Philippine drugs war gets complex as Duterte creates new super-agency

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order creating a joint command to mobilize 21 state agencies behind his bloody war on drugs, prioritizing “high-value” targets and going after all levels of the illicit trade.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks before Philippine Councilors League in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

The order creates an Inter-agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD), that encompasses bodies from police, military and coastguard to health, education and social welfare, and aims to rehabilitate users and suppress dealers large and small.

More than 8,000 people have been killed since the drugs crackdown started eight months ago, 2,555 of them in what police say were shootouts during raids. They say 48,000 drugs suspects were arrested.

Police deny involvement in the other killings and reject allegations by human rights groups that many of them, mostly unsolved and in mysterious circumstances, were assassinations of drug users with police complicity.

The United Nations and much of the West is alarmed by the death toll and Duterte’s repeated threats to kill thousands of dealers, and by his refusal to acknowledge that human rights abuses have taken place.

Duterte’s order published on Friday outlines a “priority thrust” of the government to suppress drugs and “put behind bars” makers, dealers and traffickers of narcotics while “transforming users into productive members of society”.

It was signed on March 6, the same day the Philippine National Police (PNP) resumed operations following a suspension of the entire force from the drugs war, due to the kidnap and murder of a South Korean by rogue anti-drugs officers.

PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa on Monday called for the revived police operations to be “less bloody, if not bloodless”.

Some 500 police will be selected for a new Drug Enforcement Group, to target drug financiers, manufacturers, distributors and protectors, including elected officials, said the group’s commander, Graciano Mijares.

The creation of the inter-agency authority calls for a broader, integrated approach to fighting drugs, but its goals are not entirely new. Police launched a second phase of the drugs war in October prioritizing high-value targets, but critics pointed to little change on the ground.

Duterte has been accused of failing to identify the sources of the drugs or the money trail, and rights groups say his crackdown is driven largely by fear and overwhelmingly targets small-time users in impoverished communities.

It was not clear from the executive order exactly how another body, the new National Anti-Illegal Drug Task Force, would be comprised, beyond military and law enforcement officers.

The government’s anti-money laundering council is tasked with stopping the flow of money from drug transactions. At least 21 state agencies will be split into four groups to enforce anti-drugs laws, prosecute offenders, run campaigns and rehabilitate users who surrender voluntarily, the order said.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Mark Trevelyan