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Human rights

Pinoy Lives Matter: Duterte’s drug war rages on through pandemic

Rodrigo Duterte's drug war has claimed the lives of thousands in the four years he's been in power in the Philippines. Despite strict stay-at-home measures in place during much of the pandemic, with millions under lockdown, the rate of killing has only increased

Niko Vorobyov
September 16, 2020
Pinoy Lives Matter: Duterte’s drug war rages on through pandemic
An alleged drug dealer is handcuffed after a drug bust in Manila in May 2018. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Niko Vorobyov is a convicted drug dealer turned writer, and author of the book Dopeworld detailing the international drug trade, from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter.


The first thing I noticed about Harrah Kazuo is her size. She’s tiny. They must have made quite a pair: her very short, him very tall. 

“My husband was a very shy kind of person; if someone shouted at him or challenged him to a fight he’d just keep quiet and go home,” she smiled, “then I’d start a fight with them!”

Like in a spy movie, Harrah cautiously agreed to leave her safehouse and meet me at a square one evening in Malate, near the red-light district of the Filipino capital Manila. Harrah was in hiding and had to switch addresses every few weeks, but she wasn’t on the run. I met her just over two years ago – it’s been four years since her husband and father-in-law died together at a Manila police station, victims of state-sanctioned violence.

As of July, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has officially recognised 5,810 deaths since 2016 – all potential victims of extrajudicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drugs in the Philippines since he took office that year. UN Human Rights Council estimates put the death toll at closer to 8,600, while rights group regard the actual figure as potentially triple that. The slaughter’s gone largely unchecked: the UN reported that as of June, there was only one case where murder cops were brought to face justice.

Neither has the country’s restrictive Covid-19 stay-at-home order, locking down tens of millions of people, slowed the killing spree. Last week, statistics from Human Rights Watch revealed that 155 people died in counternarcotics operations from April to June, compared to 103 in the four month period before – a rise of 50%.

Duterte rose to power as the mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao, where he was famous (or infamous) for restoring law-and-order by dispatching a team of hired assassins and off-duty cops – the Davao Death Squad – to clean up the streets by executing street children, petty criminals and drug addicts, but also an activist or two. After apparently admitting his links to the death squads in 2015, Duterte claimed he’d made Davao the ninth-safest city in the world (like many of his claims, this is up for debate) – a platform of law and order on which he would successfully run for national office a year later.

Winning the presidency in 2016 gave him the chance to try out his crimefighting strategy nationwide. “Your duty requires you to overcome the resistance of the person you are arresting … [if] he resists, and it is a violent one … you are free to kill the idiots, that is my order to you,” Duterte told the police in 2017. 

Not even a week had passed since Duterte stepped into office when Harrah’s husband, 28-year-old Jaybee Bertes, was picked up. He was an occasional smoker and small-time peddler of crystal meth (shabu). On June 6 2016, at around 11pm, he and his father Renato were booked and held overnight at Pasay City police station, Manila. They wouldn’t leave the station alive.

Harrah said when Jaybee was taken in, he wasn’t wearing a shirt. When she came to see them in the morning, he was wearing one. They could barely stand.

“I said they were tortured; the police said where are the signs? The police punched and tortured them both, but not on the face, only the body,” she said. “My husband’s father insisted on a medical check but the police didn’t want to do it.”

“Then I had to leave to check on my two-year-old daughter in the hospital, because when they arrested them they also searched her anus for drugs. When I came back, my husband and his father were both dead. The police say they shot them after they tried to reach for a gun. But the autopsy showed their bodies were covered in bruises; their arms were broken and their fingers were swollen. How could they pick up anything?”

I was furious: I told them you killed them like pigs and you’re trying to cover it up! They told me to be happy; once I bury them I will be next

When she finally got to the morgue she saw the pair had both been shot three times. Harrah was five months pregnant at the time; it was a lot for her to take.

“I was furious: I told them you killed them like pigs and you’re trying to cover it up! They told me to be happy; once I bury them I will be next. During my husband’s wake there were men riding around in circles on motorbikes. They were there every night. Once I came out at midnight and shouted, ‘are you not content, you killed my husband already!’ But the police just smiled: they knew I couldn’t do anything because my husband was selling.”

Harrah went before a Senate committee on extrajudicial killings in 2016, then-chaired by Senator Leila de Lima (now herself in prison on drug charges, based on testimony from very dubious figures) and went into witness protection, where she was when we met. An internal investigation then recommended murder charges be brought against two officers.

Despite the two narcs responsible, Alipio Balo and Michael Tomas, having a warrant for their arrest, neither has been brought to justice, with their whereabouts still unknown. In fact, over the past four years only one case has seen cops tried and convicted.

Human rights advocates and defenders in the Philippines led by Tinay Palabay (2nd R) of Karapatan, an alliance for the advancement of people’s rights, show placards on July 13, 2019, a day after the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution mandating a comprehensive review of the drug war in the Philippines. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

Every day before school, seventeen-year-old Kian delos Santos helped his dad run their small shop in Caloocan, to the north of Manila. He was a popular kid in the neighbourhood, liked joking around, and wanted to be a policeman when he grew up. 

On the night of August 16, 2017, Kian was hanging around the streets near a basketball court. A few hours earlier his father texted him to come home; it was dangerous outside. He should have listened to his dad.

Three plainclothes officers took him aside. The cops claimed he fired at them and resisted arrest, but CCTV shows them leading the terrified youth to a dark, trash-filled alley. CCTV captured him screaming, “please can I go home, I have school tomorrow!” as he was dragged through the basketball court. He was found shot in the head, lying in the fetal position next to an old pigsty. The coroner said Santos was kneeling when he was shot. His was one of 81 deaths that weekend. 

While the horrific – but comparatively rare – cases of police brutality in America have prompted solidarity across the world, the Philippines have largely been forgotten about. Only in January this year did the US finally impose (very mild) sanctions on Duterte’s government, three-and-a-half years after he came to power – compare that to Russia’s antics in Ukraine in 2014, which got them hit with the sanction-hammer faster than you can say “Crimea!”

To an outsider, it might seem strange. Filipinos broadly support the war on drugs: other families I talked to felt it was about time someone did something about the meth problem, even as their husbands, wives, brothers and fathers got a bullet in the head. But Kian’s murder – perhaps because he was so clearly an innocent, and the evidence so overwhelming – sparked something. 

5,000 mourners showed up for his funeral which turned into a protest march, holding up signs reading “Run, Kian, Run” and “Stop the killings”. On November 29, 2018, a judge in Manila sentenced three officers for the killing. As of September this year, it’s the only case of killer cops brought to justice (although a few more are awaiting trial). 

For Harrah, there is a clear pattern to the killings that allows for this impunity to flourish.

“All the dead are poor,” she said. “Because we can’t fight back.”



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