In Manila, government-sanctioned killings are the new normal

Duterte drug war

In metro Manila’s Arellano neighborhood, more than a dozen residents have been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. 

Aristotle Garcia, 47, was one of them. Authorities say he was killed in a shootout with police after trying to sell drugs to an undercover cop. 

His sister, Karen Rana, doesn’t believe it. Standing with a few dozen mourners in front of Aristotle’s open casket, she insisted, “He was a user,” not a dealer, as the police report says. “Nowadays, with this kind of situation … he will not do that. Because he’s already afraid of being caught and killed.” 

A photo of the crime scene shows a bloodstained Aristotle lying in the street. He has a .38 caliber pistol in one hand, a wad of cash in the other. I ask her if her brother was right handed. She says no — which means the gun in the photo is in the wrong hand. 

“He was executed,” she says. Her surviving brother, Aaron, says he thinks he knows why. “He has information. He knows all the users here. All the pushers here,” Aaron says. He’s convinced one of them set his brother up. He hints corrupt cops might have been involved as well. But the police have closed the case. And the Garcia family says it would be pointless to pursue the matter further. 

Aristotle’s mother Sylvia admits crime is down in her neighborhood because of the war on drugs. She’s not against the idea. Just not like this, she says. “Stop the extrajudicial killings,” she says. “Because not all [those] killed were guilty.” 

But she’s in the minority. A year into the war on drugs, Duterte is more popular than he was when he was elected. Just a few blocks from the Garcia household is an area populated by middle- and upper middle-class students from nearby De La Salle University. Many of them aren’t bothered by the extrajudicial killings. 

“I don’t even consider it a killing. Maybe it’s a moral killing in a way,” says Daniel Bernardo, a 31-year-old graduate student in the political science department. “It’s like a pest in your house. If you see a cockroach or a mosquito, what would you do? You’d kill it. For me, drug users, drug sellers [are]  a sickness in society. They need to disappear.”

Bernardo gives President Duterte an A- for his first year in office. “I think he’s doing very good. He’s like a father for every Filipino. I believe in his integrity. He’s a game-changer. He’s not a traditional politician. … Duterte is someone who is so different.”

Chito Gascon, head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, agrees Duterte is different, but not in a good way. He says, “The playbook that is being pursued now is the one he mastered and perfected as mayor” of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao. 

Before Duterte took charge, Davao was a rough place, says local journalist Editha Caduaya. She remembers the days when the area was plagued by both Muslim separatists and a communist insurgency. “After his election in 1989, the promise was, let’s fix this city and get things done.” And, she says, he did. 

In a country where law enforcement can be lax, Davao City has lots of strict rules: an anti-littering ordinance, a 10 p.m. curfew for minors, and no smoking in public places. Legend has it that Duterte once forced a South Korean tourist to eat his cigarette after he lit up on the street in front of the mayor. Davao City also boasts the Philippines' first 911 emergency response center and a sophisticated IBM-designed surveillance system with technicians monitoring hundreds of cameras around the city. And all of it, says supervisor Emmanuel Jaldon, is Duterte’s vision.

“He [believes] you cannot guarantee development if order, security, and safety is not guaranteed for all citizens.”

Some in Davao City say Duterte has done a lot to empower women, too — even though he has publicly told rape jokes. 

“His heart is bigger than his mouth,” says Jeanette Ampog. "He’s not perfect, but he’s doing his best for women and children.”

Ampog runs Talikala, a local NGO that helps sex workers and trafficking victims. A women’s development code; a center for victims of domestic violence; a children’s welfare code — all municipal firsts in the Philippines, Ampog says. And about those sex workers — when he was mayor, Duterte unofficially decriminalized prostitution in Davao City, despite a nationwide ban, Ampog says. “The president believes these women are human beings and deserve to be protected and they’re only doing this to earn for themselves and their family.”

But critics say Duterte’s success in turning around a city now run by his daughter, Sarah, came at a high cost: hundreds of extrajudicial killings that were attributed the so-called Davao Death Squad. 

“There is no doubt in my mind, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is responsible for these killings,” says Human Rights Watch’s Carlos Conde. 

Human Rights Watch produced a detailed report on the killings in Davao City in 2009. During last year’s election campaign, Duterte didn’t run from the allegations. Rather, he embraced them, Conde says.

“In public, he said that he is the death squad, that he’s behind these killings, and it’s not true that there are only hundreds of killings, the figure could be 1,700 over the years,” Conde says. “Based on his public statements in campaign speeches, interviews with the press, even with his own TV program, he admits as much.” 

That helps explain how he won last year’s election: by telling voters what he could do for the country. His very public expression of distrust of the U.S. also contributed to Duterte’s strong-man image. According to many in Davao City, that distrust came from his time as mayor. An American staying in the city accidently set off a bomb, in his hotel room, and was taken to a hospital by police. He was snatched from that hospital, allegedly by US agents, before local authorities could question him. A former high ranking Army intelligence officer, who requested anonymity, said Duterte was furious.

“That’s the beginning of why President Duterte hates the Americans. That’s the very reason.” 

Serafin Ledesma Jr., publisher of the Mindanao Journal, says Duterte had every right to be upset by “the sheer arrogance of the FBI agents to just barge into Davao City and pull out a very important person who should have been undergoing interrogation by Davao City authorities.”

That case may have been the most personal reason for Duterte’s distrust of the US. Another could be US history in the Philippines as a colonial power, says Davao City journalist Editha Caduaya. “He’s not against the American people, but more the policy,” she says. “The injustice done to the Moros, because his mother has roots from the Muslim settlers of Mindanao.” 

She’s referring, in particular, to an incident that occurred during the US occupation of the Philippines between 1898 and 1946. Duterte has publicly made reference to the alleged massacre of hundreds of Moro Muslims, including women and children, on the island of Jolo in 1906. “When he recalls that history,” Caduaya says, “he usually rants.”

He also chafes at what he sees as American paternalism and has made a very public show of pursuing an independent foreign policy, relying less on Washington, a longtime ally — but one he doesn’t really trust to come to the Philippines’ aid to deter China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. An ally whose criticism of his war on drugs (under President Barack Obama) made Duterte combust. 

Asked at a 2016 press conference whether he cared about foreign criticism of his war on drugs, Duterte said, “No, not at all,” before exploding in anger. “I am not worried about the international community because I am not the president of any international countries. I am the president of the Republic of the Philippines. … At the end of the day, it is really your love for your country, and that you want a new generation of Filipinos to have a better life than [we’ve] had. Do not f*** my country. Do not f*** with our children.”

Duterte has toned down his anti-US rhetoric in the past few months, especially after Donald Trump became president. He famously swore at Obama over Washington’s criticism of his war on drugs, but he’s had kind words for Trump, who recently complimented Duterte on the job he’s doing and invited him to the White House later this year. Duterte, in turn, has acknowledged the US military’s help in trying to end the siege of Marawi City by ISIS-linked militants on the island of Mindanao. But he’s vowed to continue his war on drugs, his way, until it’s over. 

But what happens then, asks Chito Gascon of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. “Once the criminals are gone, will the killings stop? I don’t think so. Once you’ve let the beast out of the cage, how are you going to bring it back?”

Jose Manuel Diokno, dean of the De La Salle University School of Law, shares Gascon’s fears, and worries about a possible return to martial law.

“He says it’s a war on drugs, but in my view it’s really a war against the poor. He says it’s a war on drugs, but he’s not in any way attacking the syndicates, the organizations that are responsible for bring in these drugs,” Diokno says. “He says it’s a war on drugs, but in my view, it’s really a war against the legal system. And my biggest fear — which appears to be happening — is that it’s really an attempt to demean the legal system to the point where only an authoritarian form of government would be capable of maintaining order.” 

Listen to the full America Abroad episode.

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