December 2016 – January 2017


Duterte’s dirty war

By Margaret Simons
Prisoners in the holding cells at Tondo police station, Manila. @ Dave Tacon

Prisoners in the holding cells at Tondo police station, Manila. Photo by Dave Tacon

A trip to the Philippines reveals the human cost of the war on drugs

It is a quarter to midnight on 4 October. The air is warm like souring milk and it’s raining. The press pack is standing on the steps of the police station in Tondo, Manila, near the port and one of the poorest places in the Philippines.

Water drips from the nearby shanties. They are built from the discards of a broken country – corrugated iron, scrap timber, peeling particle board and old political banners spruiking mayoral candidates, each proclaiming his love for the people. The faces have turned green from sun and mildew.

It’s very dark. There are streetlights, but this is the kind of place where illumination is soon smashed or stolen.

On the main road nearby, container trucks speed past people who live on the bitumen, sleeping on median strips. Children in this district sneak between pausing trucks to unscrew headlights, numberplates and bumper bars.

This is the home of the war on drugs, launched by the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. In this country of just over 100 million, it is estimated that somewhere between 1.3 million and 3 million people are addicted to shabu (what Australians call crystal meth or ice). The police say there will be a big operation tonight – although every night there are corpses.

An officer standing on the steps above us, arms akimbo, invites us into the station for coffee.

How many doors of suspected shabu users will they be knocking on tonight?

He says 20 or more.

And what will happen if the suspects resist?

He grins. “If they resist, we will change their birthday to the second of November.”

The second of November is All Souls’ Day. In this Catholic country, it is the day for honouring the dead.

Inside the station there’s an animal smell, like the fetor of a factory farm. A calendar with a picture of a white Jesus baring his crimson heart hangs over the front desk. Underneath the picture are the words “In Jesus We Trust.”

Soon we see the source of the smell. It is the holding cell – 20 square metres in two cages, one for men and a smaller one for women. The local media has reported that in the main Manila jail there are four people to every square metre. Here it must be more. Half-naked bodies sleep on the floor, with others sitting on top of them. People doze while standing, their fingers woven through the wire. Two hammocks hang above the melange. People are taking turns to use them. A fan pushes the stench out. On the wall there is another, grubbier, picture of Christ.

These people have been here for three days, police tell us. They are the ones who surrendered during the last big operation. Their names were on a local drug watchlist. They surrendered because they didn’t want to be killed.

One of the women grins at us and waves. Most of the press stay at the station for coffee, while we go back out into the rain. Our driver calls us. He has parked about 50 metres away, closer to the shanties, and has heard shots. We join him, sloshing through mud, and hear more shots, like a popgun going off – just over there. We get in the car and edge towards the sound.

Two men wearing yellow T-shirts and surgical masks stop us. It is too dangerous to go further, they say. We hear more shots. Eventually they let us get out of the car and we climb over wrecked brick walls and open drains, and brush through the jumble of shanties to a dirt road. And there it is – a fresh corpse draining red into the soapy gutters.

His eyes are half open, one thong falling off his foot and his handcuffed wrists lifted towards his chin as though he’s preparing to pray. Now the police are bringing the other journalists from the station to the crime scene. Superintendent Redentor Ulsano, under the glare of television sun guns, holds a media conference.

The men in yellow T-shirts bundle the corpse into the sidecar of a motorcycle scooter to take him to hospital. I realise why they were wearing masks when they stopped us. They knew what was going to happen. This means that what Ulsano is saying doesn’t make sense. He speaks first to the local media in Tagalog and then, at our request, in English.

It was a buy–bust operation, he says. Undercover police went to purchase drugs, and then arrested the pusher. They retrieved sachets of shabu, handcuffed the man with his hands at the front, and put him on the back of a motorbike. They were bringing him to the police station when he seized a policeman’s gun and tried to shoot. The police killed him in self-defence.

“How many shots were there, sir?”


“We heard five or six.”

“What? What did you say?”

“We heard six shots.”

Ulsano stares and does not reply.

He then tells us that 21 drug “personalities” have been “neutralised” tonight, meaning arrested. In three cases the suspects resisted arrest and were killed.

In this instance, the suspect had been able to grab the policeman’s firearm because he had been handcuffed at the front.

“Do your officers often make mistakes of this sort?”

For the first time Ulsano looks angry.

“There is no mistake. It is not a mistake defending yourself, especially if you are in imminent danger of losing your life.”

“Why was he handcuffed in front?”

They hadn’t expected him to retaliate, he says. It didn’t matter how they were handcuffed, because there was always an escort to provide security.

“But it mattered tonight. A man has lost his life.”

The Filipino media leaves and the street returns to dripping darkness. Slowly, people come out of the shanties. A group of children stand solemnly at the side of the road.

It takes time for them to tell us what they saw. We work through an interpreter.

One child says he saw the police seize the man on a nearby street. “He was just walking. I saw no drugs.” A 14-year-old boy says the police brought the man here and pulled him off the motorbike. The police wanted him to kneel. He refused.

“They were beating him, they beat him to the ground. He was on the ground, and he was begging for his life. He said, ‘Sir, please. I’m letting you arrest me and I am coming with you. Have mercy. Spare me.’”

Then they shot him three times, the children tell us, and the police took the handcuffs off from behind his back and re-cuffed him at the front.

We thank the witnesses and pile into the car, back to the Manila Police District Headquarters where the media gathers every night in a little press-corps building in the front yard.

We go across the road to the 7-Eleven to buy coffee and chocolate. There is hard neon light, and a love song playing just loud enough to block thought.

Is it over, are you really over him?
Is it over, or will you take him back again?

Back at the station, we wait for news of another shooting. And I wonder. We heard five or six shots. Ulsano said there was one. The children said there were three. What else was happening in the soupy rain? What didn’t they take us to see? And was this killing, this one among many, staged for us?

Later, we learned the dead man’s name: Benjamin Visda. The Manila Times ran three paragraphs on the incident and the Philippine Star mentioned it as part of a report on ten people killed in the previous 24 hours. Of the deceased, two were reportedly killed in similar circumstances to Visda, after making a grab for the gun of their police escort. Two were killed by “unidentified assailants” – the so-called vigilantes. All the others were said to have tried to shoot it out with police.

On both of the nights we joined the press corps, there were so many killings we had to choose which to go to. We went to the closest ones, out of convenience.

At the time of writing, an estimated 4000 people have been killed in Duterte’s war on drugs – about a third in police operations, and the others killed by unknown gunmen, usually wearing masks and riding in tandem on motorbikes.

The Inquirer newspaper is trying to keep a complete national record. The average across the nation is 44 per day, though nobody can be exactly sure. Some are unidentified. Then there are those who get caught in the crossfire, including a five-year-old girl slain by a bullet meant for her grandfather.

Bodies have been found with hands bound in masking tape, faces covered. There have been celebrities, police and local government officials, including a mayor supposedly involved in illegal drugs who was killed along with nine of his bodyguards in a firefight with police near Duterte’s home city of Davao. Another mayor was killed in his prison cell, supposedly because despite being in jail he was armed and dangerous. This mayor was expected to give evidence against those involved in a drug ring run by his son.

But most of the dead – the people who fear the sound of the motorcycle in the street or the knock at the door – are the poor.

We went to the northern provinces, hoping to attend a wake for a man slain while driving his jeepney (the main form of public transport in the Philippines). Masked gunmen on a motorbike pulled up as he slowed for a corner; they shot him through the window in front of his passengers.

His family were too frightened to speak to us, but a neighbour would, and he took us to his home where all the seats doubled as beds. He told us he was frightened. He had written things on social media critical of Duterte. He had lived through the Marcos years of martial law, but this was worse.

The shootings intimidated people, he said. It was political. Nobody would dare object, or protest, or even make enemies. “What frightens me is what comes next.”

He said that the slain man had surrendered to the authorities and admitted to being a drug user. That was meant to make him safe.

“What is it to be human?” he asked. “Without human rights, there is no difference between human beings and animals.”

In another Manila slum we attended the wake of Jeffry Mendoza, 31, killed by police in a drug den along with six others. The police media release said it was a buy–bust operation, and that the suspects were armed and tried to shoot it out.

Mendoza’s family claim that the men were not armed. Their son had not even been on a drug watchlist. He was an often-unemployed construction worker who hadn’t completed what passes for schooling among the Manila poor.

“They shot them like pigs,” said his father, Anizeto Mendoza.

The family lacked the money to bury his corpse and so the wake was prolonged – a white coffin above a dirt floor under the precarious shelter of their shanty. When we left, they were buying more formaldehyde to prevent the corpse from decomposing in the heat.

People who know something of what I saw in the Philippines have asked how I feel. At first I was offended by the question. What does it matter how I feel? But perhaps the only way to bring a story like this home is to say something of its personal impact.

Initially, I was furious. I woke from confused dreams in a sweaty rage. Then, pathetically, I would feel sorry for myself. Talking to a friend, I realised I felt this way because I had been touched by evil – the systemic, sanctioned type of evil that history tells us to dread.

I had been implicated in it – summoned to witness it. Perhaps some of it had even been staged for my benefit.

Too soon I was calmer. It is horrifying how quickly one recovers. But I was left with the question posed by that frightened man in the northern provinces. What makes us human? Not what we own. The poor of the Philippines sleep in places where most Australians would hesitate to keep a dog. They own only the refuse of society. The Philippines has one of the most extensive recycling systems in the world because when there is no other work there is rubbish picking, combing through the stinking heaps to extract plastic and aluminium for sale.

At 2 am on 24 September we walked through a shanty-town, my shoulders brushing the sides of people’s homes. How to describe these places? One could call them beehives, which captures their crowded, cellular nature. But beehives are orderly, for the manufacture of honey. These were collapsing, sour and damp. Things scurried away underfoot. Some were rats, and there were also bony dogs and cats. Some were children.

At every corner, people stood and smiled, and beckoned us deeper in. Further, further in. Down this lane and that, past stacks of whitegoods under plastic, ready for loading at the docks. Then finally to a concrete breezeblock den where we could see, next to police officers, a corpse lying backwards on the bed.

A man living next door told me that the police had called earlier, and warned him to stay inside. Then he had heard two shots. Was he scared? He waved his hands in front of his face, and melted into the dark.

I thought of George Orwell, writing in 1939 about Marrakech, that other casualty of colonialism, and its poor:

When you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings … Are they really the same flesh as yourself? … They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone.

This is a human-rights story, and not in the chilly, abstract sense of the term. This is about what human beings are. It is also about human nature, and how the many human beings who make up a police force – and beyond it a whole society – can become like this, sanction this, and even vote for it.

There are plenty of Australians who visit and work in the Philippines who won’t recognise the place I am describing. There is another side. There are lovely beaches, and there is tourism, although it has been estimated that up to 40% of foreign men visit for the sex. For a Westerner with even a modest amount of money, the Philippines can be an easygoing paradise.

The country depends on the export of its labour. For years, the biggest single contributor to its GDP has been the remittances sent home by the millions of Filipinos who work overseas, doing menial jobs in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Now that is being overtaken by the offshoring of business processing – the back-office functions of the Western world. In call centres and the like, those who have sufficient skills typically earn 500 pesos ($13) a day, well above the average wage. To get a job in a call centre is to be saved, to have at least a tenuous grip on a life with dignity and agency.

I spoke to an Australian who lives in Manila and makes a fortune running a processing centre. Asked about Duterte, he said, “We are all watching him and wondering whether he is Lee Kuan Yew or Hitler.”

Over three decades, Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, transitioned the country from a third-world nation to one of the most developed in Asia. The Chinese leadership took lessons from him, emulating his free-market policies and hardline social programs to lift an entire country out of poverty. These achievements, rarely heralded in the Western media, are part of the consent of the governed in China, and part of the promise that gives the nation so much soft power in the developing world.

The Australian businessman I interviewed said that Duterte was the first Filipino president not to be owned by the half dozen immensely rich families who effectively run the Philippines, and whose greed means that even though the economy is growing there has been no alleviation of the crushing poverty. Others dispute this view. Duterte is close to the Marcos clan, they point out. They think he is not as much of an outsider as he claims.

Duterte is also a reformer. While the drug war dominates overseas coverage, locally he is equally known for promising to change a tax system that only benefits the mega rich. He has promised land-ownership reform, and has begun the legal process for indigenous people displaced by mining and logging to return to their ancestral lands. He’s committed to providing free irrigation to subsistence farmers, and has suspended the operations of mining companies that violate environmental protection laws. He has started a program of free check-ups for the 20 million poorest Filipinos, and in this most Catholic of countries he has supported family planning and promised more birth control.

The day after I spoke to the Australian, it was as though Duterte had overheard us.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million – what is it? – three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte said.

There was instant international outcry. The local Jewish community called for an apology – and got one. Duterte claimed he had been merely reacting to critics comparing him to Hitler. A few days later the Manila Times ran a front-page photo of the president linking arms with Jewish community leaders, and everyone smiling.

Then, two weeks later, Duterte visited China and announced a “separation” from the United States. “America has lost … I’ve realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow …” Exactly what he meant was unclear. Once home again he backtracked, saying that he would maintain relations with the West but pursue a more independent foreign policy.

The future of our region may pivot on Duterte’s meaning. Just after he became president, the Philippines won its international case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. Now Duterte is indicating that this win will take second place to the priority of building friendship with China.

The archipelago of the Philippines, home to US bases, cradles the eastern edge of the South China Sea. Depending on what the election of Trump means for the role of the US in the region, the pivot to Asia may be over. If the Philippines falls into China’s sphere of influence, the world’s balance of power will tilt.

The last time the Philippines made it onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers was in 1986. Under the banner of People Power, the poor took to the streets to protest against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had imposed martial law in 1972 and gone on to murder his opponents and bleed the economy. He and his wife Imelda – she of the 1220 pairs of shoes – personified the kind of third-world corruption that tolerates, perpetuates and feeds on poverty.

It was the revolution that surprised the world. Amid a sea of hopeful yellow ribbons Marcos was driven out and Cory Aquino, widow of assassinated senator Benigno Aquino Jr, came to power. There was a new constitution, including a bill of rights. Democracy was restored. It was a good news story, and the attention of the world slipped away.

But nations are not Disney tales. Aquino’s administration was weak. Natural disasters hampered economic growth. Corruption barely paused. There were multiple unsuccessful coup attempts. One of Aquino’s successors, Joseph Estrada, was accused of accepting millions in pay-offs from illegal gambling businesses. He was impeached, but the trial broke down when the Senate voted to block examination of his bank records. People Power again. After massive street protests the army withdrew support for the president and vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in.

Arroyo and her successor, Benigno Aquino III (Cory Aquino’s son), were credited with growing the Philippines economy. Yet economic growth made no difference to the lives of the poor. Their numbers increased. Successive leaders made corruption allegations against their predecessors, while also acquiring reputations for pork barrelling, nepotism and graft.

This is the climate in which the 71-year-old long-term mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, won the 2016 presidential election, garnering 39% of the vote, and 6.6 million more than his closest rival.

Duterte was a Davao City prosecutor who became mayor in the wake of the 1986 revolution, acquiring a personal mythology for transforming Davao from a criminal wasteland through a tough approach to crime. Human-rights groups claim that the Davao Death Squad – a group of vigilantes tacitly endorsed by Duterte – was responsible for more than 1400 killings.

He banned smoking in the city, and famously visited a nightclub to force a patron defying the ban to eat his cigarette butt. Duterte was also progressive. He built a 24-hour drug and rehabilitation centre, he was the first mayor in the country to give formal representation to indigenous Muslim communities, and he enacted anti-discrimination laws.

The Philippines knew what it was getting when it elected him. He promised, during the campaign, what he has delivered – a war on drugs. And he warned that “it will be bloody”.

Ray Paolo J Santiago, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Ateneo de Manila University, sees Duterte as the product of frustrations and disappointments dating back to at least 1986.

“It seems that nothing has been happening. Things are just the same. Corruption is left and right. People don’t feel safe, because crimes happen in the streets.” Duterte, foul-mouthed and plain-speaking, seems to be “of the people” and not one of the craven ruling class.

Santiago says that because Duterte was democratically elected, human-rights advocates “including myself” must hope that he succeeds. “I think the vast majority of the Filipinos, whether or not we voted for him, would like him to be a president who brings about genuine changes for the Filipinos, and these genuine changes should be consistent with the rule of law and should also respect human rights.”

However, Santiago stresses that the war on drugs offends this aim at every stage. Under the constitution, people have the right to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial. But once your name appears on a drug watchlist, you have good reason to fear for your life. Surrender and confession are therefore made under duress, and bring with them the danger that comes from giving up your network.

As for the vigilante killings, there are allegations that assassins, drug lords and police are one and the same. Yet, according to Santiago, there is no sign of the kind of rigorous investigation that could prove or disprove this. People have no way of discerning guilt or innocence, on the part of either alleged killers or victims.

Is it really about drugs, or is it political?

It could be both.

There is no effective witness-protection program in the Philippines. The average length of court cases is five to seven years. During all that time, any witness whose evidence threatens the powerful has to live in fear. And it is assumed that the courts are corrupt. Justice cannot be served.

“The fear of petty crime,” says Santiago, “has been replaced for some by the knowledge that life is cheap, that anyone could be killed at any time, if they have enemies.”

The Philippines, he agrees, sometimes resembles a nation that is in the collective grip of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the poor, life is stressful beyond toleration, with no hope or let-up. For the middle class, there is the fear of sinking to the level of the poor. According to government statistics, more than a quarter of Filipino families lack the minimum income to meet basic food needs. For these people, the poverty is as bad as anywhere in the world, made the more striking by the comparative wealth that exists alongside. Another quarter live precariously, saved from desperation only by an insecure job or a remittance from a family member working overseas.

A nation that should be prosperous – with abundant natural resources and a resourceful people – is instead in the depths of moral decay, its democratic institutions corrupted, plagued by greed and a lack of leadership.

The president’s war on drugs has been like a rock thrown into this dirty pond. All kinds of filth have floated into view.

Police Senior Superintendent Joselito T Esquivel Jr sits in his office at the police headquarters in Quezon City, part of the urban mass of Metro Manila. On a nearby bench is his collection of guns. Over his head is a picture of President Duterte. The same picture hangs in many rooms of this building.

The police force during the Marcos years was an arm of the military, and Esquivel, like many of his peers, is a former military man. Asked if he supports Duterte, he says enthusiastically, “Of course, he is my commander in chief! I support him 110%!”

Asked if he supported his predecessor, Aquino III, he says, “Of course! He was my commander in chief! We are policemen! We do not have political opinions.”

So what did it mean for the police when Duterte, sworn in on 30 June this year, encouraged them to shoot drug users?

“I would not say on the record that the president encouraged us to shoot suspects, but he specifically said that when you are conducting police operations and they pose a threat to your personal safety, then we have to use whatever force is necessary to stop the threat.”

As for vigilante killings, Esquivel claims that drug lords carry these out so as to make the police look bad.

What does he say to allegations that the vigilantes are sometimes the police?

“If they have proof, if they have witnesses, then we will investigate. That’s our job … I would say to my fellow Filipino, if you have witnessed something like that, do your duty, go to your police station and file a complaint.”

You would have to be mad, I think.

He goes on to give a proud explanation of how the war on drugs is meant to work. The official name for the campaign is “Double Barrel”. This reflects two approaches: on the one hand pursuing drug lords, and on the other trying to tackle the demand for drugs by focusing on users and street pushers. As the supervisor of street police, Esquivel is mainly concerned with the second of the barrels, “Project Tokhang” – literally, knock and plead.

Project Tokhang centres on the compiling of drug watchlists at the bangaray level of local government (similar to what we might call wards). Each bangaray has an elected chairperson and councillors, which means – although Esquivel does not say it – each has its network of political enmity, friendship and potential corruption.

Barangay heads compile drug watchlists, and then police and officials knock on the doors of those on the list and plead with them to surrender. If the suspect does so, then their addiction is treated as an illness. There will be support, counselling and rehabilitation.

As part of the deal, the suspect must give up the names of their fellow addicts and their pusher.

Esquivel is proud of the intelligence system that has been created. Each barangay has been given a computer, and they are all linked to create a nationwide database. “So that we can track who surrendered, who is a pusher, who was a user and who is under counselling. We know who is being treated and when they went to the treatment centre. We are tracking them one by one.”

And how does he know the intelligence is accurate, rather than the result of mistakes, animosities or rivalries?

Esquivel does not deny that some people might use the system to resolve personal disputes. It is possible that some of the vigilante killings – the official term for which is “deaths under investigation” – may be people taking advantage of the war on drugs to settle scores. “We are investigating all of this.”

If people do not surrender, then the police will target them. This leads to the formulaic ritual, the buy–bust operation in which so many suspects seem to take the crazy decision to shoot it out.

Police are not immune. Esquivel says that in Quezon City 17 police were detected as drug users and killed in a shootout with their fellow officers. He grins and slaps the desk.

“Police against police! This is war! Make no mistake about it! When we leave this police station and go to work we have to be prepared to draw our gun and fight it out! This is war!”

And, I thought, once your name is in that frightening intelligence system, a computer in every ward, you would be brave indeed to think of People Power.

It is 5 am on 24 September, and the rising sun is turning streets golden in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. This is a middle-class area, only blocks away but a conceptual leap from the slums. A crowd gathers as the police put crime tape around another shooting. A new pick-up truck is parked with its doors thrown open, radio blaring bubble-gum music. There are two corpses, one lying half under the vehicle, the other on the footpath. They were getting out of the car when men on a motorcycle shot them.

The killers left a cardboard sign reading, “We are drug lords from Rizal province,” but the onlookers say that on the top floor of the building next to the car is a casino, and that these men were frequent visitors and moneylenders. “Perhaps they are also drug lords, but I don’t know this,” says one casino patron.

Among the bystanders is 43-year-old Jon Ocamipo, who lives nearby. He works for a Telstra call centre and is a strong supporter of Duterte.

The president, he says, is doing a great job. “He is the number one crime fighter in the Philippines.” As for the international outcry over the war on drugs, Ocamipo is disgusted.

“I’m really upset the way those other countries are trying to meddle with our internal affairs. It seems like we are still slaves of those other countries. But we are a sovereign nation … I mean, what if we tell you Aussies to stop going to our red-light districts and having sex with our Filipino beauties? You are just tourists here.

“So we are really pissed off, especially with the European Union … We are not part of that union. We are part of the Association of South East [Asian] Nations. So the EU, it deserves a ‘fuck you’ from our president.”

Everyone knows, he says, that the drug pushers can afford to hire the best lawyers in town, “and pay those goddamn corrupt judges. So what is the point of trying to arrest them? For what? Human rights? Come on, they don’t have any fucking human rights.”

Drug crime has made the streets of Manila unsafe, he says. “If this thing was happening in Australia, say in Piper’s Point [sic], the most expensive address in Sydney, what the hell do you think would happen in Australia? So it’s much better to fight fire with fire here.”

This is a common theme among Duterte supporters. The belief that the justice system was corrupt from top to bottom inspired support for the killings. They hoped for a better nation. Duterte’s radical response is part of the reason they supported him. Opinion polls show that Duterte commands overwhelming public approval, with trust ratings between 81% and 91% depending on which poll you follow.

The driver we hired told us that his daughter used to be frightened of going out at night because there was so much petty theft. Now she feels safer. He too supports Duterte. He used to work as a clerk in the Supreme Court. There, he told us, he knew the judges were corrupt. A verdict could be bought very easily. And, when questioned a little further, he told us how friendly he had become with the judge for whom he worked. Finally, on the recording of our conversation there is the quiet acknowledgement: “I was his bagman.”

The Philippines’ police claims that since the war on drugs began crime has dropped by 49%. There is no way of checking the numbers and the local media is sceptical, but people we interviewed supported the view.

Noli Concordia, 61, the father of one of the first men killed in the war on drugs, said that pushers used to operate at all hours near his home in the Rizal slum. Now they are nowhere to be seen. But that’s not to say the streets are safe. He frequently sees men in masks riding motorbikes.

His family are struggling to cope, and they live in fear. His 38-year-old son, Manolita, was shot dead by masked men after an argument over a card game. Manolita knew a lot of police, his father says. Perhaps he knew too much. One of his relatives confides that he recognised the killers, and expects that as a result he will be the next to die.

Nearby, we interviewed a frightened young woman whose husband was shot by vigilantes on a motorbike a few nights before. We were aided in finding her by the barangay captain, who loaned us his car and driver. But when the driver came into the house with us the woman was clearly terrified. Only when we asked him to leave did she tell us she thought she knew her husband’s killer, and would try to obtain CCTV camera footage to confirm her suspicions.

On a steamy, sunny day we visit the country’s largest drug rehabilitation centre. Although it has a capacity of 550, it currently holds 1100. The man in charge, Dr Bien Leabres, walks us through the dormitories where men with shaved heads and dressed in different coloured shorts and T-shirts, depending on their stage of rehabilitation, have group meetings and form “therapeutic communities”. Leabres is glad that his field, for so long neglected, is now being generously funded. New dormitories are under construction. More addiction specialists are being trained.

Duterte’s war also has a kindly face, Leabres says, though he admits to being worried by the killings. He’s heard stories that at least four of those who had come here for treatment had been killed on their release. The patients we spoke to say it’s more.

“Jake”, 35, tells us his story. He was a security guard and a shabu user since his teens. When he lost his job he turned to drug dealing to support his family. When the war on drugs began he had no intention of turning himself in. “Then, when the killing started, that’s when I began to think of surrendering.” He gave his name to his barangay captain, and felt more at ease.

Then, one night, men in masks called at his house. They bound his hands with tape and put a plastic bag over his head, in front of his wife and children. “That is when I thought my last moment had come. I was really terrified, particularly when they rang and said on the phone, ‘We’ve captured him,’ and they said, ‘You want us to kill him? We can take care of it.’

“My wife was holding on to me so tight and I told them that she was five months pregnant and I basically begged for my life.”

The men relented. They bundled him into a truck, still with the bag over his head. When the bag was removed, he realised he was in the police station. It seemed that the “vigilantes” who had captured him were police.

Jake says that he saw a memo instructing police to catch ten drug users that night, and to “sacrifice” three. His name was on the list of those to be sacrificed. He also saw the police leave in masks. On their return they washed their hands with vinegar, apparently to remove the gunpowder residue.

Jake is grateful to the police for sparing his life, and for his rehabilitation. He intends to stay off drugs but he also plans to take his family far away, back to his home province, and hide.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was a statesman, commanding the respect of all the international leaders with whom he dealt. Nobody is claiming that for Duterte, the former provincial mayor, whose profanities and crudeness embarrass even his supporters.

“I do wish sometimes he would just shut up,” our driver acknowledges. It is 5 October, just hours after the killing in Tondo. He is driving us to the airport, on our way out of the Philippines. A rosary swings from his rear-vision mirror as we stop-start through the traffic. We are dazed with shock and a lack of sleep. This former bagman, a father and grandfather, had accompanied us to the killings. It was a new kind of work for him, he says. Normally he drives businessmen to meetings. With us he had seen bodies, the blood seeping into the rain, and heard the rote explanations of the police.

What does he think now? Does he still support Duterte?

He sighs. “To see these people die touches my heart, I can’t deny it,” he says. And yet he has to hope that the president knows what he’s doing.

Our driver wants a cleaner, better nation. Who else is offering that?

We arrive at the airport, and he helps us with our bags and then disappears back into the midday traffic.

Margaret Simons travelled to the Philippines with Dave Tacon and radio journalist Heather Jarvis, who conducted some of the interviews used here. Local news assistant Rona Mae Lallana acted as interpreter.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


From the front page

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

Image of Patrick White

The art of biography

The author stays out of the picture, and other personal rules of writing

Image of Pauline Hanson

A pox on both your houses

How can the major parties address the rise of populism in Australia?

Performance check-up

How should doctors be assessed? And how should they assess themselves?

Image of Hans Bellmer’s The Doll

‘Nude: Art from the Tate Collection’

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 5 February

More in The Monthly Essays

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash’s to Ash’s

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence