It's 8 PM on a Tuesday at the Eusebio Funeral Home just north of Manila, and we're waiting for somebody to die.
We don't know who it's going to be, but the caskets stacked in the corner can fit just about anyone. Ever since last summer, when recently-elected President Rodrigo Duterte exhorted his citizens to slaughter drug dealers and users in the Philippines, business here at Eusebio has been booming, with the facility popping up in various media reports on the immense bloodshed. When I visit, the employees show off new clothes and watches.
Orly Fernandez, the nightshift manager, lives in a concrete alcove attached to the garage. He seals himself in at dawn only to emerge again at dusk, when the murders typically begin. He has informants in the police department who alert him about each new homicide, he says, and when the black phone in the office rings, his men speed off in their hearse to the latest murder scene. A man named Ruel is driving tonight, and he's swerving through traffic in a race to beat the competition. First prize is the body; sometimes, two or more funeral crews arrive simultaneously. Curses are exchanged, and fights occasionally break out, with one employee going so far as to claim participation in a literal "tug of war."
When the sun is up, we start going to wakes. "Five bodies today," my translator Bien tells me, relaying the latest from the funeral home. "Three were beaten to death. Two shot. One man's nails were pulled out. A woman was found floating on the seabed."
What strikes you here isn't just that so many are killed—horrible enough on its own—but that so many victims seem to be tortured first. There have reportedly been bounties as high as $100,000 for each corpse, depending on their alleged stature in the drug game. Some fees have been explicitly teased by the president himself, even as he has at least appeared to distance himself from the most extreme of his own policies in the last few weeks in response to international condemnation. (So far the only significant change has been the ouster of a top drug war minister for alleged corruption.)
This weekend, fellow populist Donald Trump invited Duterte to visit the White House. Meanwhile, the murders (there have been several thousand at least) continue—the majority of them apparently carried out by organized death squads. Their excessive methods betray a kind of pleasure in their work, or perhaps novelty-seeking by men who have become inured to the violence.
The group who came to murder a man named Raul, his sister says, wore the standard bandanas over their faces and heads. Though the family maintains Raul himself was innocent, he was married to a drug pusher in the nearby province of Bulacan, she tells me. He had come to Manila after a fight with his wife; fearing for his life, his family begged him to return to the countryside, but his wife apparently wouldn't take him back.
"I was standing right next to him the other night when three men came by motorcycle and dragged him away," his sister relates at his wake. "An hour later, we found his body in an empty lot. They had shot him in his legs, his chest, his face."
The wakes are often in the slums—rows of two-story shacks constructed from salvaged refuse. Even with addresses, we have to ask residents to lead us through the labyrinthine alleys and over streams of foul runoff. The corpses themselves are displayed in caskets under dusty glass, their broken faces massaged into shape in a back room of the funeral home, then covered in makeup masks. The coffins are usually surrounded by gamblers huddled around card tables. Even before Duterte took power, families of the deceased were known to set up the games in order to entertain guests, though in some cases they now seem designed to defray costs.
At another wake nearby, a mother claims that her son had merely been drunk—passed out on the street—when the men in bandanas came. "They ordered everyone inside their homes. When the street was clear, they shot my son," she says. "They killed him in his sleep, like an animal. Then, they planted shabu [meth] on him to cover it up."
It is widely understood here that as long as the murder is at least apparently drug-related, the crime will not be investigated—or at least not aggressively so. Accordingly, the squads have taken to wrapping their victims' heads in plastic bags and duct tape to indicate to police that the killing is a legitimate extrajudicial matter, in accordance with the president's various statements encouraging them.
Sometimes a cardboard sign is attached: "DRUG PUSHER," one reads. "THIS COULD BE YOU."
The body of an unidentified man arrives one night around 4 AM, with dark blood oozing from between the strips of tape. Funeral home staff cut the tape off his head, and his expresson is one of total atonishment.
When Ruel removes the bullets from his head and drops them on the tray, they make a sound like a bell. "Before they shot him, they stabbed him with an icepick," my translator relays, pointing at a constellation of puncture wounds covering his ribs.
It is Ruel's job to perform the autopsies. When he finishes this one, there are three more waiting in the next room, cocooned in green fabric sacks. It's hard work popping ribs with giant shears, plucking organ bundles, and sawing open skulls—the body wants to keep its secrets. Droplets of Ruel's sweat fall and run down the faces of the corpses like tears.
The bodies leave Eusebio empty of their organs and roughly sewn up. "I have nightmares about this work," Ruel confides. "I dream that the bodies are angry at me for the things I do to them."
At a wake the following day, I speak with the mother of another murder victim. "They killed my son three days ago," she weeps. "Ramil was thirty-five, but I still think of him as a baby. Those are my happiest memories—when I held him in my arms and did everything for him. He was a good boy. He used to work sweeping the streets so our family could eat. A few years ago though, he began using shabu. When he was on shabu, he was a different person. He would run out into the streets and challenge everyone to fight. Once, he knocked out two of his father's teeth. Still, before he died, he wrote to me that he was sorry. He had started reading the Bible. He wanted to be a better man."
"They killed him before he had the chance," she adds.
Back at Eusebio, the sun is setting, signaling the beginning of another day of death. Orly Fernandez is awake and handling the fill-in-the-blank plaques that accompany every casket. The one for this grieving mother's son reads:
Born on: December 18, 1981
Died: April 9, 2017
Fernandez spits on a rag and wipes the details away. The plaque is now clean, blank, and ready for the next name.
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