In the past eight months, over 7,000 people have been murdered in the Philippines, stupefying the rest of the human-rights conscious world.
“If Germany had Hitler, The Philippines would have…” Roderigo Duterte declared last September, pointing at himself. “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
He was then four months into his presidency. Now, thanks to BBC3’s Drugs Map of Britain presenter Livvy Haydock, we’re able to hear about the carnage directly from the villains and the victims, and witness the aftermath of individual murders in transfixing detail.
Haydock takes us on a grisly, relentless expedition down the back alleys, police stations and funeral parlours of Manila, the capital of The Philippines, where Duterte won the presidential election with a landslide victory pledging war “against crime, against drugs, against corruption.” A spokesperson describes how “He promised it would be bloody, and it has been.”
It kicks off with a killing: a bullet-studded man congeals on the curb beneath a cardboard placard which Haydock reads with due incredulity: “sorry, I destroyed my life because of drugs, sorry, I am a pusher.” We’re at the heart of the “world’s bloodiest war on drugs,” where the corpses of alleged drug users line the streets thickly as the sky darkens, sometimes reaching a nightly total of twenty-two!
“Journalists can’t cope with the numbers,” says Haydock, running to keep up with the pack, “there’s just been a fourth killing, and no one has even had time to cover [number] two or three.”
We see Manila from all angles – Haydock darts between night and day, opulence and squalor whilst she expertly works over her interviewees exposing new dimensions of the chaos. It is at turns traumatic, heart-breaking and downright bizarre. Over the hour’s running time, she powwows with popstars and police and sits in on some “highly questionable” rehab practices …including an enforced Zumba session! Meanwhile, in the slums, a broken mother shows us the remains of her beloved son; bloodstains drying on the kitchen wall.
The footage is bloodier than expected; as bloody as Duterte promised, even – and there are hardly any drugs on screen. It bills Manila as “The Deadliest Place to Deal,” but, crucially, we only meet one dealer, a brave woman with a bandaged face who quivers in terror as she talks us through her routine. She carries a tiny handful of baggies, each containing a mere £4 worth of shabu (the local vernacular for crystal meth) which she supplies to “friends of friends” in painstaking secrecy.
Could it be, then, that Duterte’s strategy – “slaughter them all” – is working, albeit more slowly than advertised?
It looks that way. But can any of his affluent advocates be trusted? “It’s as simple as this – before Duterte became president it was the ordinary people who were afraid to go out on the streets; now it’s the criminals,” purrs Mocha Uson, the lead singer of the Mocha Girls – The Philippines’ answer to the Pussycat Dolls – when quizzed after a concert. “He’s willing to risk his life, honour and presidency to serve this country – to serve the ordinary Filipino people. It’s now or never – he’s our last chance.”
The excerpt from their show features favours sexualized gyrating over the steely decorum typical of a Nuremberg rally rendition of “Hurst Wessel,” but this makes the moment when Mocha whips her fans into a braying frenzy of support for Duterte all the more frightening. Even if he hadn’t courted comparison with Hitler himself, horrifyingly couching the Holocaust as some kind of ideal, the phenomenon of a population distracted by thigh-gaps, nationalist fervour and the promise of eventual prosperity whilst their fellow citizens are massacred under their upturned noses has tragic historic and current parallels all over the world.
Uson’s such a Duterte fanatic that she routinely delivers warnings on her blog to government officials, threatening to instigate their removal from office if they don’t cooperate with him. She concludes by hinting she’s aware of the polarised nature of their society, delivering a chilling phrase with starry-eyed devotion:
“It’s a regime- what do you expect?”
Duterte “drives crowds wild like no politician before him,” says Haydock, in a voiceover explaining an endless sea of euphoric flag-wavers. Like Hitler, he rose to power through democratic means before dispensing with human rights. “All I know is that the people who die are people who are into the drugs business [..] We are a democratic country,” comes the elliptical explanation from Jocelyn, Duterte’s Official Spokesperson, who also just happens to be his sister. We are introduced to Jocelyn; all puffed sleeves and vested interests; over lunch. Jocelyn has impeccable table manners and won’t be drawn deeper.
Is it inappropriate to give so much airtime to Duterte’s supporters, given that the BBC’s visit is an opportunity for his comparatively voiceless victims to tell their stories?
It turns out to serve as a savvy investigative strategy. Adi Sideman took a similar approach with Chicken Hawk (1994). His subjects, salaciously self-righteous practicing paedophiles who represent the North American Man Boy Love Association, delight in being offered the limelight. They see it as a rare chance to address their perception of being unfairly maligned in the eyes of the world, show off their cartoon collections and clarify the legitimacy of their controversial views. Of course, in reality, they’re given enough rope to “hang themselves.”
“I didn’t set out saying, ‘I’m going to crucify these people.’ I knew they were going to do it themselves,” Sideman explains. By the same token, everybody involved with Duterte betrays the indefensible barbarity of his government, and then further undermines their credibility by exposing their obliviousness to the reality of the war zone he has created. It takes Haydock very few encounters with “the ordinary Filipino people” to disprove the Uson’s fantasy that Duterte has made their streets safe. We meet Arnel, who lifts his shirt and shows us where a bullet went straight through him (“very, very lucky”) and the family of his recently murdered best friend Yanis.
Both students were shot at from a passing motorbike whilst they sat outside celebrating their exam results. Yanis’ family explain that he even embodied the requisite political mindset of the epoch: “everybody knew he hated drugs,” and, like them, “he voted Duterte!” Clearly, Manila is clearly an equally deadly place not to deal. Other encounters with the “ordinary” people demonstrate that Duterte has intensified, rather than reduced, a culture of corruption.
The police are in cahoots with the hired hitmen who carry out most of the extrajudicial killings; “they say ‘good job,’” a vigilante relates. “How do you feel just after a killing?” asks Haydock. “There’s nothing to feel,” comes the expressionless reply. The “ordinary people” are also indulging in the corruption: a man is accosted by the police and forcibly tested for drugs. He tests negative, but explains that everyone lives in fear of medication-induced false positives, because people are increasingly framing their enemies. Haydock hugs him as he chokes back tears: “Why does it have to be like this?”
Duterte still holds the outward approval of most of the population; he’s reached “cult status”; posters and bumper stickers abound. But trigger-happy despots tend to be publicly adored by their people: rallies where a suspiciously large percentage of a country’s population cheer on their ruler are usually mutually exclusive with a protest culture. And, slowly but surely, more and more of the supporters that he hasn’t accidentally shot are peeling away: families of murder victims who insist that their loved one “never owned a gun” whilst the police claim to have killed in “self defence” are another repeated motif.
Does it show any sign of winding down? Haydock hears from the – incredibly overstretched – Commission on Human Rights that Duterte originally promised to eradicate “all the drugs” in three to six months. “Now, he needs another six months.” “What happens after that six months?” “More killings, more killings.” With a Trump-style abandonment of his original estimate, Duterte ploughs on with his killing spree: “We will continue and I will continue and I don’t give a shit about anybody observing my behaviour.”
By his own standards, at a rate of 7,000 murders over eight months, Duterte would need another 3,428 months (that’s nearly 286 years!) to murder “three million addicts” as he plans. That’s assuming he could narrow his focus to people he wants to target! But this still wouldn’t have the intended effect: with over 1,000 public officials involved in trafficking illegal drugs adding to the complexity of the country’s systemic corruption, it’s impossible to pretend that “shooting [users] in the head” correlates to stymieing the supply of drugs. Haydock navigates the bloodbath Duterte has created to reveal a self-sustaining cycle of violence and fear, but also an unsustainable regime and a facade of confidence that can only continue to crack.
Rosalind Stone is Director of Development for Drugs and Me and is a regular contributor to Volteface. She has also written for Psymposia, Talking Drugs, The Stylist and The Londonist. Tweets @RosalindSt0ne