Drug war shifts to phase two as public health issue – Presidential spokesman

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The country's controversial war on drugs shifts to stage two, where it is tackled as a public health issue, a palace official said.

The first phase of the drug war was creating awareness among Filipinos regarding the extent of the illegal drug problem, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said on CNN Philippines "The Source" on Tuesday.

He added that 97 percent of barangays in the country have been infiltrated by illegal drugs.

"Having created enough attention, enough awareness about it, we will now enter the second phase of the drug situation," Abella said. "It's now shifted from a national security issue more into a public health issue."

President Rodrigo Duterte launched his war on drugs when he assumed the presidency on July 1.

The campaign has drawn popular support with more than 750,000 drug pushers and drug dependents turning themselves in to authorities, said the latest figures from the Philippine National Police on Tuesday.

The crackdown has led to 1,714 deaths of drug personalities, and more than 31,000 arrests, the police added.

However, critics of the drug war have tagged hundreds of deaths in the drug war as extrajudicial killings in nature.

The United States, the United Nations, and human rights groups have expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings. 

The latest protest on the drug war came on Monday from a U.S. State Department official who met with Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay following Duterte's comments last week about "separating" ties with the United States.

"Your friends are also concerned about the loss of life in connection to narcotics campaign," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Daniel Russel. "I also reiterated the importance that we place and that others place on due process and respect for the rights of citizens," Russel added.

President Duterte took aim at Russel's remarks in a press briefing Tuesday prior to his departure on an official visit to Japan.

"I had a talk with [Foreign] Secretary [Perfecto] Yasay and here is a guy, his name is Russel...[saying] if you can just tone down our rhetoric. Alam mo, hindi ako nag-unanitong away na 'to eh. Ang nag-una sila. [You know, I didn't start this argument. They started it.]," Duterte said, referring to the U.S. government.

Related story: "I did not start this issue with the U.S."—Duterte

Support for phase 2 of drug war

Abella recognized China, which stepped up to the plate, by helping the Philippines in phase 2 of its war against illegal drugs.

"This is where the president has shown the admiration for the support of other countries like China," he said.

"They really offered rehabilitation, and some technologies are being offered regarding drug control, drug management, and also rehabilitation programs," Abella added.

A Chinese philanthropist has donated a 10,000-bed rehabilitation center for recovering drug addicts in the province of Nueva Ecija. This is set to open in November.

Related: Major rehabilitation center opening in Nueva Ecija

China in July said it is cooperating with Philippine authorities in the illegal drug war, since most of the illegal drugs and raw materials are from China.

"The source apparently comes from China but of course we understand it's not a (Chinese) government-run thing," Abella said.

"These are people, individuals, criminals, their drug lords in China are pretty harsh so apparently China has found its self in the position where they can help," he added.

The reimposition of the death penalty was also an impetus for curbing the drug trade.

"(Duterte) says [the] law is for making sure that you go by the law, you live by the law. If you go against it, there must be retribution. And so that's why he said 'death penalty,'" Abella said, adding that Duterte "always thought about it in those terms," of capital punishment being a deterrent to illegal drugs.

Abella said the conviction with which the government pursued the war on drugs was unfairly tied to the reports of alleged extrajudicial killings.

"The whole concept of EJK (extrajudicial killings) is misunderstanding of what he really intends... You go after the criminals and then make sure that they surrender properly. However, if there is resistance and your life is in danger then you...protect yourself,"  Abella added.

Duterte on Tuesday noted that a new list of personalities in the illegal drug trade included "so many" in government from barangay to national officials that he needed a consensus from Congress on how to carry on with the war against drugs, now entering its fifth month.