More than 7,000 people have been killed in the Philippines’ bloody “war on drugs.” New Human Rights Watch research finds that the killing campaign against suspected drug users and dealers, openly encouraged and applauded by President Rodrigo Duterte, is effectively a war on the urban poor that could amount to crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, has made two trips to the capital, Manila, to document this unprecedented mass wave of killings. Stephanie Hancock asked him how Human Rights Watch was able to track the police killing squads.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. What is it like in Manila?
During the daytime things appear relatively normal, and in the middle class areas you’d barely notice this killing campaign. It’s very much focused on the poorest areas. There, the terror is very real. As soon as night falls, the killings begin. At one point as many as 35 people were being gunned down in Manila every night.
How did you and your team work?
We worked from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. investigating the latest killings. There are always two distinct versions of reality: the police version, which invariably claims that the suspect fired on the police, who then killed him in self-defense, and the relatives’ version, claiming their family member was killed in cold blood and that evidence of drugs and guns was planted. Our job was to try to figure out which version was the reality. We had to be very careful because with 7,000 already dead, everyone feels like they could be next.
Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s “War on Drugs”
How quickly did you get to crime scenes?
A vast network of people throughout Manila report these killings as soon as they happen, for example using secure WhatsApp groups. We had to move fast. We had a brilliant driver who’d served as a bodyguard driver for VIPs, so he knew what he was doing.
What are these neighborhoods like at night?
The killings start just as people are going to bed. They normally involve a squad of around eight to 10 armed, masked men in civilian clothes on motorcycles looking for the person targeted, and then pulling them out of their homes and executing them. These are very heavily policed neighborhoods, and it’s simply impossible for a group of masked armed men to go around, night after night, without being picked up by the police. So that really was our strongest clue that all of these killings are being carried out by, or in cooperation with, the police.
What do the police claim is happening?
Police often claim that a drug suspect opened fire on them and was then killed in a shootout. But we found instead that people are being executed and framed by the police, who plant guns and drugs on the bodies. The gunmen wear masks and try to make sure there are no witnesses, but we met some people who saw the shooting and planting of evidence. This is an organized, government-sanctioned campaign of executions of drug suspects.
Duterte only took office nine months ago. Was there any clue he would endorse such violent policies?
His “tough on crime” image dates back to his two decades as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, when he was a cheerleader for killing petty criminals, small-time drug dealers, and street children by the “Davao Death Squad.” Our research then linked the death squad to local government officials and the police. When he ran for president last year, he promised a nationwide anti-drug campaign, warning voters that “tens of thousands of people” would be killed and vowing to “make the fish in Manila Bay grow fat on the victims.” He even said he would match Hitler by killing millions.
Duterte insists the Philippines is in the grip of a severe drug crisis, but the evidence doesn’t support that. The most common drug in the country, especially among the poor, is methamphetamine, which is known locally as shabu. Meth use is roughly equivalent to that in the United States. But Duterte has created this myth of a country descending into a lethal drug crisis and has advocated mass extrajudicial violence against “drug lords” as the only solution to this false crisis. Yet the vast majority of those killed are very poor urban slum dwellers.
If the drug problem is exaggerated, why are so many people being killed?
Duterte’s populist base applauds the mass killings as reducing crime. He tries to scare people about drug problems and then portrays himself as the only solution. Like many populists, he’s built this myth around himself as a champion of the poor, but actually he comes from a very powerful political dynasty. Many Filipinos we met told us they had no idea innocent people were being killed in the anti-drug campaign until their own relative got killed. The mother of one victim told me: “We voted for Duterte, and now he’s declaring war on us – he’s killing us like chickens.”
How do you know police are planting evidence?
In almost all the cases we investigated, the family members talked to us freely about the victims – the bad as well as the good. But they were adamant the victim didn’t have a gun so couldn’t have been armed. We’re talking about people so poor they can’t even afford decent meals, let alone buy a gun. In several instances we got eyewitness accounts about police planting evidence.
I imagine the city morgues are overflowing?
We went to one morgue and they had about 40 bodies in the refrigerator. Many Filipinos are very religious and the proper burial of their relatives is of great importance. But a proper funeral costs about US$1,000, in a country where many people live on $2 a day. So many victims eventually are buried in mass graves.
We met one woman who had just managed to get together money for a funeral after one son was killed. Then her second son was picked up by police. She was told to pay a bribe to get him out, but she had no money left. That night her son was found floating in a local river, shot to death.
Did you tell the government you were coming to the Philippines to investigate these killings?
Normally we try to be as transparent as possible in our research. But this was a really high-risk investigation and we felt it was important to stay off radar. This is also one of few reports where it was is too dangerous to acknowledge by name all of the wonderful and courageous people who helped us.
Did you ever fear for your own safety?
Once, we were interviewing a relative of a victim, and she just froze. A group of motorcycles drove by outside, and she said: “That’s them.” We quickly drove away and brought the witness to a safe area. It was a very close brush with the killing squads themselves.
You’re used to flying into war zones, so how did being in a capital city – far from any battlefields – compare?
It’s very bizarre to go from having dinner in a fancy shopping mall one moment to finding yourself, a few hours later, standing at the scene of murder after murder all night long. One night, I had dinner with a close relative who lives in Manila, and then I left to start my research. Just an hour later, I texted him from the scene of the first killing of the night saying: “It’s started.” It’s really that kind of contrast.
This interview has been edited and condensed.