The death toll for Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, now entering its fifth month, is said to exceed four thousand.
Dubbed “The Punisher” by Time magazine, Duterte has projected the kind of macho persona that Pinoys often associate with action stars like Fernando Poe, Jr. and Joseph Estrada, both of whom had attempted to parlay their silver-screen charisma into careers in politics (cut short, in the case of Poe, by his death from a stroke following his failed bid to become president in 2004). Joseph Estrada has had a long career as a politician, serving as Mayor of San Juan, then as Senator and Vice-President before becoming President. Surviving impeachment, he is currently Mayor of Manila.
Naming Duterte after a Marvel comics character—Duterte is also routinely compared to American cinema’s quintessential vigilante cop Dirty Harry, played by Clint Eastwood, another actor who dabbled in politics in the 1980s—shows how blurred the line between fiction and fact, acting and real-life living, can be.
If Joseph Estrada rode to political stardom on the basis of the action-star persona he had carefully honed on screen, Duterte represents the opposite case of a real-life tough guy (he claims he has killed) now learning to play the role of president on the national and world stage after devoting the better part of his career to playing local politician before a smaller, local, domestic audience.
Anyone who has ever walked onto a stage knows what it’s like to talk and move self-consciously with the knowledge that one is being watched and assessed by the crowd. The best actors are, of course, the ones who manage to wear their personas “naturally,” appearing folksy, down-to-earth, plain-speaking, even refreshingly foul-mouthed, speaking the language of Juan and Juana dela Cruz.
Wasn’t it Alexis de Tocqueville who talked about the “democracy of manners” in which, no matter how privileged their backgrounds, American politicians need to present and carry themselves in public and talk as if everyone were their social equals?
Ronald Reagan was particularly good at playing Everyman, and he reflected back to his fellow Americans the optimism they needed to emerge from the shock and humiliation (not shock and awe) of stagflation, the Vietnam War, and the Iran hostage crisis. His critics dismiss him as lightweight, perhaps even a dimwit, but voters put their confidence in the city-on-the-hill, American-exceptionalist dream he peddled.
Duterte is no lightweight. Unlike Trump, he has had extensive experience as a local politician. He is serious about the drug problem in the country (even as critics debate the accuracy of the statistics he cites to bolster his campaign).
Though trained as a lawyer to be attentive to language, Duterte is not one to stick to the presidential script. He’s more likely to ad-lib and improvise, going off tangent from the speeches that his policy team has carefully prepared for him. It is said that only his family can tell him that he has gone on (and on and on) and needs to step down.
Duterte’s war on drugs is not a flash in the pan either. Here, one cannot help recalling another war on drugs that a “strongman” president waged more than forty years ago, a war that provided cinematic tough guy Joseph Estrada with one of his most memorable movies in the early 1970s.
Most people have forgotten that Joseph Estrada’s JE Productions won the FAMAS award for Best Picture for the film “Kill the Pushers” (1972), in which Estrada had a starring role.
The film chronicles the Ferdinand Marcos administration’s war on drugs that led to the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, the creation of the Constabulary Against Narcotics Unit (CANU), and the capture of the businessman-turned-drug dealer Lim Seng.
Four months into Martial Law, Lim would be executed by firing squad in Fort Bonifacio (yes, the same Fort Boni that we now call Bonifacio Global City). Never mind that Lim Seng was actually the underling of an even more notorious Big Boss druglord, who was able to escape abroad with the help of his influential circle of friends in higher places.
Years later, under Estrada’s presidency, the execution of child-rapist Leo Echegaray—the first judicial execution since Lim Seng’s, but not the last (six more would be executed)–led Imelda Marcos to gloat that at least under her husband’s presidency, no “Filipino” was executed, Lim Seng being just an intsik, after all.
The problem with the current war on drugs is that it puts too much trust in the power and integrity of the police to bring “criminals” to justice, when most Filipinos, from their own personal experience of the rottenness of the system, actually don’t fully trust either their own government or the police. Motorists see with their own eyes the ways in which traffic cops demand tong and pang-kape from jeepney and bus drivers and car owners, and prey on homeless and pedestrians alike. Politicians are not pejoratively known as “trapos” for nothing.
In fact, a cursory examination of the action films in the Philippines shows that “good cop vs. bad cop” is an abiding theme, along with the notorious failings of the judicial system. While there are no doubt plenty of honest, hard-working police who do their best to uphold the law, there are also plenty of corrupt cops who give the police a bad name, engaging in drug-dealing, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, murder-for-hire, arbitrary killing, and other nefarious deeds.
When police prey on civilians, all that stands between an ordinary tao and the powers-that-be is the law, which is why due process is important. Granted that criminal law is often compromised in practice, and justice perverted to favor the rich and the powerful. We rage at the corruption in government and the judiciary, the slowness with which the wheels of justice turn, if they even turn at all. This explains the so-called “People Power fatigue,” the exasperation with an electoral system riddled with money politics and no better than a musical chair for oligarchs, media stars, business people, and close relatives of politicians. This impatience with a democratic system that fails to address poverty and inequality or even impose law and order no doubt fuels the nostalgia for authoritarian rule under Marcos.
Ironically, this nostalgia thrives precisely because people have come to take for granted the freedoms that they or their parents and grandparents had fought so hard for when they joined the People’s Power Revolution that toppled Marcos in 1986.
The nostalgia for the authoritarian past rests on shaky, selective memory. The middle classes remember only the first few years of Martial Law, when economic growth rates were decent and applications for a PLDT landline—which used to take years to process—would be responded to within days. Memories are tricky, with the tendency to edit out such inconvenient, unpleasant facts as
- Marcos and his family and cronies monopolizing power as well as pillaging the economy
- Censorship and the muzzling of free speech: had there been internet at the time, no one would be allowed to comment freely on articles, let alone criticize the government, or perhaps even have access to Facebook, Gmail, Scribd, YouTube, Dropbox, or Google
- Control over who can or cannot leave the country: no more trips to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris for anyone who didn’t agree with the powers-that-be, or whom the powers-that-be simply didn’t like
- The decline in skilled and unskilled urban workers’ wages
- The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus
- Imelda’s humongous shopping sprees and expensive building projects, which led Rafael Salas, the Marcos technocrat who later fell out with the Marcoses, to coin the term “edifice complex”
- The routine harrassment, rape, torture, and killing of civilians and dissidents
- Military abuses in the countryside in the name of counter-insurgency
- Rebellion in the countryside (including several liberation movements)
- The state-brokered export of labor: a 1982 “Forced Remittance” Executive Order signed by Marcos required Overseas Contract Workers to remit between 50 to 70% of their earnings (depending on their category of work) through only a select number of official banking channels
- The economic crunch that began with the raising of interest rates in the late 1970s by the American Federal Reserve Board and the Dewey Dee scandal in the early 1980s, and the decision to bail out crony companies at the expense of other companies that angered the business community
- The political crisis sparked by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino
- The collapse of sugar prices and a powerful El Niño that brought drought and, as a result of the failure of the government to respond promptly, famine and malnutrition in Negros
“Kill the pushers” sounds logical, even necessary, as long as it’s not you or your own family and friends who fall victim to the police who are authorized to serve simultaneously as judge, jury, and executioner.
Imagine then, if this happens to your son, and you know for a fact that he is not into drugs, and yet the police insist that he is. How would you be able to prove his innocence when he’s already dead? Who are you to question the authorities if they plant drugs on your son after killing him, or plant drugs on your person when you refuse to play along with their extortion schemes? Police playing extortionists or planting “evidence” is sadly not unheard of in the Philippines and elsewhere, not just in the movies, but in real life.
Oh yes, Duterte’s war on drugs is as exciting and dramatic as an action film–even better than Reality TV!–until you find yourself the dispensable bit player, the “extra” whose fate it is to be shot down by the “bida” in a hail of bullets.