In the name of the “Drug War”


Building on the continuing broad support for the drug war, Duterte announced last year with his Philippine Anti-Illegal Drugs Strategy (PADS) “drug-free communities by 2022” . In this article, I present some of the effects of this anti-drug campaign based on perspectives on the affected communities, on justifications and impacts of the killings and on functions of the most prominent drug allegedly to be extinguished.

Distracted communities, the attraction of dead bodies, dehumanization, and functions of crystal meth in the Philippine capital region

President Duterte launched his promised national war on drugs in July 2016 on the day of his inauguration and allocated the entire national police budget to it (cp. Reyes 2016, 113; cp. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 1). As mayor of Davao City he had already gained huge approval for his brutal measures against alleged “drug addicts” and “drug pushers” (cp. Simangan 2017, 68; cp. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 5). The capital region Metro Manila, in particular, has been the scene of 30,000 killings for over three years now (cp. Human Rights Watch 2019). The majority of the killed people are male and poor workers (vgl. Espenido 2018, 141f.). Building on the continuing broad support for the drug war, Duterte announced last year with his Philippine Anti-Illegal Drugs Strategy (PADS) “drug-free communities by 2022” (cf. Dangerous Drugs Board, n.y.). In this article, I present some of the effects of this anti-drug campaign based on perspectives on the affected communities, on justifications and impacts of the killings and on functions of the most prominent drug allegedly to be extinguished.

A war against poor communities

Duterte’s anti-drug campaign comprises two approaches (Double Barrel campaign): tokhang and HVT high-value targets (the large syndicates) (cf. Jensen & Hapal 2018, 51). Tokhang is officially a measure to register and seek drug addicts to get them to complete an anti-drug program. To find out who the police should pay a home visit, the names of the accused are collected on tokhang watchlists. Since the persons on watchlists are often the ones who are killed, the watchlists are understood as kill lists in the affected neighborhoods (cf. Jensen and Hapal 2018, 41; cf. Warburg and Jensen 2018, 10). The drug policy instruments of the president and the police include extra-judicial killings, surrenders (positions for fear of being killed otherwise), local anti-drug programs with urine tests, compulsory therapies, prison sentences, and anti-drug information campaigns.

The political scientists Anna Braemer Warburg and Steffen Jensen (2018) assume that the uncertainty about the emergence of the watchlists will have the most lasting impact on the communities: “While most residents suggested that they had nothing to fear because they were not involved with drugs, they were uncertain of their safety due to talks of unsettled scores and killings of ‘mistaken identities’ and innocents. The consequences of this uncertainty, we suggest, might be the most lingering effect of the drug war.” (Warburg & Jensen 2018, 9) Therefore, the drug war is not only directed against people who may or may not be involved in drugs and their relatives but against entire communities. The following examples illustrate this:

While it was a tradition to support neighbor families in difficult situations and to assist at funerals, one distances oneself from the dead of extra-judicial killings and their families. There is a fear of being listed as a drug addict/pusher when seen together (cf. Espenido 2018, 142). A resident of the Bagong Silang district reports about fear and mistrust: “Now, almost no one gets out of their house when darkness comes. We used to get outside our house and talk, listen and tell stories even late at night, but we can’t do that now” (quoted by Warburg & Jensen 2018, 12).

It has also been proven that affected family members suffer traumas which, among other things, make them avoid places they associate with certain experiences (cf. Espenido 2018, 142).

District 12 is an area near Bagong Silang that was known for its Shabu production and trade before the drug war. The place was particularly stigmatized as “the incarnation of danger and violence”, as the majority of people who live there are Muslims (who have been marginalized as “dangerous drug dealers” in the Philippines for a long time) (cf. Jensen & Hapal 2018, 53). The researchers Steffen Jensen and Karl Arvin Hapal (2018) were told that the larger businessmen had left Metro Manila and fled to Mindanao (southern island inhabited to a large extent by Muslims) to escape the threat of persecution in the drug war (54).

Metro Manila is home to some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the Philippines. The extrajudicial killings mainly affect young men living in the poor areas of Metro Manila, their families, and their communities. The drug war is not present throughout Metro Manila (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 1f.). This circumstance explains (apart from the stigmatization of people who take drugs) the general approval of the drug war among the Filipinas: the majority feel that they are not affected by the drug war (cf. Jensen & Hapal 2018, 43).

The attraction of dead bodies

The structures and functions of the police forces have changed in the drug war. The Philippine National Police (PNP) was able to strengthen its position as a salvaging power (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 7). Duterte has transferred police officers from Davao who are experienced in the drug war to Metro Manila (see Warburg & Jensen 2018, 8). In addition to the neighborhood police (Barangay Justice System), which like the PNP was integrated into tokhang (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 7), a further local official and unofficial structures have emerged (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 9f.). For example, there are the vigilantes, motorcyclists who shoot people in groups and who are not persecuted by the police (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 4). And there are Community Investigative Services (CIS), who are charged with collecting and passing on information on drug use (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 9f.).

The bodies of people who die through extra-judicial killings are sometimes left visibly on the streets and are used to send a political message. Their heads are mummified with tape and a cardboard sign is hung around their necks or placed next to their bodies. The signs are labeled with: I am a drug pusher/user, don’t be like me (cf. Johnson & Fernquest 2018, 336; cf. Reyes 2016, 120f.). The police chief Dela Rosa at the time confirmed that the signs are regarded by the police as proof that the person was “an offender”. If there is such a sign next to a dead body, there would be no requirement or entitlement by the families for further investigation (cf. Reyes 2016, 121).

While the relatives are humiliated (cf. Reyes 2016, 117;121), the presentations of the dead bodies have normalized for passerby and have become entertaining spectacles: “People laugh, mug for the cameras, make jokes, and take bets on whether they knew the victim. (Johnson & Fernquest 2018, 366) (The photo reportage by Raffy Lerma; Please be careful – images of violence.)


The generalized devaluation of people who take drugs, so-called drug addicts, has already prevailed before Duterte. At least since the 70s, with the introduction of the Dangerous Drugs Act, they have been “a good-for-nothing social pest who has tendencies to commit crimes”. (Simangan 2017, 71) The killing of people accused of drug use is justified by the imagination of the enemy: People who Duterte calls drug pushers and drug addicts are considered criminals and a threat to the law-abiding Filipin@s. Criminals are not equal people for Duterte and therefore have no legal claims in his eyes (cf. Espenido 2018, 141; cf. Reyes 206, 112). Duterte rejects human rights for criminals: “In the war on drugs, human rights have been wrongly associated with the defense of criminals […] They [Duterte administration, Anm. d. Verf.] wanted to redefine or label the persons extrajudicially killed as “enemies” or its equivalent, in order to create a category of citizens for whom the ordinary laws no longer need to apply and who may be killed without fear of consequences or the prospect of effective investigation. (Espenido 2018, 141 quotes Bonn Juego 2016, ‘Duterte-style populism’) The perception of a dichotomy among the police has intensified – people who have the right to be protected and people who do not (cf. Warburg & Jensen 2018, 6).

President Duterte has declared a war on drugs and in particular on shabu (crystal meth) but is not pursuing effective measures to improve health care for people who use drugs, nor is he interested in their motives and experiences. Science and politics, which actually want to contribute to the reduction of harmful drug use (harm reduction), should, first, not only treat illegal drugs, second, acknowledge the positive effects of drug experiences and well thought out decisions on use, third, take into account that some people discontinue their use with certain negative experiences from their own decision and, fourth, they should consider group dynamics (see Hardon & Haymans, 2014, 753).

Duterte constructs a security problem which is alien to the actual circumstances and which he is to solve. Hereby, he builds on widespread ideas about illegal drugs: “Duterte has masterfully played on the fear of the Filipino people on the effects of illegal drugs. […] Duterte galvanized the support for his war on drugs by securitizing the issue of illegal drugs. Securitization involves the transformation of an issue that is managed within the normal political domain into a security matter” (Espenido 2018, 140).

The usefulness of shabu

Shabu is crystalline methamphetamine (Lasco 2014, 783) which, according to the observations of anthropologist Gideon Lasco (2014) in Metro Manila, is smoked by men in small groups from a laminate and whose smoke may go unnoticed in public places because of its odorless and colorless properties. Shabu is combined with cannabis, alcohol, and cigarettes to modify the desired effect (cf. Lasco 2014, 785). Shabu is easily available, even in prison, without the pressure of the war on drugs. (cf. Lasco 2017, 41).

Ethnographic studies show how adolescents and young adults assess their drug use themselves, what positive experiences drug use gives them, how it affects their personalities and relationships, and what role social spaces play that they create in the joint use (cf. Hardon & Haymans 2014, 749). Medical anthropologists Anita Hardon and Takeo David Haymans (2014) criticize the quantitative and short-term qualitative studies that have each created problem descriptions from an external perspective on adolescent drug use: When drugs are defined as problematic in advance, “low economic status, educational level, and peer pressure” are made the reasons for drug use. Even qualitative interviews could not capture the perspectives of the interviewees but attributed the reasons to “a means of survival in settings characterized by poverty, lack of education, unemployment and violence” (Hardon & Haymans, 2014, 749).

Various ethnographic studies show that drug use does not only occur in disadvantaged social groups, that it is sensitive to general conditions, and that motivations and experiences with methamphetamine are correspondingly diverse and variable. Motives are, for example, “achieve socially acceptable goals” among Chinese businessmen and “enhance performance” among Thai students (Hardon & Haymans, 2014, 751). In Lasco’s (2014) ethnographic study of marginalized young men in the Philippines, shabu is described as a performance enhancer. They are “[c]aught in an informal economy that requires them to perform in order to survive, drug use plays an important role in their lives” (Lasco 2014, 783).

Metro Manila, with its port cities, is a region in which goods such as illegal drugs are handled and in which there is a strongly growing informal economy, including sex work, after the economic development of recent years has reduced the number of legal, industrial jobs with a full wage (cf. Lasco 2014, 784f.). The fact that shabu use is high in Metro Manila is thus frequently motivated by the useful effects of being able to survive in the informal economy: “the use of methamphetamine is related to the informal economy in at least three ways. First […] extra strength and confidence [are] required to function in an economy that provides limited opportunities […] Second, […] to manage physiology [insomnia, A/N] – which is also geared towards economic activity […] Third, […] making them forget their problems and anxieties, most of which are economic in nature, such as being heavily indebted or not having enough money to sustain themselves in near future.” (Lasco 2014, 786f.)

Lasco (2017) criticizes the passive portrayal of young men who take drugs when they are portrayed on the one hand as victims of the drug and on the other as victims of prosecution. In order to reorient the narratives about relationships between the “police and vulnerable populations such as the youth”, Lasco examines the tactics of young men who use drugs and their everyday lives in dealing with police presence (cf. Lasco 2017, 39f.). “The killings have received much attention, but the lives of drug users themselves have remained hidden from view, and so have the ways they engage with law enforcement.” (Lasco, 2017, 40) Lasco shows how young men make room for themselves under the conditions of criminal prosecution: They observe temporal patterns in police presence in order to adapt their behavior and alertness. They are connected by telephone to warn each other of the police. The dissemination of these and other tactics (called “diskarte”) is guaranteed by fluid and informal associations in which they support each other, partly socially and financially, but above all through information and protection (cf. Lasco 2017, 39f.). Shabu consumption itself is one of the enabling tactics: Using enables them to cope with the threat of police violence and in their challenging life situations (cf. Lasco 2017, 40f.).


Recommendation for further reading

Simangan, Dahlia. 2018. ‚Is the Philippine „War on Drugs“ an Act of Genocide?‘, in Journal of Genocide Research 20:1, 68-89.
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  • Espenido, Gil. 2018. ‚Philippines‘ War on Drugs: Its Implications to Human Rights in Social Work Practice‘, in Journal of Human Rights and Social Work (2018) 3, 138-148.
  • Hardon, Anita und Takeo David Haymans. 2014. ‚Editorial: Ethnographies of youth drug use in Asia‘, in International Journal of Drug Policy 25 (2014), 749-754.
  • Human Rights Watch. 2019. ,Philippines: Events of 2018‘, world-report/2019/country-chapters/philippines (letzter Zugriff am 27.6.2019).
  • Jensen, Steffen und Karl Hapal. 2018. ‚Police Violence and Corruption in the Philippines: Violent Exchange and the War on Drugs‘, in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 37 (2), 39-62.
  • Johnson, David T. und Jon Fernquest. 2018. ‚Governing through Killing: The War on Drugs in the Philippines, in Asian Journal of Law and Society 5 (2018), 359-390.
  • Lasco, Gideon. 2014. ‚Pampagilas: Methamphetamine in the everyday economic lives of underclass male youth in a Philippine port‘, in International Journal of Drug Policy 25 (2014), 783-788.
  • Lasco, Gideon. 2017. ‚Kalaban: Young drug users‘ engagement with law enforcement in the Philippines‘, in International Journal of Drug Policy 52 (2018), 39-44.
  • Reyes, Danio Andres. 2016. ‚The Spectacle of Violence in Duterte’s „War on Drugs“‘, in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35 (3), 111-137.
  • Simangan, Dahlia. 2018. ‚Is the Philippine „War on Drugs“ an Act of Genocide?‘, in Journal of Genocide Research 20:1, 68-89.
  • Warburg, Anna Braemer und Jensen Steffen. 2018. ‚Policing the war on drugs and the transformation of urban space in Manila‘, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 1-18.

Laws and conventions

1961: Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. United Nations.
1971: Convention on Psychotropic Substances. United Nations.
1972: The Dangerous Drugs Act – REPUBLIC ACT No. 6425. Congress of the Philippines.
2002: Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act – REPUBLIC ACT NO. 9165. Congress of the Philippines.

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