Philippines suspends drugs war to clean up police force

President Duterte ‘embarrassed’ by police murder of South Korean businessman

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended his controversial anti-drugs campaign and pledged to clean up the police force. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended his controversial anti-drugs campaign and pledged to clean up the police force. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Reuters

 

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended his controversial anti-drugs campaign and pledged to clean up the police force, after a scandal over the murder of a South Korean businessman by “corrupt” officers.

Jee Ick-joo was kidnapped from his home in Angeles city, near Manila, by a group including several police officers under the pretence of a drug raid.

After strangling him, his killers pretended he was still alive to collect a ransom from his family.

His body was found on the grounds of the headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP) at Camp Crame.

Mr Duterte, nicknamed ‘The Punisher’ for his hard line on drugs, told a news conference on Sunday that he would extend his war on drugs until the end of his term in 2022, but said the killing of Mr Jee had “embarrassed” him.

“This killing a Korean ... they could have killed, strangled him everywhere, anywhere but they say it had to happen inside the Camp Crame, it is really bad, we admit that. Something has to be corrected severely,” Mr Duterte said.

“Because of this sordid incident, let me reorganise the system. My enemies here are the police who are criminals,” he said.

Wave of killings

Mr Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign has been criticised by the West and by human rights groups.

After he came to power in June last year, Mr Duterte initially promised to eradicate the country’s drug problem by December, then extended the deadline to March, but he now believes he underestimated the scale of the issue.

It’s not clear if the suspension of the police crackdown would end the wave of killings because most of the victims were believed to have been killed by death squads, which are often run by the police and made up of police in civilian clothes.

Although estimates vary, over 7,000 people are thought to have died in drug war-related incidents since the campaign began in July last year.

Of this, the police say over 2,500 were drug suspects killed in legitimate police operations, and more than 3,600 are “under investigation”.

Speaking on Monday, the head of the Philippines National Police Ronald dela Rosa said the president had told him to clean up the police force before resuming the crackdown.

“We have to focus our efforts towards internal cleansing,” Mr Dela Rosa in a speech before newly promoted police officers at Camp Crame – the same place where Mr Jee’s body was found.

Once the cleanout was over, the president would instruct police to go back on the war on drugs, he said, “but right now, no more drug operations.”

A “narcotics command” would be set under the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

Mr Dela Rosa previously offered to resign over the incident, which caused a major outcry in South Korea and prompted fears for the safety of its citizens in the Philippines, but Mr Duterte refused to accept his resignation.

Rights groups said the murder of Mr Jee showed that Philippine police had good reason to believe they could literally get away with murder.

“Duterte has pledged effective immunity for police who kill in the name of his drug war,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

In December, Mr Duterte announced that he had personally killed suspected drug users and dealers during his time as mayor of Davao City.

“Until the Philippine government stops the drug war killings and seeks meaningful accountability for its thousands of victims, Jee Ick-joo’s murder may portend a flood of for-profit killings by cops,” he said.

Last week South Korea’s police chief Lee Cheol-seong sent a message to Mr Dela Rosa calling for a “fair and swift” investigation into Mr Li’s death and “stern punishment” for those responsible.