Duterte de­ploys du­bi­ous data in drugs war

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Philip­pines’ Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte ended a re­cent speech in Manila with a now-fa­mil­iar claim: Two po­lice­men were dy­ing ev­ery day in his vi­o­lent bat­tle to rid the coun­try of il­le­gal drugs. But po­lice sta­tis­tics have shown that fig­ure to be ex­ag­ger­ated. From July 1, when Duterte launched his “war on drugs,” to Oct 12, when he spoke in Manila, 13 po­lice of­fi­cers were killed. That’s an av­er­age of one ev­ery eight days. This is not the only du­bi­ous claim Duterte has used to jus­tify his bloody anti-nar­cotics cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to a Reuters re­view of of­fi­cial govern­ment data and in­ter­views with the pres­i­dent’s top anti-drug of­fi­cials.

These of­fi­cials say that data on the to­tal num­ber of drug users, the num­ber of users need­ing treat­ment, the types of drugs be­ing con­sumed and the preva­lence of drug-re­lated crime is ex­ag­ger­ated, flawed or non-ex­is­tent. But they say the prob­lem­atic sta­tis­tics don’t mat­ter be­cause the cam­paign has focused at­ten­tion on a longne­glected cri­sis in the Philip­pines.

“I don’t see it as a prob­lem,” said Wilkins Vil­lanueva, the Metro Manila re­gional di­rec­tor for the Philippine Drug En­force­ment Agency (PDEA), the coun­try’s lead­ing anti-nar­cotics agency. “Be­fore, our fight against dan­ger­ous drugs was a lonely bat­tle. Now, every­body’s help­ing us - the com­mu­nity’s help­ing us.”

Nearly 2,300 peo­ple have been killed in po­lice op­er­a­tions or by sus­pected vig­i­lantes since Duterte took of­fice on June 30, ac­cord­ing to the Philip­pines po­lice. That fig­ure was re­vised down this month by the po­lice from an orig­i­nal tally of 3,600 deaths. In re­sponse to ques­tions from Reuters, Pres­i­den­tial Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Sec­re­tary Martin An­da­nar said the story was “ma­li­cious” and re­ferred Reuters to the Philippine Na­tional Po­lice. The crack­down has been crit­i­cized abroad but en­joys widespread sup­port in the Philip­pines, which Duterte has said faces col­lapse if the “drug men­ace” isn’t tack­led.

Real-World Im­pact

In his in­au­gu­ral State of the Na­tion Ad­dress on July 25, Duterte de­clared that there were 3.7 mil­lion “drug ad­dicts” in the Philip­pines. “The num­ber is quite stag­ger­ing and scary,” he said. “I have to slaugh­ter these id­iots for de­stroy­ing my coun­try.” But ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey by the Of­fice of the Pres­i­dent’s Dan­ger­ous Drugs Board (DDB), the main drug pol­icy and re­search unit, the Philip­pines has fewer than half that many drug users.

And rather than be­ing “ad­dicts”, as Duterte refers to all drug users, about a third of the 1.8 mil­lion users iden­ti­fied in the DDB sur­vey had taken drugs only once in the pre­vi­ous 13 months. Fewer than half of them - 860,000 had con­sumed crys­tal meth, or shabu, the highly ad­dic­tive stim­u­lant widely blamed by of­fi­cials for high crime rates and other so­cial ills. Most were mar­i­juana users.

PDEA’s Vil­lanueva said he didn’t care if Pres­i­dent Duterte “over­es­ti­mates” the num­ber of drug users as long as it made peo­ple aware of the prob­lem. Of­fi­cials in the pres­i­dent’s me­dia of­fice con­tacted by Reuters could not say where the data came from to back up an­other of the govern­ment’s cen­tral claims: that 75 per­cent of se­ri­ous crimes in the Philip­pines are drug-re­lated. Po­lice and se­nior of­fi­cials have used the claim to jus­tify tough mea­sures against drug users and push­ers, and say those mea­sures have been vin­di­cated by a drop in crime since the anti-drug cam­paign be­gan.

The faulty fig­ures have other real-world im­pli­ca­tions. They de­ter­mine, for in­stance, how many peo­ple the govern­ment says must be tar­geted to erad­i­cate drug demand in the Philip­pines. That has led to the draw­ing up of po­lice “watch lists” with the names of drug sus­pects, hun­dreds of whom have been shot dead ei­ther in po­lice op­er­a­tions or by un­known gun­men.

The pres­i­dent’s sta­tis­ti­cal claims con­tinue to drive pol­icy. In Septem­ber, Duterte said the num­ber of “ad­dicts” would rise to four mil­lion by the end of the month and vowed to ex­tend his drug war for an­other six months - to June 2017. That state­ment came af­ter re­marks on Sept. 30, when Duterte seemed to com­pare him­self to Hitler and said he would be “happy to slaugh­ter” three mil­lion drug ad­dicts.

Bur­den of Harm

A se­nior Philip­pines law en­force­ment of­fi­cer said Duterte’s “ar­bi­trary” fig­ures had put pres­sure on po­lice and govern­ment of­fi­cials. “The prob­lem is, ev­ery time the pres­i­dent says some­thing, it’s al­ready some sort of a pol­icy state­ment,” said the of­fi­cer, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. “We have to toe the line.”

The of­fi­cer pointed, for ex­am­ple, to the more than 700,000 peo­ple who have reg­is­tered in the past three months with the au­thor­i­ties as drug users or push­ers, a process known as “sur­ren­der­ing.” But, he said, au­thor­i­ties were ex­pected to pro­duce at least 1.8 mil­lion “sur­ren­der­ers” to match the num­ber of users cited in the DDB re­port. “That’s the rea­son we are hav­ing a hard time. We need to pro­duce,” he said. “Even if we add up ev­ery­thing... we are not even close to 1.8 mil­lion.”

PDEA’s Vil­lanueva said the pres­i­dent’s as­sess­ment of the drug prob­lem was rea­son­able, and he felt no pres­sure. “He just ex­ag­ger­ates it so we will know that the prob­lem is very big,” Vil­lanueva said of Duterte. “The im­pli­ca­tion is that we have to work hard to solve the prob­lem and we have to work hard so that... oc­ca­sional drug users do not turn into reg­u­lar drug users.”

State­ments by Duterte and other of­fi­cials not only fail to dis­tin­guish be­tween users and prob­lem users, say drug-treat­ment spe­cial­ists, but also be­tween users of shabu and mar­i­juana. Shabu is a highly ad­dic­tive stim­u­lant with side ef­fects that can in­clude ag­gres­sion and psy­chosis. “They are com­pletely dif­fer­ent sub­stances in terms of risk pro­files and harms,” said Robert Ali, di­rec­tor of a University of Ade­laide re­search cen­ter on drug and al­co­hol treat­ment who works with the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Shabu has a higher risk of ad­dic­tion. It is as­so­ci­ated with a greater range of phys­i­cal and psychological harms.”

While drug abuse is a real prob­lem in the Philip­pines, said Ali, it was hard to de­vise an ef­fec­tive na­tional re­sponse based on flawed data. “With pub­lic health, whether it’s di­a­betes or drug use, you need a sense of the bur­den of harm to un­der­stand how to use your re­sources,” he said.

Joanne Csete, a spe­cial­ist in health and hu­man rights at the Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health at Columbia University in New York, said that the term “cur­rent drug users” usu­ally refers to those who have used drugs in the past month. How­ever, the DDB sur­vey counts any­one who has used drugs in the past 13 months, which Csete says could in­flate the num­ber of users. “So the pres­i­dent can make up what­ever numbers he likes - the sur­vey does not ad­e­quately es­ti­mate cur­rent use,” she said.

‘Bla­tantly Un­sup­ported’

The claim that 75 per­cent of “heinous crime” in the Philip­pines is drug-re­lated fea­tures in an of­fi­cial book­let called “Win­ning the First Phase of the Drug War.” It was handed out by the pres­i­dent’s me­dia team in Septem­ber at a re­gional sum­mit in Laos at­tended by world lead­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the book­let, heinous crimes in­clude murder, rape, hu­man traf­fick­ing and trea­son.

It is not clear where the pres­i­dent’s me­dia team got the 75 per­cent fig­ure. The book­let iden­ti­fies the source of the num­ber as the Philip­pines Na­tional Po­lice Di­rec­torate for In­ves­ti­ga­tion and De­tec­tive Man­age­ment (DIDM). But six of­fi­cials in the of­fice responsible for the book­let and at the DIDM were un­able to point to a spe­cific study or ex­plain how the fig­ure was cal­cu­lated.

Nimfa Re­loc, who mon­i­tors heinous crime cases for DIDM, said the of­fice had re­leased no such data or anal­y­sis and did not know where the num­ber came from. She said 15 per­cent of heinous crimes are drug-re­lated. Ben­jamin Reyes, the DDB’s chair­man, said there was “ac­tu­ally no data” on crimes com­mit­ted un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs. An es­ti­mated 18 per­cent of con­victed pris­on­ers world­wide are in jail for drug-re­lated of­fences, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“Il­le­gal drugs do cre­ate a sub­stan­tial bur­den on so­ci­eties, and it’s im­por­tant that gov­ern­ments re­spond in ways that re­duce the eco­nomic cost of drug use...and re­duce pain and suf­fer­ing from drug use,” said Alison Rit­ter, a re­searcher at Aus­tralia’s Na­tional Drug & Al­co­hol Re­search Cen­tre. But crime is com­pli­cated, and the rise and fall in crime rates can’t be at­trib­uted to a sin­gle cam­paign or even a sin­gle in­sti­tu­tion such as the po­lice, Rit­ter said. “To ar­gue that killing peo­ple for con­sum­ing drugs is as­so­ci­ated with crime re­duc­tion is bla­tantly un­sup­ported,” she said.

“In­dex” or se­ri­ous crimes in the Philip­pines dropped by 31 per­cent in Jan­uary to Au­gust this year com­pared with the same pe­riod in 2015, ac­cord­ing to po­lice sta­tis­tics pre­sented to a Sen­ate hear­ing on ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings on Oct 5. “If you don’t call it win­ning, I don’t know what to call it,” said Vil­lanueva at PDEA. But the same po­lice sta­tis­tics show se­ri­ous crime was al­ready in de­cline dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Duterte’s pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino, who did not con­duct a war on drugs.

In fact, Aquino was still in of­fice for most of the pe­riod cov­ered by the 2016 sta­tis­tics. The po­lice fig­ures show that in the Jan­uary-Au­gust pe­riod of 2015, se­ri­ous crime was down 22 per­cent com­pared with the same pe­riod the pre­vi­ous year. In 2014, it de­clined 26 per­cent. While the crime rate has been drop­ping for sev­eral years, un­der Duterte the murder rate has risen since he launched his anti-drug cam­paign. In the first three months of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, po­lice recorded a to­tal of 3,760 mur­ders, com­pared with 2,359 in the same pe­riod last year, a rise of 59 per­cent. “Com­pared with last year, we are bet­ter off this year,” said Dionardo Car­los, the na­tional po­lice spokesman. “Most of the vic­tims this time are the drug users.”

In Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, he led an equally bru­tal anti-drugs crack­down. There, death squads killed hun­dreds of al­leged drug deal­ers, petty crim­i­nals and street chil­dren, said Hu­man Rights Watch in a 2009 re­port. Duterte de­nied any in­volve­ment in the killings. De­spite the crack­down, Davao still ranks first among 15 cities in the Philip­pines for murder and sec­ond for rape, ac­cord­ing to po­lice crime data from 2010 to 2015.

Meth ver­sus Mar­i­juana

Se­nior anti-nar­cotics of­fi­cials in the Philip­pines also in­voke con­flict­ing or in­com­plete data in trying to iden­tify how many peo­ple are prob­lem users, which drug they use and what treat­ment they might need. While the DDB sur­vey says about 860,000 peo­ple are shabu users, PDEA chief Vil­lanueva puts the num­ber at 1.4 mil­lion. He ex­plained to Reuters how he reached this num­ber.

Vil­lanueva started with an es­ti­mate based on dru­gre­hab fa­cil­ity data that he said showed 75 per­cent of pa­tients at these fa­cil­i­ties were shabu users. He then ap­plied this per­cent­age to the DDB’s 1.8 mil­lion fig­ure for all drug users. He ac­knowl­edged that re­hab data was al­ready skewed to­wards shabu users, who seek treat­ment more of­ten than users of less ad­dic­tive drugs, and that ap­ply­ing the per­cent­age to an­other study was prob­lem­atic.

“Ac­tu­ally, the 75 per­cent does not trans­late, but it’s a pretty good as­sump­tion,” said Vil­lanueva, who spent 12 years with PDEA in Davao City, where he said he got to know Duterte. Of the 1.4 mil­lion shabu users Vil­lanueva had iden­ti­fied by his method, about 700,000 peo­ple had al­ready “sur­ren­dered” to the po­lice as drug users and push­ers, he said. “We are tak­ing away al­ready one half of the demand,” said Vil­lanueva.

Treat­ment ex­perts dis­pute this claim, since the sever­ity of drug use among those who sur­ren­der is un­clear. A spokesper­son at the Philip­pines’ De­part­ment of Health said he didn’t know how many “sur­ren­der­ers” had been med­i­cally screened. This mat­ters, said Ali, the University of Ade­laide treat­ment spe­cial­ist, be­cause “drug use is not nec­es­sar­ily drug de­pen­dence.” Only about 10 to 15 per­cent of shabu users might re­quire res­i­den­tial care, he said. Ali said he based this es­ti­mate on his clin­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and the ex­pe­ri­ence of treat­ment ser­vices in the United King­dom.

The DDB’s sur­vey does not dis­tin­guish be­tween users and prob­lem users. “We did not try to cat­e­go­rize them, whether or not they were ad­dicts, prob­lem­atic drug users, or just plain users,” said DDB chair­man Reyes. To cal­cu­late the num­ber of prob­lem users, said Reyes, the DDB re­lied on global es­ti­mates from the UNODC that say 0.6 per­cent of drug users are prob­lem users, which means they re­quire treat­ment. Reyes said he rounded this fig­ure up to one per­cent and ap­plied it to the fig­ure of 1.8 mil­lion users, and con­cluded that the Philip­pines had, at most, 18,000 drug users in need of treat­ment. “It’s a small num­ber,” he said.

‘Hard­line Ap­proach’

Yet Reyes said do­mes­tic sup­port for the drug war wouldn’t change even if it was widely known that the coun­try had far fewer drug users than Duterte claims. “There is really a per­cep­tion that we need a hard­line ap­proach to the prob­lem,” he said. Other top back­ers of the drug war agree. The 3.7 mil­lion fig­ure cited by Duterte “doesn’t mean any­thing,” said Vil­lanueva. “I be­lieve he has his own sur­vey, aside from the DDB. But it’s not a sci­en­tific one.”

What’s im­por­tant, he said, is that the pres­i­dent is now mar­shalling the re­sources needed to ad­dress the drug prob­lem. PDEA is hir­ing and train­ing an­other 400 agents and is ex­pect­ing more firearms, ve­hi­cles and sur­veil­lance equip­ment, he said. Philip­pines Sen­a­tor Vi­cente Sotto, a for­mer DDB chief who sup­ports Duterte’s drug war, said in­flated fig­ures serve a pur­pose if they scare users into quit­ting. “If they make peo­ple alarmed, then why not? It doesn’t hurt any­one,” he said. “Peo­ple don’t care how it’s done as long as it’s done.” —Reuters

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