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The War on Drugs

Jokowi Raises the Stakes In Indonesia's War on Drugs

Human rights groups fear that Indonesia's tough talk might lead to a rash of Duterte-style killings.
Photo via Flickr

When a firing squad executed nine convicted drug traffickers on a remote prison island in Indonesia more than two years ago, President Joko Widodo told reporters that the country was taking necessary measures to stop what he called a "drug emergency."

Today, Jokowi has doubled down on this claim, urging police to take extreme measures against any "foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest."


"Just shoot them already," Jokowi said in a speech. "Show no mercy."

The speech raised concerns among human rights activists that Indonesia was heading toward its own Philippines-style war on drugs. More than 7,000 people have already died in a wave of extrajudicial killings that have gripped the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte entered the office a little more than one year ago.

"The statement is very dangerous," Ardi Manto Adiputra, a researcher at the human rights group Imparsial, told VICE. "Jokowi said 'show no mercy' for foreign drug dealers. He said 'foreign' and didn't imply extrajudicial killings. We hope that's really not what he meant, but the statement can potentially be misinterpreted. It can be a basis for law enforcement to conduct extrajudicial killings. It's very possible."

Duterte's brutal methods, and his dogged refusal to bow to international pressure, have won him fans in Indonesia. The country's anti-narcotics chief Budi Waseso has repeatedly advocated a "shoot first," approach to dealing with the country's drug issues, telling police that they shouldn't "hesitate to shoot drug dealers, sellers, or users dead on the spot."

Budi has since walked back from this statement, stating that he "will not follow or copy" Duterte's drug war. "I don't even support it," he said.

Still, experts say that Indonesia's war on drugs has done little to actually curb drug use. Before Jokowi took office, Indonesia's then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the execution of two Nigerian citizens for drug related offenses in 2008—the last instance of capital punishment being used under his watch.


But those executions didn't reduce drug use—or arrests in Indonesia. A survey conducted by the country's anti-narcotics agency, the BNN, found that the number of drug arrests continued to rise even after the two men were killed.

A similar survey conducted by the Ministry of Law and Human Rights during the Jokowi administration reached a similar conclusion. The survey tracked the number of people jailed for drug-related offenses from December 2014, when Jokowi announced that he would restart executions, to May of the following year. In December 2014, there were 61,822 people behind bars for drug-related crimes. By May 2015, that number had grown to 67,808 inmates.

But if the execution of drug traffickers doesn't work, what does?

"Pragmatically speaking, and based on empirical data from the field, we honestly found that if we were to shoot and kill drug dealers, they would go away," Gen. Tito Karnavian, the chief of the National Police, told local media. "In the Philippines, they're shot and killed and [the number of drug dealers] has dropped. If you ask me if there's a correlation, then yes, I'm sure it's related. There's a deterrent effect."

Tito believes the real reason Indonesia's war on drugs hasn't been as successful as officials hoped is because the country is still too soft on drug traffickers. When the Philippines began to gun down drug dealers in the streets, the foreign cartels migrated their product next door to Indonesia where there was less risk, Tito explained.


"They see Indonesia as not only a potential market, but they also see also a government that's too slow to take action," Tito told local media. "Our laws are considered vulnerable, so that's why they're here."

The BNN's chief reached a similar conclusion during an interview with Australia's ABC News. Budi said that Indonesian authorities had uncovered evidence of 72 foreign drug cartels operating in the country last year. The reason? Duterte's crackdown in the Philippines had sent the cartels packing, he said.

"Indonesia is even the biggest market in the world, in my opinion," Budi told the ABC. "The market that existed in the Philippines is moving to Indonesia, the impact of President Duterte's actions is an exodus to Indonesia, including the substance."

Is drug use actually down in the Philippines? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the answer is yes. But at what cost? Duterte has been called a mass murder. He's been accused of ignoring the growing threat of ISIS militants in the south Philippines until it was too late. Meanwhile, whenever the police take a break from the war on drugs, the crystal meth trade resurfaces.

It's enough to leave Indonesians wondering what to do next. If the Philippines' drug war is indeed pushing the drug trade here, then Indonesia's own war on drugs is failing. But the executions have also had little effect on the country's overall drug arrests, so is a harsher approach the solution? Experts say no.

"If Tito Karnavian wants to imitate the Philippines, he should take into account that in Indonesia capital punishment hasn't proven to reduce the number of drug-related offenses," Alifiana Qisthi, an advocate with the Indonesian Drug Users Network (PKNI), told VICE. "Extrajudicial killings are an abuse of human rights."