The official death toll from Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs in the Philippines has risen above 5,000 people, authorities have said.
Derrick Carreon, a spokesman for the Philippine drug enforcement agency (PDEA), said that, according to official figures, between July 2016 and the end of November this year, 5,050 lives were lost, mostly at the hands of the police.
The official toll falls well short of estimates given by human rights groups and campaigners for victims, which vary from 12,000 to 20,000. Many of the undocumented killings, rights groups say, were carried out by “death squads” and unofficial militias.
Last week, Chito Gascon, the chairman of the Philippine commission on human rights, said the toll could be as high as 27,000, though he emphasised that investigating the deaths was complex because police withheld records on anti-drug operations.
Although initially a popular policy, Duterte’s crackdown has been criticised for the numbers of killings by police, who have been given unbridled powers by the government to carry out drug raids.
Carreon defended the rising death toll, saying that the lives of police officers carrying out drug raids were often under threat and that “naturally, commensurate force has to be implemented in order to repel the threat”.
“Any death is alarming,” said Carreon. “But anti-drugs operations carry the highest possibility of an armed encounter, especially if the suspect is armed and under the influence of illegal drugs.”
According to the government statistics, there were also 164,265 arrests of “drug personalities” as part of 115,435 anti-drug operations across the country during the two-and-half-year period.
Last month, a court found three police officers guilty of murder for the 2017 killing of a 17-year-old high school student, in the only such conviction to stem from the policy so far.
“We assure you that the police, PDEA and all law enforcement agencies prioritise high-value targets,” he said. “But let it not be said that street-level illegal drugs activities should not be neglected. They are equally headaches to the people in the community.”
The international criminal court is carrying out preliminary investigations into Duterte to determine if his drug war constitutes crimes against humanity.