November 17, 2016

President Rodrigo Duterte's high-profile campaign against the illegal drug trade is prompting growing concern about the security situation in the Philippines. Dozens of extrajudicial killings have occurred daily since Duterte took office June 30, leaving an estimated 4,000 people dead as of early November. Despite the soaring death toll, the program remains popular and is seen as the fulfillment of Duterte's campaign pledge to reduce crime and, more specifically, eliminate illicit drug use. As the campaign has progressed, Duterte has moved swiftly to silence critics, and he is seemingly allowing security personnel to operate with increasing impunity. Under current conditions, the primary concerns for travelers and multinational businesses are pre-existing criminal threats, and those unaffiliated with the drug trade or drug use are unlikely to be targeted. If, however, anti-drug raids begin to target more affluent areas of Metro Manila frequented by foreigners, the possibility of collateral casualties will grow.

Key Judgments:

  • The threat of violence posed by the crackdown on the illegal drug trade currently poses a low threat to foreign travelers not engaged in the trade or use of narcotics.
  • Excluding potential incidents involving local employees, multinational businesses are unlikely to be directly impacted, as related violence is not typically occurring near major business centers.
  • The increasing silencing of opponents appears to be leading to greater impunity for police and Duterte loyalists engaged in the campaign against illegal drugs.
  • Barring a major development, the popular campaign against illegal drugs is unlikely to subside in the near term.

Low Current Threat to Travelers

Although the frequent killing of suspects involved with illegal drugs by police and vigilantes in Metro Manila and other large cities has prompted fears - especially among travelers - about personal safety in the Philippines, the current threat to individuals not tied to the illegal drug trade is low. The risk of collateral damage exists, and while several incidents have occurred in relatively affluent districts, the majority of the shootings have taken place late at night or in the very early morning, and in lower-income neighborhoods. Police rarely release details of the killings, but media reports suggest that many take place at the victim's home; some have occurred on the street, but typically when the target was using personal transport. Specific information regarding innocent bystanders who have become caught up in the violence is limited, but reported cases usually involve family members who were in the home where the shooting occurred, rather than individuals with no links to the target. Authorities have warned that upscale bars may be targeted for raids as part of the campaign, but owners of such establishments, including those in Metro Manila's affluent Makati City and Bonifacio Global City that are regularly frequented by foreigners, have not yet reported any such activity. The recent warning by police bears watching, as it may presage an intensification in those areas, which may negatively affect the current threat environment.

The Philippines National Police (PNP) maintains that the anti-drug campaign is making the country safer. Police officials have cited statistics showing that serious crimes dropped by 31 percent in the first eight months of 2016, compared with the same period in 2015. However, the first six months of the year were prior to Duterte's inauguration and the start of the "drug war." Since Duterte took office, the murder rate has risen exponentially, with police recording a total of 3,760 murders during the first three months of his term, compared with 2,359 during the same period the prior year, an increase of 59 percent. Authorities maintain that the overwhelming majority of these incidents have been tied to the drug trade and have neither involved, nor presented a threat to, foreign nationals or innocent locals.

Although many Western governments have raised concerns over the current security environment related to the campaign against illegal drugs, tour operators report that there has been no noticeable drop in foreign visitors. Given that many tours are booked well in advance, a response to fears generated by the violence may prove to be delayed, but widespread cancellations are unlikely unless there is a major development that undermines overall security.

Minimal Threat to Multinational Business Operations

As most of the shootings are limited to suspects' homes or along streets in poor neighborhoods during the overnight period, the threat to multinational businesses is currently minimal. However, local employees could still be impacted, especially given the potential emergence of incidents related to mistaken identity or personal vendettas. Although some killings have involved police, an estimated two thirds have been the work of unknown vigilantes. In many incidents, bodies are dumped on highways or in poorer areas after victims have been killed elsewhere, accompanied by notes claiming that the individual was a drug trafficker or user; the veracity of those claims is rarely investigated. Local media have quoted one police officer as claiming that it is easy to get away with murder in the current environment: "You can kill him, put masking tape on him, and everybody is going to think that guy is a drug pusher." Human rights groups claim that none of the vigilante killings have been solved, and that the lack of police response is enabling random killings that are being attributed to the campaign against illegal drugs.

Although the overall threat to business operations is low, a small segment - Chinese and ethnic Chinese small business owners - has been targeted in a series of kidnappings and extortions in Metro Manila's Binondo neighborhood in recent months. Police say that at least six abductions took place in October. Duterte attributed the crimes to drug traffickers, maintaining that they have been forced to switch tactics due to the campaign and the consequent reduced supply and demand for illicit drugs. Small business owners from East Asia or of East Asian descent have long faced an elevated risk of abduction in Metro Manila, primarily tied to their ability and willingness to pay moderate ransoms quickly. However, six incidents in a month is a rapid escalation. Furthermore, human rights groups say that the victims were warned that they would be identified to police as drug traffickers if they refused to pay, and forced to hold packages of what appeared to be the locally popular drug, shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride), to ensure their fingerprints would be on them. All six victims reportedly paid the ransom, which could lead to an increase in similar incidents in the near future.

Opposition Silenced

Popular support for the campaign against illegal drugs remains high, and Duterte has moved swiftly to silence critics, leading to growing fears that the crackdown is part of the president's strategy to eliminate opposition. Duterte often quickly and publicly links detractors of the campaign against the illegal drug trade, though the president rarely backs such assertions with evidence. After opposition Sen. Leila de Lima launched a congressional probe into reports of extrajudicial killings, Duterte called for her to resign and hang herself. Duterte's legislative allies later kicked de Lima off of the investigative committee and halted the proceedings. At least one local mayor accused of drug trafficking died in police custody, while a second was killed at a police checkpoint; in both cases, authorities maintained that officers fired in self-defense, though the circumstances remain suspicious.

Political opponents are not the only ones who have been threatened. Journalists who have covered police operations that have resulted in killings have received death threats. Meanwhile, victims' families hesitate to speak out for those killed due to fears of retribution. One man who pressed for an investigation into the death of his sister was later killed by unidentified gunmen in Manila. Other family members reportedly received death threats and have since gone into hiding, aided by the country's independent Commission on Human Rights.

Duterte has pledged strong support for those who carry out his initiative. Shortly after winning the election, he offered security personnel bounties for the bodies of drug dealers. The president also vowed to protect police from prosecution over the killings. Although high-ranking officials maintain that only those who resist arrest are killed, the rising number of fatalities - as well as multiple shootings of individuals in police custody - has led to growing fears that police are acting with increasing impunity. The Commission on Human Rights has said that no police officer has yet been charged criminally in connection with the campaign.

Future of Campaign against Illegal Drugs

Duterte initially pledged to complete his anti-drug campaign within six months, but he has already sought a six-month extension, making it probable that it will run through at least June 2017. The killings are unlikely to subside, as the president continues to employ rhetoric dismissive of the need for due process, and encouraging both the police and the public to eliminate drug users and traffickers. In early November, Duterte warned that he could suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which requires the state to justify arrests and detentions, due to the large number of drug traffickers and users who remain free. Such an action is permissible under the constitution, which allows the president to suspend the writ for periods of up to 60 days "in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it." While it is unclear whether Duterte will take such an action, it is questionable whether it is necessary, as both the police and public appear willing to operate on his public statements alone; Duterte has yet to sign any official document detailing his agenda on his campaign against illegal drugs. As such, police could begin detaining suspects without warrants and holding them without charge.

The public willingness or desire to question Duterte and his tactics appears to be low. While some voters maintain that they are opposed to the killings, many claim that the move is necessary to prevent the Philippines from becoming a "narco-state." Still, some influential groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have begun to call for an end to killings without due process. As the campaign continues and the death toll - and questions regarding the circumstances of the killings - rise, support could begin to wane, especially if the public perceives no noticeable improvement in the security environment.


Although Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs will continue to prompt major concerns about due process and human rights violations in the Philippines, it is unlikely to impact the operating environment for travelers or multinational businesses significantly in the near term. Some criminals could increase attempts at kidnapping and extortion, but these are more likely to target small businesses run by East Asians, ethnic East Asians, or locals, rather than major multinational firms. Duterte could face growing dissent if he is unable to bring an end to the program swiftly, rein in perceptions of abuse and impunity by security personnel, and convince multinational businesses that the Philippines is a secure country in which to operate.