Since he swept to power in June, President Rodrigo Duterte has ruthlessly pursued his promised violent crackdown, lashed out at foreign leaders and emboldened vigilantes. In a Manila slum, Iris Gonzales meets his supporter and his critics.
Jomalene Mabag has seen it all – the rapists, the robbers, the killers. They’re all drug users and they messed up the neighborhood, a Bronx-like slum district in the southern part of metro Manila, where no outsider dared walk, she says.
The stories of drug-related crimes are endless as they are varied.
“These people have committed the worst, especially when they’re under the influence of drugs. I’ve seen people get killed and children get raped. It’s unthinkable,” says 31-year-old Mabag, who has been a resident of Barangay 178 in Pasay City for 14 years now.
This maze-like, densely populated area is home to around 60,000 informal settlers, of whom an estimated 5,000 are believed to be drug criminals.
But these days, she swears, the crimes have stopped. “It’s all thanks to President Rodrigo Duterte.”
Mabag, a mother to two little girls, calls herself a diehard Duterte supporter. She is one of the 16 million Filipinos who voted for him because she believes he could eradicate crime and get rid of the drug criminals.
But for 26-year-old Harra Kazuo, the story is different – and so is the sentiment toward Duterte’s war on drugs. Kazuo is eight months pregnant with her second child. Her eldest is just two years old. Her husband Jaypee Bertes, 28, was killed by police officers in July as part of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Jaypee and his father, Renato, 48, are among the more than 3,000 people that have been gunned down by police because of their alleged involvement in drugs since Duterte took office 100 days ago.
The police arrested the younger Bertes in their ramshackle home in a slum area also in Pasay, in July. Authorities said the Bertes men were caught gambling and later found to be in possession of shabu (methamphetamine).
In a testimony before a Senate panel investigating Duterte’s anti-drug war, Kazuo said the arresting officers barged into their home and demanded to know where the drugs were. They were then brought to a nearby police station and beaten up, she said.
However, the police said that at the station, the Bertes men both tried to grab an officer’s gun, prompting the police to fire successive shots at the two, an account that Kazuo described as a blatant lie.
Her husband and father-in-law did not even know how to handle a gun, she said.
Duterte, the Philippines’ 16th president, on Sunday completed the 100th day of a term that has already generated immense controversy in the country and beyond.
He won on a promise to bring about change in a country of more than 100 million people and whose economy is controlled by a wealthy few. Of the 100-million population, some 25 million live below the poverty line, or on less than a dollar a day.
“Change is coming,” was Duterte’s battle cry. He promised it would be bloody, too, as he set about ridding the streets of drug criminals.
“We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish,” Duterte said.
Today, at least 600,000 people suspected of being drug dealers or users have surrendered to the police to escape being killed.
And at least 3,000 have already been gunned down since the anti-drug campaign began.
Of these, at least 1,466 suspected drug offenders were killed by the police while some 1,490 were killed by suspected vigilante groups, which the police classify as “deaths under investigation.”
These victims of vigilante-style killings usually have strips of cardboard plastered on their bodies, with handwritten messages that serve as a warning to others: “We are drug pushers, do not be like us.”
Duterte’s 20-year stint as mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines also saw the rise of vigilante groups, with many believing that it was Duterte himself who formed the so-called Davao Death Squad vigilante group to end criminality.
While Filipinos like Mabag praise Duterte for his anti-drug war, human rights organisations have sounded the alarm on the growing number of extrajudicial killings.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and many other groups have expressed concern.
Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch said Duterte has been consistent in pronouncing that his war on drugs will continue, that the police have, in effect, a licence to kill criminal suspects, given the administration will turn a blind eye to the shooting of alleged drug users and dealers.
“Duterte is steamrolling the rule of law and its advocates both at home and abroad. He has declared the soaring number of killings of alleged criminal suspects as proof of the ‘success’ of his anti-drug campaign and urged police to ‘seize the momentum,’” Kine said in an August post.
The New York-based watchdog said foreign donors such as the United States and the European Union, which provide technical and financial assistance to the Philippine security forces, particularly the Philippine National Police, urgently need to send a strong message to the Duterte government that it risks an immediate suspension of that aid unless the abusive “war on drugs” and its skyrocketing death toll comes to a halt.
But Duterte wouldn’t budge.
On the contrary, he has launched a tirade against his critics, telling President Obama that “he can go to hell” and that the European Union can choose “to go purgatory”.
Two weeks ago, he also likened himself to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, drawing flak from Jewish groups around the globe.
“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte said.
Duterte’s diehard supporters have blamed the media for the backlash, saying that journalists misquoted the president.
But there was no mistaking it. Initially, Duterte said his critics have called him Hitler but in the same breath, he ended up embracing the comparison. And he seemed proud of it.
He apologised to the Jewish community the following day.
Duterte remains adamant on his war on drugs. He insists he will not back down or halt until the problem is eradicated.
But many believe the solution to the problem is to address the root cause, which is poverty.
“Poverty must be ended, not the lives of the poor,” said the Stop the Killings Network, a group of non-government organisations seeking an end to the extrajudicial killings.
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Mabag is happy that the drug addicts who used to mess up her neighborhood are no longer around.
But like many jobless Filipinos, she is now searching for work so she can have a better life.
“I hope that will come next,” she says. For now, Mabag survives by selling cooked food to her neighbors. Her husband, who has been jobless for years, helps her buy the ingredients in the nearby market and prepare the meals.
In the meantime, in the dead of night, the killings of drug criminals continue, usually in the poorest communities in the country where many turn to drugs to forget their hunger and their desperate situations.
And when the sun rises in the morning, their bloodied bodies are strewn grotesquely in the streets.
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