Drug-related deaths in context

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

The investigation that the International Criminal Court (ICC) wants to pursue against President Rodrigo R. Duterte is of great interest to me. I do not have enough facts that could constitute as evidence in the eyes of the ICC.

Like everyone else, I only get news from traditional and social media. Some of these reports point to strong evidence against erring policemen who were involved in controversial killings, including those of teenagers who were already in their custody. The pieces of evidence have been enough for the concerned policemen to have either been suspended or dismissed and with cases filed against them. None, however, can be traced to President Duterte.

On the other hand, there have been public statements made by President Duterte himself that, taken purely on their own merit without a personality or political context, can be very damning. Still, it would be a serious stretch to prove that these statements were really accurate and not instances of tall-telling. Were they hyperbole, exaggeration, meant to impress, macho-talk? I don’t know, and neither, I believe, will the ICC know.

What interests me are really two things. One, in countries where illegal drugs are a serious problem, what is the level of violence they experience? Colombia and Mexico immediately come to mind because these two countries have had decades of high-profile encounters between their governments under several administrations and the drug cartels.

Going through Wikipedia reports on Colombia and its war on drugs, it is said that this war, with the US as an active participant and main market of the drugs, began in the mid-70’s and continues up to today. In other words, the war on drugs has been going on in Colombia for over 40 years. And while its production of cocaine is estimated to be only half of what it used to be at its peak in 2000 (almost 64% of total world supply), half is still a huge amount and does not allow the war on drugs to ease up.

There exists in Mexico the Center for Latin America & Border Studies (CLABS). Its mission is to promote excellence in teaching, research and community outreach on issues concerning Latin America. Illegal drugs being a most urgent issue of several Latin American countries and the U.S. border, CLABS naturally has strategic data on the impact of drugs in their region of interest. CLABS also has some statistics on drug-related deaths and disappearances. For this article, I will focus only on Colombia and Mexico.

Starting with Colombia, it is reported that more than 220,000 drug-related deaths have been monitored, more than 80% civilians and over 45,000 have disappeared. Also, in the course of the conflict, more than 6 million Colombians were forcibly displaced. The population of Colombia is slightly less than one half the Philippines.

The figures on deaths and disappearances alone do not tell an accurate story. Like the Philippines, Colombia has had a decade’s old rebellion from the Left and has dah to contend with right-wing paramilitaries long used to protect drug cartels. The corruption of the political system had been legendary and even became subjects of movies and documentaries.

In Mexico, the statistics are not any better. Drug-related deaths in the last ten years alone are estimated at 238,000 plus another 30,000 disappearances attributed to the war on drugs. The corruption of the political system, including that of law enforcers, is part and parcel of a country that is overwhelmed by narcotics. Like Colombia, Mexico has a working arrangement with the U.S authorities as well.

What I do not know is what intervention and investigation the ICC have taken in view of all these deaths and disappearances over the last few decades. I hope it had been as vigilant and determined as it seems to be in the case against President Duterte. After all, on a kill-and-disappear basis, Colombia and Mexico have a worse history and situation.

When President Duterte said early in his presidency that he would not relent on the war against drugs because he did not want the Philippines to be a narco-state, he had more than good reason to do so. Everyone who knows enough of the history of Colombia and Mexico relative to the drug trade understands that whatever controversies we have here in the Philippines in the last year and a half are nothing compared to the brutal violence that becomes part of societal life when narco-politics dominate.

I believe that President Duterte knows the real score and is very afraid of what can still happen in the Philippines. In one speech before the military, he referred to a list of rogue policemen that he cannot even dismiss without due process. In any drug trade, law enforcers are the first to be the target of corruption by drug lords. Local and national officials are naturally next. Where do we stand today? I can only guess but my best guess is still frightening.

It is wrong to execute people, legally and morally; and even worse if our own law enforcers use the law as reason and cover. How many have been executed? Or even killed, as alleged by authorities, as justifiable deaths because they resisted and fought back? What makes matters worse, and here traditional and social media have not given it proper attention, is why the victims were executed. Does it stand to reason that the alleged executions were simply random to brings up “kill” achievements for promotions? Or were victims deliberately selected as they knew information and personalities among officials involved in the drug trade?

Who can stop the killings? I do not believe anyone can, not as long as there is an active and aggressive drug trade at a magnitude that can produce millions of drug users and pushers. This is one issue worth our time, imagination and effort to solve because it can destroy our way of life. I know we can survive any president. I do not know if we can survive narco-politics.

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