MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' main antinarcotics agency signed an agreement with the military Tuesday to harness troops in President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly anti-drug crackdown after he barred the national police force from carrying out the campaign to cleanse its ranks of rogue personnel.
Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said that troops would only back up the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, or PDEA, which has a tiny force, in assaults against major drug suspects and in raids in far-flung areas facing insurgency and terrorism threats under the new agreement.
Troops would not get involved in routine street and residential checks and raids against small-time targets, Arevalo said. Previous community raids by police have left thousands of mostly suspected drug users and petty dealers dead since July, alarming the United States, Western governments and human rights groups.
"With this agreement, we can now push through with our new and bigger role in ending the illegal drugs scourge," Arevalo said. "The Armed Forces of the Philippines will only be involved in high-impact operations and arrest of high-value targets."
The military would also back the agency in building up intelligence and investigating government officials and personnel and influential groups linked to illegal drugs, he said.
Duterte barred the 170,000-strong national police from his anti-drug crackdown a few weeks ago after two anti-narcotics officers were implicated in the killing of a South Korean businessman in an extortion scandal that allegedly used the antinarcotics campaign as a cover.
The victim was reportedly strangled to death by one of the officers inside the main national police camp in metropolitan Manila, angering Duterte, who ordered an internal cleansing of a police force he once said was "corrupt to the core."
Since the police force was removed from the crackdown, the number of raids nationwide has declined and police officials have reported that the illegal drug trade has returned in some communities.
On Tuesday, Duterte said he has ordered the national police chief to form special task forces of new police personnel with clean records and "imbued with the fervor of patriotism" to carry out anti-drug operations. It may take a long time to form such task force, he said, because "it's not easy to look for honest men."
"I have to call back the police again to do the job most of the time on drugs," the president said. "I have to do it because I don't have enough people."
The PDEA, which only has more than 1,800 agents, has tapped the national police to help it fight an illegal drug trade Duterte said has worsened into a national security threat.
Drug assaults whether by the military or police would be supervised by the PDEA, he said, adding he has asked the police to form monitoring squads to conduct surveillance on police personnel who would be dismissed from the force amid the ongoing cleansing operation.
"They were criminals when they were policemen, so all the more they would be when they're out of the police force," Duterte said.
"I will really have them marked," he said. "I would like to warn them, I won't spare you, you will really be the first to die if you commit a wrongdoing ... your wives will really become widows."