Duterte's drug war strikes fear in Philippines

Ruby Gigante was a big fan of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug war until last month, when her brother was shot dead and accused of being a drug pusher.

The 31-year-old office administrator of a village council in the slum district of Tondo in Manila said she regrets ever supporting Duterte, who has made it his mission to stamp out the drug problem in the country.

"Like anyone else, I want drugs eradicated," she said. "But why do they have to drag the innocent into this war?"

"I'm really regretting voting for Duterte," she added. "I really don't like him anymore."

Gigante's brother, Rodolfo, 34, was shot dead on August 19 as he was returning home from scavenging at a nearby dumpsite and selling peeled garlic. Police said he fought back when he was accosted for allegedly being a drug pusher.

"They said they found nine kilos of shabu on him," said Gigante, referring to the most popular drug in the Philippines, methamphetamine hydrochloride. "That is a lie. I admit he used drugs before but he never sold drugs."

Rodolfo joined a growing list of fatalities in Duterte's aggressive drug war, which has been strongly criticized by rights groups and foreign leaders, as well as the United Nations and European Parliament.

The campaign has been compared with Thailand's failed drug war in the early 2000s, but has also received praise from Indonesia, where the head of the narcotics agency has told police they should emulate the Philippines' operation.

According to police, 1,185 drug suspects have been killed in police operations from July 1 to September 21. Another 1,651 deaths as of September 18 are being investigated.

More than 716,000 drug users and small-time pushers have also surrendered, while 18,230 have been arrested.

The death toll rises everyday. In just one day last week, 21 people were killed in the capital alone.

Some bodies are found in dark alleys and on footpaths, with their heads wrapped in tape, hands and feet hog-tied, and a placard nearby saying, "I'm a drug pusher. Don't be like me."

The bloodshed has divided public opinion in the country, with supporters defending the killings as necessary to eradicate the drug problem and detractors criticizing the war for violating human rights and resulting in the deaths of innocent people.

At least two children, as young as 5 and 4, have become collateral damage in the killings after they were hit in crossfire in two different incidents.

"We are on the right side here," said a 44-year-old vigilante who has admitted to killing more than a dozen drug suspects since Duterte took office. "The problem is so widespread, we need to stop it."

The father of five children, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his identity is not revealed, said he warns his targets before killing them to give them a chance to change.

"I give them two warnings. If they stop, they can live. If they don't, there is no question about it, I will kill them," he said, as he pushed the hammock of his youngest child, a 5-month-old girl, inside his shanty in Tondo.

A former communist rebel and an ex-militiaman, the man said he was helping in the government's campaign against illegal drugs to make sure that his children do not grow up in a world ruled by drug lords.

"President Duterte himself has identified top government officials linked to the drugs trade," he said. "What will happen if we don't fight it now? I want my children to have a future. With drugs, that's not possible."

Jocelyn Guevarra, 46, shares the vigilante's dream of a better life for her three children but doubts it will be possible after their father was killed during a buy-bust operation on July 21.

"I now have to raise my children on my own, and I don't know how I'll do that," she said, sitting in a dingy and hot shack, where there's been no electricity for a month because she cannot afford it.

Her husband Danilo was with a friend, who was a police officer accused of being a drug pusher and protector of syndicates in Tondo, when they were killed, Guevarra said.

"My husband was earning an honest living as a tricycle (rickshaw) driver, but the police killed him because he was with a friend who was supposedly a drug pusher," she said. "How can that be right?"

Guevarra, who collects and sells junk and other scraps from rubbish, said she did not file a complaint over her husband's death out of fear of reprisal from police.

"It's not true that we are safe now," she said. "I'm more afraid now. They can kill anyone, so I always tell my children - who are all boys - to always be careful and remember their father was killed mercilessly."

Senior Superintendent Orlando Yebra, chief of police in one of Manila's suburban areas, said the government's anti-drug war was making a dent, with supply already down by almost half.

"The street prices have gone up and fewer people are selling because they are afraid," he said. "But we also need to tackle demand reduction by educating the public against drugs."

Yebra said the public has been very supportive of the campaign, and many residents in his jurisdiction come up to him to thank him and his men for their work.

"They understand that this is a war against drugs," he said. "And in any war, people die."

Last update: Sat, 24/09/2016 - 11:52

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