“It’s not a lie, Drugs will make your Mama cry” was painted on a board by the gate of a primary school in a fishing village tucked away in the Visayan islands. It was a fading sign left over from an anti-drug campaign a couple of years ago, which apparently didn’t work.
The menace had not been too obvious in the small coastal villages, lying side-by-side, in the rural Philippines where the old romance of the sea still pulls. But one day just recently, there was a commotion out on the road. Neighbors gathered to hear the news:
A young man had been shot and killed. He was a drug "pusher" who had sold meth in tiny plastic packets to his town mates. He had surrendered to the police on the wave of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs, was released, and then went back to selling drugs again. And so they got him.
The spate of vigilante killings has reached these remote places not far from the origins of Duterte’s political clan in Cebu island province, where targeting drug users and peddlers had already claimed the biggest "lord" of them all in the capital city of the central Philippines.
In the little corners of the villages, the spread of drugs is not a secret. ‘They sell it like candies," said a retired police officer that I will not name because he has been a friend for the past decade that I have been coming here on random occasions. He said he approves of the extrajudicial killings – “it’s better this way” – because he had seen from his work that due process was filled with loopholes that allowed those selling drugs to get away.
He has told me of at least one officer-turned-politician who has been marked in dossiers as “noted” for involvement in drugs, in which the man was somehow connected to unknown shipments, the goods dropped in a secluded marine sanctuary from where small outriggers would be there presumably to collect the drugs to be sold.
The modus operandi sounded like a thriller in the officer’s tales, and now Duterte’s personal crusade turned it into a nationwide bust against illegal drugs, even before he was sworn into office more than a month ago. The killings started well before he took the oath.
A politician in one of the towns was on the list that Duterte had announced publicly, the first of his witch-hunt style that had worked for him when he was mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. Here in the poor villages where most everyone knows each other, they had always suspected who the "pushers" were but could do nothing about it. The local government had tried to curb them, putting up warning signs in markets, on bridges and transport terminals.
That seemed to have failed and the signboards disappeared over time except for the one I saw at the primary school where children wave at me as I bike past. It was Duterte’s campaign promise to rid the country of drugs that roused the townsfolk into believing that a strongman could wipe out the problem and solve the petty crimes afflicting their lives.
That strongman -- Duterte -- on Aug. 9 showed just how strong a man he could be, threatening in a speech to troops at Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro City to declare martial law after Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, in a stern response to his naming several judges as connected to the drugs trade, said it is up to the courts to discipline judges and not the president and that the rule of law must prevail.
In the poverty-stricken villages, Duterte's message resonates. The women selling moringa leaves have had enough of the motorcyclists huddling in the middle of the night across the street where something bad must be afoot. The baker’s wife spoke of the festering ills of society that no previous governments had bothered to fix and she wanted them fixed right away. The girl who cooks at the roadside eatery was fed up with cousins stealing money to buy drugs and men wasting hard-earned money for an addiction only worsens their poverty.
In their lives, where the sound of karaoke music and fiestas deaden the feeling of remoteness and neglect, the slowly growing outcry over the extrajudicial killings carries a hollow sound. How could they quibble over human rights when their poverty offers little justice?
What has been happening in these parts of the Visayas and other towns elsewhere in the country represents a microcosm of the wider latitude given the president, who won on a populist agenda with his brand of ruling over the law. People have given him a 91 per cent trust rating in the polls. None of the laws have been changed but he has craftily given the police the verbal imprimatur to carry out his war on crime. None of them would be punished.
The body count of “drug-related” incidents has risen to more than 500 this week, according to the police and news reports. It is a figure that appears to saturate the minds of the people in a country where news of violence pumps regularly into the evening news, where insurgencies and disasters speak in the numbers of the dead. There was hardly any public outrage until photographs of weeping women bent over their dead, cardboard signs identifying them as “pushers,” went viral on social media and the world outside took notice.
It is hard to explain, and it is quite numbing to try to understand. Still in his honeymoon period, the president has said he doesn’t care about the rise in the killings because he knows what he’s doing. His countenance changes when he speaks of drugs ruining the nation, elevating it into a crisis, the word "kill" loosely slipping off his tongue. In the next breath he expresses compassion for the lowly people – and this is what his hardcore followers like about him.
The shock effect is in place. “At some point it’s going to stop but we just don’t know when,” said Professor Resil Mojares, an intellectual who teaches at the Cebu campus of the University of the Philippines, when I asked if he could make sense of it.
“If he’s doing this, capitalizing on the fact that he has done it in Davao, people will give him leeway. At some point they will stop after they will have judged they’ve been conveyed the images of boldness and seriousness and maybe then people will pay attention to issues.”
Duterte’s supporters are steadfast, confined by a frame of black and white to seeing through the president’s campaign promise to end the drug problem within six months. Until this week, few had come out to challenge it on the grounds of human rights and the rule of law.
The Catholic Church was meek until influential archbishop Socrates Villegas spoke out in the name of humanity “disturbed by the killings,” a little voice “drowned out by the louder voice of revenge or silenced by the sweet privileges of political clout.”
When the president once again read out a list of alleged culprits over the weekend, naming mayors and judges among others, he put himself under a microscope of his own choosing. The list was meant as an ultimatum for them to surrender to his chief of police. This time, Lourdes Sereno pointed out he’d been wrong on some accounts and urged the judges against surrendering in the absence of a proper arrest warrant, drawing his threat to impose martial law.
In the list the president read out while visiting army camps – ostensibly courting soldiers this early in his term – some have either died or been killed or misidentified. Police chief General Ronald de la Rosa dismissed the mistakes “over little things” – the little things, he did not seem to realize, that put into question the credibility of such a horrendous undertaking.
Vice President Leni Robredo, elected on a different ticket than the president, has spoken out repeatedly, most recently on Aug. 8 to condemn the killings and to say that at least two people she has known personally have been targeted by the death squads, and that they had nothing to do with drugs. Other reports have said two college students have been gunned down by mistake.
Thirty years of desultory democracy have thus brought us to this point where confusing principles lay scattered. The provincial road on which I’d go biking through the fishing villages in the Visayas hasn’t changed much in the 10 years that I could see. The walls of the rich are built high to fence off their lands and the lesser families continue gleaning the beach at low tide just to put food on their table.
What we know of Duterte’s sudden rise to power is that it was a consequence of past leaders who lost their sense of people’s disenfranchisement. Politicians and civil servants had gone too far with entitlements akin to royalty.
He knew what the people wanted to hear and his war or drugs is the first step he’s taken to steer the nation. He boasted of it, as he had done in Davao where checks and balances were much simpler. With the future of the entire nation in his hands, we don’t know where it will take us.
Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning Philippines-based reporter and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel