Philippines aims to arm community leaders to help fight crime, drugs

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ interior ministry said on Wednesday it plans to acquire pistols for community leaders willing to fight crime and drugs, prompting concern it could fuel even more violence in the country’s notoriously bloody crackdown.

President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he was considering arming community leaders, known as barangay captains, after consulting with the police and intelligence community.

He last week vowed to provide the same legal protection to barangay captains as he did soldiers or police, and they “will never go to jail” if they shot suspected criminals in the performance of their duty.

Martin Dino, the interior department undersecretary responsible for the country’s 42,000 barangays, said handguns would be provided for free, or private purchases subsidized, but only for barangay captains not involved in illegal drugs.

Duterte has repeatedly said thousands of community officials were involved in the trade, without elaborating.

“The condition is that the barangay captain should fight drugs and crime. If he is conniving with criminals, he could be the one shot,” Dino told Reuters.

Duterte’s signature war on crime and drugs has killed thousands of people and caused international alarm.

Activists and Duterte’s political opponents say the campaign is overwhelmingly targeting users and small-time peddlers in poor communities and accuse police of systematically executing suspects, often based on weak intelligence.

The authorities reject that and say all those killed were drug dealers who put up violent resistance and left police with no choice but to shoot them.

The plan to arm civilians is supported by the association of barangay officials, according to its president, Edmund Abesamis.

Barangay captains without firearms were reluctant to report illegal drug activities, for fear of being targeted by gangs, he told CNN Philippines on Wednesday.

Activist group Rise Up for Life and for Rights, said the government was obsessed with instilling fear among communities, rather than tackling the root causes of drug addiction.

“Arming the barangay captains is another foolish approach that would create power play among local officers on the ground,” said a spokeswoman for the group, adding that communities had seen enough “tyrannical and fascist attacks” during Duterte’s war on drugs.

Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry