“I promise you… It will be bloody”
This was how Duterte foreshadowed his flagship campaign that eventually won him the Presidency. In the wake of this promise, thousands lost their lives, survived by families who would likely not see even an ounce of justice. To those still enchanted by his populist charisma, death was a necessary price for the sake of peace and order. So be it. But it is nonetheless paid for in full by widows, by orphaned children, by grieving parents whose lives changed so dramatically in a split second. Change came to them indeed.
But as Duterte’s term nears its end, and while his administration scrambles to drum up the “legacies” they wished to instill to the Filipino people, one cannot help but think what would Duterte really be remembered for decades down the road? Would it be for the infrastructure projects, the Manila Bay rehabilitation perhaps, or the healthcare responses during the pandemic? How the people perceive Duterte’s legacies might differ widely, and in certain cases highly debatable and divisive. But out of all these things, I believe the most notable to be: death.
Not even the regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos can match the death toll of Duterte for state-sponsored killings. In Marcos’ decades-long dictatorship, an estimated 3,257 have died from political killings, whereas that number was easily surpassed by Duterte with just the opening salvo of the war on drugs一notwithstanding the official numbers disclosed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) within the last 5 years. Comparing these figures is, by no means a contest on who was the better executioner. But the sheer magnitude of the killings, estimated at more than 27,000 is something that cannot be overlooked when history decides how Duterte should be remembered.
For Duterte’s die-hard supporters, the drug dealers and users deserved death for the ills they have caused to society一a result of Duterte’s violent rhetoric that propelled narratives to demonized human rights and encouraged people to lambast the institutions that safeguard it. While Duterte legitimized violence as the only solution to the drug problem, it convinced most people to surrender hard-earned freedoms for a distorted sense of peace and security. Emboldened with the promise of impunity, state forces were unleashed against the people, and they were praised for doing a splendid job. With the acceptance of bloodshed as a means to a greater end, along with the loss of empathy for those killed despite the savage brutality of it all, the current regime may have successfully turned the Philippines into a nation of fascists.
Whether you agree with the last point mentioned above or not, this article has no intention to contribute to a discourse that breeds animosity and othering. Last in the #damagedone series, this piece instead is an attempt to broaden perspectives on state-sponsored killings and to dive deeper at the human rights crisis in the Philippines under Duterte.
Losing empathy for the “othered”
For just a few minutes if you can, forget all of your entitlements and imagine yourself living in a depressed community. But before you can say “being poor is your fault”, imagine yourself not being able to access good education and thus, decent employment. Now picture yourself trying to eke out a living by doing odd jobs as you struggle endlessly to escape poverty and to put food on your family’s table. Then, visualize yourself pushed into desperation by dwindling salaries, by rising food prices, and by hunger in spite of honest labor, with no other choice than to seek desperate means to make money. Imagine yourself falling into bad company, enticed with the opportunity for additional incomes, you agreed to become a mule or a small-time dealer. Or, imagine yourself falling into prostitution and given meth by your pimp or brothel manager, just so you could serve more clients. As you fall deeper into an abyss of hopelessness, and while you curse yourself for flattening that tin foil for a momentary escape, imagine loud voices banging at the door in your makeshift home. As you scream to wake your family up so they could hide, imagine the sound of clinking metal followed by a loud explosion. Moments before that bullet inevitably disintegrates the bone and tissue of what used to be your head, imagine yourself regretting the choices you made while wishing that life offered you something better. Now open your eyes, take a deep breath and realize that this is not a romanticization of the illicit drug trade, but the awful reality for most of the extrajudicially killed by the war on drugs.
Most of them are poor, but definitely not everyone involved in illicit drugs are rapists, murderers or mindless trippers. They are however generalized that way to rationalize the cruelty and ruthlessness exacted upon them by the state for being part of an underclass that impede economic growth. The war on drugs is also not new by design. Historically, states have incited mass killing for those deemed by society as the wretched, or threats to the status quo. In ancient Rome, this was done in the Circus Maximus when Christians were fed to the lions. During the Second World War, it became the Jewish Holocaust where millions were sent to extermination camps by the Nazis. In East African Rwanda, Hutu militias committed one of the largest genocides in recent times, resulting in the deaths of more than half a million Tutsis, an ethnic group branded as cockroaches. State-sponsored killings often, is the ultimate outcome of the politics of othering; designed to strengthen political capital by scapegoating societal ills to a minority or subgroup that can be easily discriminated against or ostracized. It also serves as a testament to the power of a dominant regime, with the threat of being subjected to the same treatment as the ‘othered’, detractors and/or dissenters are neutralized by fear.
The 3-6 month guarantee
The war on drugs also became a “spectacle of the scaffold” where public hangings are used to relieve social tensions through a grand display of political will by the sovereign; exercised through the bodies of condemned. It became an outlet for a public in disbelief, exasperated by the erosion of public safety and a snail-paced justice system, aching to put matters into their own hands. In this context, Duterte’s appeal that skyrocketed his political career, stemmed from a cliche trope in Filipino action movies; vengeance. With his electoral campaign rhetoric, Duterte instantly became a protagonist willing to take on difficult moral choices for the sake of justice. Along with his trusty compatriots, the previously feared but now alluded death squads, he promised retribution in a hail of bullets.
The guarantee was to rid the country of drug elements within three to six months. Upon assuming his seat in Malacanang, Duterte spared no time in sampling his power and with just a few simple phrases a new human rights tragedy was set into motion. Operation Tokhang (Knock and Plead) rolled out. Aimed at surfacing and rehabilitating drug suspects with Zumba in the onset, Tokhang eventually led to the deaths of more than 7,000 people by the year’s end. Related to illicit drugs or not, it prompted willing triggermen to do as much killing as they wanted.
In Tokhang and the subsequent Tokhang Double Barrel, warrantless searches, warrantless arrests, illegal detention, abuse of authority, undue physical abuse, as well as the planting of evidence became the unofficial modus operandi in almost every operation within the drug war. With marching orders straight from Palace, drug suspects were extra-judicially killed (EJK) for allegedly resisting arrest in oftentimes staged “buy-bust” operations. The “nanlaban” (suspects fighting back) narrative became highly publicized, subjecting the accountability of state forces under the cloak of “presumption of regularity” in performance of official duties.
State sanctioned operations however are but a small part of the bigger picture of EJKs. More dreadful are the killings that happen in urban areas after dark. Investigative reports by media uncovered that these special ops “death squads”, are typically comprised by off-duty police teams. These teams are coordinated unofficially to liquidate targets from a list by killing them on the spot inside their homes, or by extracting and executing them elsewhere. After the deed, bodies are routinely placed in garbage bags, heads wrapped in duct tape, then disposed of in empty lots, garbage dumps, or under bridges with the proverbial words written on cardboard: “I’m an addict”. By the numbers however, this pales in comparison with the EJKs done by motorcycle riding-in-tandem assassins, the dreaded modern-day reapers who execute people even in broad daylight or in the presence of witnesses. The riding in tandems guaranteed the bloodbath, claiming an average of four souls a day according to media reports. All the same, these killings outside official police operations are classified as Deaths Under Investigation (DUIs), which make up a larger portion of the death toll reported every day.
While death squads, tokhang and EJKs slowly became household terms, Duterte continuously fanned the flames on the drug issue, elevating it to a national security threat and even declared the Philippines a “Narco-State”. The stage was set for an even more brutal year.
The legacy year
2017 is the legacy year of Duterte. Despite the publicity on taking down high value targets from top crime syndicates, the war on drugs has increasingly become a war against the poor. Slum areas became hotspots where most police operations and vigilante killings have been taking place as well with the most number of DUIs. With the bereaved of most of these DUIs having no access to judicial reprieve, in shock and scared of reprisals, demanding accountability from the government has become almost impossible. Though the government has categorically denied its involvement in EJKs, it has on the other end capitalized on the fear it sowed to advance its political agenda.
By arguing that more deaths meant positive outcomes in attaining peace and order, Duterte was able to consolidate political support and legitimacy by encouraging people to take part in the bloody campaign itself. By the beginning of the year, local drug watch lists grew in numbers along with the number of surrenderees that soon filled precinct-level detention centers and municipal/city jails. The so-called “drug matrix” was also released, naming several high-profile drug personalities alongside some of the administration’s renowned political rivals. Local politicians also joined the fray, intensifying anti-drug operations and suspect tagging in an effort not only to rid communities of illicit drugs but ultimately, to win favors from the Palace.
It is during this year that the bounty system for killing alleged drug suspects was exposed, with cash rewards ranging from USD 100-200 per drug user or small-time dealer. Bounties for pickpockets, swindlers, gang members, and alcoholics are also offered with the same amount. Up to USD 1000 on the other hand, is paid for every medium to high-level distributor killed. Death also became good business especially for mortuaries controlled by local officials when the bodies of slain drug suspects are nabbed, forcibly brought to “accredited” funeral homes for so-called autopsies, and released to bereaved families for a fee ranging from USD 500-800. There were also reports that police officers involved in anti-drug operations have been using hospitals to hide bodies for later disposal, to destroy any evidence of foul play, physical abuse, and even torture. 2017 also saw large-scale anti-drug operations in certain provinces, dubbed as “one time big time” strikes that resulted in an alarming number of deaths in a single day.
The escalation of bloodshed has prompted several Senate probes and Congressional hearings following persistent exposé by local and international media along with the condemnation of human rights organizations, including the Commission on Human Rights and the UN-OHCHR. The demands and calls to stop the killings however were constantly drowned out by massive propaganda campaigns in social media that aim to distort truths about the drug war, and to displace human rights concerns by claiming the horrific death toll ultimately preserves human life一in particular, the youth from the dangers of drug abuse. Prominent critics to the drug war were proactively being silenced, including the Commission on Human Rights; accused as protector of drug syndicates and threatened several times by Duterte to be defunded.
Nothing seemed to stop the war on drugs behemoth until it trampled the very same demographic it vowed to protect.
Imagine yourself as a youngster, sitting idly and talking to your peers when suddenly, two well-built men approach you, guns raised, instructing you to kneel and hold your hands up. Picture yourself being yanked and dragged by these men, and despite you being terrified beyond your wits, you ask them courteously where they will take you. Now imagine ending up in an alleyway, with no one to help or hear you as you beg for your life. This was Kian Delos Santos, 17 when he became a casualty of operation Tokhang: One time, big time. This fate also befell Carlos Arnaiz, 19 and Reynaldo De Guzman, 14 on the same date, where their bodies were found stabbed, shot, and tortured. While Duterte dismissed these underaged drug war deaths as isolated cases, or moreover, as sabotage, he also admitted publicly that the war on drugs was unwinnable. Kian’s death, alongside others within the long list of underaged drug war casualties might be senseless, but it prompted wider scrutiny upon the enforcers of the war on drugs. This was the only time Duterte’s hands were compelled to suspend all anti-drug operations and to sack the Caloocan city police force, the one with the most number of DUIs. In spite of these however, Duterte remained undeterred in his bloody crusade, and by the end of the year, the Tokhang: Double Barrel Reloaded project was launched.
Tokhang for Activists
By 2018, the official death toll from the drug war has reached more than 5,000. Human rights groups however claim that the actual number at the time has reached 12,000. As the killings became more brazen, the culture of violence began breaching the confines of the anti-drug campaign.
As disillusionment grew from the spate of killings, Duterte also suffered a serious falling out with his allies from the radical left一once known not only as his supporters but a part of the ruling coalition.
With the EJK issue slowly dismantling his legitimacy, along with the mounting protests to stop the killings, Duterte turned his attention to silencing dissenters mainly, the political opposition and social movements. Setting in motion a new narrative for violent othering, Malacanang painted its critiques as elements who impede economic development by threatening political and social stability. As Duterte commenced on sacking left-leaning officials, (including cabinet secretaries he appointed earlier) to please his right-wing generals, the peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) inevitably crumbled. This signaled a surge of military operations in various rebel hotspots, leading to the deaths of not only armed combatants but civilians as well.
Reports of harassment and intimidation against communities struggling for land, water, and forest rights surfaced as the new trend of violence. Duterte’s new foothold in government, by discarding alliances with the radical left appears to have given other non-state actors, including corporations, a ticket for impunity as they moved to seize control of various territories.
The year also saw the emergence of the alleged Oust-Duterte plots that enabled Malacanang to reorient defense priorities toward internal security. Picking up from the Marawi siege and the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao in the previous year, the administration became dead set on militarizing almost all aspects of governance, appointing high-ranking defense officials into cabinet posts. Against a backdrop of political controversies, Duterte again has managed to set the stage reaffirming his legitimacy and grasp to power as another election season sets in.
By the beginning of 2019, the Commission on Human Rights pronounced that the number of deaths from the drug war could be as high as 27,000. This number was later on attested to by the media, concerned citizen’s groups and various human rights organizations who conducted independent investigations and monitoring. Anti-drug operations continued throughout the year with the government inflating and deflating official tallies in an attempt to confuse the public and diffuse tensions that might arise with their electoral slate. Consequently, with a landslide victory against the opposition, Duterte successfully reaffirms his grip on power.
The later part of 2019 became business as usual with Duterte’s deadly campaigns, but now with several new features. State forces began cracking down movement leaders and activists identified in its new“ouster plot matrix”. Raids were carried out against Non-government organizations for being alleged fronts for the New People’s Army. Red-tagging became the new trend in silencing critics as lists akin to the ones used in identifying drug personalities are deployed to communities to smoke out possible insurgents and their supporters.
As if nothing could surpass the depravity of killing, in 2019, two alleged female members of the new people’s army were summarily killed with their genitals torn by bullets. This happened a year after Duterte urged members of the military to shoot female rebels in their vagina.
The crackdown against activists becomes equally harrowing with the war on drugs as state forces engage on EJKs to advance economic agendas for the elite. This is alarmingly evident in the Massacre of Sagay 9, where nine farmers in Sagay City in Occidental Mindoro were shot down by a group of men. While the government denied allegations of involvement, it simultaneously pinned accusations to the local insurgency to dispel further investigation, similar to the Tamasco 8 incident in 2017, where eight T’boli-Manobo S’daf indigenous leaders were killed in Lake Sebu. Both cases are agrarian in nature and have roots in the struggle for ecological, social, and cultural rights.
As the violence against activism escalated, grassroots leaders completely unrelated to the communist armed conflict have also become targets, along with lawyers, paralegals, and other human rights defenders. It was also in 2019 that Focus on the Global South lost one of its closest allies, Honorio “Ka Larry” Samaniego, a staunch advocate for agrarian reform. Ka Larry was killed in the midday of October 11, 2019 while tending his rice field in Hermosa, Bataan province. One of the probable motives for his murder stems from protesting the operation of an illegal landfill.
The Philippines also became one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmentalists, ranking first in the world with 43 killed in 2018, and second with 30 killed in 2019. Back in 2016, the first politically motivated EJK under the current regime was an environmental activist, Gloria Capitan, shot point-blank in her home a day after Duterte assumed office. She was an ardent grassroots activist who protested against the coal-fired power plants also in the Bataan province.
Muffled cries during the pandemic
Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, Duterte was able to press hard on his two-pronged death campaigns. In an exhaustive report by Human Rights Watch, the killings along with unnecessary arrests and detention have intensified during the early months of the lockdowns. In the same report, it is also stated that attacks by the police, military and unidentified gunmen on activists, community and Indigenous leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists also increased during the year. The widespread public fear from the Coronavirus enabled state forces to operate clandestinely, and with the restriction of movement from the lockdowns, killers are able to meet their targets freely, efficiently, and with far less risk of being exposed by the media. House to house operations dubbed by communities as Tokhang 2 continued in depressed urban areas, with an official death tally of 155 during the 3 months of heightened lockdowns. These deaths, the government claims, are again the result of shootouts from drug users and dealers who resisted arrest.
Despite the veil of coronavirus fears, some of these operations, particularly against activists, are too gruesome to be simply swept under the rug. Zara Alvarez, a human rights advocate and paralegal was assassinated by unidentified gunmen on the night August 7, 2020, only a month after the Anti-Terror Law was enacted by Duterte. Alvarez’ name was included in an official terrorist watchlist, with among 600 other individuals. Half a year later, on March 7, 2021, nine different activists/community leaders were killed in a simultaneous crackdown within multiple provinces. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the killings happened two days after Duterte ordered the military to “kill” and “finish off” communist terrorists in a public speech. With the message of fear clearly sent, Bloody Sunday attests to the ruthlessness of Duterte’s regime, unfazed by the challenges of the pandemic.
The culture of violence also resonated in the over-militarized enforcement of community lockdowns. In the onset of the Pandemic, Duterte ordered government troops to shoot quarantine violators dead. Though this intended to intimidate people’s movements from protesting on the government’s healthcare responses, the kill order reverberated within military/police ranks as a ticket to use excessive force. On April 23, 2020, Winston Ragos, a retired army corporal suffering from post-traumatic stress was slain by two policemen for violating quarantine rules. Since Ragos taunted the police officers and mimicked drawing a gun, the government claims the shooting to be done in self-defense. Several CCTV footage sent to the media however showed the same two policemen planting a firearm on Ragos’ body. In the same year, Sonya and her son Frank Gregorio were shot in the head by an off-duty police official in Tarlac province. Resulting from a domestic altercation, the spine-chilling act itself was caught on video and made its rounds in social media, causing widespread disgust on police brutality. Another incident involving a police officer resulted in a middle-aged woman’s death in Quezon City early this year. Lilibeth Valdez was tending her store when the police officer who appeared drunk, yanked her hair and shot her in the neck.
The deaths of Ragos, Valdez, and the Gregorios, despite the official condemnation of the Philippine National Police, display beyond doubt the impunity enjoyed by state forces, along with the recklessness and abuse in wielding their power. It also shows the consequences of Duterte’s pronouncements that embolden these forces to resort to violence and commit murder within or outside the jurisdiction of their service.
“My only sin is extrajudicial killings”
Recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) again signified its intention to investigate the spate of EJKs in the last 5 years and backtracking as far the reports that link Duterte to the murders committed by the Davao Death Squad (DDS), the notorious vigilante group allegedly formed by Duterte himself while serving as Mayor in Davao.
In 2018, several whistleblowers on the war on drugs emerged. In the context of mounting senate probes on the EJKs, former policemen and alleged members of the DDS, Edgar Matobato and Arturo Lascanas, accused Duterte of orchestrating a decades-long campaign of death squads and lawless murder in his home province of Davao. Their eyewitness accounts also uncovered some astonishing details about the death squad machinery and its hierarchy. Politically motivated or not, their accounts became the subject of the investigations planned by the ICC then, which prompted Duterte to withdraw the Philippines, absent a substantive referendum, as a member of the said court. Soon enough, narratives to dispel the ICC surface, with Duterte claiming the planned probes are beyond jurisdiction, are non legally binding, and would not therefore compel the consent of the state. This is, despite the Supreme Court (SC) of the Philippines affirming the government’s obligation to the ICC in complying with international humanitarian laws. The SC also affirmed the Rome Statute, which enables the ICC to subject the government to criminal proceedings, regardless of its withdrawal.
Malacanang however continues to downplay these investigations, claiming it to be based on hearsay and a smear campaign. Despite the hundreds of grim pronouncements addressed publicly, encouraging both police and military forces to relentlessly kill, dismember, or eat the internal organs of so-called enemies of the state, Duterte remains undaunted from accusations of being a tyrant一insulated from accountability by politically induced controversies against human rights policies. Denouncing the possibility of being brought to the Hague, Duterte says “they will never take me alive” and even threatened to slap ICC magistrates in the face.
While Duterte shields himself from possible indictments by invoking the lack of evidence linking him to the actual EJKs, the ICC claims that the “public statements made by Duterte and other government officials encouraging, supporting and, in certain instances, urging the public to kill suspected drug users and dealers” were evidence of a state policy to attack civilians.
In a report by Human Rights Watch, the death toll from the war on drugs in 2021 might be close to 30,000.
The dead will never see their day in court. The loss of life, no matter how hard we try to make sense of it, can never be undone.
Imagine yourself as a child, barely the age of ten, standing in between both your parent’s caskets. At this age, you probably wouldn’t know what justice is, more so the meaning of their deaths. You’re not even tall enough to look at their remains. From afar, you can glimpse at their photos, smiling. You close your eyes and try to imagine happier times with them, but all you see in your mind’s eye is the image of their bodies sprawled across the floor. Blood, brains, and gaping exit wounds.
Of all the dramatic promises issued by Duterte throughout his Presidency, he kept one thing to the letter: death. With the abundance of death, the war on drugs also exposed the extensive corrosion in law enforcement as well as the culture of violence that has become endemic in its ranks. Pitting more violence against an already violent drug trade posed an even greater risk to communities caught between the crossfire. The EJKs and the “collateral damage”, though the government may easily discount, had a price that far exceeded the lofty goals of the drug war.
By emboldening state forces to kill freely, and by justifying the use of extrajudicial methods to achieve political goals, Duterte eroded not only the discourse of human rights, but the rule of law itself.
The issue of illegal drugs is not endemic to the Philippines, with other countries engaging in less violent campaigns and achieving far better results without the needless deaths or the absence of due process. Unless a strong push can be made to hold Duterte accountable as the architect of the EJKs, fear would again become the norm in politics and governance. If you are still not convinced that the country is under a fascist dictatorship, well, Duterte need not declare martial law, and yet we are witnessing another dark chapter in history.
In an era where death is literally at your doorstep with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is unsurprising that most of us have already become desensitized from the loss of life. When the public starts to care less about deaths, it becomes senseless and breeds more injustice. This is exactly the damage done by Duterte in his bloody campaigns, and while some of us fall into the pits of distorted truths, of callousness and apathy, it enables those in power to advance their agendas without resistance. ◼
This article is dedicated to Chito Gascon, Constitutional Commissioner, Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, and an Activist. He passed on October 9, 2021.
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 A popular fitness program from Latin America
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