Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday announced a major shift in the country’s infamous drug war, instructing the national police to end their operations and handing control to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
In a vitriol-filled speech, Duterte said the move would be “better for the bleeding hearts and media” that have consistently criticized the enormous death toll and police abuses of the crackdown. Police have killed nearly 4,000 people since Duterte took office in late June of last year, while emboldened vigilante groups have murdered thousands more.
The change in policy is a sign that Duterte’s administration may be beginning to bend under the increasing weight of domestic and international pressure, despite the president’s characteristically belligerent reactions to criticism and attacks against human rights groups.
“What’s different now is that opinion polls are indicating a softening in support for Duterte, and there have been very large, loud and public displays of opposition to the drug war,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Recent weeks have seen protests, falling approval ratings and threats of international economic repercussions over Duterte’s violent 15-month anti-drug campaign. The high-profile extrajudicial killings of three teenagers this summer put an increased spotlight on the brutal nature of anti-drug operations.
The death of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August drew special outrage as it appeared to provide clear evidence of a police cover-up. Officers involved claimed to have shot Santos after he fired on them while resisting arrest, but closed-circuit TV footage revealed two plainclothes policemen had the teenager in custody and fully restrained before his death. Santos’ body was found in an alley near his house, shot twice in the head and once in the back.