QUEZON CITY, Philippines—The area where squatters live on National Irrigation Authority land is a warren of narrow alleys, shacks improvised from corrugated zinc sheeting and found wood, and dimly lit sari-sari stores selling candy, chips, ice, and loose cigarettes. In “Area C” women wash clothes in metal bowls and too many teenage mothers heft babies on their hips.
Vicar is one of the “informal settlers” here. He’s also among thousands of so-called surrenderees who have turned themselves in to avoid becoming casualties in the bloody drug war that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte launched when he took office June 30, and which has slaughtered as many as 3,800 Filipinos.
So egregious are the human rights abuses, and so attached to them is Duterte, that he refuses to accept criticism from his country’s old allies in Washington. He has called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” and he says he’s going to make his country a de facto dependency of China, which isn’t so finicky.
Duterte continued his broadside against the U.S. on a state visit to Japan. “I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops. I want them out,” he said, indicating that he is prepared to “revise or abrogate” the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between Manila and Washington. He also condemned America for having “lived off the fat of my land.” Tokyo was aghast at the insults, not to mention the president’s poor manners—anathema to the uber-polite Japanese.
When he got back to the Philippines, Duterte suddenly announced that God told him to clean up his language. “I heard a voice telling me to stop swearing or the plane will crash in mid-air, and so I promised to stop,” he told reporters at the airport.
Here in Area C, the impact of this rough populism winds up being very personal.
“I was afraid of being killed,” the soft-spoken and nervous Vicar says. “Who would not be afraid knowing that so many are already in the ground.”
Wearing a bandana and dark clothes dusty from his $10-a-day carpentry job, he says he started using marijuana six years ago, then graduated to methamphetamines. He says surrendering was a better alternative than losing his family, which includes a 3-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son, and his life.
In Duterte’s merciless crackdown, cops from the Philippines National Police allegedly commit extrajudicial killings, drug bosses whack underlings to save their own skins, and authorities pack thousands of people into jails built for hundreds.
All this as the president threatens to “slaughter” (his word) three million Filipinos, compares himself to Adolf Hitler, and harasses a sitting senator.
The death toll ranges from 1,300 to almost 4,000, depending on the source. According to “The Kill List” of the Inquirer.net website, 1,338 people had been slain as of Oct. 17. But the police themselves estimate the figure at some 3,800. The office of Philippine Senator Richard J. Gordon, chairman of the Senate Justice and Human Rights Committee, which has been investigating the extrajudicial killings allegations, says the number is 1,804.
Any way you cut it the mortality rate is surging upward, and this much is clear: Since the foul-mouthed, tough-talking former mayor of Davao came to power and launched his offensive against drug kingpins, dealers, pushers, and users, hundreds of people have lost their lives at the hands of murderers egged on by the president, who has implied that killing a drug dealer is tantamount to heroism. “Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal,” the president said in June.
Critics say Duterte’s recklessness has fueled the killing of scores of citizens, many of them poor and some of them children, who had nothing to do with drugs, were peripherally involved, or were minor figures trying to scratch out a living. Some victims were at best runners and lookouts and others were unlucky folks, like pedicab drivers, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Small wonder that thousands of spooked Filipinos have surrendered to authorities as an act of self-preservation.
“Now we have 7,500 people in a jail meant for 800,” complains Salvador Capilin, the captain of one barangay, or political ward. “People are apprehended without due process of law, and the police recommend no bail. Why? Because the president is telling them to apprehend all pushers. Prosecutors will go along—if you let them [dealers] out you’re ‘part of the problem.’ Judges will convict everyone, since they’re afraid too—because many judges are involved.”
Indeed, Duterte has publicly accused, by name and on national television, scores of judges, politicians, and local executives he claims are involved in the narcotics trade. He also identified five Philippine National Police generals who allegedly were protecting drug lords—and immediately relieved three of duty.
The president launched his war the day he was sworn in. “These sons of whores are destroying our children. I warn you, don’t go into that, even if you’re a policeman, because I will really kill you,” he declared after taking the oath of office.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself, as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” he exhorted his audience.
Duterte had spouted similar rhetoric in his run for the Malacañang Palace, but now he was speaking as head of state.
“We’ve seen Duterte deliver on his campaign promise to use violent, extrajudicial means as a way to solve crime,” says Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “[Victims] never saw a courtroom. They never saw a lawyer. All we have is the police word that these were bad people. The situation now is an utter human rights calamity.”
Unfazed, Duterte suggests innocent victims are “collateral damage” and shrugs off the criticism that has rained down from local and international human rights groups as well as the United Nations, the United States, the Catholic Church, the European Union, and others.
The shrugging came with characteristic defiance and profanity.
Duterte cussed out Obama as a “son of a whore” in early September, prompting the White House to cancel a bilateral meeting between the two leaders. A month later he said, “You can go to hell, Mr. Obama.” He told the European Union it had “better choose purgatory [because] hell is filled up” with the people he’d told to go there. He also dismissed Pope Francis and the Philippines’ Roman Catholic bishops as “sons of whores”—a particularly incendiary oral assault in a country whose population of 102 million is 80 percent Catholic, and typically devout.
Why such vitriol? And what triggered Duterte’s bloodbath?
The president’s past may provide a clue: He has said that he was fondled by a priest when he attended the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao High School in the 1950s—and recently suggested to Al Jazeera that the abuse partly inspired his anti-crime campaign.
In August, the Senate Justice and Human Rights Committee, chaired by Sen. Leila de Lima, began an investigation into the allegations of extrajudicial killings. At one sensational hearing, 57-year-old Edgar Matobato testified that as Davao mayor Duterte paid him and other hit men to carry out summary executions.
Spinning a cinematic tale worthy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the shaggy, gray-haired Matobato testified that he was in the “Davao Death Squad,” which went so far as to feed the bodies of victims to a crocodile and dumped remains into the sea.
The self-described assassin claimed his murderous posse referred to Duterte as “Charlie Mike” and received hit orders directly from him. He implicated the then-mayor in 1,000 deaths. In the course of the probe, however, Matobato himself was arrested on illegal firearms charges. He was released on bail on Oct. 14.
Meanwhile Sen. de Lima was removed from the chairmanship and replaced by Sen. Gordon, who calls Matobato “a Joe Pesci,” alluding to the actor’s roles in Scorsese pictures, and “a guy who wants attention; always looking for ways to make money.”
Gordon tells The Daily Beast that President Duterte, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who “counters violence with violence,” was a “tough law-and-order mayor,” and “the kind of person that wants to get the job done whatever it takes.” Then cautions, “I hope he’s not having people killed, because that would be against my own principles.” And he adds, “If it [the killing] is indeed state-sponsored, I think he’s going into the gray area there.”
Gordon succeeded de Lima after fellow committee members voted her out. Boxing great Manny Pacquiao, also a senator, made the motion to oust de Lima for not being “neutral.”
She remains on the justice committee, but since she produced Matobato as a “surprise witness” she’s become the subject of a salacious campaign that includes allegations she had an affair with her driver.
She claims the allegations are retaliation instigated by Duterte. The president says revealing her alleged affair was necessary because it links de Lima to illegal activities in New Bilibid Prison. The Philippine House of Representatives has been investigating alleged proliferation of drug syndicates and illegal drugs at the prison. Meanwhile, Duterte has dismissed de Lima with his patented hard talk: “If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’d hang myself,” he said in late August.
De Lima’s problems got dramatically worse days ago, when she was charged in two cases of receiving money from a top drug lord in Eastern Visayas when she was Philippines justice secretary. The kingpins allegedly gave her millions of pesos for her senate bid in May 2016. One complaint improbably charges that de Lima is “the mother of all drug lords.”
The senator calls the charges a “web of lies,” but is being vilified all over social media regardless. In a very brief conversation in the Senate office building in Manila, she explains why she has not been answering her phone: “You have no idea about the kind of calls I’ve been getting,” she tells The Daily Beast.
Her troubles look set to outlive the Senate investigation: Gordon, seen in the Philippines as a Duterte ally, threw out Matobato’s testimony as not credible and announced on Oct. 13 that his committee no longer would discuss extrajudicial killings. The panel is poised to officially clear Duterte—Gordon said last week that he did not believe the killings are state-sponsored. “Nothing was proven,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Filipinos clam up at the mere mention of extrajudicial killings. Barangay Rizal is a hardscrabble district within sight of Makati’s shiny skyscrapers and the upscale SM Aura Premier shopping center. Drug addiction and selling is said to be common in the barangay. On a recent evening, dozens of pedicab drivers line up on Sampaguita Street, waiting for customers. They’re not interested in talking.
A young woman finally allows that there are many drug transactions and some sometimes end in shootings, occasionally fatal. “Drug dealers are even using kids to sell to people,” she says, noting that neighborhood residents are too scared to report any crimes “because the drug gangs will retaliate or just start shooting who they think reported them to the police.”
She approves of Duterte’s war. Now she can go home late at night with no fear of being confronted by drug peddlers and users.
And that’s part of the conundrum of the president’s campaign. Despite complaints from critics at home and abroad, Duterte and his tactics are very popular among Filipinos, most of whom are exhausted by the country’s cycle of drug abuse, crime, and poverty.
A new poll by Pulse Asia puts the president’s approval and trust rating at a whopping 86 percent. “We have a president that many people believe in because he’s a game changer,” says Dr. Mahar Mangahas, president of Social Weather Stations, another well-known polling firm. And fiercely protective Duterte fans on Facebook and Twitter angrily reject international criticism of the president as attacks on Philippine sovereignty and attempts to “destabilize” the country.
“Duterte is getting sympathy just by being known as Mr. Anti-Drugs,” says community organizer and Inquirer.net columnist Jose Ma. Montelibano.
The president had promised to continue killing drug lords no matter what the Senate justice committee determined. With the panel off his back, he has an even freer hand.
Duterte initially indicated he would take three to six months to end the drugs stranglehold, but now says he will need six more months. As a sign of his confidence and sense of impunity, he has invited Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, the United Nations, and the European Union to visit the Philippines to look into the killings.
But even his conciliatory invitation was facetious, truculent, insulting—and reminiscent of Donald Trump, who is in many respects his ideological twin.
“I’m sure they can never be brighter than me,” he snarked. “Believe me.”