Invisible no more: Shedding light on police violence and corruption in the Philippines

Invisible no more: Shedding light on police violence and corruption in the Philippines

. 8 min read

The Philippines was romanticized and dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient Seas” by national hero and writer José Rizal due to the country’s elegant organic beauty. However, the pearl’s beauty has been tainted by increasing police brutality, accelerated in recent years.

After becoming the 16th President of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was quick and adamant about carrying out a “war on drugs” campaign. Duterte implemented extreme measures targeting criminals and non-compliant citizens from impoverished communities to restore peace and order in the country.

In his first press conference after being elected as president, Duterte pledged to end crime, corruption, and the illegal drug trade within three to six months of being elected. However, Duterte implemented this pledge through the promotion of a new measure: “shoot-to-kill” orders.

“What I will do is urge Congress to restore [the] death penalty by hanging,” Duterte said in his first press conference. “If you resist, show violent resistance, my order to police [will be] to shoot to kill. Shoot to kill for organized crime. You heard that? Shoot to kill for every organized crime.”

Unfortunately, Duterte’s strategies to combat the issues faced by Filipinos have conditioned and emboldened the police, creating a sense of invincibility. The implications of Duterte’s extreme strategies include the manslaughter of innocent citizens and the manifestation of police corruption in the country. However, as a new president leads the country, the future of the Philippines’ criminal justice system seems committed to less violent means.


Duterte’s shoot-to-kill orders evolved dangerously, putting more innocent Filipino lives at risk and perpetuating the human rights crisis in the country. The global COVID-19 pandemic was not a barrier to Duterte’s anti-crime operations.

Amidst the pandemic, the government implemented an “Enhanced Community Quarantine” (ECQ) for the country’s capital, Manila, as well as the entire island of Luzon in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. During the lockdown, Filipinos were confined in their homes, transportation was suspended, food and health services were regulated, and uniformed personnel patrolled the streets to enforce strict quarantine measures.

During the ECQ, the government did not fulfill its promises as residents did not receive relief support. On April 1, 2020, frustration from community members erupted into political demonstrations in the streets of San Roque, Quezon City. Advocates and protestors asked for answers from the government in regard to their promised supplies and food aid.

Duterte’s response? “Shoot them dead.”

In a televised address on the same day as the protests, Duterte ordered the police and military to shoot troublemakers if they felt their lives were in danger. “My orders are to the police and military, also village officials, that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead,” Duterte said.

According to the World Population Review’s most recent annual data, the Philippines is the country with the world’s highest number of police killings, with over 6,000 between 2016 and 2021.

As of February 2022, based on the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s (PDEA) Real Numbers PH data, since Duterte took office in 2016, the government implemented 229,868 operations against illegal drugs, which resulted in the arrest of a total of 331,694 suspects. Beyond this, according to the PDEA, the total number of killings during anti-drug operations reached 6,235.

In November 2021, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project published a comprehensive database of the Philippines revealing that since 2016, at least 7,742 civilians have been killed in anti-drug raids, which is approximately 25 percent higher than the figure issued by the government.

As described by Eliza Romero, a coordinator for the Malaya Movement, a US-based alliance that advocates for human rights, freedom, and democracy in the Philippines, Duterte’s fierce rhetoric has given an invitation to vigilante and extrajudicial violence among the community.

“The shoot-to-kill order will just encourage more extrajudicial killings and vigilantism,” Romero said in an interview with Foreign Policy. “It will give private citizens and barangay [village] captains impunity to commit more human rights violations with the protection of the law while normalizing carnage.”

Members of progressive Filipino groups speak at a San Francisco rally against police violence on July 8, 2016. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Behind every number is a real person—whose story has been invisible and whose life has been reduced by police officers who one day decided to target an innocent victim; a brother or sister; a son or daughter; a husband or wife; a father or mother.

Karla A., daughter of Renato A. who was killed in December 2016, recounts her experiences after losing her father at the age of 10, stating in an interview with the Human Rights Watch (HRW), “I was there when it happened when my papa was shot. I saw everything, how my papa was shot. … Our happy family is gone. We don’t have anyone to call father now. We want to be with him, but we can’t anymore.”

Emboldening the Police

Duterte’s enforcement measures to achieve public order put innocent citizens in a battle they have already lost. What is worse is that Duterte not only normalized but justified the killing of innocent citizens. Duterte assured the police impunity, stating that he would not only protect them from human rights abuses but ultimately pardon them if ever they are convicted for carrying out his anti-drug campaigns. This leads to the intensification of corruption within police departments in the country.

Duterte’s shoot-to-kill orders have not shown mercy to victims as he has always been in favor of the police. He never failed to show support for the police in carrying out his campaigns in his public and televised addresses. For instance, Duterte gave orders to Bureau of Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero stating that “Drugs are still flowing in. I'd like you to kill there [in communities]… anyway, I'll back you up and you won't get jailed. If it's drugs, you shoot and kill. That’s the arrangement,” Duterte said.

Duterte’s vow to protect the police results in police officers feeling emboldened and invincible. Police officers who have followed Duterte’s orders are promoted through the ranks. Police officers are not held accountable for the deaths of innocent civilians; the country’s own President pardons them. On top of this, police officers are falsifying evidence to justify unlawful killings and avoid legal repercussions.

The HRW published a report titled “‘License to Kill’: Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs,” which analyzed a total of 24 incidents that led to 32 deaths, involving Philippine National Police (PNP) personnel between October 2016 and January 2017. The report concluded that police officers would falsely claim self-defense to justify these killings.

To further strengthen their claims, police officers would plant guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets next to the bodies of victims. In turn, the victims would seem more guilty of being part of drug-related activities. Other times, police officers would work closely with masked gunmen to carry out these extrajudicial killings. In other words, police officers have succeeded in rooting their endeavors in deceit.

Fortunately, there have been instances where some police officers were legally prosecuted in police killings. Three police officers were found guilty of murdering a 17-year-old teenager in 2017, the first conviction of officers ever since Duterte launched his war on drugs.

A Look Into the Future

The Philippines as the “Pearl of the Orient Seas” has lost its luster due to the many problems that the nation continues to face—one of the most prominent ones is Duterte’s explicit abuse of police power. Similar to how pearls lose their glow when not provided with the care it needs, the integrity of police officers has dried out and become yellowed over time due to the government’s complicity.

Time and time again, Duterte has remained an instigator in instances relating to police brutality in the country. Luckily, the Philippines can combat pearl discoloration through the implementation of robust policies that would ensure increased transparency within police departments.

Freshly elected Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. makes the restoration of the yellowed pearl an achievable goal. At the 121st Police Service anniversary celebration held at Camp General Rafael T. Crame in Quezon City—the national headquarters of the PNP—Marcos Jr. brings an opportunity for redemption. Aside from calling the PNP officers “vanguards of peace,” Marcos Jr. urged them to continue serving the community with integrity in order to restore public confidence.

“The use of force must always be reasonable, justifiable, and only undertaken when necessary. Execution of authority must be fair, it must be impartial,” Marcos Jr. said. “It must be devoid of favoritism and discrimination, regardless of race, gender, social economic status, political affiliation, [and] religious belief. It is only then that you can effectively sustain with great respect and wide support the authority that you possess as uniformed servicemen of the Republic.”

Beyond this, Marcos Jr. highlighted his hope for reforming the police system under the leadership of newly installed PNP Chief Police General Rodolfo Azurin Jr. Moreover, Marcos Jr.’s aspirations to increase accountability within police departments will be complemented by Azurin Jr.’s launching of a peace and security framework titled “MKK=K” or “Malasakit + Kaayusan + Kapayapaan = Kaunlaran” which translates to policies founded on “the combination of care, order and peace shall equate to progress.”

On the other hand, it is understandable if Filipino citizens and human rights activists have lost hope for the possibility of achieving meaningful progress in reforming the broken police system. Marcos Jr. is the son of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., an ousted dictator who infamously declared martial law in the country, and Filipinos are still navigating the trauma of the Marcos era 50 years later.

Currently, Marcos Jr. pledges to continue the campaign against illegal drugs but with an emphasis on drug prevention and rehabilitation. Under this new framework, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) implemented a program dubbed “Buhay Ingatan, Droga’y Ayawan (Value Life, Shun Drugs)” which aims to address the root of the problem by suppressing the demand for illegal drugs. According to DILG Secretary Benjamin ‘Benhur’ Abalos Jr., the initiative needs support and solidarity from all sectors of the community in order to ensure its effectiveness.

Simultaneously, Marcos Jr. has no intention to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) on their investigation of the country’s drug war killings. Based on the ICC’s official website, their purpose “is intended to complement, not to replace, national criminal systems; it prosecutes cases only when States do not are unwilling or unable to do so genuinely.” However, Marcos Jr. stated in an interview that “The ICC, very simply, is supposed to take action when a country no longer has a functioning judiciary… That condition does not exist in the Philippines. So I do not see what role the ICC will play in the Philippines.”

Nearly five months into Marcos Jr.’s administration, the University of the Philippines’ Dahas Project revealed that 152 people have died in anti-drug police raids as of Nov. 30. The report further disclosed that the drug casualties under Marcos Jr. “[are] exceeding the 149 killings recorded during the final six months of the Duterte government. During the first half of the year under Duterte, the average daily rate was 0.8. So far under Marcos, the rate stands at one per day.”

In the Philippines, police officers have repeatedly assumed the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. HRW Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson points out shortcomings in Marcos Jr.’s campaigns describing that “Using a drug rehabilitation approach means little when police and mystery gunmen are still executing suspected drug users and dealers. Law enforcers should receive clear orders to stop the ‘drug war’ enforcement once and for all.” The only way to effectively mitigate police killings in the Philippines is by abandoning violent and punitive measures against illegal drugs.

Ultimately, despite these obstacles, the yellowed pearl can still brighten. Under new leadership for both the national government and police department, the Philippines may embark on a journey of reconstruction and rehabilitation. In this process, the hope is to finally shed light on the issue of police violence in the country, implement fruitful solutions to combat the problem and advocate for innocent victims who might have felt invisible in their battle against police brutality. Once the light has been restored, the Philippines can finally live up to its billing as the beautiful and pure “Pearl of the Orient Seas”.