How the 'war on drugs' only boosts strongmen like the Philippine 'Punisher' and Trump
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

By Niko Vorobjov, The Influence

“The one thousand [dead] will become a hundred thousand. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.”

Those are the words, spoken on the campaign stump, of Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who will be sworn in for a six-year term on June 30. His “one thousand” refers to the number of drug dealers and petty criminals killed by the Davao Death Squads—the vigilante group he once tasked with cleaning up the streets of one of the country’s most dangerous cities.

Duterte, known in some circles as “Duterte Harry” or “the Punisher,” won his country’s presidential elections with a tough-on-crime ticket based on a truly fearsome real-life record.


During his time as mayor of Davao City in the 1990s and 2000s, Duterte was closely tied to the Davao Death Squads, who rode around on motorbikes carrying out targeted assassinations of suspected lawbreakers—mainly people who use drugs, dealers and small-time thieves, but also an activist or two. The actual death toll varies depending on who you ask. Some sources put it between 700 and a thousand, but Rodrigo himself has reportedly bragged that the figure is higher: around 1,700.

In a country plagued by gun violence, corruption, insurgents and piracy (the Blackbeard kind, not bootleg DVDs), Duterte’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach resonates with many. After admitting his links to the death squads, Duterte claimed he had made Davao the ninth-safest city in the world (though this has been disputed).

Duterte’s a political outsider, not belonging to any of the elites that have traditionally dominated the national scene. He’s got a potty mouth and jokes about raping nuns. He breaks the rules when it suits him and he promises radical change.

Remind you of anyone?

In some ways, Duterte is like an Asian version of Donald Trump. Trump has also scorned to follow due process when dealing with perceived menaces to society, advocating torture for terrorist suspects, death to terrorists’ families, and forcible expulsion of undocumented immigrants—whom he’s linked to the Mexican Cartels.

Of course the comparison is not exact; Duterte enjoys Muslim support and has called Trump a bigot. But Trump’s willingness to incite vigilante violence—both at his rallies and in the threat of riots were he to fail to win the GOP nomination—is another clear similarity.

Strongman politicians are common in today’s world, undoubtedly in part the product of desperate economic times. Vladimir Putin, the leader of my homeland, Russia, is one such man, and has incidentally thrown in his support for Trump (although it’s debatable who’s using who).

But there is another Russian politician to whom Duterte bears an even closer resemblance. And like Trump and Duterte, he has found drugs to be a useful scapegoat through which to consolidate power.

A City’s Brutal Anti-Drug Regime


Yevgeny Roizman is the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, located in the Ural federal district. He’s held that position since 2013.

In my country, even trying to wean yourself off heroin with methadone is illegal (downing liters of vodka is fine, though). Russia’s stern outlook stems from the shit-storm it experienced in the 1990s. The Soviet Union was a police state that kept a tight lid on anything it even remotely disapproved of, and drinking was the party-approved vice of choice. Dope only really started appearing in the late ‘80s during the war in Afghanistan (by which time the rest of the world was already high as a kite), and even then it was kind of an underground thing. But after the collapse of communism, problematic heroin use swept across the country, riding the wave of hopelessness and poverty as a former superpower plunged into social, political and economic meltdown. Russia is now the single biggest consumer of heroin on the planet.

Facing these issues in the early ‘90s, some family-friendly gangsters from the Uralmashevskaya crime syndicate in Yekaterinburg got together after a hard day’s work bleeding local businesses dry, and decided to set up a vigilante group called City Without Drugs.

Using more or less the same techniques that they had perfected in consolidating their hold over the underworld, they set about ridding the town of its drug problem. They tied one dealer to a tree before pulling his pants pulled down and sticking used syringes into his backside, all in front of a local TV crew. Meanwhile drug users were rounded up off the street and taken to a “rehab clinic.”

The “clinic” consisted of a shack in the woods, where victims were chained to a bed or a radiator, not allowed to use the toilet even as they shit themselves (something that happens quite often when you’re going through withdrawal), regularly beaten, and fed only bread and water as they went cold turkey. Despite numerous investigations, accusations of kidnapping and torture, condemnations from doctors and the deaths of some of their “patients,” the work of City Without Drugs continues to this day.

Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, a tough guy who’s served time for robbery, extortion and weapons offenses, is the leader of City Without Drugs.

Like Duterte, Roizman is a political outsider. He is the first mayor in a very long time not belonging to Putin’s United Russia party—and is thus a de-facto opposition figure. Bizarrely, he’s become kind of a hero to a few liberal Russians because anyone who isn’t Putin must be good—a dangerous kind of logic.

To find out more, I contacted Anya Sarang from the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, an NGO that works with and campaigns for the rights of drug users and HIV-positive people in Russia.

“People did not know what to do,” Sarang tells me. “Their children were addicted to drugs, and so they gave them away to Roizman’s ‘rehabilitation centres’ for ‘treatment’. Roizman told them he was the only honest man who knew how to protect the city from drugs, unlike the corrupt police force, though he worked closely with them in reality. In doing so, he’s managed to convince the citizens of his city of the justness of his cause, who elected him as mayor because of this stupid rhetoric. And all because he chose the best ‘evil’ to fight against—drugs.”

But do his methods work in some way? Fascist tactics can sometimes be effective at fighting crime, can’t they, because those conducting them don’t have to worry too much about frivolities like “due process” and “human rights”?

Not really. “The use of drugs in Yekaterinburg remains on the same level as all other cities,” Sarang says, “but the rate of HIV infections [a major crisis in Russia closely tied to intravenous heroin use] is far higher.” No reliable statistics support Roizman’s claims that his centres have cured thousands of “addicts.”

Back in the Philippines, Duterte shares Roizman’s disdain for people who use drugs, but takes an even harder line: “To all the bleeding hearts of US-based crime watch,” he once said, “you want a taste of my justice? Come to Davao City, Philippines, and do drugs in my city. I will execute you in public.”

Not one to play favourites, Duterte even vowed to kill his own children if they ever became involved in drugs. During his time as mayor he did also back a rehab clinic on the outskirts of town, but considering how many have been murdered at the hands of his Davao Death Squads, and his election promise to feed another 100,000 to the fish in Manila Bay, that’s a small source of comfort.

Wider Reasons for Fear

Just how frightened should we be of these strongmen and their love of drugs as a method of leveraging power? The words and actions of all three of our strongmen are disturbing enough in themselves, but that’s not all.

  1. Identification, when a group of people is singled out as the root of all evil. Those “people.” They’re the reason why everything is wrong with society. Those Jews, those Muslims, those addicts. Outside of stoner movies it’s rare to see people who use illegal drugs portrayed as anything other than a pathetic, hedonistic parasites. Yet the large majority (90 percent according to the UN) experience no significant problems and lead perfectly productive lives.
  2. Ostracism, when pressure is applied on these people, making it harder for them to earn a living or lead a normal life. Forcing Jews to wear a yellow Star of David was one historical example. Recent examples within this category include stigmatizing methadone, deporting immigrants who use drugs, or drug-testing poor people who apply for welfare.
  3. Confiscation, when property owned by the ostracized group is seized or destroyed. One historical example in this category was Kristallnacht. One continuing example of property seizures against a particular group is civil asset forfeiture.
  4. Concentration. Do you need to have the parallels spelled out? Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and a surrogate for Trump, runs a jail complex called Tent City, a facility where he holds people with drug convictions in ancient US Army tents dating back to the Korean War which offer barely any protection from the scorching heat or the freezing cold of the Arizona desert. Prisoners there are forced to work in chain gangs, wearing t-shirts with slogans like “I AM A DRUG ADDICT.” They get thrown into madness-inducing solitary confinement for even minor infractions. Arpaio proudly refers to Tent City as his very own “concentration camp”—yes, that’s a direct quote.
  5. Annihilation. We haven’t quite taken it this far in Western countries recently—at least not directly, although you could argue that helping feed the violence perpetrated by gangs (“Let the animals wipe themselves out!” as Denzel Washington’s crooked cop says in Training Day) and preventing proper medical care are a step in this direction. When I put this idea to Anya Sarang, she agreed that the Russian government’s zero-tolerance approach is responsible for the epidemic of overdoses, HIV and tuberculosis—all entirely preventable causes of death—and that this sometimes seems like a concentrated effort to wipe out a section of the population.

Annihilation of people who use drugs has been undertaken directly in other countries. In Colombia, for example, paramilitary groups carry out “social cleansing” operations known as limpieza, targeting addicted people, street kids, sex workers, homeless people and other “undesirables.”

In 2003 Thailand slaughtered over 2,500 of its own people in on-the-spot extra-judicial killings over the course of just three months as part of President Shinawatra’s anti-drugs campaign. Some were shot to death in front of their children, and some even had nothing to do with drugs or drug dealing (not that that should be a deciding factor), but were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

China, Indonesia, Iran and other countries in the Middle East and South East Asia routinely execute people who break drug laws, at a rate of thousands per year.

It’s too early to say definitively what Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency will be like, and he has shown himself to be progressive on a number of other issues, such as gay rights (a big plus in the heavily-Catholic country). But from this angle, the future doesn’t look bright.

Possible future President Donald Trump is even more unpredictable, with some nasty potential. It seems clear that he, Roizman and countless other strongmen across the world will keep using the anti-drugs crusade to further their ends.

In the words of David Simon, crime reporter and co-creator of The Wire: “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion.”

Niko Vorobjov was born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain. There, he served a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. Writing letters to the outside inspired him; he now works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in publications including Salon and Gorilla Convict.