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Duterte’s crisis is an opportunity for the Church

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (Getty Images)

The drugs war in the Philippines is a “sham”, a bishop declared last week in one of the strongest critiques by a churchman since the conflict began in 2016. Bishop Broderick Pabillo was responding to claims that police have been profiting from the very trade that they are supposed to be combating. “What a sham that those who fight against drugs are the ones tolerating and even profiting from it,” the Manila auxiliary bishop said. “They are just playing us!”

The bishop’s outburst was sparked by accusations that General Oscar Albayalde, head of the Philippine National Police, had intervened, while serving as a provincial police chief in 2013, to prevent his officers from being prosecuted for selling a vast quantity of seized drugs.

President Rodrigo Duterte reacted to the allegations with uncharacteristic caution, saying that Albayalde was entitled to due process and should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. Albayalde – Duterte’s leading enforcer during a crackdown that has claimed more than 5,000 lives – resigned last weekend, protesting his innocence.

Bishop Pabillo contrasted the restrained treatment of Albayalde with the brutality of the drug war. “But what,” he asked, “about the thousands who have been simply shot without any investigation at all, and even in hundreds of cases shot due to mistaken identity because there was not enough ‘due diligence’ to know if they are the persons being looked for?

“Thousands of lives are snuffed out in this charade and so many thousands more – those orphaned – are made to suffer all their lives.”

These words are arguably the most powerful from a Catholic leader since Duterte came to power three years ago. Although the Philippines is the world’s third largest Catholic country, its bishops have tended to avoid direct criticism of the volatile, anticlerical president (who says he was abused in his youth by a US Jesuit priest). The bishops not only fear retaliation; they know that the populace loves Duterte’s abrasive style and they would be likely to lose a popularity contest with the president.

The rest of the Catholic world has looked on aghast as the bishops have offered only timid criticisms of a drug war that has trampled on human rights. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila and a potential successor to Pope Francis, has disappointed some admirers with his apparent reluctance to speak out. But perhaps the bishops have been playing the long game, waiting for the drug war’s contradictions and injustices to be exposed before they take on the president publicly.

Duterte is now past the halfway point of his six-year term, which is scheduled to end in June 2022, and his signature policy of eradicating the drugs trade by any means necessary is in crisis. He swept to power promising drastic action to prevent the Philippines from becoming a “narco state”. He boldly denounced five alleged “narco-generals”, and sacked the head of the drugs agency and other public officials, who faced charges of misconduct. Police seized and destroyed $547 million of illegal drugs and littered the streets with the bodies of supposed dealers.

Despite this, narcotics remain a scourge in the Philippines. The country has the highest rate of “shabu” (methamphetamine hydrochloride) use in East Asia, according to the UN. An estimated 2.1 per cent of Filipinos aged 16 to 64 reportedly use the drug.

How has the drug trade managed to withstand Duterte’s onslaught? Many point to so-called “ninja cops”, a street term referring to officers who under-report drug seizures and sell the remainder through their protected network of dealers.

The “ninja cop” scandal presents an opportunity for the bishops. Filipinos are starting to doubt the efficacy of the war on drugs. Church leaders should argue that the policy is not only ineffective but also immoral, as it denies human rights. Indeed, the war is ineffective precisely because it is immoral. As Bishop Pabillo pointed out, trigger-happy police have killed scores of people who seemingly had nothing to do with the drugs trade.

Pursuing this new course would clearly bring the bishops into direct conflict with Duterte. But the clock is ticking on his presidency and he is (perhaps temporarily) on the back foot. A new strategy would reassure the watching Catholic world that the bishops have not been cowed into silence by the mercurial president.