their addictions, not criminals to be shot on sight.

Church people are being asked to help in the rehabilitation process but they are unprepared for the huge numbers.

The killing must stop and the victims of drug addiction must be given a chance to recover and rebuild their lives. That is their basic human right. Unless the government changes its policy, the killing will continue and we’ll have many more destitute widows and orphans. There must be another way to deal with the drug menace. Hope springs eternal. The people deserve better.


Pope Francis visits St Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital
Rio de Janeiro, 24 July 2013

‘Today, in this place where people struggle with drug addiction, I wish to embrace each and every one of you, who are the flesh of Christ, and to ask God to renew your journey, and also mine, with purpose and steadfast hope.’ Pope Francis.

You will find the Pope’s full talk on the Vatican website here.

Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro, 26 July 2013