The drug war and the immiseration of communities - Eaglewatch by Leonardo A. Lanzona Jr.

August 26, 2016
The Duterte administration proudly cited a report from the Philippine National Police (PNP) public information office that crime incidence posted in July 2016 was only 50,817, compared to 56,339 in the same month last year. As a result, a 31-percent decrease in index crimes in July 2016, recorded at 11,800, compared to 17,105 in July 2015, was achieved.
With this evidence, the government, as well as Sen. Alan Peter S. Cayetano, would want us to believe that the promised change of the government has already arrived. This decrease in crime index comes at the heels of the unrelenting war on drugs that had been imposed even before the inauguration of the President. Reminiscent of the martial-law era, the administration, in effect, is presenting the observed decline in criminality and the consequent peace and order as a justification for the alleged violations of human rights caused by this drug war. How sound is this justification?
Crime in this case is defined beyond illegal-drug trafficking. The PNP identifies index crime as those that are serious and occur with sufficient frequency. Last month the number of crimes against persons declined to 11,800 from 17,105. Incidents involving physical injury also decreased to 2,847 from 4,168 last year.



Furthermore, the number of property-related crimes went down by 40.30 percent to 6,630 from 11,106. The number of robbery incidents plunged to 6,630 from 11,106, while that of theft decreased to 4,230 from 7,168. Car-theft incidents went down to 705 from 1,109, while that of cattle rustling decreased to 47 from 72. Murder incidents, nevertheless, increased by 68 percent to 1,271 in July from 755 last year. Homicide incidents also increased to 214 from 197. Rape incidents, meanwhile, only slightly dipped to 838 from 879. It would appear then that much of the reduction in crimes is really from less street crimes. Indeed, heinous crimes, such as murder, are increasing during this administration.
What has not been thoroughly established is how all of these crimes can be linked to drug use and, eventually, to the PNP drug operations. The economic theory of crime posits that would-be criminals rationally weigh in the expected costs and benefits of breaking the rules. If the probability of being caught or the level of fine is too low, then the expected costs might be outweighed by the benefits. In this case, crime does pay and crime can be rational. By this logic, small street crimes, including drug abuse, are committed more in poor areas, where even seemingly low gains of such crimes are perceived to be substantial enough to justify their commission. Because of their poverty, these people perceive the benefits of crime as far exceeding its costs.
What is clear is that the PNP drug-war operations have focused mainly in many poor areas where such small crimes are rampant. Known as “Oplan Tokhang”, police station commanders instruct barangay captains to submit a list of residents who are into illegal drugs, whether as pushers, dealers, users or couriers. The police intelligence unit will then verify the report and check if these persons are, indeed, involved in drugs because barangay captains, who themselves may be behind the illegal-drug trade, can list down the names of their rivals. Upon verification, the operations begin.
The problem with this approach is that the poorer communities are made vulnerable to the abuses that result from such a procedure. Having no legal means of protecting themselves, poor households are more accessible to the visits and raids adopted by the police. Criminals living in higher income residences have various options, both legal and illegal, to escape the police. According to President Duterte himself, “Mahirap ang marami [na nahuhuli] kasi they are an easy target.”
Thus, street crimes are down because the police have cracked down fundamentally on poor communities. This invokes the so-called broken windows theory. The theory is based on an observation made in the early 1980s by social scientists that, when a building window is broken and left unrepaired, the rest of the windows will soon be broken, too. An unrepaired broken window is a signal that greater crimes can be committed. More profoundly, in environments where unruly behavior goes unchecked—where prostitutes visibly ply their trade or the homeless accost passersby—more serious street crime flourishes.



Oplan Tokhang succeeds in reducing crime because the drug trade is correlated to the whole crime problem through poverty. As economic theory suggests, drug use does not cause or precede criminality; instead, they are caused simultaneously by poverty.
President Duterte once claimed that poverty is not an excuse for committing crime. But, broken windows-style policing has a decidedly antipoor bias and initiates from class discrimination. Poorer neighborhoods receive a disproportionate amount of police attention. In the process, rampant lawlessness is encouraged in poor communities, as friction between the police and the residents is created in these areas. Evidence shows that drug arrests can also spillover to vigilante attacks and other forms of violence, leaving behind poorer, more violent and more damaged communities.



Unfortunately, there seems to be no widespread uproar against this turn of events. Despite varied calls for respecting human rights and ending this drug war, many still say they want their broken windows fixed. While we may trust the PNP that they are doing what they can to solve criminality, trust should neither be blind nor total. Surely, as a decent and civilized nation, we should be able to find a more effective, humane and just way in dealing with this problem.
Leonardo Lanzona Jr. is professor of Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and a senior fellow of Eagle Watch, the school’s macroeconomic research and forecasting unit.