(Note: Strong language in paragraphs 15 & 16)
By Manuel Mogato and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday he hoped a shift to target big networks in his war on drugs would satisfy “bleeding hearts” and interfering Western states fixated on the high death toll in his brutal crackdown.
In a televised speech, Duterte read a memorandum that removes police from the drugs war and places the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in charge, then launched a curse-laden tirade at foreign critics of a campaign that has killed thousands of Filipinos.
Duterte appeared to target some European parliamentarians among a group called the Progressive Alliance, which on Monday said it was “extremely alarmed” by the drugs war and warned the Philippines risked losing trade privileges because of unchecked abuses by police during his signature campaign.
“I am not interested anymore in using any other (agency), just let PDEA,” he said.
“They seem to want it, I want, as a last word, maybe this would suffice for the stupid European Union guys. They were all focused on how many deaths.”
The European Union delegation in Manila issued a statement clarifying that it had no involvement in the visit by the Progressive Alliance.
It was unclear whether the decision to change tactics in the anti-drugs campaign was influenced by Western pressure.
The administration on Thursday said the shift was to target “big fish”, moving away from street level operations to go after big networks and suppliers.
Police disbanded all 18 regional anti-drugs units on Thursday. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the new aim was for PDEA to target “higher echelons of the syndicates, as well as their protectors in government.”
That message will sound familiar, with similar announcements a year ago when a new phase of the drugs war was launched to catch producers and suppliers.
Critics say that never happened and small-time dealers and users and the urban poor continued to bear the brunt of the 3,900 killings by police. Police say armed suspects resisted arrest in every one of those cases and they deny allegations victims were executed.
Duterte was furious on Thursday and appeared to suggest European lawmakers had warned the Philippines could lose its U.N. membership.
Duterte lashed out at Western powers who colonised countries, started wars, “stole” oil from the Middle East, and said they had import terrorism to their own shores.
He dared them to cut ties with the Philippines and have their ambassadors leave within 24 hours. He said his new alliances with Russia and China - U.N. Security Council permanent members - would keep the Philippines in the United Nations.
“We will be excluded in the U.N.? You son of a bitch. Go ahead. You are interfering in our affairs because we are poor. You give money and then you start to orchestrate what things should be done,” he said.
“You bullshit. We are past the colonisation stage. Don’t fuck with us.”
Duterte’s spokesman Abella later clarified that Duterte’s “expression of outrage” was a reaction to the Progressive Alliance, which had “falsely portrayed itself as an EU mission” and made irresponsible statements.
The strategic shift in his war on drugs comes at a difficult time for Duterte, who though still hugely popular, saw a sharp decline in ratings according to a poll released on Sunday.
It also followed an anti-Duterte protest last month by thousands of people and rare public outrage over the killing by police of a teenager. Several surveys released recently show doubts among Filipinos about the validity of police accounts, and whether victims were all drug dealers.
With only a fraction of the manpower and budget of the police, PDEA will have a challenge to keep up the intensity of the crackdown.
Duterte placed PDEA in charge in January and suspended police from anti-drugs operations. But he reinstated them a few week later, arguing drugs had returned to the streets.
PDEA spokesman Derrick Carreon said the agency was up to the task.
“We are ready, we can do it,” Carreon said.
“We will target the source, the so-called big fish. Removing these high-value targets will also eliminate the street level distribution and disrupt the entire network.”
Duterte acknowledged the death toll in PDEA’s operations was smaller than that of police, and said human rights groups and the media should be happy.
“Let’s go there. No death, no encounter. So better for the bleeding hearts and media. I hope I will satisfy you,” he said.
Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie