The Body Count in Indonesia's Increasingly Brutal Drug War Keeps Rising

Nearly 100 suspected drug dealers have been gunned down during raids by police in the last year, a dramatic increase over last year's figures.

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23 November 2017, 10:12pm

Suspected drug smugglers raise their hands as they are displayed to reporters at the National Narcotics Agency office in Jakarta. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

When police fatally shot a Taiwanese national accused of dealing drugs from a low-rent apartment complex in Central Jakarta earlier this week, it was just the latest death in Indonesia's increasingly brutal war on drugs.

The country's police force have killed at least 92 suspected drug dealers since President Joko Widodo and his anti-narcotics chief Budi Waseso first ordered authorities to "show no mercy," in the war on drugs. The last time VICE's Indonesia office checked, a mere three months ago, that figure was far lower, at 55 dead. This time last year, only 18 people had been killed by police during drug raids, according to data compiled by Amnesty International.

The rising death toll is further evidence that Jokowi's "just shoot them already," rhetoric is more than mere tough talk from Indonesia's normally soft-spoken leader. It's also another sign that Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte's own brutal methods are finding a receptive audience in nearby Indonesia. The country's anti-drug chief has a hot-and-cold view of Duterte's methods, going as far as ordering officers to "shoot drug dealers, sellers, or users dead on the spot," before later telling the foreign press "I will not follow or copy it, I don't even support it."

President Jokowi himself believes that Indonesia is in the middle of a "drug emergency," one that requires a dramatic solution. His office restarted the execution of convicted drug traffickers, sending 18 convicts before firing squads on Indonesia's prison island since Jokowi took office in 2014. The executions have since been put on hold, despite initial plans to kill at least 30 more this year.

But at the same time, the president and top officials started to float harsher rhetoric in speeches and interviews with the press. And as officials reiterated the new "shoot them dead," rules of engagement, the number of suspected drug dealers gunned down during a raid increased, according to Amnesty International's Indonesia researcher Bramantya Basuki.

"What's for sure is the police can't answer the questions coming from civilians and intellectuals on why the number of killed drug dealers has gone up drastically since 2016," Bramantya told VICE. "The police said that what they did was in-line with procedures. There is no other answer from them."

Meanwhile, other public officials have backed the president's words. Members of the regional legislative councils in Medan, Tebingtinggi, North Sumatra, and Kotawaringin Timur, Central Kalimantan, have echoed Jokowi's words, expanding the shoot-to-kill orders to motorbike thieves as well—a class of criminal often referred to as "sadistic" in the domestic press.

“In Indonesia, people think that drug dealers are criminals, so it’s OK if they’re shot or killed,” Bramantya told VICE. “What we’re afraid of is if the president’s rhetoric becomes widely adopted by officers at field, as if they now have the legitimacy to do it [shoot to kill].”

This is the stickiest part of the country's increasingly violent war on drugs—the more suspected drug traffickers are killed, the more popular the government looks to the vast majority of voters, explained Evitarossi Budiawan, a researcher at the human rights group Imparsial.

"In the Indonesian context, every shooting is blown-up by the media and runs parallel with Jokowi's war on drugs because it reaps a lot of approval and sympathy from the public," Evitarossi told VICE. "Every time there is an execution, people actually support it. There's no resistance— people like it—and that’s why it’s been done repeatedly."

While some of these busts involve large quantities of illegal drugs, plenty of others don't. When the Taiwanese national was gunned down earlier this week, two of his alleged associates were also arrested. The authorities said he was a known drug dealer, but between the three men they only seized 10.2 grams of methamphetamine. That's enough meth to fill one tiny bag. Hold nine Haribo brand gummy bears in your palm—that's how much it weighed. Not every drug bust—or every death—is going turn the war on drugs.

And so far, none of them have. The rise in police shootings and executions have done little to actually curb drug use in Indonesia. The country's own anti-narcotics agency reported that the number of drug arrests had nearly doubled since 2010, despite the decision to use increasingly brutal methods to curb drug use.

The anti-drug agency has its own arguments for why this is happening. The department's top brass believe that the foreign drug dealers who used to work in the Philippines have fled to Indonesia to avoid Duterte's bloody crackdown. So the response, they argue, is a harsher crackdown—one that, to outside observers, looks a lot like a slow motion version of the tragedy currently playing out in the Philippines.

“We’re afraid that if this is allowed and normalized, it could be like what is happens in the Philippines,” Bramantya told VICE. “It could get out of hand.”

This entire swing toward heavy-handed policing in Indonesia has a lot to do with Duterte's refusal to actually address the complaints of foreign leaders and human rights groups over his support of a drug war that's left thousands dead in a wave of extrajudicial killings. When a country like the Philippines can get away with murder, on the global scene, then what's to stop other Southeast Asian nations from sticking to their own wildly unpopular policies?

“Duterte’s policies certainly influences the perspective of some Southeast Asian leaders in addressing human rights issues," explained Ardi Manto Adiputra, a research coordinator at Imparsial. "It reinforces this attitude about 'Asean values' that put aside some universal human rights principles and standards of values."

And this swing toward violence and populism also presents a dangerous future for other countries in the region, the ones that don't even attempt to uphold universal standards of human rights, Ardi explained.

"Even today the issue of human rights in the region is pretty unpopular," he told VICE. "The 'Duterte policy,' can be copied in even worst forms elsewhere, since the Philippines and Indonesia are supposed to be the role models of democratic countries that respect human rights more than anyone else in Southeast Asia."