He has compared himself to Hitler, called President Obama a “son of a whore,” and overseen a wave of extrajudicial violence that has left thousands of people dead.
But despite his profanity and repeated calls to violence, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ 71-year-old president and former city mayor, is the country’s most popular leader in recent memory.
Duterte’s “war on drugs,” the hallmark of his early tenure, has resulted in an estimated 7,000 drug-related killings since his crackdown started in July.
However, on Monday, the Philippine police chief stopped the use of the national police force in anti-drug operations and disbanded all police anti-narcotics units after rogue officers used Duterte’s crackdown to kidnap and kill a South Korean man for money. Police Director-General Ronald Dela Rosa told officers he was launching a purge of police involved in crimes.
To outsiders, Duterte is a puzzle — ideologically liberal, but disdainful of human rights; politically gifted, but often seemingly unhinged. In late September, he said he wants to slaughter drug dealers like Hitler slaughtered Jews. The following week, he visited a synagogue to apologize for causing offense. In October, he said Obama — a persistent critic of his drug war — could “go to hell,” and vowed to deepen ties with China and Russia.
Then, on Oct. 20, he announced that he was “separating” from the United States and embracing China as the new best friend of the Philippines.
Who is Duterte, and what makes him popular?
Where did Duterte come from?
Duterte grew up on the island Mindanao, hundreds of miles south of the Philippine capital, Manila, amid a landscape of grinding poverty, dictatorship, civil conflict and extreme crime.
He attended university and law school in Manila, then returned to Mindanao to work as a prosecutor in the city of Davao. He has been married twice, and has four children.
It didn’t take long for him to enter politics — the city elected him as vice mayor in 1986, the year that Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s dictator for more than two decades, fell from power.
At that time, the city was riven by a communist insurgency, with guerrillas raging against the abuses of Marcos’ military. Soldiers, vigilantes and communist insurgents shot and hacked one another to death on the streets, often in broad daylight, often with no repercussions.
Duterte led Davao for more than two decades, serving twice as vice mayor and thrice as mayor. By most accounts, he was highly effective. He drove out the communist insurgency, using both the carrot and the stick (he gave some former insurgents government jobs). He banned smoking, imposed a curfew for minors, and restricted alcohol sales after dark. He launched nongovernment organizations for women’s rights and poverty alleviation, and adopted liberal policies toward gays and minority groups.
Now, Filipinos call Davao one of the country’s safest cities; many compare it to Singapore.
So what’s the catch?
Human rights groups say that Duterte also oversaw the “Davao Death Squad,” a gang of vigilantes that killed 1,400 suspected criminals in the city during his tenure.
On Sept. 15, a Senate committee investigating Duterte’s current war on drugs heard testimony from Edgar Matobato, an admitted former member of the squad. Matobato said Duterte personally ordered many of the killings. Once, the mayor killed a Justice Department agent with an Uzi, he said; another time, he threw a grenade at a mosque, in retribution for a cathedral bombing. (Duterte has strongly denied the allegations).
“Ideologically eclectic and politically savvy, Duterte combined [former Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez-style populism with Singapore-style disciplined governance to build himself as the penultimate strongman in the city,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University in Manila. “He progressively cultivated a macho, no-nonsense image, backed by shock and awe approach to criminality and drugs.”
Although his police director has suspended anti-drug operations, Duterte has declared his crackdown would continue up to the last day of his six-year term.
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said the temporary stoppage in police anti-drug operations to allow an internal police purge “is nothing less than an empty public relations gesture unless he seeks meaningful accountability for the more than 7,000 Filipinos killed” in the crackdown.
How did he become president?
Duterte’s presidential campaign was shockingly crude, and according to some experts, tactically brilliant. While campaigning, he remarked on the size of his penis, called Pope Francis the “son of a whore” and joked about an Australian missionary who was raped and killed during a prison break in 1989.
He also promised to essentially remake the Philippines in Davao’s image. He pledged to rid the country of illegal drugs within six months, without regard for human rights or due process — in the spring, he threatened to dump drug dealers’ bodies into Manila Bay “and fatten all the fish there.” His campaign posters displayed a clenched fist.
Voters believed him. Although the Philippines had enjoyed years of sustained economic growth under the previous president, Benigno Aquino III, many Filipinos felt that they’d been left out of the boom. They worried about rising crime, entrenched corruption, crumbling infrastructure, a broken justice system — and of course, rampant drug abuse. They felt that electing a radically different leader was the only way to enact real change.
The Philippines’ last two presidents were the children of former presidents; Duterte was an outsider. He hailed from Mindanao, far from the halls of power. And he eschewed the staid, diplomatic lexicon of legacy politicians. His crass outbursts were a boon; he spoke like a man of the people.
Duterte won the election by a landslide, with 16 million total votes — 6.6 million more than the runner-up, Mar Roxas (in the Philippines, candidates need only a plurality of votes to win). He was inaugurated June 30.
Who is getting killed?
The drug war’s statistics are staggering. Duterte has said there are 3 million drug dealers in the country of 102.7 million (the Dangerous Drugs Board, a government body, estimates there are 1.24 million).
Of the estimated 7,000 drug-related killings, more than 2,500 involved suspects who allegedly fought back and were gunned down in clashes with police, the national police said, adding that 35 police officers and three soldiers had been killed.
Officials report that more than 7 million houses of drug suspects have been visited so far, prompting more than 1.1 million people, mostly drug users, to surrender and agree to undergo rehabilitation programs.
Many observers have called Duterte’s drug crackdown a “war on the poor.” Most victims of police and vigilante killings occupy the country’s lowest socioeconomic rungs, where drug use is the most prevalent. They subsist on a few dollars a day, living cheek-to-jowl in sprawling, garbage-strewn slums. They see drugs as an escape, however brief, from reality.
Now, they’re turning up dead in dark alleyways, often next to signs reading “pusher,” their hands bound and their faces wrapped in tape.
Will he succeed?
It’s too early to tell. Experts say the country has a free press, a politically engaged citizenry, and a strong enough political ecosystem that, if public opinion swings against him, the Congress and Senate could keep him in check.
“More and more people are beginning to question his seeming obsession with war on drugs, hoping he will shift attention to more pressing issues such as poverty and unemployment and traffic congestion in big cities,” Heydarian said. “But the voters seem to be willing to still give him at least six months to one year before more critically assessing his leadership mettle.”
In October, a crisis was sparked by the kidnapping and killing of a South Korean businessman, who was snatched by police officers for ransom using a fake warrant for his arrest for a purported drug offense. But the victim was killed at the main police camp in metropolitan Manila, and the officers collected the ransom without telling his wife he was dead, according to police. He was allegedly cremated, his ashes flushed down a toilet bowl, according to an angry Duterte.
Two of the officers suspected of carrying out the crime were on a key anti-drug force. Dela Rosa resigned amid the scandal but Duterte asked him to stay on.
Human rights watchdogs have suspected extrajudicial killings of drug suspects may have been covertly carried out by police or at their behest.
As to how the police crisis affects drug lords, Dela Rosa said, "this is a momentary victory on your part. Go ahead and enjoy, but there is always a time for reckoning.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
8:15 a.m., Jan. 30: This article has been updated with the Philippine police chief stopping the use of the national police force in anti-drug operations.
3:15 p.m. Oct. 20, 2016: This article has been updated with Duterte announcing a “separation” from the United States.
This article was originally published on Oct. 10.