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The Reality of Life on a Kill List in Duterte's Philippines

The hard, and often short, lives of Davao city's marked men.
Photo by Associated Press

This article originally appeared on VICE News.

Ever since he was elected president of the Philippines in June, Rodrigo Duterte has continued with the threats of violence that made him notorious around the world during his election campaign. Duterte has called children killed during his war on drug users "collateral damage," boasted that he would like to kill 3 million addicts, and openly urged civilians to attack those they see carrying out criminal activities. On Monday, he admitted he personally killed people whom he suspected of being criminals when he was mayor of Davao from 2013-2016.


It's estimated that over 5,000 suspects have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office, and nowhere is this danger more understood than in Davao, where he spent seven terms as mayor.

I first met Jay when I was living in Davao in 2009 and working for an NGO. He told me even then that he was on "the list"—referring to an unofficial target register kept by the Davao Death Squad. This vigilante group is said to summarily execute those they suspect of criminal activity, and critics say they have strong links to official law enforcement. A 2009 UN report on the killings heavily criticized Duterte for allegedly encouraging such actions, saying: "The mayor of Davao city has done nothing to prevent these killings, and his public comments suggest that he is, in fact, supportive."

I spent time with Jay and his friends in the park where they spent their evenings. We talked about their lives, about music and about the dangers in their neighborhood. Once on the list, it was just a matter of time before you were "taken out"—as he put it.

Many in Davao supported these groups because they offer a practical solution to crime. One resident told me that what the death squads were doing was good for Davao—they were merely "cleaning up the streets." The results in the city were seen as such a "success" that in May 2015 other cities in the country were reported to have started their own copycat death squads.


Duterte's quick-fix crime solutions have made him popular with the public—he won 40 percent of the vote in the May 2016 presidential election. His campaign promises included filling funeral parlors with cadavers and dumping so many bodies in Manila Bay that the "fish will grow fat." The dead he refers to are the bodies of suspected criminals, like the street kids in Davao.

Of the nine boys I spent time with in Davao, all lived on the street and all were on the list. They had a rough idea of the order in which they'd be killed but not when. All had similar stories of broken families, bad luck. and stupid decisions. But in this city, bad decisions made in your youth often lead to an early death. You could be on the list for committing petty crime, living on the streets, keeping the wrong company, or getting high from the cheap drug rugby—a Filipino version of sniffing glue. The drug is an effective hunger suppressant, making it an attractive crutch for those living rough.

The next time I saw Jay was on a blurry Skype call some months later. He appeared with a bandage around his head—somehow he had survived a blade to the skull. Hitmen came to find him on a motorbike and stabbed him five times, including once in the head and twice through his knee. It had happened in an internet café like the one he was speaking from. Jay was not the only victim, and many of the others were people he called friends.


Those on the list are criminals without any hope of a trial. Reports show many accounts of mistaken identity. Witnesses have reported hearing the killers say out loud that they had "got the wrong guy" after the murder. Speaking earlier this year, Duterte said: "Do the lives of 10 of these criminals really matter? If I am the one facing all this grief, would 100 lives of these idiots mean anything to me?"

In a number of cases, the victim was stabbed by a member of a death squad using a butcher's knife. The attacks typically happen in public places with many witnesses—who are either not questioned by police or are too scared to come forward. Killings occurred in places Jay and his friends knew well—including the street where they parked cars and in front of the fast-food chain Jollibee, whose mascot looks like Buzz Lightyear in a red and yellow bee costume.

As Jay and I walked the streets, I asked why he didn't run away. He told me that Davao was home—he had come here after his mother died and his father became abusive. He later introduced me to his friend Seol, who predicted that the squad was coming for him next.

Months later, a message on Facebook told me that Seol had been right; he was next. In the seven years since, one of Seol's brothers has also been killed and another jailed. His parents join the thousands of others left bereaved by Duterte's plan to rid the streets of crime.

On Wednesday, two Philippines senators called for president Duterte to be impeached after his recent claim to have murdered people personally. The U.S. government has also warned this week that an aid package to the Philippines worth millions of dollars may not be renewed because of concern over human rights abuses under Duterte's rule. Despite these warning shots, the president's popularity among voters remains high, and any move to stop the man known as "the punisher" still seems remote.