Up Close and Personal with the Philippine Drug War

By Seth Ferranti 01/22/17

We get an inside look at Duterte's war on drugs from an American living in the Philippines.

On The Front Lines Of The Philippines Drug War
Over 6,000 people have been killed in anti-drug murders.

From the ashes of America’s failed War on Drugs, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed a wave of killings in his country, an unprecedented murder spree where drug users and dealers have become public enemy number one. In Duterte’s mind, if you use, sell or are involved with drugs, then you deserve to die. Last year he was quoted by the Associated Press telling his constituents, "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun, you have my support. Shoot [druggies] and I'll give you a medal.”

To date there have been 6,775 deaths since July 1, 2016, from both police actions and unexplained vigilante-style killings. Reuters reported that Philippines police had a 97 percent kill rate, meaning that out of every 100 drug suspects confronted, 97 of them were killed. In a telephone conversation with President Trump, Duterte said that Trump wished him well in his killing campaign. Duterte has even claimed that he has killed drug dealers himself. With bodies showing up on the street every morning with cardboard signs detailing their alleged drug crimes, the Philippines has become a brutal and chaotic place to live.

To find out what it's really like, The Fix chatted with an American ex-con who lives in the Philippines with his wife and family. Brian (real name changed at his request) has agreed to go on record and give details on Duterte’s vicious and barbaric anti-drugs campaign. As an American and an ex-con he has access, insights and opinions that most mainstream political, law enforcement or media people can’t get. Fearing for his safety, he has agreed to do the interview with The Fix anonymously for his own protection.

What do you think about the Philippines War on Drugs?

To understand what’s really going on here, you need to understand the backstory. Crystal meth, in the Philippines, known as shabu, has been the drug of choice in Asian countries since the '70s. Cheap and effective, it’s only been the last 15 to 20 years that it began showing up on the street as something interesting to smoke. Before this, the general way to imbibe it was to snort or drink it.

Once smoking the drug became the people’s choice, its use spiraled. By the time I showed up here, users numbered in the millions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in one way or the other, this drug—and more often than not, its negative effects—touched practically every family. For sure, everyone knew someone fucked up on the shit, tweaking and geeking, stealing, lying and neglecting something important in their lives.

What is it like living there while this is going on?

Since Duterte, the new president, took office less than six months ago, over 6,000 people were killed, the majority by unknown assassins. It’s taken me a while to even come close to wrapping my brain around it. But I can say that still, to date, the president enjoys a very high approval rate for the job he’s doing. And people are getting whacked every day. Sometimes, it’s really impossible to discern whether the people here approve of the means by which he is waging his drug war or whether they approve because they see the drug problem as merely the tip of the corruption iceberg—from the lowly neighborhood chairman, to the endemic corruption of the police, and finally, the corruption of high political officials. One thing is certain, millions upon millions of dollars have been spread around from shabu profits for many years.

How has the climate of the country changed from before this War on Drugs?

Very little changes on the street here, other than less strung-out thieves, beggars and other late-night dangerous elements. I wouldn’t say the climate has changed at all for the worse. Not unless, of course, you lost a family member to an assassin’s bullet or you end up on someone's hit list.

Are the killings a daily occurrence? What kind of things are they killing people for? 

Every day someone is taken out. When it comes to police actions, it’s really impossible to judge whether there was an actual shoot-out as a result of the favorite good cop/bad cop game, the old buy/bust operations or the fact that the low-level dealers pulled first. But still, police actions account for little of the killings. As it stands, the majority, over 5,000 so far, were murdered extra-judiciously.

Do you think the Philippines were inspired by the U.S. War on Drugs? Why and how?

As to where this idea came from, was it inspired by the failed U.S. War on Drugs? No. It is absolutely homegrown. Prior to his presidency, Duterte, as mayor of a provincial city, decided many years ago that he wanted to get rid of the rampant drug problem on his watch. Thus began his private, violent war on drugs. Street dealers were killed by unknown hit squads. Of course, this was also a fine way to eliminate his enemies—drugs or no drugs. When he ran for the presidency, he cruised to popularity on his anti-corruption and no mercy for drug dealers platform. Once elected, he made good on his promise.

As an American living there, how do people approach you?

As an American I enjoy respect and a certain freedom, even. Also, I have not delved into that drug so I am not at all affected. If I was, if I was caught transacting in a dodgy neighborhood, I’d be a target, same as everyone else in that situation.

Has it died down at all or is it still raging full steam? Is there a culture of fear that surrounds drug users due to the War on Drugs?

The extra-judicial killings are a daily affair. The only culture of fear is experienced by the users. The supply, however, is still finding its way onto the street, no doubt about it. Record busts and seizures—over 1,000 kilos of shabu these last four months—perhaps has shaken up the high echelon (mostly Chinese nationals) a little bit, the Bigs pretty much have gone unscathed, so more mainland Chinese are sent over by criminal organizations to continue production. And the shit is still on the street. People at all levels seem still willing to risk that unannounced bullet to the head for the high, and for the money.

How do the cops and authorities act? Is it like the Gestapo? Do they just rush in houses and bang bang?

Like anywhere, police actions here in the Philippines rely on information from informants. Once in possession of this, the police will knock your door down, regardless of what kind of neighborhood you’re operating out of. However, over 90 percent of the killings have involved guys and gals in poverty-stricken neighborhoods throughout the country, shot dead by unknown assailants. If your number is up, it hardly matters who you are, how rich you are, and what your connections used to be. The police are busting down your door.

Again, as was the case in Duterte’s city, being whacked does not necessarily mean you are even involved in drugs. A lot of scores are being settled. No doubt about it. Over 700,000 addicts/users have surrendered, put themselves on a surrender list and given a second chance (allegedly). This second chance, however, has not saved many on the street, nor in their homes…if their number is up. Simple as that. Kind of a "nowhere to run" sort of deal. There are also the drug watch lists each province/state police have, compiled from the neighborhoods. Loads of mayors and police named. These guys, though, so far, none have been killed. Yet.

What have been the craziest killings that you have heard of?

Hard to vote for the craziest killing. Really is, man. A few high-profile people have been whacked, though. One which comes to mind, is the assassination on the street of Maria Aurora Moynihan, daughter of the third Baron Moynihan. She was a meth user, probably sold it as well. It runs in the family. Her father, a peer in Britain’s House of Lords, left London in the '70s after being identified as a major player in a securities fraud game, came to the Philippines and started shipping heroin from the Golden Triangle to Australia. He was a colorful character. He died peacefully. His daughter? She was gunned down like an animal. As is customary, the assailants left a poster on her bloodstained chest, “I am a drug dealer.” A small amount of shabu was found next to the body. And so it goes.

Every assassination has the same element. Unidentified assailants on motorcycles spraying bullets. Targeting the guilty and the annoying. Sure, some of these killings are being done by rival gang members, irate collectors. Fuck, crazy? Every day is crazy when you’re a target, no?

Again, the reason this is happening is, quite simply, Duterte with his own agenda, his own ax to grind. He even admitted to waxing two or three drug dealers/users while he was mayor. Like it was some kind of fun.

Are they just focusing on harder drugs like heroin? What about marijuana?

Crystal meth is the drug on center stage. Other, more expensive drugs (i.e. cocaine, ecstasy) are practically gone from the party clubs. Those dealers usually are getting arrested rather than murdered. And so far, they have been few in number. You might say they are collateral damage from the all-out war on shabu. As for the weed here, well, I felt this coming, so I stocked up before Duterte took office. I’ll be good for a few more months. Then? Honestly, I try not to think about it. 

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.