Some have joked that the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is like a tropical Donald Trump.
He’s crass, outspoken and at times deeply offensive.
But since he was inaugurated two months ago on the promise that he would eradicate drugs and crime – joking the fish in Manila bay would feast on the corpses of drug dealers – the Philippines has taken a deeply worrying turn.
In a surge of extrajudicial killings, almost two thousand people have been killed across the country in the past two months.
Kate Lamb traveled to the capital Manila to find out more.
Lea Bascguin, the owner of a funeral home in Manila is running her finger down the page as she counts through the names in her folder – a register of all the incoming deaths.
The number has tripled since the start of Duterte’s drug war, most extrajudicial killings, or “ejks”.
Across the country almost 2,000 people have been killed so far – 712 in police ‘shootouts,’ and more than 1,000 by so-called vigilantes.
Many are also what is called here, ‘salvage’ victims – unidentified bodies that turn in the street overnight. Bascguin explains.
“We consider salvage when they just drop the body, when the body is just dropped, placed, they will leave the cadaver somewhere in the street without knowing who is the perpetrator, we consider that salvage,” says Bascguin.
There is a murky, unknown quality to the killings. No one knows for sure who the vigilantes really are, although some suspect the police or the military are involved.
Each day distraught relatives turn up at Bascguin’s place, looking for a trace of their loved one among the bodies held at her morgue.
In some cases, the families learn about the deaths from TV, after a picture of a victim, or a familiar tattoo on a corpse is flashed across the news.
That’s what happened to the family of 32-year-old David Miraran.
A few weeks ago he jumped on his bike to visit his girlfriend and never came back.
David’s sister Vivian, found out about his death on the news three days later.
“On the news the police said the robber fought back, so that’s why they had to shoot him. They said he fired at them with a 38 caliber gun in a dark street.”
“But,” continued Vivian, “he doesn’t have a gun. He lived in our house, and we never saw a gun in his room. If my brother was a robber it would be us who would know first.
In Manila, many of the victims of this drug war are from shantytowns and poor neighborhoods.
David barely had enough money for food and when he was hungry he would sometimes ask neighbors for plain rice and soy sauce.
Occasionally he sniffed a cheap solvent, or glue, to get high because he didn’t have money for shabu, or crystal methamphetamine. But there’s no way, says his sister, that David would’ve had the money to buy a gun.
Activist Max de Mesa, told me about the ‘script’ the police have been accused of following, or repeatedly concocting in this drug war.
“Your report is going to be some sort of matrix,” he said.
“They fought back and they have been seen with evidence, they have been with guns and also illegal drugs. We’re using the whole thing to be able to protect the police in their violations,” de Mesa said of the fraught process.
It’s how law enforcement is wriggling out of what he calls the ‘technicalities of democracy’.
That coupled with a total disregard for human rights, he says, has dangerous echoes of the days of martial law.
“The policy of being able to weave one out of these technicalities is very dangerous because it also creates a mentality which was there before. Since we are in charge we can do this and the law can even be used for us and this human rights, well we can also just do away with,” de Mesa said.
In fact President Duterte has joked about bringing back martial law. And as for human rights go, he says, well drug users and dealers don’t deserve them.
In his first state of nation address this July, Duterte declared, “we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars, or below the ground if they so wish.”
As the former mayor of Davao, the tough-talking new president has been linked to death squads in the past.
Strikingly, his methods appear to be extremely popular among Filipinos. Many believe the deaths are just the necessary collateral when it comes to purging the Philippines of drugs and crime.
Then again, if you do want to speak out it’s not that easy.
That’s definitely the feeling I got when I went to the scene of a double murder – two women who had been shot dead in broad daylight on a rainy Tuesday in mid August.
They lived in a crowded slum area by the port, in a small room connected to dozens of others along a narrow path. The area was so small that it’s almost impossible no one saw anything.
While police investigators examined the crime scene I started talking to the crowd of residents who had gathered around.
Trono, one man I spoke to, told me that ‘no see, no hear’ is his tactic.
“Just keep your mouth shut if you want your life to be long, if you want to breathe okay, don’t say anything. We all don’t know what happened, why she is lying there because of a gun. I don’t say something, but in my mind I know what happened,” Trono revealed.
Rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly condemned the killings in the Philippines, and called for an end to the climate of ‘lawlessness’.
But as the bodies continue pile up, the country’s new president has shown no sign of letting up.
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