The Children of Duterte’s
“War on Drugs”

By Carlos Conde
Photographs by Carlo Gabuco
Video by Kiri Dalena

Four men wearing balaclavas arrived at the funeral wake on two motorcycles. Moments later, shots rang out, sparking panic among the crowd of mourners, who fled or dove for cover. The gunmen’s apparent target, “Renato Aldeguer,” was shot 10 times and died at the scene. His then-13-year-old son “John” was hit in the leg; his daughter “Karla,” 10 at the time, cowered under a table but wasn’t physically injured in the attack. The eldest son, 15-year-old “Robert,” who was right behind one of the gunmen as he fired into the crowd, managed to escape unscathed.

The wake was for Aldeguer’s sister-in-law “Veneracion,” 39, who had been gunned down only three days earlier while having dinner in front of a convenience store in an impoverished Manila neighborhood. The assailant walked up and shot her in the head in the evening of December 16, 2016. An alleged drug user whose name was on the authorities’ “drug watch list,” Veneracion had feared she might be a target of the government’s proclaimed “war on drugs.”

Children carry the coffin of “Veneracion” to the top of an apartment-type grave in a cemetery in Mandaluyong City on December 29, 2016.

Aldeguer’s murder two years ago—most likely a case of mistaken identity—might seem like just another grim data point in the “drug war” that began when President Rodrigo Duterte took office in the Philippines in June 2016. More than 12,000 people—mostly under-employed young men—have been killed by police and unidentified assailants in an unprecedented wave of violence in the capital, Manila, and other urban areas throughout the country.

But perhaps the most enduring and far-reaching consequences of the mayhem Duterte’s policies have unleashed on the country will be on the lives of children shattered by the violence. Two years after the murder of their father, the Aldeguer children eke out an existence on the streets of Mandaluyong City in Metro Manila, abandoned by their mother, out of school, dependent on meager wages from menial jobs and the generosity of extended family to get by.

I spent time with the Aldeguer children and their friends and cousins one humid day in February, as part of my continuing research on the “war on drugs.” They behaved like they owned the streets of Mandaluyong – and, in a way, they do. Since their hovel was demolished by the government years before, they had been spending more time in the streets. They were familiar faces to neighbors and shop owners, and even to policemen and neighborhood watchmen.

As Karla and Robert walked the streets of Mandaluyong City that day looking for their brother John, chatting up friends and acquaintances, high-fiving minibus drivers and street vendors, it was clear they seemed comfortable and content living in the bustle of the city. In a way, the streets welcomed them and embraced them, providing some sort of “home” after their family disintegrated a few days before Christmas more than two years ago.

The Aldeguer children are hardly alone. They are among the thousands of kids both victims of, and victimized by, the government’s abusive anti-drug campaign. More than 100 children have been killed over the past three years, either targeted or caught in the crossfire, according to local human rights and children’s monitors. The deaths of parents or guardians have also left many children alone, vulnerable and forced to fend for themselves. Human Rights Watch and other children’s rights groups have documented cases of children who drop out of school for lack of money and are forced to work at menial jobs like selling peanuts in city streets.

Children cover their noses from the smell during a mass burial on January 24, 2017, of unclaimed bodies in a cemetery in Navotas City in Metro Manila that has been hard hit in the “drug war.”

Some have gone into hiding, fearing for their lives, especially those who witnessed a loved one’s killing. Many suffer from apparent psychological trauma and, despite the role of the police in many of the killings, have received no help from the government. Several have ended up in poorly run detention facilities – some literally in cages – after they were picked up off the streets by the authorities. Many are subjected to mistreatment, including sexual abuse, while in police custody.

When I spoke to Karla earlier this year in Mandaluyong City, she was still upset about the time she got feverish one night in February and was all by herself in a cousin’s house. John and Robert were nowhere to be found; they had spent the night with their friends out in the busy streets. That night was the loneliest she felt since her father’s death.

“My brothers and I were always together,” said Karla, now 12. “We were always complete. Since her father died, “a big change happened with my family,” she said, now sobbing. “I just want us to be together.”

Her father’s murder shattered her family. Their mother, “Andrea,” has since remarried, and practically abandoned the children, who refused to live with the couple because, they told me, they hate their mother’s new husband. Andrea’s decision to marry was mainly driven by her inability to support herself, and this bred resentment among her children, especially Robert, who openly derides her for having a new husband so soon.

Since the killing, all three children have stopped going to school. They enrolled for a few months, but gave up eventually because they were homeless. Robert found menial work with the municipal government but left it because he found it too taxing. These days, he earns money by teaching hiphop to teenagers in Kalentong.

John has become withdrawn since his father’s death and refuses to socialize even among friends. “He easily gets angry and he has lost trust in people. Especially when he learned that we know the man who had my father killed,” Robert said.

But Robert is confident John can take care of himself, a view Andrea shares. “They are boys, so they are okay,” she told me. But both worry about Karla. Andrea wanted to take Karla with her to Taytay, a town north of Manila, where the girl could live with her and her new husband. But Karla refused, afraid her mother would just turn her into the housekeeper for a friend of Andrea’s husband.

The three siblings spend their days in Kalentong, their nights in the houses of friends and cousins, and taking long afternoon naps in the parking lot behind Marketplace mall. There, they hang hammocks between delivery vans, wait for their friends who also live in the streets, and spend hours just chatting, gossiping with delivery drivers, and horsing around. Aren’t they afraid the men who killed their father would come back for them? “If they wanted us dead, we would have been dead a long time ago,” Robert said.

While life in Kalentong has not been easy, especially for Karla, the three have no plans to leave. Here, “we have friends, we have each other,” Robert told me.

“Putang ina mo! Putang ina mo! Putang ina mo!”

“Kyle” was shouting as he bounced around the cramped living room of his family’s home in Delpan, Tondo, one of the poorest, most crowded and crime-prone districts of Manila. He jabbed his middle finger in the air, shouting as he jumped around, oblivious to the perplexed reactions of the people in the room.

He picked up a skateboard and hit his mother “Zeny” with it twice in the arm. “Putang ina mo!” he said, Tagalog for “Your mother is a whore.”

As a father myself, I found Kyle’s behavior deeply disturbing. Kyle was only 5. While it might not be unusual for children his age in the slums of the Philippines to use such foul language or act out among friends, there was something profoundly unsettling about the intensity of Kyle’s aggressiveness. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Zeny said, shaking her head and close to tears. “I don’t know how this happened.”

Zeny hasn’t taken Kyle to a therapist, mainly because of the expense. The nannies she was able to hire so she could work typically didn’t last long because of Kyle’s aggressiveness.

During our visit in February, the latest nannie, a 50-something man called Boy, a common Filipino nickname, displayed a remarkable calmness toward Kyle. Almost cheerfully, Boy bathed him, changed his clothes, and helped him into his school uniform – even as Kyle grabbed a knife and chased him with it.

The presence of strangers probably emboldened Kyle to behave more aggressively, but Zeny said this was not the first time. Sometime last year, Kyle was playing with friends when it suddenly turned ugly – he threatened to kill one of his playmates, telling him he would wrap him with packaging tape.

There’s little doubt what’s affecting Kyle’s behavior. In November 2016, Kyle’s father, “Alvin Ricaforte,” a 39-year-old driver, disappeared. He was found dead two days later on the Delpan overpass, not far from their home. He’d been stabbed 19 times. “I’m a drug pusher. Don’t emulate me,” read a sign placed beside the body.

Ricaforte’s head was wrapped with packaging tape.

Ricaforte’s horrific death turned Zeny’s world upside down. Because he had been the breadwinner, Zeny was forced to look for a job. When she found one, she started spending less time with Kyle. And when she entered into a relationship with her current boyfriend, Kyle became even more aggressive and violent.

“He misses his father a lot and he takes it out on me.”

In a hovel near the mountain of trash in Metro Manila’s Quezon City known as Payatas, “Jennifer” stared longingly at the blue couch that had been her father’s favorite spot. Her father, “Benigno Mercado,” was on the couch when police shot him dead during a drug sweep of the neighborhood in December 2016. The police claim Mercado was a drug dealer and resisted arrest.

Jennifer has a different version. She said that about seven men in civilian clothes barged into their small home that day, looking for Mercado. The men ordered everybody out. But Jennifer clung to her father, hugging him as he sat on the sofa and held up his work ID for the cops to see.

“He was told to lie face down but he held his ID up behind him. All the while, one of the men had a gun to his head,” Jennifer recalls. Mercado kept begging. “Sir, if I committed a crime, please have mercy, please don’t kill me. If you want, you can just detain me. Because of my poor children, they are seven. What happens to them, who will take care of them?” a crying Mercado told the men, according to Jennifer’s mother “Belinda.” Jennifer said she tried to shield her father by hugging him, and covering him with her small body.

One of the men – “the big one,” she said – grabbed Jennifer, who was 11 at the time, and threw her to the floor just outside the door of the living room. One of her siblings caught her, breaking her fall onto the dirty concrete floor. The men ordered everyone but Mercado to leave the house; on her way out, Jennifer saw her father continue to beg for his life. Moments later, when Jennifer and all the others were in the small alley outside the house, three gunshots rang out.

Uniformed police officers arrived minutes later; the men in civilian clothes were still inside the Mercado home. When the medics came, Jennifer strained to look inside and saw blood all over the floor, her father now lying face up beside the couch. “That’s when I saw the gun beside his hand,” Jennifer said. She swore her father did not have a gun, that she never saw one in their home. Police say they shot him because he fought back. The cops claim they found a sachet of shabu, Filipino slang for methamphetamine or crystal meth, on Mercado’s body.

Witnessing what happened to her father was traumatic enough for Jennifer and her family. But the consequence of his death only added to their suffering. They lost their breadwinner – Mercado worked in a junk shop in another district of Manila and was only home the day he was killed because it was the birthday of another daughter, “Amy.” Since his death, there have been days the children have had nothing to eat. They rely mainly on the generosity of their grandmother, who agreed to take care of them.

Jennifer’s mother was in jail for a drug-related case at the time of the killing but has since reunited with her children. After a TV station interviewed Jennifer, exposing her identity in the process, classmates began bullying her in school, ridiculing her for her father’s alleged drug use, which she denied.

Jennifer still grapples with the trauma of her father’s death. There were days when the grief was so unbearable she didn’t know what to do. She became withdrawn, not just because of the bullying but also because she just wanted to keep her head down. She finds comfort in the company of her siblings, staying mostly inside their ramshackle home, their giggles – and tears – drowned out by the noise of a malfunctioning electric fan.

Every now and then, the family takes a minute to pray at the image of the Holy Family tacked above the couch. There are days when Jennifer just sits all day on the couch that had been punctured by one of the bullets that took her father from her. She hugs the couch, smelling the frayed and faded seat cover, imagining the man who had sat in it, remembering the father she once had.

“I am confused because I still don’t understand why. Why my Papa? Of all the people here, why did they pick my father?” Jennifer said. “I am so angry.”

During these bouts of confusion and anger, Jennifer would find refuge in doodling and drawing scenes of her family, kittens, and sad girls on her notepad or on the plywood walls of her home. But she could never finish her drawings. “It’s because something is missing in the drawing,” she said. “It’s incomplete.”

I am a father with four young children, the eldest a year younger than Jennifer when her father was killed. What these children of the “drug war” have experienced in their young lives has both horrified and deeply touched me. Asking them about the events that shattered their lives, hearing them relive the horror, has been the most painful task I have undertaken since joining Human Rights Watch more than seven years ago. As a researcher, I have witnessed and documented incredible suffering and injustice, from poor Muslims being displaced by war in the southern Philippines to mothers of young activists snatched by state agents, tortured, and never heard from again. As a journalist before that, I wrote extensively about the turmoil poor and marginalized Filipinos experienced. But nothing prepared me for the heartache I shared with these victims of Duterte’s cruel policies.

Their stories – especially Jennifer’s, mourning the loss of her father on that tattered, blue couch - broke my heart.

It’s easy to despair, thinking these kids are beyond hope, that those who are responsible will evade justice. . But there is hope. Many Filipinos are coming forward to help these children and demand an end to the violence. One of them is Father Michael Sandaga, the priest of a parish called Ina ng Lupang Pangako – “Mother of the Promised Land” – in Payatas, a slum community in Quezon City where dozens have been targeted and killed in the “drug war.”

Father Mike runs the parish’s Project Support for Orphans and Widows, an initiative by the Catholic Church to look after the families and children left behind. The project helps the families financially, provides the parents with a livelihood as well as counselling – services that the Philippine government has been unwilling to offer. Other initiatives by nongovernmental organizations, even by journalists covering the killings, are also underway. But government agencies need to act, too.

And this is my hope: That there will be justice for these children and the loved ones they lost; that the brutality tearing families apart will end and those responsible will be held to account in a court of law. Until that happens, these children’s eviscerated lives will be reminders about the dangers of unconstrained leaders who peddle simple solutions to complicated problems. My hope is that some sort of justice awaits Jennifer, Kyle, Zeny, Karla, John, Robert and thousands of others, and the journey from here to there starts by telling their stories, then telling them again, never letting the past fade away.

Read the press release »

More on Human Rights Watch’s work on the Philippines’ “War on Drugs” »