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The Melancholy of Killercops in the Philippines Drug War (Part 1)

Read part two here // Read part three here


Rodrigo Duterte says he wants to eradicate the evil in the Philippines. His cops execute thousands of people for alleged involvement with drugs. The crowd cheers. But Nino Cerrado, an officer in Manila’s anti-drug unit, is plagued with guilt.

Where is Nino Cerrado?

They storm at each other. Muscle mass smashes, teeth flash. They snap, tug, growl. As they bite into each other, no longer rolling on the floor, the coaches come up with machetes in their hands pushing them from the side into the dog’s lips. The two pitbulls let it go just before they attack each other again. Blood swells from their skins, and in the air hangs the smell of warm iron and dog shit.

It is Saturday. A wet flat roof is surrounded by barbed wire and covered with a tarpaulin so that the neighbours see nothing. In the middle: an arena of erected pallets and laid out industrial carpet. The sun is just setting, and the old stuccoed facades of the neighbourhood sparkle, while two dozen men came together up here for the dogfight, with shining eyes, and cigarette butts in the corner of their mouths.

The trainers squat around their dogs, and when one of the dogs buries his opponent under him the trainers flatten their hands slapping on the ground: “Come on, go, go, go, go.” Then the crowd pulls their bulky smartphones out of their bathing trunks and takes pictures – even though they’re not allowed to do that. Then they call the names of the dogs: “Good boy, Hunter. Good boy, Evil. “At some point, one of the trainers grabs his pitbull by the neck, carries him out of the ring, and washes off the dog in a corner.

It was Nino Cerrado who organised the pitbull fight. Even if that is forbidden for him as a policeman. In the afternoon he had called everyone: one of his brothers to film the fight, his breeder, who drives the dogs into this district – one by one. The boy who trains the dogs and who should have a look for the inexperienced puppy. Cerrado owns three pitbulls, and this early evening his dogs are attacking their neighbour’s stall. It’s a sparring session. No bets this time. Real fights last up to three hours, and if one of his pitbulls loses, Cerrado and his people sometimes let them die. Death before dishonour.

But Nino Cerrado does not come that day. He has work to do. Somewhere else. Actually his name is different, he can’t be named here. And he definitely does not want to be photographed or have a photographer with him. Nino Cerrado is a beefy guy in his mid-thirties. Short shaved hair, tight back, muscle-fit shirt. In front of his crotch hangs a black hip pack in which he keeps a bundle of thousand peso notes. Only a few people know where he is at this moment. Is he observing from his car as one of his colleagues holds a gun to a dealer’s head? Or does he just sit in it and eat ice cream with his daughter? Nino Cerrado is one of the officers in Manila’s anti-drug unit, which is suspected to have committed thousands of extrajudicial killings under the guise of a war on drugs.

Philippine National Police, counternarcotic efforts training (Source: Flickr)
Philippine National Police, counternarcotic efforts training (Source: Flickr)

And then came Rodrigo Duterte

Manila. Summer 2017. During the day, the skyline disappears behind smog. Hundreds of thousands of call centre agents are sitting in the skyscrapers, tormenting themselves after work in the never ending traffic jams. The other Manila wears plastic slippers, lives in slums, and sometimes eats leftovers from the trays of fast-food chains. And then came Rodrigo Duterte.

Immediately after being elected as president in the summer of 2016, he launched Operation Double Barrel, which Filipinos call Oplan Tokhang. Those who take drugs, or who deal, had to register. They had to give up, Duterte said. They should receive a therapy instead of taking or selling drugs. The lists of names of those surrendering as consumers also went to the Philippine National Police, the PNP. Their officers headed to the slums, knocked on the doors and inquired, if those on the list had really stopped using. The dying began.

Some laid in their blood in the street, their heads taped, cardboard signs in front of them: “I’m a dealer.” Others got shot at home, entire families were wiped out. In the first six months, about 7,000 people were killed, half of whom died during police operations. For the other half, it is unclear who the killers are. According to the government, millions of Filipinos are dependent on Shabu, more commonly known as methamphetamine.

The PNP say the alleged dealers always opened fire first when the police knocked on their doors. The officers always found weapons and drugs among those shot dead. Coincidence? Initially, the PNP proudly announced the numbers of killed suspects, called the press officers and TV journalists and invited them to the crime scene. Everyone should see how merciless the government is against criminals. But that changed soon.

There was international outcry: the UN Human Rights Council demanded that the Philippine government immediately stop the drug war. The EU said its trade with the Philippines was at risk. Duterte’s government rejected all allegations: the number of those killed were “alternative facts“. They wouldn’t need funds from the EU anyway. The killing continued, a little softer. The police began to disguise their actions. Ambulances, instead of hearses, collected the dead. They flowed into another statistic; in the hospital, it was no longer “shot”, but “dead on arrival”.

Nobody can say with certainty who killed whom and why. Was it police? Was it a killer hired by police officers? Freeloaders? Gangs who took the opportunity to pay off old debts? Corrupt policemen who themselves had debts to pay? Or did everything follow a plan designed in the Presidential Palace?

Only one thing is clear: The death came into the slums. Just like Rodrigo Duterte had announced before being elected: “If I’m a presidential candidate, I’ll tell you Filipinos, do not vote for me, because it’s going to be bloody.” That’s how he flirted with his violent drug policy in a TV interview in August 2015.

The smell of blood

One week later, it’s Saturday again. The towers of the banks and hotels are scratching at the grey smoggy clouds, the side streets are crowded with dozens of small, red-light bars, women lean against the wall during the day. This is the kingdom of Nino Cerrado. Everyone knows him here, they fear him. If he passes the bars with his toothpaste-white sneakers, sex workers, dealers, and dubious physiotherapists step back as if to form an alley. Nobody holds his gaze. Nobody offers a massage anymore. No more Viagra for the fat, white gentlemen called “sir” or “boss”.

A mile further, Cerrado turns into a street, a twisting mix of shacks of banana cartons with corrugated metal roofs and tons of tangled cables above. That too is his quarter, he lives not far from here. It does not take long and a bunch of children surround him, shouting “Nino, Nino”.

As it gets dark this Saturday night, a pig’s head spins on a barbecue, supervised by a bald man. The whole street sits on plastic benches behind it, no one is sober here.

“Sit down, I want to entertain you, my friend,” says Nino Cerrado. His cheeks glow from the strong beer.

“Yes, we Filipinos love fights,” he says. “We do not just fight roosters and dogs.” He had been a street fighter before he became a police officer. His first visit abroad? He flew to an organised street fight in Thailand.

At some point the pig’s head does not turn anymore, but there is more gin, rum, and brandy. Cerrado says, “This guy is a police officer too”, pointing to the bald guy at the grill. He steps back, raises his jersey over the beer belly, the pommel of a weapon peeps out of his sweatpants. He grins. And that guy over there is also a police officer. Word fragments fly threw the room. “Duterte is the best president ever.” It smells like roasted peanuts and brandy.

“Come to our police station, if you can bear the smell of blood, my friend,” says Nino Cerrado at some point. He laughs, and then everyone laughs, and he presses my neck with his giant hand.

Children with toy guns in Manila, Philippines (Source: Flickr)

It seems he’s shrinking

The next morning, the streets are emptier than usual. There are loudspeakers hanging from the churches, the priests’ Sunday sermons echo through the neighbourhood. Throughout the day, Cerrado gets drunk in his friend’s hut, some streets away, along with half a dozen brothers and neighbours of his friend Mario. Nobody speaks English, because that’s only in schoolbooks. In the courtyard, roosters cower in basket cages. These are roosters that Mario is breeding for Cerrado.

When it gets dark, Cerrado is very drunk. Nonetheless, he drives the short distance to a nearby restaurant. Cerrado gets into his white Toyota with silver alloy wheels and hides his chrome-plated service pistol – made in Israel – under the passenger seat. When he gets off some streets, he has to breathe deeply, he stumbles slightly, and his cheeks continue to glow. In the snack bar with open windows, three men and their wives sit at a plastic table. They are colleagues, policemen like him, they belong to the anti-drug unit of the neighbouring district.

The first is a fat guy with a black shirt, he has his belt bag tied around the chest and wears flip-flops. Let’s call him PO1, because he is a police officer in rank 1. Next to him sits an idiot with an overbite, a small bandage on his forehead and a gold pattern on a blue muscle-fit shirt. He is a police officer in rank 2, PO2. Between PO1 and PO2 sits a small man staring incessantly out of his narrow eyes. His smile is a constant question in the air. Next to these men are their wives. Cerrado orders beer for everyone, and then they talk confused stuff, soon they talk louder, faster and faster. Everyone wants to outdo the other with his laugh. And her women listen and laugh.

Suddenly PO1, the fat man, says in English, “We are the PNP, my friend.” The National Police!

PO2 comes in: “We knock. We come to you on motorcycles and …” He does not finish the sentence, but his index and middle fingers form a pistol, aiming on forehead-level through the room.

PO2 points to PO1, the fat guy, “He’s not coming, he’s too fat to sit and shoot at the back. The motor is too slow with him.”

They laugh with a loud laugh, Cerrado laughs loudest.

PO1 does not want to sit on top of it, the fat man, and so he says: “Sometimes we pick them up and bring them to the station. When we’re done with them, we stack them as high as five car tires on top of each other. And then they burn.” His wife hushes and grabs him by the knee, the waitress stops talking, the people at the next table, too.

Cerrado takes the bundle of peso notes out of his pocket and orders: small fried fish, duck embryos still in their shell, sweet pickled pig innards. When the food arrives, they continue to talk in Tagalog, the language of the Filipinos, and laugh out loud again, the pig guts almost falling from their mouths.

PO2 strikes the man with the narrow eyes on his shoulder, who has been sitting dumb but grinning. “He is the driver. A cousin of my wife. Our best man.” And then comes the only word the narrow-eyed man says that night: “Intelligence.” He’s a spy for the two officers.

Cerrado teeters on his legs. He has hardly eaten, his cheeks thaw. Then he says goodbye, gets in his car and drives off, he wants to go home, to bed. He turns into silence while cruising through his quarters, a hand on the steering wheel. Ragged families pass by, others sleep on a piece of cardboard on the roadside, homeless women sit on the sidewalk and breastfeed their baby, a scarred dog searches for food in the trash and pulls a chain behind it.

Suddenly Cerrado raises his eyebrows. “One day a mother came to the station with us and said that a guy raped her daughter,” he breaks out. “We all knew who that was right away. Immediately we drove out to the house of the rapist and got him. When he was with us at the station, a colleague shot him in the neck, from the top.” So the bullet shreds the torso first and then exits the pelvis again, a pretty deadly method. Still, they would have shot him in the head afterwards. Better safe than sorry.

“What would you do, my friend, if you knew he was bribing the guards in the city jail and returning to our neighbourhood?”

Pause. It seems this alpha guy is shrinking in his car seat in the shadow of the night, touched, scared. “I’m not proud of what we do,” he finally mumbles.

Read part two 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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