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The Melancholy of Killercops in the Philippines Drug War (Part 2)

Read part one here // Read part three here


Politics as a farce?

Abroad, many are appalled by Duterte’s bloodlust, yet most Filipinos celebrate him. Finally, they perceive, someone who fights crime and opposes the oligarch; the handful of families who divided the country between themselves – after the Spanish and American colonial years – and plundered it together. You see Duterte bumper stickers, Duterte bracelets, Duterte dog collars, Duterte as a cardboard figure greeting in the hotel foyers. Amid the smog, a pedestrian ties a Duterte mouth-cover in front of her face.

Duterte has signed a law to make college tuition free. He says he wants to enforce a Freedom of Information Act to make authorities more transparent. He supports the introduction of same-sex marriage. People love him. A 2017 poll estimated that 80 per cent of the public supported him. More recently, his allies were successful in the country’s recent mid-term general election.

Duterte was the mayor of Davao for over twenty years, a megacity on the island of Mindanao, in the south of the Philippines. He turned the metropolis into a kind of Singapore of the South, with the help of death squads. The Davao Death Squad is said to have killed over a thousand people suspected of offences. His brutal approach brought Duterte all sorts of nicknames: including "Duterte Harry" and the "Punisher". Today, his daughter rules the city. And both deny that they have had anything to do with the death squad. Hardly anyone in the Philippines believes that, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Authorities claim that around 1.3 million people have surrendered to the state for drug use or related offences since Duterte came to power in 2016. But when they do, nothing happens. There are not enough treatment or therapy programmes. Gina Hechanova, a professor of psychology at Manila's University, says most people who use drugs are easy to treat and are not highly dependent on the drugs they use, but their problems are worsened because of the authorities’ ignorance around drug use.

"The authorities are impatient with regard to rehabilitation. This problem can only be solved together. With the [person who uses drugs], his family, his neighborhood – and the police," she claims.

She won’t be heard. Especially by the mass of poor Filipinos who want to feel politics now, no matter the costs. For the first time, they experience – albeit as a farce – a president who does what he pledges to do. Who seemingly does not fill his pockets, and presents that he has the common good in mind. And so these Filipinos exchange their freedom for a sense of security. Even if nobody knows where the PNP will be knocking next.

Murder never dies

On a Sunday, a few weeks later, Nino Cerrado storms out of his house at noon, his backpack strapped, his gun in his hand. He jumps into his Toyota, which one of his servants has just polished, and the gun disappears under the passenger seat. Then he sets off to pick up his daughter Princess. She is four years old and lives with her mother.

The journey takes almost an hour, even though there is little traffic on Sundays. Prefabricated buildings turn into corrugated iron huts, in front of which bicycle taxis stand. Cerrado is silent, as always, when he has not drunk anything yet. Finally, he parks in front of a basketball court, where a couple of teenagers climb up to dunk, and he heads to a hut where a crowd of singing women and children stand around a karaoke machine.

There, his ex-wife, Princess' mother – a small, buxom woman with Chinese facial features – welcomes him. Princess peeps out the door, but does not dare to come out yet. Cerrado pulls out two bills from his peso bundle and gives them to his ex. She protests. That is not enough. They need more. So he hands over more. Finally, Princess comes out the door. Her incisors have been erased by tooth decay, and she wears a pink shirt.

Nino Cerrado lifts his daughter and puts her in the back of his car. "We get along great," he says about himself and his ex-wife. And slams the door of the Toyota. On the way, Princess puts on her father’s police hat. Again, Cerrado is silent, soon he parks in front of a shopping mall, takes Princess by the hand and starts walking. He buys her crispy roasted pig intestine before they go to the children's paradise, an angry loud collection of electric rocking horses, arcade games, and basketball-throwing machines. He puts his daughter on a purple rocking horse with a white tail and throws a peso.

The horse and Princess rock monotonously back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Cerrado stares at Princess. Suddenly he says, "What kind of people love killing others? Only a sadist, right? Yet they're everywhere. Like the Nazis back then." His eyes remain fixed on his daughter. When the horse stops rocking, he takes his little daughter off the rocking horse and turns around: "It is senseless killing."


In the evening, Cerrado sits down in his apartment on the couch, his parents live above him. The ceilings are high, the floor is solid wood. In the living room, a flat screen TV, computer, and music system form the altar of socioeconomic success in the Philippines. One of his servants comes from above, he was sitting with his parents, picking up a few bills from Cerrado's peso bundle. “Bring beer”.

Soon, Cerrado's cheeks turn red again. He puts Metallica on, then Slayer, high volume. Then he asks me if policemen in Germany are also corrupt. Or what happens if someone is found with Shabu in his pocket? Suddenly he gets up and gets a DVD from a cupboard. Faded pictures, perhaps fifteen years old, his father filmed over heads in the audience, as young men in gymnastics crawl across the lawn on all fours in a stadium. Officers bend down to them and roar something. Some kicks, some hits.

"Can you see that? That's me.” He points to a bald guy between others doing push-ups. "How they shaved my head before. How I smile. The others puked. I thought it was just a day, I'll survive. My first day with the police." He goes back to the cupboard, a bit dull. Gets out a stack of documents, three-finger thick, yellow folders, certainly thirty pieces.

"Last time I was the director. I organised ‘buy busts’. We have information about a dealer who is in the streets right now. We go out in normal clothes. One guy buys Shabu from the dealer, the other covers the purchase of the drugs, and I sit in the car and give instructions. Then we roll.”

Each file has a pompous cover page: PNP in old, decorated letters. Then: the offence, the crime, the statements of the officials. Behind that: photos. The dealer, a feminine-looking, long-haired, skinny man in tattered jeans, stands in front of three men on duty. Behind that, three hundred peso notes are printed onto the pages with glue.

"We mark the bills with UV ink. The dealers of course deny everything. But then we light them with black light on the fingers and – well." Cerrado flips through the files. Terrified eyes here, empty eyes there on the pictures. Life is over: 36 years imprisonment for a few stones of Shabu. Some files miss the money. Cerrado laughs softly. Whenever the case was over, he had gone to buy beer.

Then he leans back on the couch. Grabs a guitar leaning against the wall and playing. Again he seems to shrink.

"A few weeks ago, they called me at night. My colleagues grabbed a dealer whom we had been targeting for a long time. I should come to write down the case. But then one of my superiors joined me and said, 'I'm going to shoot him.' So I said, 'Why did you call me out of bed then?'” Cerrado is getting wild when he thinks about it. "Honestly, what else do they need me for?" Duterte was his president. And the neighborhoods would have to be cleaned somehow. But not like this. He feels guilty.

After this incident, stress wore down on him. He found it hard to sleep, he drank throughout the week – sometimes in the morning. And then his decision was clear: Enough is enough. He did not want to work in this anti-drug unit anymore. He asked for a transfer and enlisted in education for senior police officers. He was not the first of his unit to be transferred, he says.

Now he’s going back to school. After that, he will not return to the anti-drug unit. He hopes.

“What happens if Duterte is no longer president? What will happen then, my friend? Then the big investigation begins. Then human rights organisations and journalists will help the widows and orphans to identify the perpetrators."

And who wants to be a murderer? Murder never dies. Not even in the Philippines.

The slums of Tondo, Manila

On graveyard shift

Late summer 2017. Monday night. A couple of sex workers in pink jogging suits are standing in front of the rubbish on the roadside, in Tondo, the megaslum in Manila Bay. At the end of the street: a police station, in front of it: a crowd of about two dozen journalists, their cameras drawn. In the thick of it: Kasey Moreno, a petite reporter with long, black hair and a snub nose, her cell phone in her hand, the headphones of her headset in her ear – as always. She works for one of the major broadcasters in Manila, her bosses have forbidden her to be accompanied by foreign journalists on their bloody night shift. Nobody wants to be responsible.

Two policemen are leading a young man out of the station, he is handcuffed and has pulled the hood of his pullover across his face. The journalists jump up, shoot pictures, flash, flash. The officers take the detainee to a police car, wait a moment and then return. "He killed someone yesterday," notes Moreno, the reporter. “So we asked the police to reenact the arrest.”

After that, the journalists film a gray-haired police officer in uniform sitting cross-legged in front of the station on a bench. He is smoking. “This is the head of the station," says Moreno. She lowers her voice. "There was a false bookshelf in the station, and a cell with several inmates was hidden behind it." These were inmates who had been illegally held by the head of the guard police station, without charge, and who were allegedly tortured. The story was revealed, and the men were released. However, the gray-haired officer was allowed to stay.

Every night, Moreno is on “cemetery shifts” – what Filipino journalists call the nights during which they track down stories of people killed, allegedly for selling drugs, in the slums of Manila. The killing fields of the present day. As night falls, Moreno sits next to her driver in the pick-up and drives out to the police stations to look for stories in mission reports. Mostly she travels to Tondo, the country's largest slum. Here, up to 600,000 people live, only a few of the residents make it to Metro Manila during the day – as construction workers, bicycle taxi drivers, hat sellers, or sex workers. And those who have no job, but are hungry, may join one of the countless gangs.

It's 01:37. The next station Moreno visits is near Road 10, Tondo's main street. A dozen children push a mattress across the street, none of them are wearing shirts. In front of the station is a terrarium with greenish matte slices. A yellow snake lies in it, too lazy to devour one of the two white mice crouching in a corner, frozen. Inside, next to a reception desk, there are rules of conduct and documents on the wall, next to visible footprints.

Moreno greets the officer at the reception, asks for the assignment report and begins to leaf through it. In between, she interrupts, takes out her mobile phone and suddenly she is live on-air on the radio to discuss the murder case at the police station she had just visited. While talking into her phone, two boys are handcuffed and chained away, while a third man is pushed behind in a stranglehold by a police officer. A civilian driver wipes his arms clean with a cleansing wipe. "They drink too much here," he says dryly. "Especially on the weekend. We have an alcohol problem in the first place.”

Then Moreno reads the assignment reports. After a while, she finds a message in one of the reports: a deadly shootout, very close to here, yesterday at five. "Are there any camera pictures related to this?" She asks the officer. The police officer answers that he has not seen any CCTV footage. But if Moreno follows up and finds some footage, she should let the police know.

On the road again, hurrying to the crime scene of the previous night. The driver starts, overtakes on the right, rolls over the red traffic lights, the warning lights on. He races to a dark driveway next to a motel. Opposite lies the sulphur yellow shimmering coast. Further back, industrial cranes reach for containers, and something is torched off. The dust etches into the pores.

"Suddenly a man came around the corner, and then there were shots," says a toothless old woman. Kasey Moreno taps into her cellphone. The old woman had dropped her cigarette and run into the hotel foyer to hide. A man had fallen to the ground just outside the entrance, got up again and fled, she says. A second man had run through her sight. More shots. "That's it."

Kasey Moreno asks at the reception of the hotel if there is CCTV footage. When she comes out, she says, "The hotel claims the cameras were broken or off." She snorts and lowers her head slightly. She does not believe a word. But what can she do? This, it seems, will be another murder in Manila, whose perpetrator is never investigated. "That's what makes journalists so frustrated here," says Moreno.

A dead end. No video, no story. The cemetery shift continues. She goes back to the pick-up, which stands at the roadside. She will wait in the car until somewhere a crime happens again. It will not take too long.

Read part one here // Read part three here


* Benedict Wermter is a freelance writer and crime reporter covering Germany and Asia. You can check out his website here, or reach him via benedict.wermter {@} gmail.com

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