It was the early hours before dawn in Navotas, in the northwest of the urban sprawl that is Manila, when the Garganta family were awoken by armed men barging through the front door.
The men, who identified themselves as plainclothes cops, ordered Mary-Grace and her three brothers, Jomar, Junior and Joseph, to step outside while they searched the house. Attached to the house, the family had a little sari-sari (grocery) shop, where Mary-Grace’s mother and father were sleeping, as was her little sister.
The cops told her father they’d take him down to the station for questioning. When he stood up to put his clothes on, gunshots rang out. Their nine-year-old daughter saw the whole thing.
“My father was already down, but when they checked his pulse, they knew he was still alive. That’s when there were more gunshots,” Mary-Grace told me. Also in the house was her eight-year-old niece, who woke up to her grandpa lying dead next to the sofa in a pool of blood.
Crime scene investigators and reporters arrived at the scene. The cops claimed the father was nanlaban (resisting arrest), which seems to happen a lot in such cases. But that wasn’t the end of it, because then all three of her brothers were driven away for questioning.
Later that morning, Mary-Grace came to the morgue to collect her father’s corpse. Just then, an ambulance was dropping off another body to the same funeral parlour. His hands were tied, and he was wrapped in packing tape. It was Joseph, Mary-Grace’s older brother.
The Philippines (named after the Spanish King Philip II) is a collection of islands in Southeast Asia and a former US colony, which grabbed it during the 1898 Spanish-American war. But the Filipinos proved feister than expected, and a ruthless counterinsurgency began where US generals, many of whom were veterans of slaughtering Natives in the American Indian wars, herded Filipinos into concentration camps. Occupied by the Japanese during WWII, the Philippines finally got independence in 1946, but power remained with a small elite. In the 1960s, dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to power, declared martial law, pilfered billions from the state coffers, and oversaw a regime in which tens of thousands were imprisoned or tortured, and others were never seen alive again. But in 1986, after his troops assassinated a political opponent as he stepped off a plane, the people had enough and rose up in mass protests all across the country.
Even with Marcos gone, successive presidents failed to get a grip on corruption, cronyism and inequality – in fact, they were part of it. So the long-suffering Filipinos wanted to try someone new. Enter Rodrigo Duterte.
An astig (tough guy) from the conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao, Duterte presented himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden. But his chief appeal was finally doing something about a problem many felt had been festering for too long.
“My God, I hate drugs,” he said in a campaign speech. “And I have to kill people because I hate drugs.”
A preview of upcoming attractions could be seen from his term as mayor of Mindanao’s biggest city, Davao. Mindanao is the largest island in the southern Philippines, rich in resources but beset by crime and war. By the late nineties it was the site of several meth labs. To clean up the streets, the Davao Death Squad (DDS) was formed. Answering directly to Duterte himself, over his two-decade mayorship it executed hundreds of suspected dope peddlers, petty thieves and street kids.
Duterte won the 2016 election in a landslide.
The killings began almost straight away. On July 21st, 2016, just weeks after the election, plainclothes police burst through Mary-Grace’s door, looking for her father. He’d been involved in a drug case three years ago but was acquitted, and stayed out of trouble since. Apparently, that wasn’t enough. What they wanted with Joseph, and why he died, is still a mystery (the other brothers were left alive).
“When I got home I could not even tell my mother there’d been another death in the family,” remembered Mary-Grace. “I was so speechless, I could not even cry because of what happened to my brother.”
The majority of operations took place in poor neighbourhoods, targeting small-time users, pushers, and anyone unlucky enough to wind up on a watchlist. Typically the police launch a “buy-bust” operation, or an undercover sting. If the target won’t sell to undercover cops or informants, they’re shot first and evidence planted later.
“The CHR notes with concern police documents on nanlaban cases with almost the same copy-and-paste narrative,” Jacqueline de Guia, executive director of the Commission on Human Rights, wrote in an email.
“In numerous incidents, victims are surrounded and outnumbered before the following variation of scenario plays out: police officers surround the alleged criminal and shout ‘nanlaban!’ or ‘may baril’ (has a gun) before pretending to duck immediately before shooting the victim; a shootout occurs between suspect/s tagged as nanlaban yet police officers remain unscathed despite the number of shots fired.”
Victim’s families are supported by the church, who help pay for funerals, food, schooling, and sometimes help find them new livelihoods. But others aren’t as lucky.
Mary-Grace’s fondest memories of her father was his “tricycle”, a kind of sidecar attached to a motorbike that’s used as a public taxi in the Philippines, on which he took them to and from school and served as the family’s main source of income. She had to sell it, and pawn her father’s ring, just to pay for the funeral.
Without their main breadwinners, many families have been left destitute and can’t even afford to bury their loved ones, only rent out space in tightly-packed urban cemeteries. Drug war orphans dropped out of school to support their families.
We may never know the true scale of death. The PNP admits over 6,200 “drug personalities” have been eliminated over the past six years. Human rights observers on the other hand, estimated as many as 27,000 might have been killed by 2018, not only at the hands of overzealous police officers but hired guns and vigilantes. And a forensic expert examining dozens of victims’ bodies found that several claimed to have died of natural causes – pneumonia, sepsis, acute myocardial infarction – had actually been shot.
The drug war is a checklist of horrors. A little girl was caught in the crossfire between police and dealers; the nation’s top cop’s reaction was “shit happens”. A police officer was arrested for raping a suspect’s 15-year-old daughter after taking her parents into custody; when confronted, he said: “Sir, this act isn’t new to us operatives when we catch a drug pusher.”
Narcs and vigilantes enjoy near-total impunity. Even though Mary-Grace and her whole family saw her brother driven away on a police motorbike, presumably on his way to an interrogation room, his body was found lying in the grass miles away in another neighbourhood. To this day, no-one has been charged over Joseph’s death.
27,000 dead. A bloodbath of genocidal proportions. In spite of it all, the drug war remains popular. Duterte rallied the masses with outrageous statements classing drug dealers and users as sub-human, worthy of extermination. His supporters usually parrot some variety of: “what about all the innocent people stabbed and raped by drug addicts?”
The Philippines’ prefered pick-me-up is shabu, or methamphetamine, where the stereotype of the meth-addled tweaker dominates discussion. Carl Hart, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University and author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups, has researched the effects of methamphetamine on the brain, receiving death threats during his visit to Manila.
“The effects that are portrayed with these people being aggressive and that sort of thing, that’s not a typical event, that’s an aberration.” he explained to me.
“I mean sure, there are people who commit crimes and they also use methamphetamine, just like there are people who commit crimes and they use alcohol. There can be a correlation, but there’s no causal link. People can commit crime and they just happen to use amphetamines, but the vast majority of people who use methamphetamine don’t commit crimes or behave aggressively and so forth.”
The drug panic has been with us in one form or another for over a century – “cocaine-crazed negroes” impervious to bullets, reefer madness, cocaine-crazed negroes again (this time called crackheads), bath salt cannibals – bearing little semblance to reality. The vast majority of drug users, even meth, are not psychotic criminals. A gangster might take shabu to get jacked-up for a robbery, but studies show most young Filipinos use it for staying awake on the daily grind. They call it pampagilas, or “performance enhancer.” Is this really worth killing over?
“The enabling rhetoric of the President to law enforcers to kill drug pushers and users has created a false dichotomy: that human rights of the general populace weigh more than the human rights of drug users,” said Jacqueline de Guia.
“This has created a prevalent stigma that demonises those involved in drugs rather than addressing the complex social issues and the root causes that enable the proliferation of drugs, such as poverty, health, deep social inequality, among others. This narrative of dichotomy of rights, furthered by the pronouncement of the Chief Executive to protect and reward law officers that killed those involved in the drug trade, has acted as some form of blank cheque that allowed police officers to commit wrongdoing under the blanket of supposed anti-drug police operations.”
One of Duterte’s fiercest critics, senator Leila de Lima, opened an official investigation into the killings in 2016. She never got to complete it as the following year, she was detained on drug charges herself, based on testimony from very shady figures from the New Bilibid Jail. Since then, witnesses have taken back their testimony, with one of them, Bureau of Corrections officer Rafael Ragos, telling a national TV interview that he’d been pressured into claiming he was the bagman between de Lima and incarcerated drug lords. De Lima has now been in jail for five years. Between tears, Ragos told her he was sorry.
Had cops and vigilantes gunning down alleged drug fiends and pushers wiped out the narco-economy?
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Duterte must have taken that phrase to heart when he appointed his outspoken rival, Vice President Leni Roberdo, as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs in 2019, granting her access to classified documents and the power to change policy after claiming that Duterte’s policies had led to a dead end. Prove it, he demanded. Roberdo compiled a report where, based on the police’s own data, over the past three years, only 1% of the total volume of methamphetamine and the dirty cash from its sales had been taken out of circulation. For example, the police estimate that 3,000 kilos of meth was taken in the country each week, but only 1,344 kilograms were recovered over the whole of the previous year. Also, while over 1.2 million suspects had turned themselves in to the government for fear of ending up in the ground, and a further 300,000 had been arrested, it is unclear what happened to them. Were they all imprisoned, or were they rehabilitated and are now as sober as a judge? No-one knows.
Robredo called for a halt to counternarcotics operations, and to provide accurate data on murders committed by police and hitmen. Duterte fired her.
And the meth kept coming. In June 2020, Filipino authorities seized a 756kg stash of crystal meth, one of the biggest busts since the drug war began. In September 2021, four Chinese traffickers were shot dead by police and 500 kilos of meth recovered that had been brought over by boat to the northern Philippines. It looks like trying to murder every single drug user hadn’t yet paid off.
It doesn’t help that there may have been a mafia within Duterte’s inner circle for whom the drug war was simply nationalising the private sector. Arturo Lascañas, an enforcer-turned-whistleblower on the Davao Death Squad, claims a certain Chinese businessman close to Duterte is a secret meth kingpin who, as late as 2013, had Davao officials in his pocket waving shabu shipments through customs. The pair had known each other since the nineties.
In 2004, the DDS raided a meth lab staffed by Chinese technicians. Lascañas interrogated the chief chemist, who revealed he was working for the businessman, who was holding onto his and others’ passports. The chemist tried to bribe his way out, but the DDS executed all of them and buried their bodies in a mass grave.
The allegations are backed up by a separate 2017 police report by veteran narcotics detective Eduardo Acierto. The businessman, also known as the ‘Dragon’ because of a dragon tattoo on his arm, is accused of being the mastermind behind shipments of meth and precursor chemicals. But the report was never made public and the PNP blocked any further investigations. Acierto is now in hiding.
So what now? Duterte stepped-down on Thursday, making room for the new president-elect, ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, son of none other than the Philippine dictator. The word is Marcos will keep up the crackdown, but it remains to be seen if he’s as bloodthirsty as his predecessor.
Since 2018, thanks to the work of brave Filipino lawyers such as Jude Sabio, as well as whistleblowers like Arturo Lascañas, Duterte has been under investigation for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The case was briefly suspended last year after the Philippines said it would hold its own enquiry, but last week ICC prosecutors said they’d be reopening the case.
Whether Duterte will ever face justice is another matter. Duterte took his country out of the ICC in 2018, refusing to cooperate with any investigation. In any case, for the time being, he can sleep soundly at night: his daughter’s Marcos’ VP.