MANILA (Reuters) - Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte ended a recent speech in Manila with a now-familiar claim: Two policemen were dying every day in his violent battle to rid the country of illegal drugs.
But police statistics have shown that figure to be exaggerated. From July 1, when Duterte launched his “war on drugs,” to Oct. 12, when he spoke in Manila, 13 police officers were killed. That’s an average of one every eight days.
This is not the only dubious claim Duterte has used to justify his bloody anti-narcotics campaign, according to a Reuters review of official government data and interviews with the president’s top anti-drug officials.
These officials say that data on the total number of drug users, the number of users needing treatment, the types of drugs being consumed and the prevalence of drug-related crime is exaggerated, flawed or non-existent. But they say the problematic statistics don’t matter because the campaign has focused attention on a long-neglected crisis in the Philippines.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” said Wilkins Villanueva, the Metro Manila regional director for the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the country’s leading anti-narcotics agency. “Before, our fight against dangerous drugs was a lonely battle… Now, everybody’s helping us – the community’s helping us.”
Nearly 2,300 people have been killed in police operations or by suspected vigilantes since Duterte took office on June 30, according to the Philippines police. That figure was revised down this month by the police from an original tally of 3,600 deaths.
In response to questions from Reuters, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the story was “malicious” and referred Reuters to the Philippine National Police.
The crackdown has been criticized abroad but enjoys widespread support in the Philippines, which Duterte has said faces collapse if the “drug menace” isn’t tackled.
In his inaugural State of the Nation Address on July 25, Duterte declared that there were 3.7 million “drug addicts” in the Philippines.
“The number is quite staggering and scary,” he said. “I have to slaughter these idiots for destroying my country.”
But according to a 2015 survey by the Office of the President’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), the main drug policy and research unit, the Philippines has fewer than half that many drug users.
And rather than being “addicts,” as Duterte refers to all drug users, about a third of the 1.8 million users identified in the DDB survey had taken drugs only once in the previous 13 months. Fewer than half of them – 860,000 – had consumed crystal meth, or shabu, the highly addictive stimulant widely blamed by officials for high crime rates and other social ills. Most were marijuana users.
PDEA’s Villanueva said he didn’t care if President Duterte “overestimates” the number of drug users as long as it made people aware of the problem.
Officials in the president’s media office contacted by Reuters could not say where the data came from to back up another of the government’s central claims: that 75 percent of serious crimes in the Philippines are drug-related.
Police and senior officials have used the claim to justify tough measures against drug users and pushers, and say those measures have been vindicated by a drop in crime since the anti-drug campaign began.
The faulty figures have other real-world implications. They determine, for instance, how many people the government says must be targeted to eradicate drug demand in the Philippines. That has led to the drawing up of police “watch lists” with the names of drug suspects, hundreds of whom have been shot dead either in police operations or by unknown gunmen.
The president’s statistical claims continue to drive policy. In September, Duterte said the number of “addicts” would rise to four million by the end of the month and vowed to extend his drug war for another six months - to June 2017. That statement came after remarks on Sept. 30, when Duterte seemed to compare himself to Hitler and said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.
A senior Philippines law enforcement officer said Duterte’s “arbitrary” figures had put pressure on police and government officials.
“The problem is, every time the president says something, it’s already some sort of a policy statement,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have to toe the line.”
The officer pointed, for example, to the more than 700,000 people who have registered in the past three months with the authorities as drug users or pushers, a process known as “surrendering.” But, he said, authorities were expected to produce at least 1.8 million “surrenderers” to match the number of users cited in the DDB report.
“That’s the reason we are having a hard time. We need to produce,” he said. “Even if we add up everything...we are not even close to 1.8 million.”
PDEA’s Villanueva said the president’s assessment of the drug problem was reasonable, and he felt no pressure.
“He just exaggerates it so we will know that the problem is very big,” Villanueva said of Duterte. “The implication is that we have to work hard to solve the problem and we have to work hard so that...occasional drug users do not turn into regular drug users.”
Statements by Duterte and other officials not only fail to distinguish between users and problem users, say drug-treatment specialists, but also between users of shabu and marijuana. Shabu is a highly addictive stimulant with side effects that can include aggression and psychosis.
“They are completely different substances in terms of risk profiles and harms,” said Robert Ali, director of a University of Adelaide research center on drug and alcohol treatment who works with the World Health Organization. “Shabu has a higher risk of addiction. It is associated with a greater range of physical and psychological harms.”
While drug abuse is a real problem in the Philippines, said Ali, it was hard to devise an effective national response based on flawed data. “With public health, whether it’s diabetes or drug use, you need a sense of the burden of harm to understand how to use your resources,” he said.
Joanne Csete, a specialist in health and human rights at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, said that the term “current drug users” usually refers to those who have used drugs in the past month. However, the DDB survey counts anyone who has used drugs in the past 13 months, which Csete says could inflate the number of users.
“So the president can make up whatever numbers he likes – the survey does not adequately estimate current use,” she said.
The claim that 75 percent of “heinous crime” in the Philippines is drug-related features in an official booklet called “Winning the First Phase of the Drug War.” It was handed out by the president’s media team in September at a regional summit in Laos attended by world leaders.
According to the booklet, heinous crimes include murder, rape, human trafficking and treason.
It is not clear where the president’s media team got the 75 percent figure. The booklet identifies the source of the number as the Philippines National Police Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management (DIDM). But six officials in the office responsible for the booklet and at the DIDM were unable to point to a specific study or explain how the figure was calculated.
Nimfa Reloc, who monitors heinous crime cases for DIDM, said the office had released no such data or analysis and did not know where the number came from. She said 15 percent of heinous crimes are drug-related.
Benjamin Reyes, the DDB’s chairman, said there was “actually no data” on crimes committed under the influence of drugs.
An estimated 18 percent of convicted prisoners worldwide are in jail for drug-related offences, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“Illegal drugs do create a substantial burden on societies, and it’s important that governments respond in ways that reduce the economic cost of drug use...and reduce pain and suffering from drug use,” said Alison Ritter, a researcher at Australia’s National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre.
But crime is complicated, and the rise and fall in crime rates can’t be attributed to a single campaign or even a single institution such as the police, Ritter said. “To argue that killing people for consuming drugs is associated with crime reduction is blatantly unsupported,” she said.
“Index” or serious crimes in the Philippines dropped by 31 percent in January to August this year compared with the same period in 2015, according to police statistics presented to a Senate hearing on extrajudicial killings on Oct. 5.
“If you don’t call it winning, I don’t know what to call it,” said Villanueva at PDEA.
But the same police statistics show serious crime was already in decline during the administration of Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, who did not conduct a war on drugs.
In fact, Aquino was still in office for most of the period covered by the 2016 statistics. The police figures show that in the January-August period of 2015, serious crime was down 22 percent compared with the same period the previous year. In 2014, it declined 26 percent.
While the crime rate has been dropping for several years, under Duterte the murder rate has risen since he launched his anti-drug campaign. In the first three months of his administration, police recorded a total of 3,760 murders, compared with 2,359 in the same period last year, a rise of 59 percent.
“Compared with last year, we are better off this year,” said Dionardo Carlos, the national police spokesman. “Most of the victims this time are the drug users.”
In Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, he led an equally brutal anti-drugs crackdown. There, death squads killed hundreds of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals and street children, said Human Rights Watch in a 2009 report. Duterte denied any involvement in the killings.
Despite the crackdown, Davao still ranks first among 15 cities in the Philippines for murder and second for rape, according to police crime data from 2010 to 2015.
Senior anti-narcotics officials in the Philippines also invoke conflicting or incomplete data in trying to identify how many people are problem users, which drug they use and what treatment they might need.
While the DDB survey says about 860,000 people are shabu users, PDEA chief Villanueva puts the number at 1.4 million. He explained to Reuters how he reached this number.
Villanueva started with an estimate based on drug-rehab facility data that he said showed 75 percent of patients at these facilities were shabu users. He then applied this percentage to the DDB’s 1.8 million figure for all drug users.
He acknowledged that rehab data was already skewed towards shabu users, who seek treatment more often than users of less addictive drugs, and that applying the percentage to another study was problematic.
“Actually, the 75 percent does not translate, but it’s a pretty good assumption,” said Villanueva, who spent 12 years with PDEA in Davao City, where he said he got to know Duterte.
Of the 1.4 million shabu users Villanueva had identified by his method, about 700,000 people had already “surrendered” to the police as drug users and pushers, he said.
“We are taking away already one half of the demand,” said Villanueva.
Treatment experts dispute this claim, since the severity of drug use among those who surrender is unclear. A spokesperson at the Philippines’ Department of Health said he didn’t know how many “surrenderers” had been medically screened.
This matters, said Ali, the University of Adelaide treatment specialist, because “drug use is not necessarily drug dependence.” Only about 10 to 15 percent of shabu users might require residential care, he said. Ali said he based this estimate on his clinical experience and the experience of treatment services in the United Kingdom.
The DDB’s survey does not distinguish between users and problem users.
“We did not try to categorize them, whether or not they were addicts, problematic drug users, or just plain users,” said DDB chairman Reyes.
To calculate the number of problem users, said Reyes, the DDB relied on global estimates from the UNODC that say 0.6 percent of drug users are problem users, which means they require treatment.
Reyes said he rounded this figure up to one percent and applied it to the figure of 1.8 million users, and concluded that the Philippines had, at most, 18,000 drug users in need of treatment.
“It’s a small number,” he said.
Yet Reyes said domestic support for the drug war wouldn’t change even if it was widely known that the country had far fewer drug users than Duterte claims. “There is really a perception that we need a hardline approach to the problem,” he said.
Other top backers of the drug war agree. The 3.7 million figure cited by Duterte “doesn’t mean anything,” said Villanueva. “I believe he has his own survey, aside from the DDB. But it’s not a scientific one.”
What’s important, he said, is that the president is now marshalling the resources needed to address the drug problem. PDEA is hiring and training another 400 agents and is expecting more firearms, vehicles and surveillance equipment, he said.
Philippines Senator Vicente Sotto, a former DDB chief who supports Duterte’s drug war, said inflated figures serve a purpose if they scare users into quitting.
“If they make people alarmed, then why not? It doesn’t hurt anyone,” he said. “People don’t care how it’s done as long as it’s done.”
Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema in Manila. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.