SANTA ROSA, Philippines—Extrajudicial killing in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs reached the level of a nationwide spectator sport this week with the assassination of a local mayor caught live on camera and seen by millions on TV and the internet.
The sight of Mayor Antonio Halili clutching his chest, then slumping over to the strains of the Philippine national anthem in the customary morning flag raising ceremony in front of the city hall of Tanauan, 37 miles south of Manila, was lamented by human rights advocates but not by Duterte, whose response was that Halili had got his just deserts.
The 73-year-old president was sure the 72-year-old mayor had been been “faking” when he staged much-publicized parades of convicted drug dealers through the crowded streets of his city in a show of support for the campaign against drugs. “He was pretending,” said Duterte. “I don’t know who had him killed, but I told you not to be involved in illegal drugs.”
The tone of the evening newscasts reflected a general lack of sympathy for another victim of murder in a country in which about 23,000 people have died violent deaths, 4,300 gunned down in extrajudicial killings, in the two years and one week since Duterte began his six-year term amid nationwide revulsion over drugs that once were openly sold throughout the country.
Newscasts showed tape of Halili standing stolidly in a row of local officials, respectfully listening to the anthem, then falling down in a scene of mayhem. “But he was reported in the drug trade,” said one anchor person whom I happened to tune in on, as if that pretty well justified whatever happened to him.
Duterte’s critics, worldwide and at home, may condemn him as a brutal despot, but his tough talk, his crude language, his disrespect for women and, most of all, his approval of the killing of drug dealers hardly create a dent in his popularity. That’s despite the sensation within the Catholic Church when he seemed to have taken the name of the Lord very much in vain, calling God “stupid” and refusing to apologize.
“Who is this stupid God,” asked the president, himself a Catholic in a country whose 105 million people are 80 percent Catholic. “What is the original sin?” he asked, talking in Tagalog, the predominant national language. “Was it the first kiss? What was the sin? Why is it original?”
While such questions might seem okay in an abstract discussion on religion, they arouse consternation and condemnation among Catholic clergy who have been at odds with him throughout his presidency.
“God did not give us Duterte to be our president,” said Bishop Broderick Pabillo. “The 16 million voters chose him.” Indeed, he noted, “Many very bad leaders had been elected by their people” – including, he noted, Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the nation for 20 years before being overthrown in the People Power revolution of February 1986.
Pabillo, as reported in the Philippine Star, one of the country’s leading newspapers, reminded Catholics that they had ignored warnings before Duterte was elected about his obscene language along with his indifference to human rights, including those of women in an irredeemably male chauvinist culture.
“Have these cautions been proven to be true?” he asked rhetorically. “We are in this mess not only because of Duterte but because of our congress, our senators, our governors and the like who have no guts to stand up for what is right….”
Fair enough, perhaps, but there’s one huge catch. That is, if the election for president were held today, Duterte would probably get a lot more than the 16 million votes he won in 2016— a plurality among 50 million who cast ballots. Social Weather Station polls show him with a 56 percent popularity rating, maybe down slightly since the ruckus over his God remark but not much.
Carlos Conde, a veteran journalist who has been working for the past few years as researcher here for Human Rights Watch, sees Filipinos as “split over him” — in part because “he’s so different.” His appeal to the instincts of a largely poor working class and the middle class carries shades of the same appeal as that of Donald Trump. Duterte, who once called Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” ranks high on Trump’s list of strongman soulmates with whom he has professed to have struck up “a great relationship.”
Like Trump, Conde told me, Duterte “has successfully ingrained the idea that there’s no alternative from the current pool composed of [the] old political elite.” As in Trump’s America, “Domestic institutions of accountability are either undermined or compromised.”
And, as Trump might like to do, said Conde, Duterte “has demonstrated his willingness to use violence — he is getting away with murder because no accountability institution has stood up to him in any significant way yet.”
In coffee shops and restaurants, shopping malls and street markets, one gets little impression of sub-surface bitterness and hostility among a seemingly fun-loving, gregarious people, but Conde, who was in school when hundreds of thousands swarmed the streets calling for Marcos’ overthrow 32 years ago, said he has never seen Filipinos “so conflicted.”
For Conde, one of the saddest aspects of the war on drugs is that he senses little empathy for those who are routinely assassinated. “The victims of this drug war are the poorest of the poor,” he said. “They are not middle class, not even lower middle class. They live off the sewers. People don’t care about them.”
Mayor Halili was, of course, different—a pillar of local privilege who got nationwide publicity marching convicted drug dealers carrying signs saying “I am a pusher” before jeering crowds until the National Police Commission last October said he was in cahoots with drug lords and revoked his authority to order arrests.
His assassination was meticulously planned. A sharpshooter armed with an M16 rifle hid out in bushes 150 meters away. A single shot pierced his heart. No one expects the police to find the killer.
The next day, another mayor was killed riding in his van in Cabanatuan, 62 miles north of Manila. There were, however, no really good theories for why Ferdinand Bote, from nearby General Tinio, was shot by an assassin spraying bullets from a motorcycle — a favorite method for seldom solved hits.
That killing too was caught on someone’s camera in a blur of fuzzy images — the ninth mayor to die at the hands of assassins during Duterte’s presidency although, unlike Halili, he was not on the list of those involved in drugs.
The Philippine media had a field day quoting remarks Duterte had made earlier in which he jokingly advised a conference of vice mayors to get rid of their mayors and take over the top positions. “Kidnap them,” he had told them, grinning. “Just do it yourself.” Just say, “Mayor, I will kill you and nobody paid me, Duterte directed me.”
Very funny, but who knows when he’s kidding and when he’s not? In a coffee shop, a successful local merchant, Eduardo Almasol, had no problem laughing off whatever the president said. “Duterte is the best president we’ve had.”
“I don’t think he means it when he talks about God,” Almasol assured me. “He just doesn’t like priests.” Or at least the classic meddlesome kind whom Duterte this week accused of spreading “the creeping influence of faith,” preaching against birth control while the country’s population rises uncontrollably.
For Almasol, like a majority of his countrymen, Duterte is a man of his word—“he keeps his promises.” That’s a judgment that most would agree is all too true whether they like him or not.