Rodrigo Duterte was President of the Philippines for six years and ruled the country with an iron fist. Thousands of people fell victim to his “war on drugs”. What remains of the “Punisher”? A balance sheet.

In mid-2016, Rodrigo Duterte took over as President of the Philippines. His biggest campaign promise was reminiscent of a campaign by US President Richard Nixon in 1972: both presidents proclaimed the “war on drugs”. But while Nixon in the 1970s primarily strengthened state institutions to stop the sale of illegal substances and prevent consequences such as money laundering, Duterte took merciless action against drug users. Duterte has been out of office since Thursday. What is left of him?

From Mayor to “Punisher”

Duterte served as mayor of Davao City from 1988 to 1998, from 2001 to 2010 and from 2013. During his first election campaign, he advocated curbing crime and expanding social order in the city. In return, he announced that he wanted to double the number of executions. To this day, his supporters see his agenda as a great success for Duterte. He introduced the general emergency number “911” in the metropolis, ensured a clean cityscape, speed limits and seat belts for cars were strictly observed. In addition, young people had a curfew at night.

However, it quickly became clear that Duterte’s plan was in danger of failing due to state funds – he simply lacked police officers. In order to enforce his type of justice, he is said to have started recruiting young people from poor neighborhoods shortly after taking office. As a result, he is said to have sent them through the city as paramilitary squads to implement his kind of “clean city”. The myth of the “death squads” was born. In total, these groups are said to have carried out more than 1,000 extrajudicial executions. According to Amnesty International, most of the victims were young people from slums and petty criminals. Duterte tolerated this type of justice and even spoke positively about it publicly. According to his own statements, he is said to have killed at least three people himself. Which earned him the nickname “The Punisher” from the British magazine “Time”.

Rodrigo Duterte and the “War on Drugs”

In 2015, Duterte officially ran for the presidential election. He admitted a direct connection to the “death squads” and announced that if he were elected he would reintroduce the death penalty and execute 100,000 criminals. He wanted to throw their corpses into Manila Bay “so that the fish would grow big and fat”.

A central part of his election campaign was his proclaimed “War on Drugs”. Just a few days after his inauguration in June 2016, he called on the population to kill drug addicts: “If you see a junkie, go and kill him! It’s too painful for the parents to do it!”

It was noticeable that there were significantly more fatalities than before in raids by security forces. In July 2016 alone, police operations are said to have resulted in 402 fatalities and 5,500 arrests. About 600,000 people volunteered in the hope of not being killed.

Human rights activists repeatedly pointed out inconsistencies during shootings on the open street. Allegedly, those who were shot often carried firearms with them. The police officers would only have defended themselves accordingly. What was striking, however, was that these weapons had the same serial number in several cases, which indicates that the police had planted the weapons on the victims, reports the “FAZ”.

According to the Philippine police, almost 7,000 people have died in the war on drugs. Human rights organizations put the death toll at at least 30,000.

In 2018, the International Criminal Court in The Hague opened preliminary investigations against Duterte for human rights violations, where he terminated the Philippines’ membership almost a year later. Despite obvious crimes at the end of 2021, Duterte still had approval ratings of almost 65 percent.

Helpless in the pandemic

The corona pandemic revealed that Duterte’s tyranny was purely destructive in nature. Even before Covid-19 hit the Philippines, the socio-political circumstances on the island nation were devastating. As the Friedrich Naumann Foundation reports, almost 26 million Filipinos lived in poverty before the pandemic – around a quarter of the population. At the end of 2021, around 10 percent of the residents were suffering from hunger, and 30 percent of all households were struggling with a lack of food.

The coronavirus pandemic further aggravated the country’s socio-economic situation. Unemployment rose to 17.5 percent. More than 55,000 people fell victim to Covid-19 – the second highest death rate in Southeast Asia. The health system collapsed in rows. With only five hospital beds per 10,000 inhabitants, the Philippines has the lowest rate in Southeast Asia.

Duterte responded with one of the toughest and longest lockdowns in the world. Children and the elderly were not allowed to leave their homes for a year and a half. Public transport was also completely shut down at times. Medical workers had great difficulty getting to their workplaces to care for the sick.

There are also allegations of corruption against Duterte, who initially awarded a $175 million government contract to a newly founded pharmaceutical company. The company has not had any notable success to date.

In early 2021, Duterte announced that he would no longer run for president and that he would retire. What remains is a disastrous record of his reign. Around 30,000 people died in the “war on drugs”, an impoverished and insecure country, a desolate health system. So can his departure be a turning point in the history of the Philippines? Much speaks against it. His successor, the dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., could perhaps take up Duterte’s legacy even more radically. Marco’s father ruled the Philippines with murder and torture until 36 years ago. In 1986 the dictator families were expelled from the Philippines.

Sources: Friedrich Naumann Foundation,, Amnesty International, FAZ, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Time Magazine, Philippines Today, UN Human Rights Council report, Tagesschau,