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Why Is the US Supporting the Brutal, Deadly Assault on Drug Users in the Philippines?

Hundreds of people have been shot dead in the street under the mere suspicion of using drugs. And for some reason, the US is sending more money to the government for law enforcement.

When foreign governments kill people because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation, the United States often condemns them vigorously and sometimes threatens sanctions. But the same human rights protections are not accorded to people executed under suspicion of selling or even just using illegal drugs.

Those killings, according to your typical news headline, are different because they're part of an ongoing global "drug war." Yet the battle playing out right now in the Philippines, where hundreds of alleged drug users have been shot and killed in recent months, is an international disgrace—and the US is offering new funds to the man waging it. The horrific state of affairs suggests that even as harsh policies are being toned down at home, America's foreign policy apparatus remains plenty accommodating of senseless brutality rationalized as drug policy.

On May 9, the Southeast Asian island nation and former US colony elected Rodrigo Duterte as president. Since then, on his orders, upward of 700 suspected users or dealers have been extralegally shot down in the street—often left to die alone, bound and bleeding. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, nearly 600,000 people have turned themselves in to Philippine authorities, according to the Associated Press. While enough suspects are being held to stretch already overcrowded prisons beyond capacity, most have simply had their names and confessions taken and been released.

Duterte came to power after using similar tactics over his two-plus decades as mayor of Davao City. Locals credit him with making the city safer, despite a reported 1,000 extrajudicial killings under his watch; one recent survey estimated the president has the support of 91 percent of the national population. Although some other countries in the region are also known for harsh drug policies—Indonesia, for example, routinely executes low-level drug sellers and suspected mules—the level of violence and complete disregard for due process in the Philippines is unreal.

This photo taken on July 23, 2016 shows Jennilyn Olayres (center) hugging the dead body of her partner, Michael Siaron, who was shot by unidentified gunman and left with a cardboard sign with a message, "I'm a pusher." Photo via NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

In a June speech delivered before he began his term, Duterte called on citizens to take it upon themselves to kill those involved with drugs. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun," he said, dangling a "medal" to anyone who complied. Duterte has also assured police and the military that he will take responsibility for extrajudicial killings and protect anyone who assassinates suspects from being held criminally responsible.

By late July, an anguished photo of newly widowed Jennilyn Olayres, tenderly cradling the body of her dead husband, Michael Siaron, had gone viral. A squad of men on motorcycles reportedly shot the 30-year-old pedicab driver and left him to die on the street, accompanied only by a cardboard sign that said "drug pusher." Olayres told reporters that Siaron was innocent and had never harmed anyone; although her husband had taken drugs, she said, he'd never sold them and could barely support his family.

The man had even voted for the new president.

Apparently disturbed by the attention given to the photo, Duterte mocked the grieving widow for echoing the posture of the pieta and creating "drama." Since then, his police have continued publishing kill lists, and the president has vowed to press on in his murderous campaign, even if he has to soak his hands in blood.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, right, welcomes US secretary of state John Kerry during his visit at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Meanwhile, neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken out publicly against the killings. Kerry himself even met with Duterte on July 27, when at least some evidence of the slaughter was already widely available. Incredibly, the US dignitary pledged $32 million to the Philippines specifically for use in law enforcement. (The next week, Duterte called the US ambassador to the country, Philip Goldberg, a "gay... son of a whore.")

To be sure, lower-level officials in the State Department have suggested the US is "concerned" about the killings and stressed that the Philippines should not violate human rights laws. And Kerry has vaguely alluded to privately nudging the government on the issue. Meanwhile, Mario Moreno Zepeda, a spokesperson for the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, told VICE, "We are concerned by reports regarding extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected to have been involved in drug activity in the Philippines. We strongly urge the Philippines to ensure its law enforcement efforts are consistent with its human rights obligations."

The problem is that barbarity like this is the logical endpoint of the demonizing language and mass incarceration that marks the war on (some) drugs. The United States itself still has on the books a 1994 federal law that allows the death penalty for some "drug kingpins"—even if they are not killers and haven't arranged specific killings. The founder of the still popular (and ineffective) drug prevention program DARE, former LAPD chief Daryl Gates, once told Congress that casual drug users should be "taken out and shot." And for decades, many states punished nonviolent drug dealing with sentences longer than for people convicted of rape and murder.

Some still do.

The corpse of a suspected drug pusher and victim of a vigilante-style execution with his hands tied and head wrapped with tape lie under a bridge in Manila, Philippines, July 31, 2016. Photo by Zeke Jacobs/Sipa USA via AP

Some commentators have argued, however speciously, that mass killings of people addicted to opium by Chairman Mao "solved" China's problem with the drug in the 1950s. But today, even that country uses gentler approaches like needle exchange and methadone maintenance for people with opioid addictions who do still exist there. And Iran, which frequently executes people for drug crimes, actually has one of the highest rates of opioid addiction in the world.

Though atrocities like Duterte's are obviously extreme even in the context of the global drug war, they show what can happen when moral panics about drugs get way out of hand. When you call people "junkies" or "scum," when even papers like the New York Times run stories that question the "consequences" of saving the lives of people with addiction, and when coverage often focuses on "demons" that supposedly afflict drug users, social stigma is reinforced.

If America really does believe that addiction is a medical problem as both Republicans and Democrats now tend to agree, its leaders must condemn Duterte's brutality in no uncertain terms. Drug wars are wars on people, usually those who are poor and marginalized. We won't reduce the stigma associated with addiction when the government can't even bring itself to assert unequivocally that drug users have the right not to be shot dead in the street.

Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.