LA UNION, Philippines (Reuters) - When Philippines police chief Ronald Dela Rosa gave a rousing speech to his men at a regional headquarters in Luzon, they rewarded him with a gift: a replica of the sword used by actor Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart.
The barrel-chested police chief grinned and gave the weapon, which is almost as long as he is tall, a practice swing. A voice on the camp’s loudspeaker declared him “the bravest of bravehearts”.
Dela Rosa acts as the enforcer for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has led to more than 3,400 people being killed in just over three months.
Dela Rosa’s tour of Luzon, the country’s largest and most populous island, was the latest in a series of trips to stiffen the resolve of police officers at the campaign’s bloody frontline.
“I have to encourage them to do our job,” he told a Reuters reporter who went on the trip last month. “We are at war.”
Police said on October 3 they had shot dead 1,375 people in operations since President Duterte took office on July 1. They also report a further 2,066 “deaths under investigation”, many of which human rights activists attribute to vigilante killings.
Reuters was unable to confirm the accuracy of these numbers or the extent to which the killings have been committed by vigilantes.
The campaign has sparked outrage abroad, but in the Philippines it has won praise from a crime-weary population and only muted criticism from civil society groups.
In a country where the police are generally despised and feared because of their reputation for corruption and violence, Dela Rosa is popular. After only two months as police chief, the national media is already touting him as Duterte’s possible successor, an idea that the president’s spokesman Martin Andanar described as “speculative”.
Duterte has often called for the killing of drug dealers. And Dela Rosa has echoed the incendiary remarks. At a speech last month, he encouraged users and pushers to kill drug lords who had grown rich from exploiting the poor.
“You know who are the drug lords here, go to their houses, pour gasoline, set it on fire, show them you are angry at them,” he said.
Still, Dela Rosa’s close operational knowledge of the drug war could make him a focus if there is ever an independent investigation into the killings, said Rose Trajano, secretary general of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, a nationwide coalition based in Manila. It is unclear, though, whether anyone will be in a position to hold such an investigation.
“He is a good soldier of the president, but there will also be fear in him,” she said.
Dela Rosa told Reuters he was confident that killings during police operations were legitimate, and that the “deaths under investigation” were mostly the work of drug syndicates. “They are killing each other,” he said.
In person, Dela Rosa is intense but courteous, and says he is under pressure.
“My worry is that I won’t be able to deliver what is expected of me,” he told Reuters.
Duterte vowed on September 18 he would extend his anti-drug campaign for another six months, but Dela Rosa said he still felt pressed for time.
The biggest obstacles to the campaign, he said, were providing rehab services for the many users of crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug known locally as shabu, and halting its influx from abroad, particularly the flow from China.
More than 700,000 drug users and pushers have registered with the authorities in a process termed “surrendering”. But there are very few programs or facilities to help most of them, and local media have reported the killing of scores of people who have registered.
Dela Rosa told Reuters the number of drug-war killings would continue to rise. “Every day the number of dead increases,” he said. “Every day the arrests increase and those who surrender.”
Dela Rosa bristles at the mention of foreign critics. The United States has said it is “deeply concerned” by the killings, while two United Nations experts have accused Duterte of incitement to violence, a crime under international law.
“They’re making us out to be killers,” said Dela Rosa. “It really broke my heart. We’re doing this for the good of the Filipino people.”
Before the anti-drug campaign, he said, people were scared to leave their houses. “Now the situation has been reversed. Law-abiding people are going out. Criminals are hiding. See the difference?”
But while other serious crime has declined, the murder rate has soared, and in some communities residents told Reuters that police and vigilante killings had made them too frightened to go outside after dark.
Dela Rosa, 54 – whose earliest ambition was to be a boxer - is popularly known as “Bato”, after his hometown south of Davao City. It also means “rock” in the national language Tagalog.
His late father was a pedicab driver who could barely afford to send him to school, said Dela Rosa in a tribute on his Facebook page in June.
Davao City is where President Duterte spent 22 years as mayor, unleashing a brutal anti-drugs campaign that the hard-charging Dela Rosa joined as he rose through the ranks of the local police force.
“I liked what he was doing and he liked what I was doing, so we became friends,” Dela Rosa recalled. Duterte made him Davao’s police chief in 2012.
The Coalition Against Summary Execution, a Davao-based watchdog, has documented 1,424 vigilante-style killings in the city, including 162 in 2012-13 when Dela Rosa was chief.
Asked about the findings, Dela Rosa said: “I will look into that.” Adding: “I don’t memorize that data.”
Duterte appointed Dela Rosa his national police chief over other more senior officers, giving him free rein to roll out Davao’s harsh crime-fighting model across the country.
At a police camp in Baguio, in the Philippines’ ethnically diverse highlands, Dela Rosa donned a tribal headdress and robe to hand out awards to officers for their anti-drug efforts.
Hundreds of officers asked to take selfies with Dela Rosa, who always obliged. Sometimes only his trademark shaven head was visible amid a scrum of well-wishers.
However, even in the police camps, Dela Rosa is circled by six bodyguards. Drug traffickers, he told Reuters, “can kill me anytime”.
Dela Rosa said in an interview with popular Philippines talkshow host Boy Abunda that he twice tried marijuana at college and got high but decided to stop because it could ruin his future.
In another of his regular television appearances, this time on a show called “Get It Straight”, Dela Rosa declined to say how many people he had shot in his police career “because people might say the (police) chief is a killer.”
Filipino journalists covering Dela Rosa told Reuters they have never seen him smoke or drink. His main hobby is collecting guns.
“He loves guns,” said Police Chief Superintendent Aaron Aquino, who served with him in Davao and now commands central Luzon, a region that has clocked up about 500 drug-war killings. “Every time he sees a good gun he buys it.”
Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin and Manuel Mogato in Manila