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Corruption persisted despite Duterte drug war

Former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs failed to curb corruption in the country, contrary to a recent claim by his personal aide and incumbent senator Christopher “Bong” Go that the antidrug campaign had addressed corruption during Duterte’s term.

Duterte, who had promised to eradicate corruption within three to six months when he campaigned for the presidency, himself admitted toward the latter part of his term that the problem was too enormous to lick.

In his final State of the Nation Address in July 2021, he said:

But corruption, it’s endemic in government. You cannot stop corruption. Nobody can stop corruption unless you overturn the government completely. If I were the next president, if you think there’s really a need for you to change everybody in the system, then you declare martial law and fire everybody and allow the new generation to come in to work for the government.

When he bowed out of office in 2022, the country’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score, a measure of public sector corruption, had decreased to 33 from 35 in 2016 at the start of his presidency, data from the global anticorruption movement Transparency International show. (0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean.)

Yet Go, who served as Special Assistant to Duterte from 2016 to 2022, wrote in his April 16 column in the Daily Tribune:

We have witnessed how his unrelenting campaign helped keep peace and order in our communities and even addressed corruption and criminality nationwide.

Go was calling for a continuation of Duterte’s strong antidrug policies, citing recent allegations of police involvement in drug activities, in his weekly column of his accomplishments as a senator.

The Duterte administration often claimed the drug war combatted crime and improved peace and order even as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported more than 6,000 Filipinos killed during police operations. Research from Human Rights Watch places the number of deaths at 12,000, many of the fatalities, it said, having been framed by police or wrongly accused.

Three years into his office, Duterte acknowledged that the illegal drug problem and corruption persist, blaming corruption for his inability to rid the country of drugs. He also advocated the reinstatement of the death penalty for drug-related heinous crimes and plunder.

He said in his 2019 SONA:

It has been three years since I took my oath of office, and it pains me to say that we have not learned our lesson. The illegal drug problem persists. Corruption continues and emasculates the courage we need to sustain our moral recovery initiatives…However, the drugs will not be crushed unless we continue to eliminate corruption that allows this social monster to survive.

Duterte blasted at corruption in government, calling it a “national embarrassment and national shame.” He said:

Let me repeat what I said many times before. Honestly, I have identified the enemy who dumped us into this quagmire we are in. I have met the enemy face-to-face and sadly, the enemy is “us” ... We find corruption everywhere in government with every malefactor watching his cohort’s back in blatant disregard of his oath when he assumed public office. Even the language has evolved to soften the wickedness of the criminal act. “For the Boys,” “sponsoring an event” or what-else-have-you. No amount of euphemism can trivialize or normalize betrayal of public trust or any other criminal offense. It is an injury laced with insult. It is both a national embarrassment and a national shame.

Duterte mentioned several high-profile cases of corruption in his SONA, including the Bureau of Customs, which at the time had 64 officials facing corruption charges, and PhilHealth, which for years had awarded payments to unqualified and already dead patients.

Duterte noted that unscrupulous civil servants also took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his 2020 SONA, he pointed out:

The corrupt, the grafters and the influence peddlers also take advantage of the fear and confusion that the coronavirus generates. The financial and material assistance of the government to the unemployed, the sick and the destitute running into billions of pesos, are not spared from corruption and ineptitude. Even the donations from well-meaning private persons are skimmed before reaching their intended beneficiaries. It is like snatching food from the mouths of babes.

The Department of Health and several other agencies faced accusations of corruption when deficiencies in their handling of Covid-19 funds were highlighted in the 2021 Commission on Audit reports.

The CPI is the world’s leading measurement of corruption computed based on data sources like the World Bank. The country fell 16 spots to rank 117th in the world anticorruption rankings from 2016 to 2022.

It is worth noting, too, that the Philippines’ CPI score was consistently above 33 in the 10 years prior to 2021.

Apart from the SONA, Duterte admitted in a 2019 speech at the PDP-Laban’s campaign rally in Cagayan de Oro that the illegal drug trade worsened after three years of his all-out war on drugs. He said:

Things have worsened. My policemen are on the brink of surrendering… In the end, we will be like Mexico. We will be controlled by drug cartels.

Later that same week, the Philippine National Police agreed with Duterte’s assessment. The agency’s spokesperson, Col. Bernard Banac, told reporters:

Sumasang-ayon tayo sa assessment ng Pangulo na nag-worsen nga talaga ang drug situation in the sense na iyung mga international drug syndicates ay patuloy pa rin na niyuyurakan ang ating mga batas, patuloy pa rin sila na nagpapasok ng large volume of illegal drugs (We agree with the President’s assessment that the drug situation worsened in the sense that international drug syndicates continue to break our laws and bring in large volumes of illegal drugs).

Nonetheless, government reported that 22,093 barangays were cleared of drugs under the Duterte administration and 1,233,195 drug users surrendered. World Bank data also show that the Philippines crime rate decreased from 10.76 crimes per 100,000 people in 2016 to 4.41 by 2019. (JG)


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