Steve Chao returns to the Philippines to get a behind-the-scenes look at a leader who’s gone from relative obscurity to international notoriety.
Manila, Philippines – “Ma, tulong,” Jason Babierra, 32, cried out for his mother’s help as he dragged his bullet-ridden body on the concrete pavement in the Bernabe neighbourhood of Paranaque, a Manila suburb.
Those were Jason’s last words before he died, according to a witness.
This was two days before the Day of the Dead last November. Jason, a street seller, was cycling outside the house where he lived with his parents and siblings. Suddenly, shots rang out. People ducked for cover.
Moments later, they heard a motorcycle speed away. The attacker disappeared into the night. Jason was dead.
I was standing around the next corner, waiting for a taxi, when I saw the commotion. As I arrived at the scene, a police officer was still setting up the yellow tape.
Jason, wearing flip-flops, camouflage cargo shorts, grey shirt and a black baseball cap turned backwards, was lying on his side, his face reflecting the fluorescent light from the nearby food stall. His eyes were still open, his mouth ajar.
“Biboy! Biboy! I can’t accept this!”
The wailing of Jason’s mother, Juvilla, who was calling her first born by his nickname, pierced the stunned silence of the onlookers.
Celso, the father, looked blankly at Jason’s corpse splayed on the street.
I asked the chief investigator if it was another drug-related death. He hesitated. But a newspaper boy in the area told me Jason was “notorious” for being “in an out of prison”.
In the ongoing war against drugs in the Philippines, the line between drug suspects and other criminals has been blurred.
This Al Jazeera list, updated on December 13, includes one 16 year old and three 17-year-old boys, accused of being gang members in the central island of Leyte, who were killed by unknown gunmen.
Nowhere in the report is it stated that they were linked to drugs.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30, there have been 6,095 people killed in the war on drugs (as of December 14), according to a police report cited by the Manila-based news website Rappler.
That’s an average of 1,015 people killed a month.
Of the total death toll, 2,102 were killed in police operations, while 3,993 were killed by unknown suspects.
Based on the additional data gathered by Al Jazeera from other news sources and through independent reporting, the death toll is at least 6,108.
Among those killed in recent weeks were three brothers, Jay, Jake and Jave Lato, who were shot by unknown gunmen on the island of Cebu on November 10. According to a report, the brothers had previously surrendered to police during an anti-drug operation in their town.
On Monday, Duterte declared that “fewer people are being killed” and “they are almost finished off anyway”.
But, based on our analysis of the official police report, on average, 36 people have been killed every day during the 168 days of Duterte’s presidency. In the first four days of Duterte in office, the average was 11 per day.
The government insisted that those killed by police – more than 2,000 – died during legitimate anti-drug operations. The police also said that they were investigating the other cases by unknown gunmen.
Going through the numbers, I am reminded of a May 2015 story I wrote about Duterte before he even declared his candidacy for president.
Answering a question from a Davao reporter about his presidential run and his human rights record as mayor, he said, “I do not want to commit a crime but if by chance, God will place me there, you all better watch out. That 1,000 will become 100,000. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
It was during that interview when he first said that reports that he had links to death squads were “true”.
On Tuesday, before leaving for a visit to Cambodia and Singapore, Duterte announced the release of $20m to buy medicine for drug dependents undergoing rehabilitation. He was answering critics who said reform and rehabilitation were missing in his anti-drug war policy.
“I hope one billion [pesos or $20m] will go a long way to treat you this Christmas,” he said.
Then, in an attempt at dark humour, Duterte quipped: “Now, if you have really gone crazy and there is no more chance to get fixed, I will just send you a rope. You can just hang yourself”.
But for many of the families of the victims, the killings are no laughing matter. Especially those young and innocent victims such as seven-year-old San Nino Batucan, who was killed by a stray bullet in Cebu on December 3.
Or four-year-old Althea Barbon, of Negros, who died alongside her father during an undercover anti-drug police operation.
Or five-year-old Francis Manosca, who was hit in the forehead after an unknown gunman fired through their wooden shack. His father, Domingo, was the target and he was also killed in the attack last Sunday.
By the morning of December 15, another 13 people were killed, including five village watchmen who reportedly fought with police during an undercover operation, according to the Manila radio station DZMM.
Ten days before Christmas, one of the most important holidays for the 80 million Catholics and millions of other Christians in the Philippines, there is no pause in the killing spree.