As the body count soars, some say the real threat to the Philippines is not drugs but the President himself
At around 11 p.m. on July 25, Restituto Castro received an anonymous text message asking him to leave his house in the Caloocan district of northern Manila and come to the corner of the McArthur Highway.
Just hours earlier, the Philippines’ new President, 71-year-old Rodrigo Duterte, had given his inaugural State of the Nation address, in which he repeated the vow that saw him elected by a landslide in early May.
“We will not stop until the last drug lord … and the last pusher have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish,” said Duterte.
Castro, 46 and a father of four, was neither a drug lord nor a pusher. He never even bought grams of shabu — one of the local names for methamphetamine — for himself. Too poor to become a proper user —shabu starts at $31 a gram — he used to buy the drug on behalf of his friends in exchange for a bump or two. “He always had a hard time saying no to his friends,” his wife Merlyn tells TIME.
At the same time, a flirtation with meth didn’t sit well with his life as a family man and his work as a chauffeur at a nearby hotel, and Castro decided to stop cadging recreational hits before he became dependent.
According to his cousin, Castro told them that his next drug run would be his last. And so it was.
A single bullet to the back of his head that night made Castro one of the first of nearly 2,000 Filipinos killed so far in Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. The director general of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Ronald dela Rosa, told a Senate hearing on Aug. 22 that 712 people had been killed in police operations in the seven weeks since the crackdown began, and that another 1,067 had died at the hands of vigilantes. By one account, there isofficial pride in the death toll.
Nobody can claim to be surprised. The carnage is exactly what Duterte promised. “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” he said before his election, in April. A month later, when he was President-elect, Duterte offered medals and cash rewards for citizens that shot dealers dead.
“Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he told police officers on July 1, the day after his inauguration. He was speaking at a ceremony installing dela Rosa, his loyal henchman, as the nation’s top cop.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” he was quoted as saying to another crowd that day.
And so the killing time began.
The Philippines is hardly alone. Executing people for drug-related offenses, judicially or otherwise, is characteristic of the region. According to a report last year by drug policy NGO Harm Reduction International, the only countries other than Iran and Saudi Arabia known to have executed drug traffickers since 2010 are all Asian: China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.
Thailand conducted its own war on drugs in 2003 under then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the events then — more than 13,000 arrests, over 36,000 cases of people surrendering to police, and nearly 1,200 deaths in its first month — will feel eerily familiar to Filipinos.
Two decades earlier, a wave of extrajudicial executions took place in Indonesia under its autocratic leader Suharto. They came to be known as the petrus killings after the Indonesian acronym for penembak misterius(mysterious gunmen) and had as their supposed aim a reduction in crime. Thousands were murdered in the period between 1983 and 1985.
Now, it’s the Philippines’ turn, and Duterte’s war may turn out to be the most ferocious yet. “This fight against drugs will continue to the last day of my term,” he said.
That day is six years away.
“I don’t care about human rights, believe me”
Duterte got elected because he promised to be tough on crime. But how bad is crime in the Philippines, and is reducing it worth the summary massacre that is now taking place?
The Philippines is not listed in all columns of this U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey of global reported crimes from 2003 to ’14. But comparisons can be made using figures from a 2015 report issued by the Philippine Statistics Authority.
There were 232,685 cases of crimes against persons involving physical injury reported in the Philippines in 2014, for a population of 98 million. By comparison, the UNODC says there were, in the same year, nearly 375,000 cases of assault in the U.K., which, with a population of 64 million, has far fewer people.
In 2014, there were 10,294 reported cases of rape in the Philippines. But there were more than 30,000 cases in the U.K.; 12,157 in France (which has a roughly similar population to the U.K. at 66 million); and 6,294 in Sweden, for a population of just 9.5 million.
That same year, there were 52,798 reported robbery cases in the Philippines. That’s about as many as there were in Costa Rica (52,126 cases) but Costa Rica, with 4.7 million people, has less than a 20th of the population of the Philippines, so the Philippine rate is much lower. The total is also far fewer than the 171,686 cases reported in Belgium (population 11.2 million).
Neither is firearm ownership high in the Philippines. According to theUniversity of Sydney’s School of Public Health, which researches the number of privately owned firearms worldwide, there are 4.7 guns per 100,000 people in the Philippines, putting it at a lowly 105th place in a list of 179 countries. Finland has 45.3 guns per 100,000 people, Canada has 30, and Australia has 15.
Unsurprisingly, while the Philippines can be a deadly place, it is not especially so. According to World Bank data, the Philippine rate of 9 intentional homicides per 100,000 people in 2013 makes it only slightly more dangerous than Lithuania (7) or Mongolia (7), and puts it on a par with Russia (9). The U.S. figure is 4.
In the five years from 2010 to ’15, PNP figures show that total murders across the nation’s top 15 cities averaged 1,202 a year. But many more people have already died in the first seven weeks of Duterte’s drug war.
When Duterte made the eradication of crime the cornerstone of his campaign — pledging to kill “100,000 criminals” — he earned an emphatic victory, bagging 38% of the vote in a five-candidate race. This despite a demagogic boorishness that places him alongside some of history’s mostnotorious rulers.
On the campaign trail, Duterte’s “joke” that he “should have been first” in the 1989 rape of an Australian missionary in Davao, and his public branding of his daughter as a “drama queen” after she revealed that she had been raped, were seen as salty stump speeches instead of indications of an ungoverned mind.
His boast of the “1,700” suspected criminals killed by death squads during his time as mayor of Davao, where he was in office for 22 years, was also glossed over. (In April, he said that he would pardon himself “for the crime of multiple murder” if voted into the nation’s highest office.)
All of this has been overlooked, because Duterte is thought to be business-friendly and because, above all, he has promised to clean up the streets. But even allowing for the obvious caveats — like the fact that many crimes go unreported — it is clear from official data that the Philippines is not experiencing the sort of critical social breakdown that would explain an average of 36 extrajudicial killings a day.
It could also be that Duterte wasn’t really talking about pickpockets, or thieves, or carjackers, when he vowed to make “the fish grow fat” on the bodies he would dump in Manila Bay. He seems, in hindsight, to have been referring to only one kind of criminal: the drug users and drug pushers (many of them small time) that are merely the latest scapegoat of a nation that has long faced far greater problems, like endemic corruption, poverty,poor health, rights abuses, and a deeply entrenched culture of official impunity.
Duterte once vowed to kill his own children, if he caught them using drugs. Now he sanctions the killing of other people’s children, on the grounds that drug use is unforgivable moral laxity, robbing men and women of their rectitude, and the country of its silver. The overlords of the Philippine drug trade, he claims, are all in China — the ultimate destination, allegedly, of the grubby funds that furtively change hands on street corners across the land.
But how bad is the Philippine drug problem? According to UNODC data, the highest ever recorded figure for the prevalence of amphetamine use (expressed as a percentage of the population aged 15 to 64) in the Philippines is 2.35. That is a high figure, but then the equivalent figure for the U.S. is 2.20, and the world’s real amphetamine crisis is among Australian males, where the prevalence is 2.90.
When it comes to illicit opioid use, the Philippine prevalence rate is just 0.05, compared to 5.41 in the U.S., and 3.30 in Australia. For cocaine, the Philippine figure is only 0.03. In the U.K., it is 2.40, in Australia 2.10 and in the U.S. also 2.10.
In other words, the statistics show what any visitor to the country may easily see: Filipinos are not degenerates, who need to be protected from themselves, but are mostly a nation of decent, sober, law-abiding and God-fearing people. The most revealing Philippine statistic is this: 37% of Filipinos attend church on a weekly basis. Less than 20% of Americans do.
Nonetheless, Duterte has succeeded in convincing large numbers of his people that drug use constitutes such an emergency that the very existence of the nation is threatened, and that only his rule can save the Philippines. It’s the oldest autocratic trick in the book.
“We’re on a slippery slope towards tyranny,” Philippine Senator Leila de Lima tells TIME.
A week after he took office, a poll conducted by Philippine research firm Pulse Asia showed that an astonishing 91% of Filipinos had a “high degree of trust” in Duterte. Among them are people like Ray Antonio Nadiera, a 33-year-old maintenance worker in the country’s second largest city Cebu, who says that by the time Duterte’s campaign is over, “all the addicts will be straightened out.” In Manila’s Pasig Line district, local resident Jamie Co says, “The people killed are the dirt of society. What Duterte’s doing, his war on illegal drugs, is right. It’s good.”
“In the opinion of many Filipinos, law and order is a major issue and previous administrations weren’t effective or dedicated in addressing it,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University, tells TIME in an email. Duterte, he says, “has a lot of political capital to dispense with.”
But that was before the bodies began to pile up. Now, less than two months later, many others are appalled at the forces that have been unleashed. There is also deep shock at the drug war’s financial implications: Duterte has given huge funding boosts to the police and military by slashing the country’s health budget by 25%, and reducing expenditure on critical sectors like agriculture, labor, employment and foreign affairs. On the other hand, the budget for the presidential office has increased tenfold, and now includes a provision of $150 million for “representation and entertainment.”
“Whether it’s state-sanctioned or not, I would say at the very least all of these killings are state-inspired,” says de Lima.
A former chairperson of the country’s Commission on Human Rights and Secretary of Justice under the previous administration, de Lima has been waging an effectively lone battle from within the government against Duterte for the past two months.
The 56-year-old lawmaker, who also heads the Senate’s Committee on Justice and Human Rights, called for a probe into the extrajudicial killings two weeks after Duterte assumed office. She faced an intense backlash on social media from Duterte supporters, who vilified her as “a coddler and a protector,” in her words, of the country’s drug syndicates. Duterte’s own response has been to launch a smear campaign; he is attempting to convince Filipinos that de Lima is in the pay of drug gangs and that she has had “sex escapades” (his words) with her driver, who, he suggests, collects bribes on her behalf. In the present climate, when people accused of far less are being shot dead, bandying around these sorts of tall stories is deeply threatening.
Several colleagues in the Senate have also pushed back, dismissing an investigation as premature.
“What’s the threshold? Shall we wait for a thousand to be killed, or 10,000 or 100,000, before doing something?” de Lima asked TIME on Aug. 8, not imagining, presumably, that just two weeks later the first of those body counts would have been exceeded by almost 100%.
Her sentiment is echoed by the international human-rights community. In June, two U.N. representatives condemned Duterte’s “incitement to violence,” not only against drug dealers and criminals but also againstjournalists. Duterte’s response was “F-ck you, U.N.” More recently, he called the international body “very stupid” for criticizing his war on drugs and subsequently threatened to pull his country out of it, despite the many programs run by U.N. agencies in the Philippines. He has also threatened to impose martial law.
“This is going to damage democracy and the rule of law as we know it,” says a Philippines-based international human-rights campaigner, requesting anonymity due to safety concerns. “This notion that you can solve all your problems just by killing people will only have a detrimental effect in the long run.”
It’s all the same to Asia’s newest strongman. “I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” he says.
“There is no due process in my mouth”
As always, it is the poor in the barangays — as the smallest units of municipal organization are called — who pay the highest price.
In these impoverished communities, barefoot children play beside open sewers, families often share a single room, and, for a few people, shabu is an escape — both psychotropically and financially.
“A lot of the people involved in the drug market have no other opportunity for income, so a lot of that money also goes to support families in communities,” says Clarke Jones, a researcher at the Australian National University who has spent the past six years studying the Philippine prison system and the drug trade within it.
“It’s easy money,” a 50-year-old detainee in Davao tells TIME. He says he’s in jail for the second time after serving a drug sentence between 2003 and ’08. “Sometimes you can’t blame ordinary people who sell drugs because they do it to feed their families. It’s just survival instinct.”
At this level, the effects of Duterte’s war can be seen in the families left sobbing on the bloodied pavements. Families like that of Ricky Alabon.
Alabon, 45, was gunned down on the night of Aug. 5 in the barangay of Malabon in northwestern Manila. He worked as the caretaker of his neighborhood’s cell-phone tower and had gone to check on it around 11 p.m. According to a witness — a young child who relayed the incident to Alabon’s younger brother Richard — he was surrounded by four men on three motorcycles, one of whom opened fire. Police found the father of four with 11 bullets in his body.
“It’s really savage how they killed him. The people who gunned him down are animals,” Richard tells TIME, adding that his brother had gone clean weeks ago, after he saw his name on a list of alleged drug users being waved around by barangay leaders.
“It’s O.K. to eradicate drugs, what I don’t like is the killings because there’s still time for a person to change, right?” he says. “My brother, he actually changed.”
For the Alabon family, like many of the victims, seeking justice is out of the question. “We can’t. We’re poor,” Richard adds. “What about his kids? They can’t even continue their studies. How can we give him justice?”
The second of those kids, 20-year-old Maricar, struggles to hold back tears as she tries to make sense of her father’s death.
“At the start of Duterte’s time, it was happy because you could feel the change, but as time goes on, the trust is slowly fading,” she says. “The police are supposed to help you, but they’re the reason many people are dying.”
The assessment of Alabon’s older brother George is more damning.
“The government of Duterte? It’s like Saddam, bin Laden, Gaddafi,” he says angrily. “Hitler equals Duterte.”
In Manila’s south, Jenny, a young woman, stands in a crowd of about 50 people, surrounding her neighbor’s house at 2 a.m. on a Saturday. Gunshots were heard just over an hour ago, and the police emerge to announce that the occupant, a man named John Paul, has been killed.
“It’s like a death penalty is handed out without due process — Duterte gave free rein to the police,” she tells TIME on the curbside. “They say if suspects fight back they can kill them, but people are getting killed without a fight.”
The police, on their part, claim that all their killings have been carried out in self-defense. And they have the unequivocal support of the country’s new ruler, who has promised to “die” for them as long as they do their “duty.”
“This is the first time that the President and the administration are really focused on eradicating illegal drugs,” says a senior police official, requesting anonymity. “The whole support of the President,” he says, “makes it very encouraging for the law enforcer.”
The man leading the charge, 54-year-old PNP chief dela Rosa, has been Duterte’s enforcer since the latter’s Davao days. “Bato,” as he is commonly known, was the southern city’s police chief for more than a year, while Duterte was its mayor, and is known for his unflinching loyalty (in fact, he was sacked from the leadership of a PNP special unit in May, for making a pro-Duterte Facebook post a week before the election).
“We maintain our trust and confidence in each other,” dela Rosa tells TIME about his relationship with Duterte. He also rejects any suggestion that his officers are acting in any way outside the law, which he describes as a set of “constraints” that “we can deal with,” before adding: “In the absence of evidence that proves my men are abusing, I maintain that they’re maintaining regularity in the performance of their duties.”
That appears very conscientious given his closeness to Duterte, who is openly against the rule of law, despite being the son of a lawyer and a former Davao city prosecutor himself. “There is no due process in my mouth,” the President said on Aug. 7.
That night, he named 159 judges, public officials, and even police officers, whom he claimed were involved in the country’s narcotics trade. He ordered that the policemen on the list be immediately dismissed, the politicians have their government-assigned security details revoked, and the judges to report to the Supreme Court within 24 hours.
In the manner of a dictator, he chose to do this on live national television, naming one high-profile individual after another without providing any evidence. He may as well have been dressed in military fatigues of his own design.
“I’m trying to understand what this naming-and-shaming approach intends to achieve,” says Jose Luis Martin Gascon, chairman of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights. “He’s angry at crime, so he’s taking on the persona of everyone who’s been victimized by crime?”
Gascon adds: “The other problem, of course, is that when you do a naming and shaming in the current environment, you place these persons at potential risk of attacks from vigilantes. These are human beings, they’ve been accused, and they find themselves now in a gutter with a bullet in their head.”
The list itself is also full of mistakes. The country’s Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, pointed out in an open letter to Duterte that only four of the seven judges named were still on the bench. One of them was dismissed in 2007, and another died eight years ago. When she instructed that nobody named should surrender unless an appropriate arrest warrant had been issued, Duterte said that she “must be joking,” and threatened to withdraw all executive support from her.
Naturally, many of those named are appalled to find themselves accused of involvement in drugs — among them former Cebu mayor Michael Rama.
“It really saddened us, we were shocked,” Rama tells TIME at his family home in the city where he served as mayor from 2010 until May 2016, and as vice mayor for the decade before then. The 61-year-old veteran politician says he has always been against drugs, and cites a tripling of antidrug operations during his mayoral tenure as evidence.
Rama believes that he was named as part of a settling of political scores, and cites “skirmishes from a long time ago” with Tomas Osmeña, the man who both preceded and succeeded him as mayor, that have “carried over.”
Rama is outwardly calm, but veers from making sycophantic remarks about the man who put him on the list (“We wholly support the relentless drive of this present administration, and I congratulate the President”) to expressions of despair (“Right now I feel I am dead, even if I am alive”), to uttering constant invocations for the safety of his family.
“I will never stop on behalf of the family,” he says. “Not me. I can face it alone. I’ve had my struggles. But my primary focus now: get my family off this list.”
He may or may not succeed, but at least he has been able to fly to Manila and the dreaded headquarters of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and secure an audience. That is a luxury that the country’s poor do not have.
“People here get really afraid now if they see anyone on a motorcycle wearing a helmet,” a pastor in Cebu tells TIME, also requesting anonymity out of fear. His brother — one of four men gunned down by two attackers on Aug. 6 — was a drug user, but the pastor is struggling to make sense of his murder.
“Why weren’t they arrested? Why directly kill? It’s bizarre, there’s no due process,” he laments. “This is a time of lawlessness.”
“We don’t have to convince anybody anymore”
Extrajudicial killings are not new in the Philippines. Historian Alfred McCoy — the author of several books on modern Philippine history —calculates that 3,257 people were killed by the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to ’86, while around 70,000 were imprisoned. (Duterte has openly expressed admiration for Marcos, and hisdecision to bury the former dictator at the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila led to the first public protests since the former Davao mayor took office.)
Summary executions have not been unknown in the post-Marcos era either, particularly in the insurgency-ridden south. But the numbers have been low — an Asia Foundation report says that 390 people were killed in the 10 years to 2011 — until now.
“Extrajudicial killings are a legacy from that authoritarian period,” says Gascon, who was a member of the body processing reparations for the Marcos regime’s victims before he became head of the human-rights commission last year. “But what makes it a little more difficult is that in previous administrations, postmartial law, it was not policy to support or encourage this kind of practice.”
Rightly fearing for their lives, Filipinos are surrendering in droves. More than half a million people have turned themselves in to the authorities for drug-related offenses, according to police data, since Duterte took office. Although, as Joseph Franco, an expert on the Philippines at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, tells TIME via email, “Surrender is a very loaded term.”
The police draw up lists of suspected drug users and dealers, he explains. The lists are then sent to the barangay, where community leaders are pressured to endorse them and include additional names — something done with little verification or oversight, if any.
“So you can put on those lists neighbors with whom you have an ax to grind” without worrying about a detailed vetting process, Franco adds. In this way, the poor are turned on each other.
Once named, an alleged drug user has three options. To risk being murdered, to wait to be picked up in a potentially lethal police action, or to report to the authorities. If they choose the latter, they are made to sign a waiver saying they will swear off illegal substances — or face the consequences if they begin using drugs again.
There are private rehab facilities, but most are full. The Bridges of Hope facility, for example, has room for just 92 patients divided between its two Manila branches. Its $650 monthly fee is well beyond the means of the average Filipino, who earns less than half that amount, but those that can afford it are flocking to its doors.
“We now have to create a waiting list of some sort, which we didn’t have to do before,” says Guillermo Gomez, a program director. Since May 9 this year — the day Duterte got elected — he estimates there have been 500 inquiries from drug users or their families, an average of six a day. Before then, he says, the center received about three inquiries a week.
“Lately, when the families inquire, we don’t have to explain the program,” he adds. “The decision happens so fast. We don’t have to convince anybody anymore.”
Filipinos surrendering to the authorities, but unable to afford or get a place in private rehab, are often placed in community rehabilitation programs, where they can go to Zumba classes, or are taught trades like hairdressing or soapmaking. They also undergo weekly “value formation” sessions that serve as a barometer of their sincerity.
“If these people will no longer attend [the sessions], it means they are already on the other side of the mountains, so we will be again running after them,” says Jemar Modequillo, the chief of police in the city of Las Piñas, which is part of the Manila conurbation. “And those who are no longer interested to continue in this program, maybe that could be another story for them,” he adds cryptically.
Besides rehab, or the grave, the other destination for drug users is prison, which, even by the standards of the Philippines, is a special kind of hell. On a visit to Las Piñas City Jail, TIME estimated that about 50 men were sharing a roughly 10-by-10-sq.-ft. cell. Many had been there for over a month. But unbearable overcrowding is not unique to Las Piñas. With thousands of arrests over the past seven weeks, prisons around the countryare overflowing.
“Even prior to President Duterte’s assumption of office there was a steady increase in the number of convicts admitted, but no increase in the facilities,” says Resurrection Morales, who coordinates, on behalf of the Philippines Bureau of Corrections, efforts to reform inmates.
The bureau runs seven facilities across the country that collectively house over 41,000 prisoners, which means they are already well past their tipping point, at 158% overcapacity.
The maximum-security facility at Manila’s New Bilibid Prison, where Morales met TIME, currently houses 14,000 inmates in cells designed to house no more than 6,000. Ironically, this is the place — not the poor and shabby barangays — from which the much of the Philippine drug trade is conducted. Duterte’s administration is aware of this. The current Justice Secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, estimated in June that 75% of the country’s drug deals could be traced back to New Bilibid.
And yet, while drug users and low-ranking dealers are murdered outside the maximum-security compound, many of the country’s top drug criminals lead lives of relative comfort and continue their business from their own dedicated building. With a church, a school (where Morales and her team do their work), basketball courts and a medical facility, the compound resembles a small community — albeit one patrolled by 300 guards from the country’s Special Action Force in full combat gear, each shouldering an M16. (The battalion is a post-Duterte addition, deployed in mid-July but, so far, to little effect. In a raid led by dela Rosa himself, nothing much of consequence was seized: an unspecified quantity of pesos, and a few cell-phone signal boosters, was about all.)
“The prison system is already in a state of bust, in the sense that I think we’re going to approach the very real tipping point,” says Jones, the Australian academic, adding that the rapid addition of drug offenders into understaffed prisons could eventually lead to complete chaos.
“I would hate to see it get to the point where the drug lords control the prisons like in Mexico and South America,” he says. But that could easily be a consequence of Duterte’s drug war.
And even so, losing control of the prisons should be the least of the Philippines’ worries. Filipinos are in real danger of losing control of the country. Many are in danger of losing their lives.
Omeng Mariano, a 47-year-old father of two, was shot dead in the Manila neighborhood of St. Quiteria in late July by unknown gunmen. His friend Albert Gonzales ran and hid in a closet when they entered the house, and the quick, terrified peek he took through a gap in the door revealed men in camouflage pants with masks hiding their faces.
Gonzales is not sure if they were police, but says they referred to their target as “Alpha.” He heard four gunshots, but thinks a “double-action trigger” was used because the autopsy showed seven gunshot wounds.
He wants to testify as a witness in his friend’s murder, regardless of the repercussions on his safety.
“Even if he’s the President, I’m not afraid of getting killed,” he says. “He should give people a second chance. They’re humans. Not animals.”
But the President doesn’t do second chances. “Rich or poor, I do not give a sh-t,” Duterte said at a press conference on Wednesday. “My order is to destroy.”