Putang ina were the two Tagalog words that Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, used in a statement addressed to US President Barack Obama. The phrase, which roughly translates to “son of a whore”, came at the end of a nationally broadcasted speech in which Duterte firmly warned the United States from questioning the surge of extrajudicial killings since his appointment to office this June.
The Philippines has one of the highest drug abuse rates in Asia. It is estimated that around two percent of Filipinos between the ages of 16 and 64 use “shabu”, the street name for methamphetamine. As always, wherever drug abuse goes, its significant other, crime, goes with it. Frustrated at their government’s inability to control the situation, death squads have set up in various cities across the nation. The most well-known is the Davao death squad, which Duterte claimed he was linked with during his time as Mayor of Davao City. This act gained him his nickname “The Punisher” and set the tiles on his road to presidency.
Once elected, Duterte urged vigilantes and civilians to shoot and kill both drug dealers and addicts. Numerous experts and political figures have expressed their view that a total war on drugs is not the solution. However, in the eyes of the Filipino people, it is the only solution they have. For them, the drug epidemic, which makes normal everyday life impossible for millions of Filipinos, has reached a state where it can no longer be contained. The only way is to eradicate it. The Filipinos’ medicine of choice? Bullets.
The situation in the Philippines shows great resemblance with what is currently happening back in my home, El Salvador. Society in “the little thumb of America” has been deeply enrooted in violence and crime. The government’s incapacity to act has allowed “Mara Salvatrucha” (Salvatrucha gang) and rival gang “Calle 18” (18th Street Gang) to rule freely. This year, the country had the highest murder rate across the globe, recovering their title of “murder capital of the world”. In a country where one in 1000 is murdered, it’s this vice of terror that permeates everyday life and changes people. I have witnessed friends smirking or chuckling at pictures of gang members bleeding onto the pavement from bullet holes in their chests. Just like Filipinos, the Salvadorans, caged by fear, bare their teeth and are ready to lunge their jaws at anything remotely threatening.
The main concern with the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines is that it allows people to bypass the law, granting them excessive power. The death squads are being allowed to kill those they regard as criminals which can lead to the murder of innocent civilians or petty criminals. Reports have found that almost half of the victims in Duterte’s first few months in office had no connection to the drug trade. There is no doubt that Duterte’s war on drugs is reckless and barbaric; however, it is important to understand the fury and fear that fuels such a war. Normal people are pressured to do what they regard as necessary to guarantee their own safety. It’s the classic fight-or-flight response and Filipinos have chosen the former.