After Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took office, he warned he had a ‘watch list’ of alleged drug dealers, addicts, and corrupt politicians. Since then, said journalist Patrick Symmes, thousands have been shot dead.
Duterte’s ruthless drug war
PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte of the Philippines waved a thick sheaf of papers on live television, fanning the pages for the public and the national press corps to see. “This list of names, this is it,” he said in the Oct. 27 appearance. “This is the drug industry in the Philippines.”
Filipinos had been hearing for months about the “watch list” for drug suspects. After he entered office last June, Duterte began gathering names of suspects from local police officers and elected officials for a new national war on drugs. The list took many shapes in Duterte’s various tellings, containing anywhere from 600,000 to more than a million suspects. He also once claimed that some 3 million Filipinos—3 percent of the population— were drug addicts, and that he would be happy to kill them.
Duterte made a point of naming names across a broad swath of Philippine society, including 6,000 police officers and 5,000 local village leaders he called corrupt. How they ended up on the list, or even who exactly was on it, was a mystery that fascinated Filipinos. How you got off the list was even more mysterious.
Alvin Mañalac discovered that when in mid-October a local police officer warned him that he was on the list. Mañalac, 40, was surprised—he had been an enthusiastic foot soldier in Duterte’s drug war. He is the barangay kapitan—a local elected official— in his part of Malabon City, a gritty district in north Manila, and had been assisting the police as they investigated drug suspects in his jurisdiction. Now, somehow, he himself was on what has become, for thousands of people, a death list. He supported the government, but “I’m worried,” he said.
When I went to see Mañalac one morning in November, I found him sitting in his second-floor office with a handbag on the desk in front of him. It contained a Glock 17 pistol with an oversize clip. “This is what is keeping me safe,” he told me. “This and a rosary.”
The killings began to increase after Duterte was elected president. As a long-serving mayor in the southern city of Davao, Duterte rose to national prominence by declaring war on a drug that has crippled the Philippines, the cheap variant of crystal meth that Filipinos call shabu. The drug offered the country’s teeming poor an instant tonic against hunger, an illusion of strength during hard labor, and a mental escape from hopeless slums. There are more than a million users in the Philippines, according to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Board.
Duterte entered the presidential race at the last minute, vowing to go national with the no-holds-barred campaign he waged in Davao. He promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office. In May, he won the election with 6.6 million more votes than his nearest opponent.
Once in office, Duterte immediately ordered thousands of police raids. To date, these operations have killed more than 2,000 suspects, according to the Philippine National Police, in what have usually been reported as shoot-outs or attempts to take a police officer’s gun. The fights seem to have been suspiciously lopsided—nationwide, in six months, 21 officers have died, and three soldiers. But another 4,000 people—many of them from Duterte’s watch list—have died under even murkier circumstances. Late last year I visited 10 crime scenes where 18 individual homicides had taken place, and most of them appeared to have been the work of teams of efficient killers, encouraged by the president’s inflammatory language.
As of October, the president enjoyed an 86 percent approval rating nationwide; his popularity was greatest among the poorest Filipinos surveyed. Family members of the drug war’s casualties on several occasions told me they supported Duterte’s violence, even as they insisted their sons and daughters were targeted mistakenly. The list was a promise to cleanse society, and surrendering to the police, or even being innocent, was no defense.
In the two weeks since Mañalac found out he was on the list, he had felt his life to be in doubt. Duterte had singled out barangay kapitans and small-town mayors in his public statements. Before dawn on Oct. 28, a southern mayor named Samsudin Dimaukom was stopped at a checkpoint by a unit of the National Police looking for a major drug shipment. They claimed Dimaukom opened fire first; the mayor and all nine of his aides and security guards were killed, while no police officers were injured. Days later, a team of elite officers from the criminal-investigation division entered the jail cell of another prominent mayor accused of drug offenses. They were supposedly there to deliver a warrant, but after a reported scuffle the mayor and his cellmate were shot dead.
At his desk, Mañalac held up his phone to show me a text message, one of dozens of death threats he had received. “You are a protector” of drug dealers, it said. Another message called him “a cuddler” of addicts. One threatening letter had been written carefully, then scanned and forwarded to him.
AT 11 P.M. in Pasay City, a busy commercial district in greater Manila, a couple of bodies lay on the asphalt at an intersection. A pair of traffic policemen had unfurled yellow crime-scene tape; shoeless children climbed on top of taxis for a better view. The right-turn signal on the scooter the men had been riding was still blinking, as the vehicle lay tilted over on the asphalt.
One body, in a black T-shirt and cargo shorts, was lying on its back. The man’s eyes stared at the sky; he had been hit in the shoulder and head. Crumpled against the curb was another body in denim shorts, a T-shirt reading “California,” and a black helmet. The Scene of the Crime Operatives, or SOCO, arrived, navy-clad technicians who secured evidence. SOCO is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of killings—sometimes more than a dozen a night in Manila alone—but it was still early in the evening, and the technicians worked patiently to mark, inventory, and photograph the evidence.
Pasay City is a center of the violence, enough so that Philippine reporters have taken to calling it Patay—“Dead”—City. This particular case was notable only because the dead men had been released from police custody shortly before their killing. They were picked up earlier in the day and questioned about internet gambling, but the official police report from that night listed one of the men as a “suspected drug personality.” They had been released from custody and headed up the street on a red Honda Wave scooter. They were cut off around 10 p.m. by two motorcycles, each with a driver and a shooter.
In Duterte’s drug war, death often arrives this way, in the form of two men riding in tandem on a motorbike. Over one night in October, The Philippine Star reported nine vigilante-style killings in greater Manila. Witnesses in five cases described “motorcycle- riding assailants,” “two motorcycle- riding men” or someone “shot dead by motorcycle- riding” killers. Surveillance-video tapes from different nights show teams of men carrying out coordinated killings; in some cases, the victims are seen being taken away alive. Their bodies would turn up later. In one case, police officers on Mindoro island happened to spot and pursue four killers on two motorbikes. Two escaped, but two others were wounded in a shoot-out and surrendered while yelling out “Tropa, tropa,” or “Troops.” They turned out to be local police officers.
Duterte has denied both the presence of death squads in the country and the involvement of the police in the killings, but he has also exhorted them openly, vowing to kill so many drug dealers that “the fish will grow fat” in Manila Bay from eating their bodies. “If they pull out a gun, kill them,” he told army troops, who assist in police operations, in a speech in September. “If they don’t, kill them, son of a whore, so it’s over, lest you lose the gun. I’ll take care of you.” One officer of the National Police bragged anonymously to British daily The Guardian that following Duterte’s election, he had joined a clandestine kill team: Volunteer officers in plain clothes were issued a list of targets. A woman in one Manila slum told the BBC she was hired by a local police officer to kill five people on his list.
Duterte’s reputation derives from what he did in Davao, building a clean and efficient city by Philippine standards. Davao was awash in violence when Duterte arrived, but he tamed both leftist and Muslim insurgents who had battled the government for years. He banned smoking in public and went after speeders. He crushed street crime and humiliated corrupt officials. By the time he left office, the city had drinkable tap water and was approving business permits within 72 hours.
According to Human Rights Watch, while Duterte was mayor of Davao, elements of the local police and local government operated a death squad in a clandestine war that killed about 1,000 people, including suspected criminals, drug dealers, leftists, and street children. Duterte denied the existence of a Davao death squad for years, although he has also said, in what he claims was only a taunt to his critics, “Am I the death squad? True. That is true.”
ONE NIGHT, I rode to the scene of a double homicide in Quezon City, in greater Manila, in a pickup with Raffy Lerma, a long-haired photographer for The Philippine Daily Inquirer. His paper keeps an updated “kill list” on its website that documents the drug war’s casualties in exacting detail. And yet for all their thoroughness, just as the police never seem to actually solve a case, the Philippine media cannot put names to the killers.
When Quezon City’s streets became too narrow for the pickup, Lerma and I continued on foot, turning down increasingly decrepit alleys. We arrived at the murder scene after the National Police, who had taped everything off, but ahead of SOCO. Two patrol officers moved around slowly, bent over with flashlights and chalk, finding and circling nine shell casings. Two pairs of legs poked out from behind piles of debris.
The closer pair of legs belonged to a 17-year-old girl, who the neighbors said was named Angel. Nearby was another body, this one a 21-year-old male the onlookers identified as her boyfriend, Jerico. Neighbors, including a local shopkeeper with whom I spoke, described two men on a motorcycle following the couple home from a local restaurant. After pulling on masks, they cornered Jerico in a quiet back street and killed him. When Angel screamed, perhaps defending him, they shot her through the throat. After they left, someone threw down a cardboard sign that said “You are a pusher, you are an animal.”
Later that week, Angel’s open-coffin wake was held at the end of a tiny alley in Quezon City. A sister and one friend sat stoically on their own until a church group showed up to sing a hymn. Angel’s real name, it turned out, was Ericka Fernandez, and she was the third of seven children. One of her sisters denied that Angel had ever used drugs. The coffin was half open, revealing a girl in a white dress with large, poorly concealed sutures holding her neck together.
Jerico’s wake was held about a mile away, and better attended, if only because it took place in a busy footpath. The half-open coffin stood on display in front of his uncle’s house; a dog napped underneath.
Jerico was innocent, said his father, Rommel Camitan. “He’s not a pusher. Hundred percent, sir. Not a pusher.” Camitan sat on a plastic stool in the street, sheltered by a tarp that friends had strung overhead. Without enough cash on hand for a funeral, the family was buying another week by having Jerico’s body injected with more preservative against the tropical heat.
Despite his anguish, Camitan endorsed Duterte’s campaign. “All this talk of finishing drugs and the drug war is good,” Camitan said. “But he has to be sure that their target is the right person.” Good people had nothing to fear, he told me. “The only ones who should feel afraid are the ones who did something wrong.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■