The Philippine war on drugs is a tricky story to tell: here's why

AMO is a TV series that was created for TV5 in the Philippines and despite all the controversy surrounding it, Netflix picked it up. AMO marks Netflix’s first-ever Filipino series, according to Variety, and will likely be the first time that many people around the world are exposed to a Filipino television show. AMO means “master” or “boss” in English and  is an exploration of the war on drugs in the Philippines. It was directed by Brillante Ma Mendoza, who won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 for the movie Kinatay (loosely translated to “butchered”).

In the first episode, we are introduced to Joseph, a 17 year old high school student in Manila who is also a low-level meth dealer. Then the series passes through several different characters and perspectives. There are thirteen episodes in this series and they’re pretty short – each of them is only about twenty minutes long since Netflix cut out the commercials. It’s easy to binge the entire series in one day because of how short each episode is. And they’re all really meaty — there is no wasting time with a recap of the previous episode and it’s very fast-paced. AMO has been compared to the show Narcos but I’m pretty sure western audiences will find that it’s completely foreign to them. 

Mendoza seems to have always had his sights set really high for AMO. It was made exclusively for Philippine channel TV5 but he was the one who convinced the head of the network to send two episodes to Netflix. 

There are several big controversies surrounding this series: Is it a propaganda tool for President Rodrigo Duterte? Does it glorify vigilanteism? Brillante Mendoza already has a long history of being a very vocal supporter of Duterte, who is an extremely controversial and polarizing figure. This is a president who is bringing a lot of national pride to a country that needs it desperately. But this is also a guy who has (proudly) compared himself to Idi Amin. 

“Duterte is very misunderstood to Americans and westerners”

There are a lot of groups in the Philippines who were pushing to get this show taken off the air. Prior to the series’ premiere, there was an open letter against the show expressing concerns that AMO allegedly “promotes and endorses murder and violence in the Philippines.” The letter claims “there is an ongoing human rights catastrophe in the Philippines that has seen tens of thousands murdered, all driven by President Duterte’s war on drugs,” and expresses frustration that the real conflict in the Philippines “is not the stuff of fun and entertainment. These are real people, real lives. Real murders.” 

Since I don’t live in the Philippines, I have a really hard time forming an opinion about President Duterte and I often feel like it’s just not my place to anyway. I will say that I think he is very misunderstood to Americans and westerners. His approval rating remains consistently high – it was at almost 82% in January and February of this year. Outside of the Philippines however, he has faced a lot of international criticism of his human rights record coupled with threats of United Nations investigations into all of the extrajudicial killings happening. 

It should be noted that the drug problem in the Philippines is mainly meth. This is because you can make meth anywhere in the world. It’s very different from cocaine, which you can only get from South America. 


So, why is the Philippines’ war on drugs different from the American war on drugs? One thing that makes it different is that Duterte doesn’t make a distinction between the addict and the drug dealer. Westerners and especially Americans tend to be very sympathetic towards drug addicts because we see them as victims. We’re much more aggressive towards drug dealers and bosses. Duterte doesn’t make a distinction between the two groups of people and there is a very famous quote of him saying, “These 3 million addicts that are in my country, I would kill them all if I could.” You can see he’s clearly saying addict, not dealer. He has also been quoted as saying, “These addicts, they’re parents don’t have the heart to kill them because it’s too painful to kill your own child, so you have to kill them.” One can easily see how he is encouraging extrajudicial killings with a lack of due process and trials.

This war on drugs gets a lot of international press because it is so controversial and foreign from a western perspective. We don’t tend to think that crimes like dealing drugs or possessing drugs is deserving of a death sentence, but he does. 

There is also a lot of issue about his encouragement of vigilanteism. He has said he is fully behind anyone who decides to take it into their own hands and hunt down these addicts and dealers. Thousands of people have died either at the hands of their own neighbors or the police and one has to wonder if the police force and the vigilantes are just acting with impunity because they have the president himself backing them up. 

Meanwhile, Duterte’s drug policy does seem to be working. He has created a culture of fear among the people in his country. He will have his police force and military get together and create these lists of suspected drug users, criminals, drug dealers, and government officials who they suspect are working with the drug dealers and they’ll give the list to a community and they will read the names on TV and say, these people have a certain amount of time to turn themselves in.

“I did not think AMO glorified EJKs or the drug trade.”

If they don’t turn themselves in, the police have warrants to come after them. Hundreds of thousands of people have turned themselves in. Now here’s the problem. I’m sure a lot of people on those lists are indeed criminals but how many innocent people have been framed in this way? 

If you’re unfamiliar with Filipino politics, then you are probably wondering how Duterte was elected to the presidency. Prior to the presidency, he was the mayor of a town in the southern Philippines where crime was high because of insurgency, drugs, gangs, and rebellion, and because of his policies, crime was at an all-time low. He campaigned on that, with a lot of his supporters believing he could accomplish the same thing at the national level.  

While I think that the Philippine War on Drugs is a tricky story to tell, I did not think AMO glorified extrajudicial killings or the drug trade. I think it did a really great job portraying police corruption and the impact of extrajudicial killings on impoverished families. Brillante has stated that his own family members got caught up in the drug trade and that’s what persuaded him to support the president’s war on drugs.

At the end of the season finale, the show’s writers left the narrative wide open for a second season. If AMO is able to gain the kind of mass following that Narcos has, a second season streaming rights order for the series seems very possible — and I don’t see any reason why TV5 wouldn’t want to be a part of it. Personally, I would love for a second season of AMO because I thought it was an incredible series. I’ve been encouraging as many people, especially fellow Filipino-Americans to watch the show so that not only is there a second season, but for there to be an opportunity for more Filipino shows in the west.


To hear Eliza discuss the show AMO in more detail with Aldovar (TFML Podcast) and Joey Marana (LakasFMA Podcast) — warning: major spoilers, check out this episode of the Escape From Plan A podcast: A Filipino-American Look At Netflix’s Amo.

Eliza Romero is the founder of the style blog, Aesthetic Distance, and the editor of Plan A Magazine. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram