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Will Filipinos rise up against Rodrigo Duterte?

Florian Neuhof Manila
October 28, 2017

In the face of President Rodrigo Duterte's lethal drug policy to kill users and dealers at the slightest excuse, Philippine society is gradually daring to push back. Florian Neuhof reports from Manila.

A banner on a hut in the Philippines
Image: DW/F. Neuhof

In Manila's sprawling North Cemetery, paved roads are lined with the sumptuous tombs of the wealthy. Multi-storied and ornate, they resemble comfortable family homes. In narrower alleyways, chest-high graves and towering tombstones remind of the deceased. Occasionally, a funeral procession clogs a lane, a nuisance to the graveyard's living inhabitants.

Around 5,000 squatters have settled amidst the graves, their small shacks of plywood and corrugated iron nestled in between the ostentatious final resting places of the rich. In the evenings, they gather to drink beer and listen to music. Young men play basketball on a concrete patch near one of the entrances.

A little further inwards, 70-year-old Elvira Miranda leans on a grave and points to a vacant plot. It was on this spot that her son Leover, a 39-year-old mentally-handicapped man, was gunned down by police officers after visiting his mother.

A woman holds up a photograph of her dead son
Leover is one of an estimated 13,000 casualties of Duterte's lethal war on drugsImage: DW/F. Neuhof

"He encountered members of the police and was handcuffed. Our neighbor overheard that he was being asked his name, and why he was here. And then he was shot," Mrs Miranda says with a feeble voice.

The police did not explain their actions, says Miranda, who did not witness the shooting but was told by neighbors how her son had died. Most likely, they mistook Leover's deranged behavior for signs of intoxication, making him another casualty of the lethal war on drugs kicked off by hard-line President Rodrigo Duterte.

Free reign against drug users

Vowing to rid the Philippines of drugs, he gave the police free reign to kill users and dealers at the slightest excuse. Death squads with murky ties to the police and vigilante groups have added to the bloodshed.

Since he assumed office in June 2016, activists estimate that 13,000 people have fallen victim to his brutal crackdown. It is the poor, packed into the slums of the cities, who are bearing the brunt of the onslaught.

"Most of the victims are innocent, young poor people who can't defend themselves," says Benjamin Cordero, an activist for the 'Stop the Killing' movement that is campaigning against the extrajudicial killings.

"People die here every other day," says Romelito Jimenez, the husband of Mrs Miranda's niece, who also lives on the cemetery. Only two weeks after Leover was gunned down, the police killed a cousin of his wife, says Jimenez. He had occasionally smoked "shabu," as crystal meth is known in the Philippines.

It is not just police officers pulling the trigger. In a modest neighborhood in the Sampaloc district of Manila, 51-year-old Ernesto Tapang sat in front of his home one night in January, waiting for his son to return from a long shift driving a truck through Manila's congested streets.

Map of the Philippines

Random killings

A surveillance camera installed nearby captured how a SUV pulled up at his door, and several armed men got out of the vehicle. Raising their pistols, they began to shoot, the muzzle flashes illuminating the grainy camera footage. The footage shows how Tapang scrambled to his feet and tried to escape. An incident report from the local authorities would later state that his lifeless body was delivered to the hospital with 18 gunshot wounds.

The family says that Tapang never took drugs, and local authorities confirm that he was not on their drugs watch list that Duterte's henchmen use to track down their victims.

"We think it was a case of mistaken identity. He was friends with the tricycle drivers, and some of them take drugs. A few days earlier, a guy was gunned down nearby," says Emilita Tapang-Pantado, Tapang's youngest sister. She believes that her brother fell victim to a death squad that was called into life by the president, and who are known as the "Davao Death Squad" after the city that Duterte hails from.

Duterte won last year's elections in a landslide victory, and his tough stance on drugs proved popular even in the poor sections of society.

"They are pro-Duterte as long as it doesn't happen to them. My bother even voted for him. He agreed with his policy on drugs," says Tapang-Pantado.

But as the death toll began to rise, opposition to his ruthless anti-narcotics drive grew.

Opposition to Duterte grows

There was outrage when police killed three unarmed teenagers in separate incidents over the summer. Thousands marched in protest when video footage emerged of 17-year-old Kian Santos being marched down an alley and shot by police, who later claimed he was resisting arrest.

Mourners in the Philippines display a banner
Philippine society is slowly but gradually finding its voice against President DuterteImage: Reuters/E. De Castro

Kian's death prompted the influential Catholic Church to take a clear stand against the extrajudicial killings. When the police came to take two under-aged witnesses that had sought shelter in the San Roque Cathedral in Manila, Bishop Pablo David refused to hand them over.

The church has been slow to criticize Duterte's drug war, having been cowed into silence by the president's ferocious attack on the institution, which centered on child abuse scandals committed by the clergy.

Buoyed by the the protests, the church is now finding its voice.

According to Carlos Conde, a Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch, opposition to Duterte is growing slowly but surely.

"A lot of people thought that Duterte was invincible. The death of those kids and the public outcry will encourage civil society and the church to speak up. The [church] will play an even more significant role in the months and years ahead."