There was a time, not too long ago, when no outsider dared enter Barangay178 in Pasay City in the southern part of Metro Manila.
With a reputation for the most chilling criminality, this slum district was considered a place teeming with the maddest of men, driven to desperation by drugs.
Because of them, the filthy, dark and maze-like neighbourhood was a mess, says 31-year-old Jomalene Mabag, a long-time resident. ‘But not any more,’ she attests. Not since president Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking former mayor of Davao City, became the country’s 16th president, she says.
The 72-year-old hardman won on a campaign promise to bring about change in a country of more than 100 million people, whose economy is controlled by a wealthy few.
Many who voted for him belonged to the estimated 25 million Filipinos who live on less than a dollar a day – and are tired of the elitist political class that has ruled the country for decades. His mantra during his campaign, ‘Change is coming to the Philippines’, was a powerful battle cry, earning him 16 million votes, the highest in the country’s history. In percentage terms this is 38.5 per cent, but the Philippines’ electoral system hands victory to the candidate who polls the highest rather than requiring an overall majority.
He vowed to eradicate corruption, crime and drugs, which he believes would alleviate poverty. Duterte also promised to raise minimum wages and pensions, destroy the country’s oligarchs, spread wealth to the countryside and put an end to labour contracting.
From the Philippine capital of Manila to his province in Davao in the south, the masses came in throngs to hear him speak.
It didn’t matter to them that he joked about the rape of a 36-year-old Australian missionary in the Philippines, saying that he should have been first in line instead of the perpetrators; that he called Pope Francis the son of a whore for exacerbating the traffic in Manila when he visited in 2015; or that he has bragged about his womanizing. Duterte, when he was still campaigning, publicly praised Viagra, saying that he cannot imagine life without it.
While the elite and the educated cringed at Duterte’s rape jokes and profanities, the masses applauded him at the end of every speech.
A new religion is sweeping this desperate nation and the messiah is Duterte. Jeepneys and commuter vans have stickers of his nickname, ‘Du30’, plastered all over; and children join their parents in cheering that man from Davao.
But, months into his office, many of his campaign promises are still just that – mere promises.
For instance, he vowed to raise workers’ wages but employers raised hell over the plan and soon after, Duterte’s economic managers said the proposal was not feasible, as it would raise inflation.
He also promised to end labour contracting so that workers would have security of tenure. But he first allowed himself to be lobbied by the country’s business elite who argued against any such move at a three-hour-long exclusive dinner held at the Presidential Palace on 19 January. Duterte promised a win-win solution to the entrepreneurs. So much for destroying the oligarchs and spreading the country’s wealth.
Duterte also promised to raise the pensions of private-sector employees, vowing to have this in place in his first six months in office, capitalizing on the public rage against his predecessor, former president Benigno Aquino III, who had vetoed the measure.
But he soon realized that the pension hike would be costly for the government. As such, while he approved a minimal increase, he also required a corresponding hike in members’ contributions.
Despite the unfulfilled promises, Duterte’s supporters remain diehard. According to surveys conducted in December 2016, he was basking in trust ratings of 83 per cent.
‘We have to give him more time [to fulfil his promises] but at the end of the day, we already have a showcase, which is Davao,’ says Astro del Castillo, a veteran stock market analyst, referring to the peace and order that Duterte’s leadership in Davao brought to the province.
One promise Duterte has fulfilled is in waging an anti-drugs war, mostly in slum areas, which has resulted in nothing but warrantless arrests and deaths of poor people.
To date, authorities have not caught any big fish from the wealthy drug syndicates.
Official data from the Philippine National Police showed that as of 4 January 2017, a total of 2,174 drugs suspects had been killed in police operations, while a further 4,000 were killed by vigilantes – most victims were impoverished Filipinos.
But still Mabag, who has two little girls and fears the criminality associated with drug addiction, swears that the neighbourhood in which she has lived for the past 14 years is now finally enjoying some peace and quiet, and Duterte is to thank for that.
‘These drug addicts – they must learn their lessons,’ says Jun Rako, a construction worker from the province of Masbate in the Visayas region, where drugs are also rampant. Like many, he is little concerned by the human rights issues and the disturbing environment of impunity.
A new religion is sweeping this desperate nation and the messiah is Duterte
Support also comes from some prominent names, including Mocha Uson, a popular social media personality, model and singer who deflects the blame for the killings. ‘Why is it that there are numerous news reports about the extra-judicial killings issue but there seems to be a scarcity when it comes to the possible involvement of drug syndicates and narco-politicians in these killings to protect themselves?’ wrote Uson in a 27 December column in the Philippine Star.
But for the victims of this war and the loved ones they have left behind, Duterte is a nightmare and a curse.
Harra Kazuo was eight months pregnant with her second child when her husband Jaypee Bertes was killed by police officers in July. In August, she faced a Senate panel investigating Duterte’s anti-drug war and testified that police officers killed her husband and his father Renato, when they were brought to a nearby police station. They were beaten up before they were killed, she says.
Another victim was a boy, just six years old, killed in his sleep in his makeshift home in Pasay last December, just a few days before Christmas. His mother, Elizabeth Navarro, says vigilantes knocked on their door and before she realized what was happening, her husband Domingo and their son Francis had been shot dead.
Duterte vehemently denies that his administration is behind extra-judicial killings but no-one can forget his comments during a press conference in October: ‘Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic]… there’s three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.’
Indeed, there seems to be an ‘open season’ for killing anyone suspected of being involved in drugs.
The bloodied victims of vigilante-style killings are usually found with packaging tape wrapped around their faces and cardboard placards with messages meant to warn the public: ‘We are drug pushers, do not be like us.’ There is no interest in pursuing the perpetrators.
Similar killings marked President Duterte’s 20-year stint as mayor of Davao. Many believe that it was Duterte himself who roamed the streets of Davao to kill the suspected criminals.
‘In the name of wiping out “drug crime”, President Duterte has steamrolled human rights protections and elevated unlawful killings of criminal suspects to a cornerstone of government policy,’ says Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The war against drugs is a Band Aid solution to a situation where people turn to drugs to forget about their hunger and desperate situations, or simply to eke out a living.
It misses the point and creates bigger problems than it claims to solve, says the Stop the Killings Network, a group of NGOs seeking an end to extra-judicial killings.
‘Poverty must end, not the lives of the poor,’ it says.
Duterte is impervious to criticisms against his violent war on drugs and has publicly attacked the Catholic Church for criticizing his campaign, saying that the institution has done nothing to address the country’s drug problem. Telling of Duterte’s fascist ways are his threats to declare martial law in the country if it becomes necessary to wipe out the drug menace.
Meanwhile, the all-out war continues. The killings go on; gunshots are heard, mostly in slum dwellings in the dead of night; and in the morning when the sun rises, the bodies pile up.