Government News Analysis

Colombia – drugs relative

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs has been put on temporary hold while the logistics of giving greater deployment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines is being worked out – this follows a high-profile crime by elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) which has put the PNP’s ability as a law enforcer in serious doubt. Meanwhile, the global war of words that surrounds Duterte’s campaign, to rid his country of illegal narcotics and prevent it from becoming a narco state, continues.

The latest salvo – in the form of an op-ed article printed in The New York Times, a publication that has never hidden its loathing of the Philippine president – came from a former president of Colombia, César Gaviria. In it he cautioned Duterte: ‘Don’t make the same mistakes as me’.

“Extrajudicial killings and vigilantism are the wrong ways to go. After the killing of a South Korean businessman [allegedly carried out by PNP officers], Mr. Duterte seemed as if he might be closer to realizing this. But bringing the army in to fight the drug war, as he now suggests, would also be disastrous,” he wrote.

In fact, the taking of South Korean national, Jee Ick-Joo, from his home in Angeles City, Pampanga on 18 October last year, and his subsequent killing at Camp Crame, the PNP headquarters in Manila, had nothing to do with the drugs war. It was a kidnap-for-ransom crime – and certainly not the first that the PNP, or the National Bureau of Investigation for that matter, have carried out. The enemy within.

That doesn’t mean officers and even groups inside the PNP aren’t involved in the drugs trade; they are, and have been for a long time. And in the Joo case, drug investigations were used as a pretext in seizing the victim.

However, police corruption in Colombia – certainly in the past – was never exactly a rarity; and particularly when it came to the narcotics business. Many were in the pay of the Colombian drug cartels. With their help, drugs pushed Colombia to the threshold of a failed state.

Gaviria’s op-ed continued: “We Colombians know a thing or two about fighting drugs. Our country has long been one of the world’s primary suppliers of cocaine. With support from North American and Western European governments, we have poured billions of dollars into a relentless campaign to eradicate drugs and destroy cartels. While we managed to make Colombia a bit safer, it came at a tremendous price”.

That was in the early 1990s – Gaviria was president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994. And there was little criticism of his administration back then of the way his government prosecuted its drugs war. Indeed, for the most part the West praised it and even funded parts of it.

But it was – and still is – a violent place. Under Gaviria’s stewardship Colombia’s homicide rate went from 86 per 100,000 population (already extremely high) to 95. In the drug-hub city of Medellin during that period, the rate bobbed between 245 and 400 per 100,000. In the 1980s and ‘90s Colombia had become synonymous with cocaine, corruption and violence. Tens of thousands died in the country’s drugs war.

There are many pertinent parallels between Colombia and the Philippines. Although geographically estranged – the Philippines at the eastern end of Southeast Asia; Colombia, a country that sits in the top corner of South America – their societies are strikingly similar. And not least when it comes to crime, insurgency and poverty.

They share a common root – both were once Viceroyalties of New Spain, an empire founded on violence. The Spanish thread has been woven through their histories and in many ways has shaped their societies – and not always for the better. Neither country has got to grips with their poverty, both have been plagued by protracted insurgency wars, and crime – often violent – in both places is ever present.

First some brief demographic comparisons. Colombia, population 47.2 million; 90% Roman Catholic. Philippines, population 103 million; 83% Catholic. Age structure, 24-54 year olds: Colombia, 41.82%; Philippines 36.86%. Median age: Colombia, 29.6 years; Philippines 23.4 years. Urban population as a per cent of total population. Colombia, 76.4%; Philippines, 44.4%.

In both these states, the Spanish imposed the ecomienda system by which the indigenous population became the slave property of the conquerors. This was a reward for services to the Spanish Crown which involved the collection of taxes and the conversion of the local population to Catholicism. Originally intended to establish the Spanish colonial structure, in both places it became an inheritance passed down the family line. And, though there are no encomenderos (recipients of the reward) today, there remain ghostly echoes of it in each society.

As in the Philippines, poverty in Colombia is an abiding problem. In 2014, the latest verifiable data we can find, 23 million Colombians – 48.73% of the population – were ranked as poor. At the same time, 6 million were living below the extreme-poverty line. At the start of 2015 in the Philippines there were 26 million classified poor – 25.24% of the population – with 12 million living in extreme poverty, defined as lacking the means to feed themselves.

Meanwhile, communist insurgency in the two places is even more closely mirrored. Last August, the 50-year conflict between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – a Marxist-Leninist rebel army – drew to a close with a peace deal that saw FARC disarm and reintegrate into society. In that war more than 220,000 people were killed while tens of thousands more disappeared and millions fled their homes.

In the Philippines, the conflict between the Philippine Government and the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist forces of the New People’s Army (and its political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the catch-all extreme Left-progressive National Democratic Front) is a month short of 48 years old. In that period the death toll has averaged around 1,000 a year. Last week, the latest attempt at resolving this issue – the latest in a line of initiatives that date back to 1992 – was dashed following unacceptable demands made by the communist side. A peace in pieces.

Crime. In Colombia in 2015 there were 12,540 murders and around 11,750 homicides. There’s no clear figure for rapes but it’s high – among displaced women alone one in five report being raped. In the Philippines in 2015, according to PNP data, a total of 714,632 crimes were committed. Of the serious crimes, 72,621 were crimes against a person, there were 9,643 murders, 2,835 homicides, 49,845 involved personal injury and 10,298 rapes.

In all areas, Colombia’s recent past has been far more violent than that of the Philippines. And while there are close similarities in the two countries’ fight against communist insurgency, their drugs wars in certain respects are quite different.

The Colombian illegal drugs industry is based on heroin and cocaine – products of the coca and poppy fields. In the Philippines, it’s based on shabu; crystal meth. Thus, in the Philippines there are no crops to spray as there were in Columbia; shabu is a wholly chemical product. Battery acid, drain cleaner, toluene and anti-freeze, among its main ingredients, come in drums of the back of pick-ups. Also, the extent of the problem is far smaller than it is in Colombia. And that’s very much the point; Duterte is trying to prevent the drug problem in his country from reaching Colombia’s proportions of a full-fledged narco state with the trappings of criminality in all its forms.

“Vigilantism and extrajudicial killings are the wrong ways to go,” said Gaviria, tapping into what has become the battle cry of Duterte’s opponents. It should be pointed out, however, that while there is no evidence that such executions are linked to Duterte, these methods were most certainly at play in the Colombian drugs war.

The former Colombian president also urged Duterte not to focus just on the criminal side of the drugs problem; public health, human rights and economic development, he said, are also issues that need to be addressed to beat the trade in illegal narcotics.

And that’s true – particularly in the case of economic development. The one thing that Duterte and Gaviria can agree on is that poverty is at the very root of the drugs scourge. And that’s one reason for this administration’s socio-economic agenda and its determination to cut poverty levels to 16% by the end of its term in 2022.

Gaviria also advised that this war cannot be won simply by, as he put it, “throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users …” And Duterte knows that too, that’s why last October he set up a dedicated task force to provide treatment and rehabilitation programmes across the country for an estimated 4 million addicts. All this is part of the government’s “holistic approach” to solving the problem.

Furthermore, the president’s Executive Order No. 4, which he signed on 11 October, stipulates that each of the country’s 81 provinces must build at least one rehab centre. Presently nationwide there are just 16.

Duterte is unlikely to heed Gaviria’s advice of how from here he conducts the War on Drugs – and for that matter, the ongoing battle to reduce criminality. He genuinely believes he can rid his country of drugs and he’s determined to try. Furthermore, Duterte received a resounding 83% approval rating in the latest Pulse Asia poll and that could only be achieved if people were satisfied that his methods were producing beneficial results. And that’s probably a better guide to the Philippines’ War on Drugs than what happened in Colombia almost three decades ago.