In Philippine drug war, a family struggles to stay safe
MANILA, Philippines— The bodies terrified Betchie Salvador, because she always knew her husband could be next.
They had begun turning up in cities all over the Philippines ever since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a controversial war on drugs this year — so many that one local newspaper had to create a “Kill List” just to keep track.
READ: THE KILL LIST
Dealers and addicts were being shot by police or slain by unidentified gunmen in mysterious, gangland-style murders. Their bodies ended up dumped on highways in the rain, curled in pools of blood in the slums. Some were found tied up, with masking tape plastered across their faces. Some were draped with cardboard signs that warned, “I’m a pusher. Don’t Be Like Me.”
With each new death, Betchie imagined losing the man she had loved for a decade — a proud father of three who was also an addict.
“We talked about it a lot,” she said. “I told him, ‘Please don’t go out at night.'”
“Don’t worry,” Marcelo always told her. “It’s gonna’ be OK.”
MARCH 15: “When I become president, I’ll order the police and the military to find these people and kill them. The funeral parlors will be packed.”
— Duterte at a rally in the northern city of Lingayen, detailing plans to fight the drug trade.
The lure of shabu
Marcelo’s addiction began when he was working as a driver in the eastern province of Bicol. And all it took was one hit.
A colleague introduced him to a potent methamphetamine known in the Philippines as “shabu,” saying it helped him stay awake at night. The drug was ubiquitous and easy to get. It could also be smoked, snorted, or injected for as little as one dollar.
When the couple moved to Manila last year, hoping for better work prospects, they settled in a busy central district called Las Piñas. Marcelo found a new job driving a “tricycle” — a rickshaw with a motorcycle attached that is used as a taxi. He earned about $10 per day ferrying customers around the city, just enough to support their two boys, ages 6 and 7, and a newborn baby girl.
He also found a new group of friends who were into shabu, and his year-old drug habit did not let up.
Shortly after Marcelo arrived, a police officer caught him with methamphetamines. But there would be no jail time or court case to face, no drug rehabilitation program to go through.
Marcelo bribed the officer to destroy his case file and let him go.
MAY 7: “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bi***es, I will really kill you. I have no patience, I have no middle ground.”
— Duterte on the final day of campaigning for presidential elections.
Duterte called it a life-or-death threat to the nation, and the nation believed him.
The Philippines was at risk of becoming a “narco state,” he said. And a weary electorate, exasperated by decades of crime and corruption, agreed.
Something had to be done.
It didn’t matter that statistics from the government’s Dangerous Drugs Board showed the estimated rate of methamphetamine use had dropped from 6.7 million in 2004 to 1.7 million today. It didn’t matter that this rate — an estimated 2 percent of Filipinos — was no higher than that of other countries like the United States or Australia in recent years, according to United Nations figures. It didn’t matter that drug wars mounted in countries like Thailand or Colombia or America had miserably failed.
What mattered was that drugs were still a problem, and this was a cause the nation could rally around.
With prisons already crowded and a justice system so broken that drug cases could take a decade, Duterte argued successfully for another, quicker way. It was modeled in part on a brutal anti-crime campaign he spearheaded while mayor of the southern city of Davao, where he rode a Harley-Davidson and cultivated a New Sheriff in Town image that earned him nicknames like “Duterte Harry” and “The Punisher.”
The campaign was fought not just by state security forces, but by motorcycle-riding assassins known as the “Davao Death Squads” who massacred more than 1,000 people. Human Rights Watch says the grim wave of extrajudicial killing was directed by active duty police and former officers. Only a handful of perpetrators were convicted.
After Duterte was sworn into office June 30, he directed police to launch a massive new anti-drug operation nationwide.
It was called “Double Barrel.”
JUNE 30: “They say that my methods are unorthodox and verge on the illegal … The fight will be relentless and it will be sustained.”
— Duterte speaking about the impending drug war during his inauguration speech.
‘Please don’t go out at night’
In Marcelo’s neighborhood, the mood shifted quickly.
While security forces carried out raids and rounded up drug suspects, police drew up “watch-lists” of suspected addicts and dealers, aided by local officials, civil society leaders and vigilant residents.
Drug suspects were called out. Just a couple hundred meters (yards) from Marcelo’s home, residents demanded authorities evict a couple they accused of selling drugs. On July 12, the pair was found murdered in their rickshaw, where they had apparently tried to spend the night after being chased from their house, according to Filipino media.
On July 18, another body turned up in Las Pinas, this time of a man with his neck slashed, found beside a placard labeling him an addict and a thief.
By then, Marcelo’s mother, Betty Soriano, had decided to start accompanying her son on his nightly tricycle shifts. The family believed he would be safer, and her presence would discourage him from spending time with the drug users he always ran across.
Marcelo then made his wife an extraordinary promise: He was quitting shabu. It had become too dangerous.
Betchie felt he had to do more, and convinced him to work day shifts. But the competition was too tough, the money too little, and Marcelo reverted to working nights. He told Betchie she didn’t have to worry “because I’m not using drugs anymore.”
At one point, a government official approached Marcelo at his tricycle stand, and told him he needed to turn himself in, a process called “surrendering” that has drawn about 700,000 drug users so far. Most have been released after acknowledging their crimes, giving up the names of others involved in the narcotics trade, and pledging never to use again.
Marcelo waved the man off, saying it wasn’t necessary. He had already quit.
AUG. 6: “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.”
— Duterte warning drug dealers during a press conference in Davao City after visiting a police officer who had been shot in the chest.
An unprecedented surge of killings
The police statistics show an astounding rise in the number of drug suspects shot dead by security forces: just 68 in the first half of the year, compared to 1,578 since Duterte took office.
Vigilantes, though, appear to have killed significantly more: as many as 2,151 murders police have either linked to the drug trade or classified as “unexplained.” At least 864 of them were carried out by motorcycle-riding gunmen — a favored tactic employed by vigilantes against drug suspects.
Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon, director of the independent Commission on Human Rights, described them as extrajudicial killings, and said the phenomenon has plagued the country at least since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a “people power” revolt in 1986.
The latest upsurge is “unprecedented,” he said, “because of the scale, the large number … over a fairly short period of time.”
There is no shortage of theories about who the vigilantes are: drug syndicates killing their own, rogue police offing informants, state-sponsored death squads like the ones in Davao.
Regardless, human rights groups say Duterte bears much of the blame. In nationally televised speeches and press conferences he has repeatedly encouraged both the police and the public to eliminate drug suspects, dismissing the need for due process. The rhetoric is ironic in a country that banned the death penalty a decade ago, and it has left many aghast.
“What I don’t understand is, how can — it boggles my mind — how can you actually propose that to address the problem of injustice, you perpetuate more injustice?” Gascon said.
One reason may be that many Filipinos feel there is no other way to fight drugs beyond brute force. Another may be that Duterte’s campaign has had an immediate effect. Police say crime has fallen in some areas by nearly half, and neighborhoods once overrun with drug dealers are safer than they’ve been in years.
“I’d like to be frank with you, are they (drug users) humans? What is your definition of a human being? Tell me.”
— Duterte addressing soldiers at an army camp on Aug. 26.
Gunshots in the dark
On the night of Sept. 5, Marcelo parked his rickshaw at a small roadside kiosk, where he had stopped to buy essentials for the morning — coffee for his family, chocolate drinking powder for his kids.
When Malvin Balingatan, who worked at the shop, leaned forward to hand him change, shots rang out, according to a copy of the police report obtained by The Associated Press.
It was 10:05 p.m.
As Balingatan ducked out of the way, he caught a glimpse of the killers receding into the darkness: two men in black on a motorcycle, helmets covering their faces.
Marcelo managed to run 10 or 15 meters (yards) to the corner, where more shots were fired before he collapsed on the pavement.
His mother, who had dutifully accompanied him that night and was cowering in the back of the tricycle, screamed out.
“My son! My son!”
At their family home, a five-minute walk away, Soriano broke the news to Betchie. Marcelo’s children appeared, woken by the chaos and the crying.
“Where’s Daddy?” one of them asked. “Where’s Daddy?”
“He’s gone,” Betchie replied, tears streaming down her cheeks.
By the time Betchie got to the scene, Marcelo — her Marcelo — was sprawled face-down in a pool of blood, his body lit by a halo of light from a bank of television cameras.
A crowd had gathered, held back just behind a strip of yellow police tape that blocked the road. They stared silently at Marcelo’s closed eyes, the blood stain on the back of his yellow shirt, the 13 numbered signs investigators had placed in the road beside each spent bullet.
Just beside Marcelo’s limp fingertips was a small translucent packet of white methamphetamines.
SEPT. 5: “Everybody has a terrible record of extrajudicial killings. Why make an issue about fighting crime?”
— Duterte at a press briefing in Davao City.
‘We don’t want any trouble’
Three days after the shooting, Betchie’s boys are home playing video games on a cellphone beside the open casket that holds Marcelo.
Betchie is thinking about their life together. She is trying not to cry.
“I keep wondering what will happen to me, to my children,” she says, explaining that her 39-year-old husband was their family’s sole breadwinner. “All we can do now is pray.”
Her mother-in-law insists the drugs found at Marcelo’s fingertips weren’t his — and weren’t there when he died. She doesn’t know who put them there, or why.
Everything he had been holding — the coffee, the chocolate powder — had scattered across the ground when the first shots rang out. If he was running for his life, how could he have held on to shabu, she asks, but dropped the rest?
She won’t bring it up with the police, though, because “we don’t want any trouble,” she says. “What’s the point? What for?”
There is a certain shame that hangs over the families of slain drug users here, and most don’t know where to turn for help. Few trust the country’s notoriously corrupt police. Pointing fingers at killers who are still at large would also carry great risk.
Betchie says she still hopes they find who did this. But her voice is tinged with resignation. She is looking down, eyes half closed.
The vast majority of vigilante murders in the Philippines remain unsolved, and police say this case is no different. They have no leads.
Outside on the street, Marcelo’s rickshaw is parked on the curb, empty and quiet. A pair of red and blue wrist bands are wrapped around its headlight and speedometer, propaganda from the election campaign.
Each is inscribed with seven white letters: D U T E R T E.
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