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SPECIAL REPORT

Cheers, fears over Duterte's drug war

Amid a rising body count, the Philippines' narcotics crackdown has divided its people

With the body count rising, criminals here are running scared.

Word on the street is that it is not just the cops doing the shooting anymore. The "death squads" - men with guns but without badges - are lurking in the shadows, cruising on motorcycles and hunting for prey.

Police said yesterday the number of suspected drug traffickers killed in the ongoing crackdown on drugs has risen to 1,800 since President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30.

The tally just keeps rising, despite Mr Duterte himself saying he is "bothered and disturbed" by it.

It is not just the numbers that frighten petty street crooks.

IT'S WORKING...

If you have fewer people taking drugs, you have fewer people stealing to feed their habits.

MR MANUEL CO, a village chief, who noted that crimes in Quezon City's Commonwealth district have fallen by 90 per cent.

 

... BUT IS IT RIGHT?

We cannot wage the war against drugs with blood. We will only be trading drug addiction with another, more malevolent addiction. This is the compulsion for more killings, killings that have now included the innocent.

SENATOR LEILA DE LIMA, on how the killings are spinning out of control.

On TV programmes, in newspapers and on the Internet, images of bodies sprawled on the ground, blood pouring onto pavements, shock every day.

Most are gut-wrenching.

A young woman bawls in front of TV cameras, as she cradles the lifeless body of her 29-year-old husband, shot by a motorcycle-riding tandem of assassins just after midnight on July 23.

Strobe lights illuminate the scene with an eerie glow. Dozens of onlookers, standing behind a police line, form a half-circle around her.

Someone else was murdered just an hour earlier. By the end of that night, police will log six killings, all by unnamed vigilantes.

Some images are just harrowing. A body is found wrapped, from head to toe like a mummy, in garbage bags and packaging tape.

In a YouTube video, a rickshaw driver is seen talking to a woman when two men on a motorcycle drive by. The pillion rider then draws a gun, points it at the man's head and pulls the trigger.

Sometimes, the killers leave pieces of cardboard with words that attempt to justify briefly why their victims deserved to die: They were drug addicts, pushers, criminals, scum of the earth.

RUNNING SCARED


Manila residents behind a police line after a drug bust turned into a deadly gunfight last month. PHOTO: AFP

The scare tactic has compelled more than 600,000 drug suspects to surrender to police and local officials. Most are admonished, advised to change their ways and then set free.

Many, like construction worker Eric Lagumay, 37, of Quezon City's Bungad district, are so rattled they are willing to wake up very early in the morning to attend government-sponsored Zumba classes.

"Zumba's great. The sweat just pours out, and with it the bad habits. You'll even look good," he said, after attending his first class at a municipal basketball court.

 

He said he also sweeps the streets "every day, 10 times a day", to keep his mind off drugs. He has confessed to taking shabu, or crystal meth, for nearly a year "to keep my mind off the women who jilted me".

Lately, the war on drugs has shifted to bigger targets.

Last month, Mr Duterte accused five police generals of protecting big drug syndicates.

Weeks later, he linked over 150 more generals, judges, mayors, congressmen and other local officials to the narcotics trade.

He then told them to surrender, or risk being "shot on sight". He had their police escorts withdrawn and their gun licences revoked.

Most have turned up at police headquarters or held news conferences to either confess or proclaim their innocence.

IS HE WINNING THE WAR?


An alleged drug dealer who was shot dead by police officers after a drug bust in Manila. Mr Duterte has said he is disturbed by the rising death tally. PHOTO: AFP

So, is Mr Duterte winning his war?

The streets are quieter now, Senior Inspector Francisco Luena of the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) told The Straits Times, as he led about 100 policemen in a sweep of a warren of alleyways.

They were hunting for drug suspects, vagrants and minors breaking curfew in a rundown part of metropolitan Manila.

He said: "Teenagers used to hang out on the streets past midnight, drinking, smoking, getting high. Sometimes, they'd tell us to **** off as we pass by.

"Now, they're home by 10." He quipped: "I guess they've moved to the morning shift."

Superintendent Ramon Pranada, head of the QCPD's district operations and plans division, said that with pushers on the run or laying low, drugs are now more difficult to come by.

Mr Manuel Co, a village chief, said crimes in Quezon City's Commonwealth district, which has over 900,000 people, have fallen by 90 per cent.

"If you have fewer people taking drugs, you have fewer people stealing to feed their habits," he said.

Outside the capital, police are reporting purges within syndicates.

Middlemen are caught between their bosses demanding they keep quiet and police officers demanding information.

Senior Superintendent Antonio Yarra, police chief of Quezon province, 420km north-east of Manila, said many killings had, in fact, been ordered by kingpins trying to cover their tracks.

Communications Minister Martin Andanar reported that the number of crimes nationwide fell to 50,817 last month, from 56,339 a year earlier.

RIGHT OR WRONG?


Human rights advocates with placards condemning the extrajudicial killings after mass at a Manila church earlier this month. PHOTO: AFP

Human rights advocates, however, say the killings are spinning out of control.

Senator Leila de Lima, a former head of the human rights commission, said the extrajudicial killings have led to "a collective descent into impunity, fear and, ultimately, utter and complete inhumanity".

"We cannot wage the war against drugs with blood. We will only be trading drug addiction with another more malevolent addiction.

"This is the compulsion for more killings, killings that have now included the innocent," she said in a speech at the Senate.

Mr Lagumay said: "They are gunning down only the small fry. The big ones are getting away."

 

But human rights campaigners remain the minority.

Mr Duterte had promised in his campaign speeches that his term as president would be "bloody".

He is delivering just that, and opinion polls show nine in 10 Filipinos are embracing his approach.

His supporters believe he is making the streets safer, and they are willing to overlook the killings for that.

"I experienced having a gun shoved at my face by a drug-crazed robber," lawyer Marilyn Binay, who works at the Immigration Bureau, said in a Facebook post.

"If I didn't have a cellphone to give then, I'd probably be dead now."

She said she wishes her heart would bleed for those being killed, but the trauma she experienced compels her to support Mr Duterte.

For Ms Jennilyn Olayres, 26, the woman photographed cradling her dead husband, Mr Duterte's war may be sowing fear with murder, but it is not killing the real menace.

"I don't need the public's sympathy. I don't need the President to notice us," she said.

"I know he doesn't like our kind. But I just hope they get the true offenders.

"Drugs, not people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Cheers, fears over Duterte's drug war'. Print Edition | Subscribe