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Duterte Rising: How the Philippines’ Drug War Came to Be

A mother holds pictures of two of her children that have been killed by the police as part of the Philippines drug war.

The Philippines’ drug war remains one of the most brutal cases of state-sanctioned violence on people who use drugs globally. A rampant vigilante culture, coupled with Presidential encouragement and admitted participation in extra-judicial killings, has meant that anyone associated (or assumed to be) with the drug trade could be murdered by anyone on the street.


The first in the Duterte Rising series, TalkingDrugs has partnered with local organisations to highlight how the ongoing drug war has targeted groups of children and young people in Davao, the city where former President Rodrigo Duterte began his political career and war on people who use drugs. All personal contributions have been validated by a local partner and anonymised for their protection. 


This carte blanche of mob justice on civilians has left a trail of bodies, death, and despair, shrouded in a culture of silence for fear of revenge. What’s more shocking is that Duterte’s death-making strategies have been widely supported across the Philippines – highlighting the effects of the long-lasting dehumanisation campaign to portray people who use drugs as the cause of many of the nations’ ills.

While his popularity today is a shadow of what it was throughout his political rise, Rodrigo Duterte became known for using his executive power to deliver “justice” in the Philippines. His approach to law and order – maintained by his family- escalated the war on people who use drugs into the violent affair that it is today. However, this did not come just from when he became President; it was as the Mayor of Davao that Rodrigo Duterte first began developing and perfecting his reputation as a strong yet brutal leader.

Tracing the infant drug war

This is a known hotspot area in Davao City, with many Moro residents. Frequent arrests and killings occur in this barangay (village). Photo: Raffy Lerma.

 

Violent leaders like Duterte are not created in a vacuum. There is a long history of vigilantism and extra-judicial killings in the Philippines, where militarised groups and mercenaries operated either ignored, supported, or at times led, by political elites.

Through the 1980s, the Philippines was home to many armed groups that emerged from decades of frustrations with the dictatorial rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to 1986, and the economic hardships of that period. During his presidency, 3,257 people were murdered in extra-judicial killings, 35,000 tortured and 70,000 incarcerated. Around 77% of those killed by the state were left in public locations in a display of total power.

The New People’s Army (NPA), the remnants of an armed wing of the Communist Party headquartered in Davao City, began to swell in numbers due to popular discontent. Steeped deeply in Cold War geopolitics, they fought against Marcos’ forces in violent urban encounters, growing in support as the economic state of the nation deteriorated. Just in 1986, the NPA killed over 40 government or police agents. 

However, by the mid-1980s, hundreds of vigilante groups had formed around the country, arming themselves to fight against the NPA, often run by local military commanders. One of them was Alsa Masa (meaning masses uprising). Led by Marcos’ sympathisers and supported by Davao City’s Constabulary, they waged a bloody war against the communist insurgents and their  sympathisers. Davao City’s officials also mobilised against the communists, arming and encouraging citizens to form anti-communist vigilante groups. 

While the NPA eventually lost street battles and popular support, what was left were thousands of weapons and armed citizens, encouraged to take up arms against those that did not see eye to eye politically or socially with them. This contributed to a normalised culture of urban executions, paving the way for drug-related killings.

 

From vigilantes to government agents

Popular uprisings around the country, as well as a fraudulent election, led to the end of President Marcos’ regime in February 1986, in what was known as the People Power Revolution. One of the leaders of the Mindanao popular resistance was a well-known teacher: Soledad Duterte. Her son, Rodrigo Duterte, became mayor of Davao City in 1988.

The new government integrated many militias into a newly-formed Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU). Much of Alsa Masa, as well as NPA defectors, were recruited into CAFGU. The force in turn was given a wide remit of action, focused solely on responding to “local insurgency threats”, however these were defined. Many vigilantes continued operating in smaller groups, accountable to no one but themselves. These killings mainly went by with little public outrage: according to members of Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE), an organisation formed in Davao in the late 1990s, the past decades of counter-insurgency and civilian arming meant there was a certain level of tolerance for executions.

“It was whispered by Davao society: there was a feeling [extra-judicial killings] kept the city safe, reduced criminality”, an anonymous member of CASE told TalkingDrugs. As long as there are no supposed witnesses to a murder, there is no evidence to begin an investigation. And with government agents involved in killings, there were few incentives to speak up against them.

“How can we trust that we are kept safe by the police who we suspect are also involved in the killings?,” the CASE member asked.

 

Enter Duterte

One of CASE’s members shows photos of her children who were both killed in anti-drug police operations: one in 2006 (when Rodrigo Duterte was a mayor in Davao City) and the other in 2018 (during Duterte’s presidential term). Their barangay (village) is a known area for drug use. Photo: Raffy Lerma

 

Before Duterte’s mayoral ascendency, public safety was maintained by force; this was not a tradition that he was going to break. Before becoming Mayor, Duterte had been a lawyer. It was at law school that he developed his appetite for extra-judicial justice, having shot another student at university who allegedly bullied him. Despite this incident, he graduated, and was an assistant public prosecutor in Davao City before being appointed Mayor in 1986. Jumping back and forth from Mayor to elected Parliamentarian to avoid limits on term times, Duterte was Davao City’s Mayor for a total of 22 years, or seven terms.

Positioning himself as the candidate against crumbling infrastructure and fresh memories of chaotic urban violence, Digong – as Duterte is lovingly known amongst his supporters – ran on a populist platform of law and order. He came to clean up politics. To his credit, Davao City grew immensely under his post-conflict leadership: he helped reach an agreement between communist militia and police forces, placing former communist group leaders in political positions, and presided over an economic boom aided by his reform in business-related bureaucracy. From the start, he had a zero-tolerance approach to criminality and drugs, investing heavily in law enforcement forces’ capacity and delivering harsh punishment for people using drugs and officials accused of corruption. Davao City became the cleanest, greenest and safest city in the Philippines, and one of the safest in Asia, among other accolades.

Davao City is now a Duterte stronghold: Rodrigo Duterte’s son, Sebastian “Baste” Duterte, has been the Mayor since June 2022. Days before his election, Sebastian’s father told him in a public meeting: “If you are mayor, Baste, and you don’t know how to kill – you have to start learning tonight.”

In March 2024, Sebastian launched his own drug war, publicly warning that those involved with drugs should leave the city. Someone was murdered just hours after this announcement; seven people in total were killed in the days following Baste’s announcement. In May, he reinforced his support for the drug war and its resultant violence, stating it is an “essential effort to protect our communities from the scourge of illegal drugs, which wreak havoc on the lives of many”. 

Meanwhile, Rodrigo’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is the Philippines’ Vice-President under the current Ferdinand Marcos’ Jr presidency – the son of the former dictator who ruled from 1965 to 1986. However, Duterte’s family is well placed to begin the next generation of Filipino rulers.

 

Davao Death Squads

Beneath Duterte’s successful crime-reduction campaign lies a hidden reality of extra-judicial violence enacted on Davao City’s poorest citizens. As Mayor, Duterte turned a blind eye to killings from vigilante groups. In fact, a spike in extra-judicial killings during Duterte’s second term as Mayor played into his public campaign against crime in Davao City.

Remnants of pre-Revolution vigilante groups, former Alsa Masa members and others would take up arms against drug sellers and those using them, and children living on the street. Known in the media as “Davao Death Squads (DDS)”, these loose groups of people murdered the undesired of society. 

Arturo Lascanas, a retired Davao City police officer who confessed to being a DDS member, said that Duterte personally ordered the death of the children and families of people who used drugs. Duterte himself later admitted to this on television in May 2015: “Am I the death squad? True. That is true.” 

Duterte often called for executions in public settings. In Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa [From the Masses, For the Masses], a television programme published every Sunday when he was Mayor, had Duterte listing names of people who could “help make Davao safe”, according to CASE. These names were often of people later found dead on the streets. 

By mid-1997, there were 60 executions attributed to DDS. Between 1998 and 2009, CASE documented 841 official death squad killings, and the real number may be much higher. For a leader set on ruling through law, Duterte seems very supportive of people breaking other laws, as long as they serve his purposes. 

Support for these killings was widespread. Even human rights organisations were complicit, accepting their need in society: they felt that the court systems were inefficient in delivering justice to victims of other crimes. 

“At the start they [human rights organisations] would say: ‘Those killed are criminals’. There was a level of acceptance when those killed were drug addicts, thieves…”, said a member of CASE. 

The same member said that there was a narrow understanding of human rights when drug killings began to accelerate; the universality of human rights struggle was not there yet. As they said, “human rights is a political currency used by groups”; condoning the state’s execution of drug-related criminals meant they would be supported by the government in their action areas.  

A 2009 Human Rights Watch report extensively documented the presence, evidence and political obfuscation of the use of DDS to achieve Duterte’s goals of zero-tolerance for crime and drugs in Davao City, and later across the country. Despite international evidence and condemnation, he remained defiant: in 2015, he vowed to kill thousands more if elected President. After his election as president, copycat death squads reproduced Duterte’s violent vision across the country, spurred on by the Presidential permission to execute people who use drugs across the Philippines.

 

The purposeful targeting of children

An alleyway in the same barangay as the second photo, with wobbly buildings stood on wooden stilts and yawning gaps. Photo: Raffy Lerma

 

While some international organisations like Human Rights Watch claim that children – particularly those living on the streets – were “collateral damage” in the Philippines’ drug war, the truth seems to be that they have been deliberately and systematically targeted, both in Duterte’s regime and before.

A 2004 publication entitled “In The Shadows of Davao” highlighted how groups of homeless children were frequent targets of police and vigilante brutality in Davao City. Communities of street-connected children, many of whom move to the streets due to abusive homes or lack of parents, were common in the early 2000s, with an estimated 3,000 children living by 2004 on the streets of Davao. They were targeted in Duterte’s Mayoral campaign of public safety as visible signs of disorder: people remotely connected to drugs would be detained by the police, or be marked for execution by the police or the DDS. The Mayor of nearby Tagum City also targeted street children as part of his campaign to remove the “weeds” of society.

In fact, CASE highlighted that children were deliberately targeted even at vigils for those killed by vigilantes. “Two days after [a memorial for a victim], one of the participants was killed. I remember that he had told me ‘I think men are following me’, and then he was killed.” 

“Even during a rally for extrajudicial killings, there were killings”, another member of CASE told TalkingDrugs. 

Research from the World Organisation Against Torture, alongside the Children’s Legal Rights Development Center and local partners, unveiled that 122 children were killed from 2016 to 2019. Just over half of these executions were done by the police; the rest were carried out by masked individuals with known links to police forces. These are just the ones officially recorded by international organisations; the real number is likely to be higher.

 

Rebranding the drug war

The end of Duterte’s rule, and the ascension of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., brought an end to an unashamedly loud and violent drug war. In the largest methamphetamine seizure in the Philippines to date, Marcos congratulated law enforcement forces for their bloodless operation: “Nobody died, there was no shootout… this should be the approach in the drug war.” 

However, while more silent, Marcos’ drug war remains just as brutal as Duterte’s.

Dahas Project, which has tracked extrajudicial killings for years, noted that 611 people were executed from the start of Marcos’ presidency in 2022 to April 2024. So far under Marcos’ rule, Dahas recorded an average rate of 0.9 deaths per day, higher than Duterte’s 0.8 daily average in his last year in office.

The International Criminal Court, responsible for investigating individuals for crimes against humanity, began its investigation into Duterte in February 2018. A month later, the Philippines formally withdrew from the Rome Statute, effectively ending the ICC’s jurisdiction over the country a year later. Marcos has maintained the ICC blockade, preventing its investigation by claiming it is a “threat to our sovereignty”; in March 2023, he promised to disengage from all contact and communication with the ICC, which has remained to this day.

Under Marcos, the police, rather than vigilantes, are executing those associated with drugs. The reliance of law enforcement has been made possible due to a nanlaban (meaning “resisted” arrest) narrative: police can claim that drug-related suspects fought back against them, and were killed in a subsequent shootout. Not only does this justify the excessive use of force on suspects, it also protects the police in moments of collateral damage; if another person is killed in the shootout, the police can claim they were accidentally caught in the crossfire. Nanlaban executions are incredibly deadly: in 2021, only 2% of 466 drug-related suspects survived police shootings. 

Nanlaban is not a new tactic: it has been used before, in conjunction with vigilante killings. However, since Marcos’ presidency, it seems like the police has become more emboldened to lead in the executions. The nanlaban rhetoric also functions as a political tool: it makes the police seem effective at controlling criminal threats, justifying their deaths as a public safety effort. Police executions are less likely to be publicly investigated by the public: while there are multiple reports that contest the truth of nanlabans (or “nisukol” in Cebuano) – where witnesses confirm that shootouts were initiated by law enforcement, or additional people were purposefully targeted – the police’s internal inspection procedures often lead to no arrests or findings. They often stonewall external investigations, preventing public or international scrutiny of their actions.

In the current environment, the drug war in the Philippines is likely to continue unabated. The lack of international scrutiny, and disregard for the rights of people who use or sell drugs, means that intervention is difficult and unlikely. The move to prevent the ICC’s from  investigating previous killings serves to protect not only the Duterte legacy, but President Marcos’ own blind eye to state-sanctioned violence and executions. Admitting to past mistakes would not only uncover the Philippines’ high-level political complicity with vigilante killings, but their central role in condoning and orchestrating them. 

In the next few segments, we will be investigating what the reality of the Philippines’ drug war, and what the lived reality of those marked by the police or vigilante groups for execution is like.

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