Just over two years ago, I found myself upstairs of a seedy karaoke bar on the northeast outskirts of Manila. Sat opposite me was a man dressed all in black, with a black balaclava and a backpack with a bullet hanging off one of the zippers. Midway through our meeting he reached into his backpack, pulled out a handgun and laid it on the table. Keep that friggin’ barrel away from me, I thought.
This man was a hired killer, paid by a higher power to do their dirty work.
“Yes, we have a lot of jobs in during Duterte’s time, almost every day – but not killing every day, sometimes I just drive up on a motorbike to verify the target,” he said. “No, I don’t feel guilty because they are criminals. I have no problem killing them. Every time there’s a job I get paid and treat my friends. We don’t have any problems with any other group because no-one knows about us. Our boss is an army general, military, so we are protected.”
I’m an ex-convict-turned-writer, born in Russia but living in the UK. It occurred to me that growing up in Europe was an accident of birth: if I was brought up here, in the slums of Manila, it could have been me staring down the barrel of his gun. In 2013 I was convicted by Her Majesty’s court and served 2½ years for pushing pot to my fellow students; in the Philippines, as of 2019 as many as 29,000 suspected users and dealers might have been slain in a bloody war on drugs.
Duterte: the people’s punisher
It all started four years ago. Rodrigo Duterte, aka ‘Duterte Harry’ or ‘the Punisher’, is
a cartoon villain the leader of the Philippines who got voted into office in June 2016 on the tough-on-crime ticket. Duterte was a political outsider, claiming he stood for the common man while rubbing shoulders with the elites. He represented hope to a nation battered by typhoons, war, crime, corruption and poverty. Anyone unhappy with the status quo could vote for him. And they did.
To be sure, the Philippines had a crime problem. Many lived in extreme poverty, turning to drugs as an escape or to make a living. Kingpins controlled entire barangays (neighbourhoods) protected by police and politicians, who were often elbow-deep in the business themselves. Foreign crime syndicates, including Chinese triads and Mexican narcos, were involved.
Filipinos had had enough and were looking for someone to blame: those people were people who use drugs, which in the Philippines usually means either weed or crystal meth (shabu). These are the people, Duterte says, which cause all the trouble. His answer was to kill them all.
"Do the lives of 10 of these criminals really matter?" he said. "If I am the one facing all this grief, would 100 lives of these idiots mean anything to me?"
Ostensibly, the campaign against drugs began with Project Tokhang or “knock and plead”, where police went door-to-door like heavily-armed Jehovah’s Witnesses and begged suspects to change their ways. What this meant in practise is if you got one of those house calls, and you’re not lucky enough to be herded into an overpacked prison, it meant you’re on a list and the authorities know where you are.
The first way to die is what they call a “buy-bust” operation: that is, an undercover agent or a stool pigeon comes up to you and tries to score. Next thing you know, you’ve had your brains redecorate the wall and the officers inevitably find a firearm or a sachet of meth to cover up whatever it is they’re doing.
More common are the mysterious, vigilante-style killings carried out by those like the man in the balaclava. Originally, death squads executed communist rebels in a ruthless, Latin American-style counterinsurgency during the Cold War. Now, the same tactics have been turned on people who use drugs. Hitmen on the police’s payroll, or sometimes the police themselves, aim to reduce the number of Filipinos taking drugs – admittedly, by reducing the number of Filipinos.
Families of victims of counternarcotics operations and extrajudicial killings (EJK). Courtesy of the author.
Intelligence-gathering is a police – not community – function
“The anti-drug campaign encourages barangays to submit lists of drug users, and the profiles of a lot of those arrested are also submitted to the government,” Jacqueline Ann De Guia, public affairs officer for the Commission on Human Rights, told me. “It’s not uncommon to hear those who died were originally part of the surrenderees or on lists from communities. There’s a lack of guarantee from the police and people can use it to get back at their enemies. Intelligence-gathering is a police – not community – function.”
In other words, even if you’ve already handed yourself in and admitted using or selling, that won’t save you. You’re much more likely to meet your maker if you’re poor: Duterte’s admitted the millionaires snorting white lines on their yachts aren’t his primary targets. It’s shabu, “the poor man’s cocaine”, that’s the scourge of society.
"A year or more of shabu use would shrink the brain of a person and therefore he is no longer viable for rehabilitation," Duterte told his officers.
Walking around Manila, watching everyone crowding into jeepneys (redecorated army trucks from WWII) and tuk-tuks, going about their day, if you hadn’t read the news you wouldn’t even know there was anything going on. The murder of tens of thousands of men, women and even children is outrageously evil by any standards, but there might be something even more sinister happening here.
No-one wants to be known as “that guy” who tried to wipe out entire nations – Hitler ruined that for everyone – so they fall back on semantics as their last line of defence. Turkey prefers calling what it did to Armenians “mass killings”, as if that makes forced marches through the desert any less bad. So ideas on what exactly constitutes “genocide” vary. Drug users are not an ethnic, religious or sexual minority, but does that really matter? Mass murders by communist regimes such as the Khmer Rouge or far-right juntas in Argentina and Indonesia are often described as genocides, but most of their victims were picked for their supposed political beliefs.
You could say that unlike your race or sexuality, using prohibited pick-me-ups is a choice. But there’s a few problems with that. First of all, it’s debatable how much ‘choice’ someone seriously addicted actually has (as anyone who’s tried quitting smoking will attest). Then there’s a hint of the rape apologists’ mentality: so-and-so led an immoral lifestyle, and they had it coming. It’s true of course that a small number of users (acting on chemical influence or desperation) harm themselves and others, but most do not – I certainly didn’t know many. When that is the case, if you’re despised and treated like a criminal, is it really surprising when you succumb to the label? Meanwhile, the majority of drug-related homicides aren’t committed by “methed-up lunatics on a rampage”, but gangsters settling business. Most people just sit around getting high – wasting time perhaps, but not causing trouble. The war on drugs is like a dictator putting down a revolt, massacring innocent villagers because a few of their neighbours were rebels.
Us v them
Many genocides – or mass killings, crimes against humanity, whatever you want to call them – follow a similar pattern, which we can see not only in the Philippines but the war on drugs across the globe:
- Identification, when a group of human beings is singled out for being the root of all evil. Oh, them. Those ‘people’. They’re the reason everything’s wrong in society. “Those Jews, they have so much money.” In Rwanda, the Tutsis started being called “cockroaches” on the radio. A hundred days later, 800,000 men, women and children lay dead, hacked to pieces from the blows of a machete. Drug users are blamed for crime, squalor and AIDS.
- Ostracism, when we learn to hate and apply pressure on these people, making it harder for them to earn a living or lead a normal life, such as forcing Jews to wear the Star of David. We apply a stigma to them, which rather than reintegrating them into society holds them back. We try to degrade them, shame them into accepting guilt, trying to get them to admit they’re no more than a worthless pusher or junkie. And it becomes official too, once they get a criminal record and can’t find a job.
- Confiscation, when we take the property formerly owned by the ostracised group, like when the Jews had their shops taken away in Nazi Germany. No counternarcotics operation worth its salt is complete without a few seized assets.
- Concentration. Round-‘em-up and lock-‘em-up. Sound familiar? Trump’s buddy Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran a jail complex called Tent City where drug convicts were held in ancient US Army tents from the Korean War, shielding them neither from the blazing heat nor the freezing cold of the Arizona desert. Prisoners, a lot of them women, were forced to work in chain gangs and thrown in madness-inducing solitary confinement for even minor infractions. Arpaio proudly referred to Tent City as his very own “concentration camp” – direct quote.
- Annihilation, where we follow this train of thought to its final destination and just turn everyone to plant food. In Colombia, paramilitary death squads carried out ‘social cleansing’ operations against drug addicts, street kids, prostitutes, homeless and other ‘undesirables’, with a nod from the nation’s elites.
To be clear: what's happening in the Philippines is not even close to the butchery of Rwanda or the horrors of the Holocaust. But it also fits the pattern. Like tyrants across the world, Duterte’s found himself a group no-one cares about on whom he could blame all of society’s ills. His ‘us vs them’ rhetoric has singled out drug users as vile lowlifes that must be exterminated.
“If I become president, there would be no such thing as bloodless cleansing,” he promised in a campaign speech. “My God, I hate drugs. And I have to kill people because I hate drugs.”
A man lights a candle in memory of the deceased at a murder scene in Quezon City, Manila. Courtesy of the author.
People who use drugs: an easy target
Drug users are an easy target because few of us make a distinction between casual use and addiction (though we’d make that distinction between having a glass of wine in the evening and full-blown alcoholism), or ask why those suffering from addiction do they things they do. It’s much easier to blame a sinister force – dope, cartoonishly evil pushers, or an individual’s poor choices – than deal with the issues of poverty, hopelessness and social exclusion. A lot of those so-called “addicts” are compensating for serious mental illness or trauma, so accusing them of being lowlifes and freaks isn’t helping.
But neither are they inherently weak individuals, implying their deaths are the result of well-deserved, Nazi-like social Darwinism. The people’s champ, Manny Pacquiao, has admitted trying every substance under the sun, but had he been doing that now he may not have lived long enough to be the hero we all know and love. What if it was your brother, your sister, your daughter that’s next? Oh sure, I know “they wouldn't do such a thing", but hey, I was top of my class and look where I ended up.
Most aren’t even criminals. None of my customers used to steal. Those that do, steal because they need money. You know who else steals because they need money? A lot of crime is rooted in inequality. Shall we go around blasting everyone under minimum wage? If you can't produce a bank statement – POW, sucker! Drunkards cause a lot of trouble too, while the drink slowly destroys their bodies…. hey you with the Coors Light! BANG!!!
In fact the serious crime rate in the Philippines, as in most of the world, had been dropping over the past few years, falling 26% in 2014 under President Aquino. By contrast under Duterte, the murder rate climbed ridiculously high, jumping to 3,760 in the first three months of his term compared to 2,359 that same time in 2015. The whole war on drugs was based on false pretences. And yet….
“Hitler massacred three million [sic] Jews,” Duterte once said at a press conference. “Now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
This demi-Führer is in charge of a country of 100 million people.
But Filipinos don’t seem to mind. In a survey last year, 82% said they were happy with the anti-drug bloodbath. It’s not so much Duterte’s whipped them up into a frenzy as on this poor, conservative, Catholic island; the idea of compassion to drug users, which took a long time to get going even in liberal countries, simply doesn’t cross the public mind. That and the crime rate has fallen (again), which begs the question: how many summary executions does it take to stop getting your iPhone nicked?
“It’s the only way, sir,” one of my fixers told me. “Before, you couldn’t walk down this street at night.”
OK, Duterte’s terrified the muggers into staying home. But it’s not muggers specifically that drew his ire – it’s shabu users and sellers, one or two of whom incidentally may have been muggers but the rest of whom would have been innocent.
So, has this at least been an effective counternarcotics strategy?
Colonel Romeo Caramat was a police chief north of Manila when 32 people were killed over a single bloody day in 2017.
“Shock and awe definitely did not work,” he told Reuters in an interview. “Drug supply is still rampant.”
Caramat estimates that hundreds died while he was chief at Bulacan and though many resisted arrest, they were all low-level dealers or users. While there’s less crime overall than there was before, the dope supply’s as consistent as ever. When 370 kilos of meth were found in a Chinese drug lord’s flat, it turned out that was “just the leftovers” – he had tonnes stashed elsewhere. Seizures rarely count as successes – for every five kilos intercepted, there’s fifty kilos going another way. They make a good photo-op for the cops, though.
In November 2019, Duterte appointed his fierce political rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee Against Illegal Drugs (ICAD), giving her access to classified reports and the power to change policy, after she said his strategy wasn’t working. Prove it, he said. She produced a report, using the police’s own data, that over the past three years only 1% of the nation’s shabu supply and the dirty cash from its sales had been taken out of circulation. Duterte fired her after three weeks.
In other words, there’s been no quantifiable victory in the campaign, and a ruthless leader slaughtered 30k of his own people to win a popularity contest. Even in the era of coronavirus, the slaughter continues and Duterte is now under investigation for crimes against humanity. Guys, mass killings of vulnerable people who need help because a few might have broken the law will not be looked upon kindly in the history books. After the Holocaust the world said, “Never again.” But this time, the world doesn’t seem to care.