Killing in the Name: Inside the Philippines’ Bloody Drug War

By Nathan A Thompson 08/15/16

"Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun — you have my support," President Rodrigo Duterte said. "Shoot [them] and I'll give you a medal."

Killing in the Name: Inside the Philippines’ Bloody Drug War
via Author

Joel's toddler son drank gasoline from a plastic cup left on the floor of his hovel in Sitio San Roque, a Manila slum, and was found vomiting and crying on the floor. Joel took the boy to hospital and now, when he returns from work, nearly slipping on his daughter's school exercise books left on the floor, the first thing he does is ask his wife if there's been any word.

The next day he goes to work, selling methamphetamine or “Shabu.” He waits for customers, twirling a plastic lighter in between sooty fingertips. On the street, he wears a wise guy sneer beneath his bright, calculating eyes. 

“I don’t see myself as a pitiful person,” he says. “I’m striving to improve myself… I still go to church and when I do, I wonder if I should do this kind of business but, with limited options to survive, I must remain in the drug world.”

Joel grew up in a Manila housing project. “My father was a carpenter and my mother was a rug weaver,” he says. “Our lives were simple but not aggravated by poverty.” He remembers enjoying simple things, finding vacant lots to play in and running to the sweet shop with a fistful of small bills. “I did well at school and graduated with a diploma,” he says. “But I was already dealing drugs by then.” 

For a while, things went okay for Joel. He took Shabu for a while, but managed to quit. His saw his daughter go to school and his son born. But things have changed, and now? He’s shit scared. “I don’t think I will live much longer,” he says.

Joel shows his Shabu.

People like Joel are caught in a swell of anti-drug violence that is rocking the Philippines. The new President Rodrigo Duterte has made eradicating drugs the cornerstone of his presidency, and he has given the green light for people to kill addicts and dealers in the street. 

Addressing a crowd in the southern town of Davao, where he served as mayor for 22 years, the 71-year-old laid out his plan. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun—you have my support," he said, quoted by Associated Press. "Shoot [them] and I'll give you a medal."

On the day of his inauguration in June, he told a mob of 500 supporters, “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

Despite the shocking rhetoric, Duterte is hugely popular and currently enjoys a record-breaking 91% trust rating among voters. In a country that has long been paralyzed by bureaucracy and controlled by a crooked elite, people see him as capable of mobilizing change. “He has a track record that resonated [with voters] because the other candidates had nothing to show,” said Aries Arugay, a political analyst. “Davao is his ‘exhibit A.’”

This motorbike taxi driver supports Duterte because he believes Duterte will wipe out crime.

Davao is in Mindanao, a southern island in the Philippines. There, forests and rice fields foam with communist guerillas and Islamic insurgents. In 2009, 58 people including 34 journalists were massacred allegedly by a disgruntled political clan. And this year, Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group who roam the seas off the Mindanao coast, beheaded two Canadian kidnap victims.  

In 1987, when Duterte, then a young lawyer, first became mayor of Davao, two or three people a day were being killed in the crossfire between communist guerillas and security forces. The Chicago Tribune even called the town “a laboratory for modern guerilla warfare.” 

Seven terms later, Davao’s per-capita crime rate is the lowest in the Philippines and, last year, it was named the “fifth safest city in the world.”

The urban poor support Duterte because they believe he will raise the minimum wage.

During this astonishing turnaround, a vigilante group known as the Davao Death Squad (DDS) killed over 1000 people—mostly criminal suspects. While the Catholic Church and Human Rights Watch deplored the killings, locals credited the city’s turnaround to the vigilante group.  

"Am I the death squad? True. That is true," said the new president in a recent interview. He later brushed off the comment, saying that it was meant as a challenge to human rights groups to bring charges against him. 

While he has never formally admitted a connection, at the very least he seems to have turned a blind eye to the DDS’s crimes that have never been prosecuted. “Criminals don’t have a monopoly on evil,” he told a TIME reporter in 2002.

Duterte knows how to use a carrot as well as a stick. In Davao, he used to hand out groceries to policemen so they wouldn’t need bribes, he supported LGBT rights and has appointed a top environmentalist to his cabinet. Add that to his ruthless effectiveness and you have a compelling proposition to your average voter. 

“Davao is a hotspot where all the complex challenges of governing the Philippines can be seen,” said Arugay. “Duterte was seen to overcome it… so all the counter-narratives in the world can’t undermine his appeal to the Filipino voters.”

Since he took office in June, over 400 people like Joel have hit the ground, bleeding, dying. The last thing they heard in their lives was the squeal of motorbike tires on the hot, Manila tarmac. Three hundred and sixteen so-called “pushers” were killed in July alone, 195 of which were vigilante killings, according to a Reuters report. Six were slain on a single night in Manila. Photos showing dead dealers alongside cardboard signs with the word “pusher” scrawled on them have blown up on social media. 

A wall at the Quezon City PD advertises open shooting competitions on their range.

The frenzy has not come about just because Duterte is inciting police and vigilante groups to kill suspects, but because corrupt police are killing to clear their tracks, according to Arugay. 

“What we’re seeing with vigilante killings… is a purge, officers are cleaning their ranks and their assets [informers] in the criminal underworld so that they won’t squeal.”

History shows that once a group has been labelled as subhuman, it’s all too easy for people to start murdering them. It was philosopher Simone Weil who said, “As soon as men know they can kill without fear of punishment or blame, they kill; or at least they encourage killers with approving smiles.”

The level of the violence has caused growing international concern. Around 300 NGOs and human rights organizations have signed an open letter to the UN urging them to call for “an immediate halt to these killings.”

Filipino rights groups have been trying to point out the systemic causes behind poverty and drugs for years. “Let us take a look at the conditions of squalor [the urban poor] are forced to face,” reads a statement by the Urban Poor Resource Center of the Philippines. “Finding despair in the burgeoning poverty, some resort to drug dealing to make ends meet. Others end up as drug users to temporarily forget their miseries.”

But even there, in the urban poor communities, they support Duterte. “The killings make me feel safe,” said Diane Santoa from a slum near NIA Road in Manila. “I voted for Duterte because he promised to give good livelihood to the poor.” 

Diane Santoa was given these armbands by the Duterte campaign.

Even Joel voted for him. “I voted for Duterte because I heard how he changed Davao… I thought all the stuff about killing people was just propaganda so it was a big surprise when he started promoting vigilante justice.” Now Joel anxiously awaits the next raid or motorbike assassin. “It keeps me awake at night.”  

Scared of the specter of motorbike-riding assassins, some dealers and users have handed themselves in to police—114,833 people to be exact, according to the New York Times. But there’s nowhere for them to go. 

There are only 10,000 spaces in government rehabs and the prisons are inundated. Indeed, troubling images were released by AFP recently, showing prisoners sleeping on top of each other, piled like bodies in mass graves. “Many go crazy,” said one inmate, quoted in the same report. 

“It’s like trying to get a gallon of water into a single glass,” said Dr. Alfonso A. Villaroman, Chief Health Program Officer at Bicutan, a government rehab center in Manila. “We are already at 200% capacity,” he said. They recently had to line up all their bunk-beds so extra residents could sleep, sardine style.  

Residents of the Bicutan government rehab center in Manila. Reporters were not allowed inside.

“We consider this influx to be a happy problem,” said Benjamin Reyes, Deputy Executive Director for Operations at the Dangerous Drugs Board. “I personally don’t agree with the vigilante killings… maybe it’s a sign of exasperation from the administration because nothing [else] has worked… but the effect has been to increase the numbers coming into rehab.”

In the course of reporting this story, I visited several police stations in Manila. Eventually, after waiting in a room next to a rack of black, semi-automatic guns, I was told by admin officer Jess Guzman that “We can’t disclose any of our activities.”  

A lackluster fan punts humid air around as Joel gets ready to go back to work. His tiny packages of Shabu are packed away in the folds of his coat. He will return to his spot to earn $10-40 that day—four times what he could earn as, say, a motorbike taxi driver or laborer. 

“I gave up taking Shabu myself,” he says. “Because I thought about my family—how could I provide for them if I kept taking drugs? I want to give them the chance to have a better life and not see history repeat itself.” 

A radio crackles in the next home. Separated by a single sheet of cheap wood, it’s easy hear the news report. Duterte is addressing a crowd, and the crowd is roaring. 

*The author would like to thank Ma.Inez Feria Jorge from NoBox Transitions Foundation for her help researching this report. 

Nathan A. Thompson is the Vice President of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia. Bylines for: the Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Christian Science Monitor, Aljazeera, Slate, Salon, Gawker, Vice, BBC, CNN, NBC, USA Today and more. For clippings please see here. He's the author of I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning. Follow on Twitter @NathanWrites

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.