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The head of the Philippines’ anti-narcotics agency on Friday warned of a reduced intensity in the country’s war on drugs after a removal of police from the campaign, which he hoped would only be temporary as his unit lacked manpower. Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Aaron Aquino said he had only a fraction of the personnel and budget of police, and hoped President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to make his agency responsible for all operations would not be lasting.
“I know the public has high expectations but I am asking the public for understanding because of our limitations,” he said in a radio interview. “I hope this is just a temporary arrangement, we need the police.”
Amid unprecedented scrutiny of police conduct, the mercurial Duterte issued a memorandum on Tuesday ordering police to withdraw. The authorities said the shift in strategy was to go after big drug syndicates.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa on Friday said police could now focus efforts on catching mysterious gunmen who were assassinating drug users, to disprove allegations by human rights groups that police were behind such killings. Police say they have killed 3,900 people in their anti-drugs operations over the past 15 months and deny allegations by activists that many of those were executions.
Police say they used deadly force in each of those cases, because suspects were armed and had resisted arrest.
In a tirade on Thursday loaded with profanity and aimed at his foreign and domestic critics, Duterte said deaths during PDEA’s operations were far less than police, and hoped “bleeding hearts” would be satisfied with his decision. PDEA’s Aquino said the public might notice a slowdown in operations. He planned to ask for a bigger budget, to add 1,000-1,500 agents a year until 2022, adding it was unrealistic to expect the PDEA to fight the problem with its small numbers.
PDEA has about 2,000 personnel, 1,100 of which are agents, compared to more than 175,000 police nationwide. Amid anger over a high-profile kidnap and murder case involving police, Duterte suspended police from the drugs war in January and put PDEA in charge. He reinstated police soon after, saying drugs had flooded back to the streets.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, police chief Dela Rosa suggested Duterte’s shift in strategy might have been a response to opinion polls that showed some public unease about the crackdown. A survey on Sunday showed a significant slide in Duterte’s ratings, but another one by a different pollster, released on Friday, showed he was still hugely popular.
Dela Rosa said police were winning the campaign, having cut the drugs supply, made 113,000 arrests and convinced what he said were 1.3 million people to surrender. However, he said it was “not a total victory”. He said police would concentrate on stopping the shadowy gunmen on motorcycles who were killing drug users, which police have often described as vigilante murders. Such killings are among the 2,600 murders since July last year that police believe may have been drug-related.
“People think these are also policemen, so I want these people stopped and arrested,” Dela Rosa said. “We are intensifying intelligence, maximizing police visibility to stop these criminals. We have to shoot them before they can shoot their targets.”