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The Philippines' new president Duterte promised bloodshed — and hundreds are now dead

Rodrigo Duterte took office a month ago promising impunity to vigilantes who kill drug dealers. People have taken him at his word, and it's been a massacre.
Le président philippin Rodrigo Duterte après son premier discours à la nation. Photo de Francis R. Malasig/EPA

Rodrigo Duterte took office as president of the Philippines one month ago on Friday, promising death to drug dealers and a nationwide expansion of the brutal, death-squad approach to crime that made him famous as mayor of Davao.

"If I become president, there would be no such thing as bloodless cleansing," he promised during the campaign.

That promise wasn't campaign rhetoric. It turned out to be literal.


In the 30 days since he took office, 14 suspected criminals have been killed every day on average on the streets of Filipino cities, either by police or by self-appointed vigilantes.

"Shoot him and I'll give you a medal," Duterte had said about drug dealers.

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According to a Kill List maintained by The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading local newspaper, since he took office at least 420 people have been killed because they were suspected of being drug dealers. At least 122 were shot by unidentified hit men; the rest were killed by cops. By contrast, 39 people in total were killed between January 1, 2016 and May 8, the day before Duterte won the presidential elections.

The list is compiled from reports from the Inquirer's correspondents across the Philippines. They may not catch every death. "The real kill list is much, much higher," said Sara Pacia, a reporter who helps keep the tally.

One of the dead was Redentor Manalang, shot in the head last Sunday in a quiet residential street in Pasay, a neighborhood in southern Manila. His body was slumped over the back of his passenger tricycle, a blood-spattered cardboard sign hanging from it with a warning in Tagalog: "Drug pusher ako. Huwag ako tularan." I'm a drug pusher. Don't emulate me.

Later that night in Pasay, on the pavement of a main thoroughfare, Jennelyn Olaires wept as she cradled the body of her partner, Michael Siaron. His blood soaked into her clothes and dried in streaks on her skin. Siaron, a pedicab driver, had also been shot in the head, again by unnamed assailants, who left another sign next to his corpse saying the same thing.


Siaron had started using drugs a year ago, Olaires said. But she insisted that he did not sell them. "We bought dinner with the 80 pesos ($1.70) he earned today. He just went out tonight to try to make some money for breakfast," she said. "If he was a drug pusher, why would we be living in a shanty next to the river?"

"It's so cruel of the person who did this," said her sister. "They killed the one making a living for us."

Both Siaron and Manalang were unarmed, and they were low-level users, just two more people caught in the surge in meth use plaguing a country of almost 100 million. The rise of extrajudicial killings won't do anything to stop it, said Jose Manuel Diokno, a lawyer who leads the Free Legal Assistance Group: "The poor are feeling the brunt of it. It's not the people who are controlling the drug trade."

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The Philippine National Police have said that they oppose extrajudicial killings, and according to Senior Superintendent Dionardo Carlos, a spokesperson, they will be pursuing each killing as a murder. But the justice system is notoriously ineffective in the Philippines, which a recent study ranked as the country with the highest level of criminal impunity in the world, ahead of places like Mexico, Russia and Colombia. Gunmen on motorcycles continue to shoot people in public with little fear of getting caught.


And in reality, the police are remarkably cavalier about the killings.

"Admittedly there is an increase," Carlos said, "but at the end of the day are we looking at these as increases that are beyond control, or are these the consequences of freeing the society from drugs?"

According to police statistics, Carlos has a point. From July 2015 to July 2016, Manila has seen a 38 percent drop in total crime — but there's a twist in the numbers: drug offenses may be down, yet the data also says there's been a 57 percent rise in premeditated murder, and a staggering 125 percent increase in homicides.

"We're getting tired of embalming the dead, because there are so many"

Drug dealers and users are surrendering to the police by the hundreds of thousands, hoping to avoid death at the hands of gun-toting vigilantes left to roam free by the cops.

After all, it's the president himself who gave people license to mete out justice on their own. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun — you have my support," Duterte said on national TV last month.

That same Sunday, on another quiet avenue in Pasay, the body of Ryan Alfred Esquivel lay sprawled against the curb, a stream of blood trickling down the slope towards the center of the road. Another cardboard sign labeled him as a drug dealer. At least seven people were killed by vigilantes that night.

"We're getting tired of embalming the dead, because there are so many," Alejandro Ormanita, the embalmer who was picking up Esquivel's corpse, said. "But we're putting up with the difficulty, because we're doing this for the president."

Because of a miscalculation, a previous version of this story stated incorrectly that an average of 35 criminals have been killed every day on average in the Philippines. The actual figure is 14. The story has been amended to reflect the correct number.