What It's Like Documenting the Brutal Philippine Drug War


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What It's Like Documenting the Brutal Philippine Drug War

With more than 6,000 people already dead, we spoke to a local photojournalist about the realities of bearing witness to the carnage.

More than 6,000 people have been killed in Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's now-infamous war on drugs. The president built his popularity on a tough-on-crime approach, running a campaign that included the promise to kill 100,000 criminals, and dump so many bodies in Manila Bay that "the fish will grow fat." Since he won the election last July, he's begun making good on those promises. We spoke to award-winning local photojournalist Jes Aznar about the situation in the Philippines now, the nature of the killings, and the work of journalists to document it.


When we spoke to Aznar, he'd been out working for around five months straight, sleeping during the day and heading out at night to document the killings on the streets of Manila. His photographs of the drug war and its aftermath have appeared in the New York Times, Getty, and Der Spiegel.

VICE: What happens when you go out to do coverage? Are you following the police or visiting communities?
Jes Aznar: So basically all of us are holed up inside this press corp office of the Manila Police—one of the biggest police precincts in Manila. So everybody's there, local journalists, foreign journalists, photographers—there's a press office we can hang out in. But we don't really have any chance of going out with the police—the police wouldn't allow any media to go with them during operations. They would say lots of reasons like safety, they don't want their operations to be compromised, security, stuff like that. I really don't know any instance where the media was allowed to cover actual police operations. We only get to cover the event after the fact: when there's a dead body. After the gunfights. Most of the time those who are really helpful to us are the funeral parlors. They know if it's a drug-related case, they're going to be picking up the bodies, so they'd call or text us and say, "Hey, there's a dead body in this area, we're going to be going there to pick up the body."

A coroner loads the body of Paul Lester Lorenzo, 32, after police killed him in a sting operation in Manila, August 17, 2016. Lorenzo's common law wife, Aileen Ferrer, 32, claims that Lorenzo was last seen alive by neighbors handcuffed by police before being killed. Photo by Jes Aznar

Since you started, you must have interviewed a lot of families and loved ones of people who have died. Are there any specific stories you could tell about people you've met?
Most of the time right after the shooting, right after the family member gets killed, the family members are emotional, and they don't want to talk. What we do is we go back the next day, do our interviews. Most of us try to respect their space, especially in that moment when they see a loved one getting killed. We ask some questions, but mostly small things: What's your name, can we come back. We don't go more emotional in that moment; we try to respect their space. But for those of the families we interviewed, there are a lot.


It's very hard to pick just one that strikes you, because all these cases… It strikes you every night. There's really no way to rank all the killings that have been happening. So far there's an average of ten killings we might go to at night, since July last year. So you can imagine how many people have died and how many crime scenes. But the most striking for me are probably those cases where the victims are killed summarily. Most of the time we find these people without any IDs with them, without any identification marks, and they're just there lying in the street. Wrapped in tape, in packaging tape. Their faces wrapped in packing tape, their hands tied and bound. He's just another John Doe. That scene, those particular cases, they strike me because—he is a person, you know? He got killed, and he didn't even have the chance or the dignity to be identified. You know. Just dumped there, like some kind of animal, not like a human being at all. Those were the moments that I would really be so sad. And disturbed. Because for me, for example, I don't want to end up like that. Nobody wants to end up like that.

A .38-caliber revolver lies near the hand of a lifeless drug suspect after a shootout with police in Manila, August 17, 2016. Photo by Jes Aznar

How many cases or killings like that do you think you have attended over the past five months?
Oh, I don't have any idea. Probably dozens.

Recently, Duterte announced that the drug war is being put on hold. Do you think that there's any hope that that will actually occur?
Yeah, sure. But spoken words are different from what is happening—different from the actions. Although they say the war on drugs is temporarily on hold, it's still happening. But the police have changed their wording. For example, the other night, there were some people killed, but the police say, oh no, it's not drug related. It's related to car-napping, other crimes.


How does a killing usually happen? Is it an anonymous guy on a motorcycle? How does it play out?
Yeah, there are many ways that it's happening. One would be these anonymous or unidentified hitmen riding on motorbikes. Riding in tandem, two of them. They stop, kill the person point-blank in the street. But people say for days before, they see unidentified people going around the area, maybe casing the person, learning his schedule, things like that. Another way is when dozens of men in balaclava come into a community, barge inside a house, and kill the person or persons. Last year—before Duterte announced the suspension of operations—the police would conduct these legitimate operations. They would go into a neighborhood, say they have a lead, that there's a drug user or a drug pusher in this house, in this area. And they would arrest that person. Then after they arrest the person, a couple of hours, we might get a call—the person is already dead. And the police are saying the person tried to escape, they tried to grab their gun. More often than not that is the reason. There are already hundreds of that kind of case, where the person would allegedly try to grab their gun and escape—while in handcuffs.

Another type of killing is the person would disappear for days. Nobody would know where they were or who did the abduction. Then after a couple of days they would see the person already dead, lying somewhere.


Nestor Hilbano comforts his wife, Alma, after seeing their son inside a body bag in a dark alley in Tatalon. They are the parents of Richard Hilbano, 32, who was shot by police in an operation against illegal drugs. Police on the scene reported that Richard was in a pot session with three other persons when they were all shot at and killed. Photo by Jes Aznar

So someone might just disappear from their community, no one knows what's happened, and then they turn up dead a few days later?
Yeah, and then they're found in a dark alley somewhere with cardboard pasted on their body, saying "I'm a pusher," "I'm a drug addict," stuff like that. So basically here in the Philippines, if you hate somebody, you just abduct him, kill him, and put a cardboard saying he's a drug pusher, and nobody would care to investigate.

And last week there was also this talk about the responsibility transferring to the AFP from the police force—the army joining the police in the drug war. Does that mark a significant change?
It's very significant. The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is a military organization. The PNP (Philippine National Police) is a civilian organization—its mandate is to handle local peace and order in the community. It's the same anywhere else—you cannot employ the military to do civilian work. Here in the Philippines we've seen lots of military atrocities, ever since the Marcos times, ever since martial law, the time of Cory Aquino after that, the presidents after that. The military really has a reputation for these human rights violations, wherever they are and whatever they're doing in the communities. So, I mean, given that, I just think we would kind of know what to expect after Duterte said that the military can now join in the efforts of the war on drugs.


Do you think military involvement would significantly change the approach? How would it play out?
Well, the military has a presence in the provinces and far-flung communities. So the way I see it, it would give this order more reach. The war on drugs can now be implemented in far-flung villages, in the mountains. In the countryside, farms, all those places. The killing would not be confined to urban areas. But that's just my personal opinion—that's how I see it.

It's interesting watching from another country—Duterte's popularity ratings are still incredibly high in the Philippines. Why is that?
I'm not really surprised. People are really tired of what's been happening here. People got tired of how the previous administration handled the country, economy, poor people still getting poorer, and these oligarchs, these rich people who are in control of everything. People just got so fed up, and now you have someone who is not from any traditional politician family. Probably people see him as a kind of hope.

And do you think he's fulfilling that? What's the mood now with everything that's happened since he took power?
Well, there are people in his Cabinet who are really doing their jobs. Implementing programs for the poor, for the peasants. The environment secretary closing these big mining firms that are really destroying the environment, stuff like that. It's very hard to condemn the government in one package.


And what about the environment for you and your peers—for journalists doing this coverage?
To start with, the Philippines is already one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the whole world. Globally I think we might be in the second spot, right after Syria, as the most dangerous place. We have an average of two journalists being killed every week. But as of now, there's been no report yet of any journalist being killed while reporting on the war on drugs. But it's interesting, if you look at social media, you see how journalists are being demonized and undermined—if a newspaper would publish a story critical of anything about Duterte and his policies, some people would automatically say: "That's not true, you're spreading rumors, you were paid by the opposition." Things like that. People are very quick to demonize—even the New York Times, people say the New York Times is being paid by the opposition. The New York Times, Der Speigel, Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, they would claim they all were paid off. And that's really crazy—but not just crazy, it's outright dangerous, undermining the press freedom, undermining even the safety of journalists.

Ever since I've been covering this, I've gotten hate messages and threats online. The very first coverage I did was for Open Society, I think that was last year. It was just an Instagram takeover. We didn't expect dozens of hate messages pouring in. Then after that, the series of reports for the New York Times, and this video we did, a video of this witness who used to be a member of the Davao Death Squad, which was allegedly created by Duterte way back in Davao. And that's where the shit really hit the fan—thousands of really angry people. These past few weeks I've been trying to slow down. I stopped covering it for a lot of January. I was just too tired. It was heavy for me, seeing dead bodies and crying families every night. I thought I would have a quick break and regroup, just to have a respite of all these gory images that you see every night.

Do you have any hopes for how this might all end up?
Well, we all have certain hopes. We all hold on to something. But as a journalist, what can you do, really? All you can do is be vigilant, report on what is really happening. Tell the people, that's our job. Whatever help that might bring is out of our control, out of my control. We'll just do our jobs.

You can see Jes Aznar's work on his website or follow him on Instagram.

Follow Tess McClure on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.