Newspaper reports quoting members of Congress are describing Pres. Ferdinand Marcos’ war on drugs as “bloodless” which are negated by what is happening on the ground.
Since Marcos took office on June 30, 2022, inheriting Duterte’s bloody drug war, until October 15, 2023, the Dahas Project of the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman has recorded 438 drug-related killings in 471 days or almost one killing a day.
Of these killings, 195 were casualties in anti-illegal drug operations of various state agencies, mainly those of the Philippine National Police (PNP), and to a lesser extent, of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Davao City, stronghold of the Dutertes, is the country’s top hotspot for drug-related killings.
The Dahas Project draws its data from reports of various media outlets that are available online. Most of these are single-source reports citing the police on the ground.
On October 9, the House committee on dangerous drugs led by Surigao del Norte second district representative Robert Ace Barbers had a public hearing on the recent discovery and seizures of hundreds of kilos of illegal drugs in Pampanga.
In his opening statement, Director General Moro Virgilio Lazo of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) said, “Notably, there was a 52% decrease in the number of drug-related fatalities during the operations initiated by the PDEA, dropping from 40 deaths in the previous period of 2020-2021 to only 19 deaths recorded from July 2022 to September 2023.”
The representative of the Philippine National Police did not address the issue of fatalities in the drug war and merely expressed support for PDEA’s efforts. No member of the committee asked the PNP or any other agencies present during the hearing for their data on those killed by these agencies in the course of enforcing the laws on illegal drugs.
A report by Llanesca T. Panti of GMA Integrated News published online at 12:49 p.m., almost as soon as the hearing concluded, did not mention anyone saying during the hearing that Malacañang is waging a “bloodless” campaign against illegal drugs.
The public phase of the hearing lasted from around 9:30 a.m. until 12:45 p.m. The committee went into executive session after that.
At 3:32 p.m., House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez posted this on his official Facebook page: “Ating napag-alaman na 4.4 tonelada ng shabu na nagkakahalaga ng P30 Bilyon ang nakumpiska ng PDEA, NBI, PDEG at Bureau of Customs sa ilalim ng ‘bloodless’ drug campaign ni Pangulong Bongbong Marcos.”
It is unclear who Speaker Romualdez is quoting for having said “bloodless.”
Later that night, at 10:15 p.m., Manila Standard, posted on its website a news report about the hearing by Maricel Cruz with this quote: “Barbers said ‘from July 1, 2022 – the first day in office of President Marcos Jr. – until today (October 9, 2023), the bloodless anti-drug campaign has hauled almost 4.4 tons of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu and almost three tons of dried marijuana leaves.’”
However, a check with the House’s own recording of the hearing yields a slightly different statement from Barbers. A part of his opening statement, recorded at 12 minutes, 26 seconds until 12 minutes, 55 seconds of the livestream, had him saying: “From July 1, 2022, the very first day in the office, in office, of our president, until today, we have a total drug haul of almost 4.4 tons of shabu and 3 tons of dried marijuana leaves aside from other drugs that have also been seized.”
During the hearing, Barbers did not say that the drug haul was due to a “bloodless anti-drug campaign.” He did not utter the word “bloodless” at all.
But then again, the following day, October 10, 2023, a news report published by Business Mirror and a column by Jake Maderazo published by Inquirer.net attributed the “bloodless” characterization of Marcos’s drug war to Barbers.
On October 15 and 16, 2023, almost a week after Barbers’s committee hearing, Barbers’ “bloodless” bit was deemed newsworthy again by a number of news outlets online including that of the Philippine News Agency (PNA), the Manila Standard, Abante, Politiko, People’s Taliba, Abante Tonite, Remate, Daily Tribune, and the state-owned Radyo Pilinas. Based on these news accounts, Barbers released a statement on the topic that Sunday, October 15.
Barbers’s statement, as reported by the PNA, now even covers two new points.
“The bloodless war against illegal drugs of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s administration will ‘negate’ the attention and condemnation of international watchdog groups [and] . . . the government’s method is also gaining the full cooperation of the public in the apprehension and rehabilitation of drug users and eventually, in the arrest of suspected drug lords.”
Abante Tonite made its own spin when it asked, “Anong sey mo Digong? PBBM suwabe diskarte sa giyera vs droga.”
Circulating in tandem with the October 15 statement from Barbers, several news outlets including Manila Bulletin, Abante, Politiko, Online Balita, and Net25 quoted extensively a statement from House senior deputy minority leader Janette Garin also extolling the administration’s “bloodless” anti-drug campaign. Not citing any data or source, Garin went on to laud the president’s handling of the issue. “The brilliance of President BBM’s anti-drug strategy lies not only in its efficacy but in its humanity. Not a single life of a drug user, peddler, or trafficker was taken. It’s a testament to the belief that bloodshed isn’t the answer to this crisis.”
PDEA director general Lazo’s statement, as mentioned, contradicts Garin’s. Data from the Dahas Project also belie Garin’s claim.
Carlos H. Conde, Human Rights Watch senior researcher, in an October 16, 2023 X post, considered it as “really atrocious reporting by these Philippine news outlets on the ‘bloodless drug war’ statement by a congressman. Astoundingly incompetent parroting of wrong, inaccurate assertion.”
One of the very first attempts to characterize the drug war under Marcos as bloodless may have been made by Department of Interior and Local Government secretary Benhur Abalos almost a year ago, on October 26, 2022.
Pang-Masa, in a report, cited Abalos’s claim that the Marcos administration, during its first three months seized PHP 6.7 billion worth of shabu without anyone getting killed. Abalos presented this as proof of Marcos government’s “new approach” in the drug war.
For the first three months of the Marcos administration, the Dahas Project recorded 92 drug-related killings, 37 of which were committed by state agents during buy-bust operations or in the course of serving warrants.
Less than two months into his administration, Marcos Jr. flew to New York and spoke at a forum of the Asia Society regarding his “slightly different” approach to the war on drugs. He said that there would be a shift in the focus of the government’s anti-drug strategy. Its new emphasis would be on preventative programs and the rehabilitation of drug users. The government’s drug enforcement agencies would target drug lords in its bid to dismantle big drug syndicates.
A few days before his trip to the U.S., the PNP through its chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr., reported that they conducted a total of 1,790 anti-drug operations which led to the arrest of 1,952 drug suspects from the period of September 1-17, 2022. “No casualties were reported in all these operations,” Azurin said in a press conference in Camp Crame.
Dahas Project data shows that at least three were killed in this seventeen-day period. Albert Colineras, Bukidnon’s top 6 wanted criminal was killed by Kibawe police on September 6, according to Maj. Joann Navarro, PNP Region 10 spokesperson. William Dionisio Montibon, who was identified as a high-value target, was killed last September 11, 2022 in a buy-bust operation in Barangay Bunguiao in Zamboanga City. This is according to the acting police chief, Col. Alexander Lorenzo. And lastly, Hideki Hernando was killed in a buy bust operation by the Regional Special Enforcement Team of PDEA-XI and Police Precinct 2 and 3 of the Davao City Police Office last September 13, 2022.
In response to a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on November 3, 2022, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri denied that drug-related killings still occur under the administration of Marcos Jr. “So as you can see, wala naman akong nakikitang namamatay…Unless may namatay na drug pusher, eh wala naman ako naririnig,” Zubiri said in a press briefing at the Senate on November 7, 2022.
PNP’s undercounting of their own drug-related killings ensued in the following months. On November 16, 2022, Azurin, at a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap), disclosed that in the first five months of the Marcos administration, its anti-drug operations killed 46 individuals—34 by the PNP, and 12 by the PDEA—which he described as “very minimal.”
At the time Azurin was speaking with Focap, the Dahas Project monitoring for November 15, 2022 had already counted 127 drug-related killings (the corrected count is 131 after inclusion of cases that were reported late), 60 of which were killed by state agents. By the full five months of the Marcos administration, monitoring by the Dahas Project recorded 152 killings, 71 of which were by state agents.
In February 2023, Azurin again touted the achievements of the anti-drug campaign “which places a strong emphasis on non-violent means of making arrests.” From the period of January 1-31, he said, only four were killed in anti-drug operations. During the same period, Dahas Project recorded 20 drug-related deaths, 10 of which were committed by state agents.
Queried by Rappler through freedom of information requests in April and May 2023, the PNP admitted only seven killings as a result of their own anti-illegal drug operations from June 2022 to April 2023.
In response to former president Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades calling for the resignation of the entire police force in June 2023, PNP responded with numbers supposedly proving that the PNP is “efficient” in battling crime. Through its public information chief Brig. Gen. Redrico Maranan, PNP trumpeted the decreased crime rate, the volume and total amount of its drug haul, the number of police operations conducted, and the number of suspects arrested. Maranan, however, was silent about the body count of the anti-drug campaign.
The Dangerous Drugs Board’s #RealNumbersPH has also stopped publicizing its numbers since the start of Marcos Jr.’s administration. Its last update was for the period of July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2022, where they recorded a total of 6,252 killings, all the killings in the Duterte administration.
Founded on undercounting to outright denial of deaths, the claim that Marcos war on drugs is “bloodless” is a bloody lie.
(Joel F. Ariate Jr. and Larah Vinda Del Mundo are the researchers in charge of the Dahas Project of the Third World Studies Center of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. Miguel Reyes provided research assistance in writing this report.)