0 7 min 2 yrs

Those who start as victims of drug abuse end up as victims of police brutality.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million drug addicts I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have had, you know, me,”

are the words the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte used to unironically counter the critics of his brutal anti-drug campaign. These are also the opening lines of the 2019 PBS documentary, “On the President’s Orders” focusing on the aftermath of this policy. The title also alludes to Hanah Ardent’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as evident in how Duterte’s underlings justify their extrajudicial actions.

A prominent prosecutor, Duterte ran his 2016 presidential campaign on making the Philippines as safe as his hometown of Davao, a city in which he also served as the mayor. He rose to glory after transforming Davao from the “murder city” of the Philippines to the “ninth safest city in the world” according to the 2013 Numbeo list, a crowd-sourced global database, in about 20 years. But his success there was built atop thousands of extrajudicial killings, measures that were repeated on the national scale in 2016.

The short film is set in Caloocan, an urban dwelling in Metropolitan Manila. The city witnessed a wave of killings after the President urged the public to kill drug addicts and gave police the authority to carry out a “shoot-to-kill policy.” It culminated in the killing of two unarmed teenagers in the summer of 2017, triggering a popular retaliation against the ruling regime. The movie does not delve into the initial shooting spree of 2016 but into the aftermath of the backlash and how the newly promoted chief of the Caloocan police, Jemar Modequillo, tried to balance discipline with results. 

Modequillo’s term starts with a hope to scale back the informal death penalty upon the drug abusers. We also see the lives of his subordinates, especially the dichotomy between Captains Will Cabrales and Octavio Deimos. Whereas Cabrales believes in his boss’s call for more disciplinary actions, Deimos maintains that killings get better results. While Cabrales believes real change will come with more arrests, Deimos seems almost reverent of the killings Modequillo has overseen. But even though Cabrales is portrayed as the “good cop,” his assumptions regarding drug abusers make him prejudiced in his dealings with them.

Cabrales’ stakeout of a suspected drug user reveals the ambiguity of such operations. The film doesn’t reveal whether the police planted a gun and drug paraphernalia in the accused’s house. All we are left with is the gut-wrenching screeches of denial from the suspect’s wife. 

After the arrest of the suspect, the documentary highlights how the justice system is rigged against the accused. A confession will lead to a short jail sentence but if he defends his case, the trial may not happen for several years, making the accused while away in prison for years. The trial could also end up being a farse, leading to a 20-year jail term. For some, it is better to choose the former and get out soon to support their families. We see a “helpful” police officer informing the suspect that this is for his own good. 

The jails are overcrowded and the prisoners are subjected to “disciplinary actions.” The wardens treat the convicts like infants who need constant punishments to be conditioned into understanding what is right and what is wrong. 

Meanwhile, Modequillo’s disciplinary route seems to have “gone easy” on the drug problem. A renewed crackdown ensues. Even though the President publicly supports only killing resisters, many of the murders were targeted assassinations. When questioned, Modequillo denies such allegations and considers these sorts of killings perhaps the work of a black sheep. But even teenagers in the film point out that the police are increasingly using motorbikes with no number plates. Deimos also admits that he had heard from other police officers that most of the shootings are being conducted by the cops.

The film tries to humanize the drug users, a characteristic the government and police force did not seem to display. It delves into their background and the family they left behind. It shows that what the victims needed was some help, whether economic or psychological. 

Throughout the film, we see the police officers making assumptions about drug users who are immediately likened to criminals. The Philippines’ religiosity also is brought to light in how Modequillo considers drug abuse the “devil’s work.” The dehumanisation has also led to a disconnect between civil society and the police force. 

The apathy flows both ways. The people, especially those who have lost loved ones to the anti-drug campaign, are aware the police are behind the spree of killings. But very few believe the wrongdoers would be held accountable. There is a resignation to injustice amongst the people. 

The interviews with the victims’ families also affirm the view that Duterte’s war is on the poor rather than drugs. Rather than bringing down the structures that uphold these harmful practices, the President took the easy route and just targeted the middlemen and end-users. The poor cannot afford lawyers, bails, or long sentences. Those who start as victims of drug abuse end up as victims of police brutality. 

The short movie comes to an end with Modequillo being fired. He parades around bearing a cross for symbolic purposes and defends his actions by stating that he was being a “good follower” and “just doing his job,” bringing to full circle the frankly disturbing parallel to the Holocaust.

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