Philippines: Inside Duterte’s killer drug war

More than 2,500 people have been killed during President Duterte’s war, but can he win?

Philippines - Please do not use
Rachell Bermoy, partner of slain rickshaw driver Eric Sison, grieves over his remains on the day of his burial [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

Manila, Philippines – Eric Sison was still alive after he fell three storeys from the roof opposite Maria’s* house, snagged his shorts on her neighbours’ awning, and, in his underwear, crawled underneath her bed.

When the police drew back the yellow curtain that partitions her shanty home from Pasay City’s F Munoz street, Maria faced their gun barrels. “I shouted, ‘Have mercy on us, don’t fire, we don’t know who this guy is,'” she told Al Jazeera through an interpreter.

The police told Maria and her family to leave their house. She heard Sison plead for his life. And then she heard the gunshots.

Sison is one of  more than 2,500 people to have been killed between July 1 and September 5 during President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, which has had a death rate of about 38 people per day.

His death is also one of a growing number of killings during police operations in which witness reports contradict police versions of events.

While the police report states that Sison shot at officers and was killed when they returned fire, video recorded on a neighbour’s mobile phone showed him attempting to surrender while still on the roof.

Scene-of-crime officers who visited Maria’s house reported finding two sachets of shabu – the local name for methamphetamine – sachets of marijuana, a glass tube containing marijuana leaves, and the .38 calibre revolver with which Sison allegedly opened fire as police conducted routine “anti-criminality operations”.

READ MORE: The Philippines, where bodies pile up, but no one talks

“The police insist that he has a gun and he uses drugs but my husband is not like that,” Rachelle Bermoy, Sison’s live-in partner, said through an interpreter. “He fell from the roof and his clothes got tangled on something, so he was already half-naked. If he had a gun it would have fallen.The police brought the gun,” she said.

Family and friends of rickshaw driver Eric Sison, who was shot by police, help to carry his coffin [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Family and friends of rickshaw driver Eric Sison, who was shot by police, help to carry his coffin [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

Dead bodies, piling up

In the run-up to the Philippines’ 2016 presidential elections, Rodrigo Duterte promised to suppress crime, drugs and corruption in government within the first three to six months of his tenure, and to fatten the fish in Manila Bay with the bodies of 100,000 criminals.

At a party to celebrate his election victory in Davao City, where he had been mayor for more than 20 years, the president-elect urged armed citizens to kill drug dealers. “Do it yourselves if you have guns, you have my support,” he told them.

After his inaugural speech Duterte again urged citizens to go ahead and kill drug addicts because “getting their parents to do it would be too painful”, and said that he didn’t care about human rights or due process.

“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,” he said in his first state of the nation address.

Duterte’s war against drugs is being waged from the streets to the senate, but its casualties are almost exclusively small timers in shanty streets like F Munoz. Here, the victims die wearing flip-flops and often with a sachet of methamphetamines – shabu – about their person.

Extrajudicial killings are not new to the Philippines: It has been reported that Amnesty International estimates 3,240 were carried out under dictator Ferdinand Marcos before the People Power Revolution of 1986. However, the intensity of the deaths under Duterte – who has called Marcos the “best president” and pressed for his burial in the country’s Heroes’ Cemetery – is unprecedented.

According to a national police report obtained by Al Jazeera, from July 1 to September 5, 2016, some 1,027 suspects were killed during police operations. A further 15,055 suspects were arrested and more than 686,000 “surrendered voluntarily” to police. The death toll constitutes a more than fifteen-fold jump over the 68 police killings recorded between January 1 and June 15, a period of more than five months.

There were at least 1,500 further cases listed as “found dead body under investigation” during the same period, according to PNP records.

Such bodies – which have appeared throughout the slums, above ground at Malabon City Cemetery, and even splayed across EDSA, the congested arterial highway through the city’s heart – are mostly attributed to vigilantes, or to drug syndicate infighting.

Sometimes the heads of those killed are found bound in duct tape; often bodies are strewn with cardboard signs with slogans reading “I’m a drug pusher, don’t be like me”. 

Whether from police operations, the result of syndicates “cleaning house”, or perpetrated by “death squads”, the killings show no sign of abating. “I will retire with the reputation of Idi Amin,” said President Duterte, whose term is scheduled for six years.

Rodrigo Duterte, left, gestures to the crowd during a campaign motorcade near a port area in Manila, Philippines [Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images]
Rodrigo Duterte, left, gestures to the crowd during a campaign motorcade near a port area in Manila, Philippines [Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images]

Fear taking over

At around midnight two Wednesdays ago, residents of Tramo gathered for Sison’s wake. Friends drank beer from plastic cups and played a card game in which the winnings went to the family. Some peered through the Perspex lid of the casket where Sison lay, his wispy moustache showing through the make-up at the corners of his mouth.

Sison’s partner Bermoy kept vigil, watching a white chick on top of the Perspex of the coffin lid hopping among grain flecks. “The chick is a symbol of justice,” she said. “So that the death pecks at the conscience of his killers.”

READ MORE: Philippines – Death toll in Duterte’s war on drugs

The release of video confirming Sison’s surrender prompted the opening of a National Bureau of Investigation file on the three police officers involved and their precinct commander, who have been suspended from active duty.

But justice is not the only concern for Sison’s friends and neighbours. A 20-year-old friend, who asked to be identified as Boy Negro, showed his smart phone to Al Jazeera and scrolled through backlit threats he had received. One read in Filipino: “Bro, just wait, you’ll be next”.

Boy Negro dragged from his cigarette and scanned the street where open-air arcade machines jangled under tarpaulin covers and dogs barked over the glug of the canal. Recently, he said, he had noticed a tall man around their neighbourhood carrying out surveillance.

“We’re not sure whether the threats are from the police or vigilantes but we’re afraid,” he said through an interpreter. “Almost all the neighbourhoods in Pasay have had killings to set an example, but now they’re coming to our area.”

Family and friends of Eric Sison say prayers and pay a last farewell on August 31, in Pasay City [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Family and friends of Eric Sison say prayers and pay a last farewell on August 31, in Pasay City [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

War on a ‘national scale’ 

While fear and muted anger grip neighbourhoods such as Boy Negro’s, elsewhere in the Philippines the war on drugs garners widespread support.

According to a survey conducted by Pulse Asia, 91 percent of Filipinos had a “high degree of trust” in their new leader. In July Jennelyn Olaires – subject of a viral image cradling her slain husband Michael Siaron – told Reuters that he had voted for the president.

Senator Leila de Lima, a former secretary of the Philippine Department of Justice, has been a long-time critic of Duterte’s approach to criminal justice. De Lima, who investigated the then Davao City mayor’s alleged connection with vigilante death squads as chairman of the Commission on Human Rights in 2009, told Al Jazeera: “This was my frustration when I was investigating the Davao Death Squad: the results were welcomed by the public because they think that it’s good for peace and order.

“We now have death squads on a national scale, but I’m not seeing public outrage.” 

Rita*, a woman in her 30s who wanted to remain anonymous, is one of the millions who voted for Duterte. She grew up in Davao City where her father owns a seafood wholesale company. She told Al Jazeera of a childhood experience that typifies some of the fear and insecurity the public felt leading up to Duterte’s election.

When she was playing outside as a child, she remembers, armed men held her at gunpoint while they robbed her parents’ house. Although Rita is disturbed by the current wave of killings and believes police should abide by the rule of law, she credits Duterte with improving Davao’s public services and making the city safer.

Yet, safety is a relative term. In the run-up to the elections, Davao was often cited as one of, or even as the world’s safest city, an achievement credited to Duterte-enforced discipline. The assertion was based on data furnished from an online survey site called Numbeo, which relied on fewer than 500 self-selected observers to rank Davao.

From 2010 to 2015, Davao City, which has a population of about 1.5 million people, had 1,032 killings, more than any other city in the country. Quezon City, a suburb of Manila with a population of 2.7 million, was second, with 961 killings during the same period.

Crimes declined

-Robbery 11,106 to 6,630

-Physical injury incidents 4,168 to 2,847

-Rape 879 to 838

-Property crime 11,106 to 6,630

-Theft 7,168 to 4,230

-Cattle rustling 72 to 47


-Muders rose from 755 to 1271 

-Homicides increased from 197 to 214

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano and others have cited Philippine National Police incidents of falling crime this July – to 50,817 in the first month of Duterte’s presidency from 56,339 in the same period last year – as evidence that the war on drugs is working on a national scale.

Crime did fall, but not across the board. Reported incidents of robbery, rape, assault, theft and other crimes declined significantly.  However, murders rose by 68 percent to 1,271 in July from 755 last year. Homicides – differentiated from murder by the level of intent – also increased to 214 from 197. [See table]

The premise that the Philippines is so lawless that it requires a strongman president to circumvent the rule of law is shaky at best, argue some observers.

Prevalence of crime compared

Country / Crime / Population

Philippines/232,685 assaults/98mn

UK/375,000 assaults/64mn


UK/30,000 rapes/64mn

Sweden/6,294 rapes/9.5mn

In August, journalist Rishi Iyengar published an article showing that the Philippines is not a particularly crime-ridden country per capita, as compared with other countries such as the UK, Belgium, and other countries. [See table]

The prevalence of drugs

Although methamphetamines are a serious problem in the Philippines, which has the highest usage rate in East Asia, there is disagreement on how pervasive drugs actually are.

The most recent official survey, conducted in 2015 by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), found that about 1.8 million Filipinos use illegal drugs.

However, in his state of the nation address, Duterte said that, based on data from the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency, there were “three million drug addicts ” in the country two or three years ago, and possibly 3.7 million now. In an interview last Thursday, Senator Alan Cayetano, a Duterte backer, said: “We have three to seven million Filipinos who are hooked on drugs.”

The phrases “pandemic” and “narco state” have been bandied around, but some statistics actually point to a decline in illegal drug use. Back in 2004, the DDB calculated that there were 6.7 million illegal drug users. This would represent a gross reduction of 4.9 million users, or 73 percent from 2004 to 2015.

“The president, successfully I think, pulled off a kind of wag the dog effect,” Senator Risa Hontiveros, a political opponent of Duterte, told Al Jazeera. “He did a judo move so that suddenly the historically most important issue of poverty was no longer the most important. Suddenly, it was this drugs and crime menace.”

In Congress last month, Duterte announced plans to cut the budgets for key sectors for poverty alleviation such as agriculture, labour and employment.

READ MORE: Philippines – Who is liable for the mounting death toll?

Meanwhile, the budget for Duterte’s own office will increase from 2.9bn Philippine pesos [$618m) to 20.03bn Philippine pesos ($427m), including 7bn Philippine pesos ($150m)  allotted for representation and entertainment expenses. 

Duterte told congress that the military and Philippine National Police would also receive additional funds “to hire more policemen, buy more guns and patrol vehicles and finance other activities for more effective crime suppression”.

The scoreboard

For Derrick Carreon, director of public information at the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the focus on law and order is welcome.

The Philippines’ porous borders, weak rule of law, and the crannies of its archipelago structure make it easy for traffickers and smugglers to exploit, he said. According to Carreon, the Philippines is both a drug-consuming nation and a trans-shipment hub for methamphetamines (shabu), the chemicals for which are mostly imported from China and Taiwan, though Mexican drug cartels and West African syndicates have also been involved in smuggling and distribution operations.

In early July Carreon, who wears a sports shirt and sneakers and looks as if he does press-ups during his lunch break, was part of a team that seized a cache of 180 kilogrammes of shabu with an estimated market value of 900 million Philippine pesos ($19m) in an operation in Cagayan in the country’s north.

On a granite honour wall visible from Carreon’s office window, the names of those killed in the field have been etched in white. Among them are academy classmates Louie Giberson Jr and Pablo Jala.

“This is the scorecard,” Carreon told Al Jazeera, handing over a press release. It shows that from July 1 to July 31, 2016, the PDEA participated in 123 anti-drug operations and confiscated more than 2.5bn Philippine pesos (about $53.7m) worth of illegal drugs, almost as much as the 2.86bn Philippine pesos ($61m) seized in the entire year of 2015. 

Whether the increased seizures stymy the drug trade long-term remains to be seen. According to PDEA statistics, closure of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories often precipitates a rise in smuggling operations and vice-versa.

Dr John Collins, director of London School of Economics International Drug Policy Project, told Al Jazeera: “Targeting the supply side can have short-term effects. However, these are usually limited to creating market chaos rather than reducing the size of the market.”

In Mexico when the government went to war with the cartels it produced a power vacuum and violence spiralled as criminal actors then went to war with each other over control of the trade. Meanwhile, the trade itself continued largely unabated. Collins expects that something similar would happen in the Philippines.

“What you learn is that you’re going to war with a force of economics and the force of economics tends to win out: supply, demand and price tend to find their own way,” he said.

Recently the PDEA has taken some big scalps: four Chinese nationals were arrested when a sea vessel utilised as a shabu factory ran aground on July 11; Meco Tan a ‘big time drug lord’ was killed on July 22, and a former mayor and her Army Major husband were arrested on July 23.

Others, however, have got off more easily. In Leyte, a Mayor, Rolando Espinosa Snr, who was accused of drug dealing and “surrendered” to police, stayed at PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa’s residence at Camp Crame and then returned to work a few weeks later.

‘Rich or poor, my order is to destroy’

When the conversation turned to small-time dealers – who constitute the vast majority of the dead – that sell drugs to escape poverty, Carreon had little tolerance.

“For God’s sake, I would rather starve than deal drugs,” he told Al Jazeera. “Rather than feed my kids from food that was bought from dirty money, I’ll plant kamote [yam] in my back yard.”

The president has taken an even harder line stance on allegations that the war on drugs targets the poor: “Just because you are poor, you are excused from apprehension? Rich or poor, I do not give a s****. My order is to destroy,” Duterte has said.

Sison was killed as he was surrendering, on August 23, in a 'routine anti-criminality patrol' by Pasay Police [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Sison was killed as he was surrendering, on August 23, in a ‘routine anti-criminality patrol’ by Pasay Police [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

At 11pm on a recent Wednesday, press cars skewed across the parking lot of Manila District Police Headquarters. Local reporters tapped pens against dashboards, sipped energy drinks, and scrolled smart phones while they waited for reports of shootings.

The graveyard shift at the District Police Headquarters is a perennial assignment for Manila’s crime hacks but it had been especially full since June 30.

At just before midnight, reports circulated of a shooting during a buy-bust operation in Tondo, one of Manila’s poorest districts.

Hazard lights flashed as the press convoy passed vulcanising shops and swept beneath the concrete Skyway, they lost each other behind jeepneys and met again at traffic lights; they cut between freight trucks clogging the port road into the shanties of Tondo, where electricity cables stretch between windows billowing with tarp.

From the ground floor of a Tondo stairwell, the calves and feet of the victim, Rolando Bangayan y Cruz, stuck out towards a puddled gulley lit by TV crews interviewing police officers. One foot was bare and on the other hung a blue flip-flop. Blood streaked the shingle beside Bangayan’s head, which was shadowed under the stone steps.

The press crowded Police Superintendent Redentor Ulsano, the senior officer on the scene, for quotes. He told Al Jazeera that the buy bust was “consummated” in the alley, where the suspect, “sensing that he looked like a policeman”, drew his weapon. “He was the one who first fired upon my police,” Ulsano confirmed.

The other flip-flop of the dead man floated in an alley puddle from which the Scene Of Crime Officer (SOCO) team retrieved brass shell casings. A .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver rested beneath his curled fingers.

Around 100 residents watched the SOCO team roll Bangayan’s body on to a stretcher, pull up his shirt to examine the bullet holes, and photograph his personal effects: two sachets of shabu, the .38 he allegedly opened fire with, and the 553 Philippine pesos ($11) he had collected for the drug sale.

Gunfights and shootouts

Aie Balagtas See, a crime reporter for the Inquirer, has been tracking stings like this since the war on drugs began.

In early August, See got hold of 27 Manila Police Department (MPD) reports from the previous month: 17 pertained to suspects killed during “buy-bust” operations in Manila’s poorest neighbourhoods. The other 10 concerned routine “anti-criminality operations”, where the suspects ended up dead just the same.

READ MORE:  Rodrigo Duterte – ‘I don’t care about human rights’

The reported sequence of events in the buy-bust cases See examined was startlingly similar, with particular phrases recurring each time: the suspect always “sensed” that they were dealing with undercover cops and thus made that instinctive self-preserving decision to draw their guns.

These tense moments always followed a “consummated” drug transaction and the cops, in turn, always “sensed imminent danger to their lives”.

“This line alone cropped up 20 times in the 27 MPD reports,” See wrote in an August 7 article about the case.

In each case the suspects had drawn on police first but no officers died in the ensuing gunfights – although one had been wounded on the arm and another saved by his bulletproof vest.

Since the war on drugs began, 12 police officers have been killed during operations, according to PNP statistics.

See visited the scene of one of the alleged “shootouts” between police and suspected drug dealer Eric Caliclic. In the shanty where the police report said the gunfight had taken place, the wall behind where Caliclic had been standing was poked with bullet holes. The opposite wall, where the police stood, was unmarked.

Neighbours of Caliclic told her that he had no job and struggled to pay his 800 Philippine pesos rent ($17). “How could he be firing a gun when he didn’t even have a knife? Where would he get the money to buy a gun in the first place? His house didn’t even have power supply,” one said.

Al Jazeera saw more incidents that set the press racing across Manila: in Sampaloc a man shot his cousin in a fight over a girl, and at around 3am six teenagers showed up worried for the whereabouts of their brother, who had been picked up by police four hours before.

The chick for justice with personal belongings of slain rickshaw driver Eric Sison is placed in his coffin before being lowered to the ground, August 31, in Pasay City [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
The chick for justice with personal belongings of slain rickshaw driver Eric Sison is placed in his coffin before being lowered to the ground, August 31, in Pasay City [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

Hearings and testimony

The killing of people such as Sison, Bangayan and Caliclic at the hands of police prompted Senator De Lima to convene a hearing on extrajudicial killings.

On August 22 and 23 witnesses wearing ski masks, hoodies and sunglasses to protect their identities testified to a packed senate on national television.

Harra Kazuo, 26, told the senate that her partner, Jaypee Bertes, and his father, Renato Bertes, were both killed in police custody after officers raided their shanty home on July 7.

Both men used shabu, she admitted, and Jaypee sold it in small amounts – in 2015 local police took a 10,000 Philippine pesos ($214) bribe to turn a blind eye.

Pasay police claimed that the father and son were killed because they tried to grab a cop’s gun, but forensic examinations revealed that both men had been incapacitated by beatings before they were shot: Jaypee had a broken arm.

A second witness, 23-year-old Mary Rose Aquino, told the hearing that police routinely delivered illegal drugs for “repacking” to her father Rodelio Campos at their house in Antipolo.

Campos was a police “asset” until they killed him on June 20, Aquino said. Rosalie Campos, Rodelio’s wife, was found dead the following day.

Fear for personal safety, lack of access to legal counsel, and a dearth of forensic pathologists mean that few such witnesses come forward, according to De Lima, who plans to continue contesting extrajudicial killings.

Such findings are important even at this early stage in the process. “It exposes the reality that in certain localities – and I’ve always believed this – the drug problem would not have proliferated if there was not the protection or involvement of the police,” De Lima said.

The practice of “recycling” whereby corrupt law enforcement officials resell drugs they have confiscated during operations or, as in the case of Rodelio Campos, turn small-time dealers into personal “assets”, has been going on since the 1990s, a source in intelligence told Al Jazeera. He suggested that recycling was widespread and police might kill assets to prevent exposure.

At the Senate hearing, PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa confirmed that in a recent internal cleanout drive, 130 police tested positive for drug use, 20 had been arrested, six administratively charged, and seven faced criminal charges. Dela Rosa said that a total of 284 PNP personnel believed to be involved in illegal drugs had been transferred to new assignments.

In the aftermath of De Lima’s hearing on extrajudicial killings, Duterte released a “drug matrix” which described her as connected to drug lords through a driver she had allegedly had “sex escapades” with and who allegedly collected bribes on her behalf.

The “drug matrix” is the latest in a series of bizarre personal attacks by Duterte on De Lima; he has previously demanded she “eat” a CD recording of her linking him to the Davao Death Squad, told press she was “finished”, and advised her to resign and hang herself.

Other politicians have used the focus on law and order to advance hard-line policy proposals. Bills currently under consideration in congress include one to bring back the death penalty, and another to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine.

Neighbours recall moments leading to the death of rickshaw driver Eric Sison [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Neighbours recall moments leading to the death of rickshaw driver Eric Sison [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

Surrenders and treatments

Targets for police operations are often selected from locally compiled drugs watch lists, which are in turn derived from information provided by local government officials or submitted by community members using confidential forms.

Those on a drugs watch list that want to avoid being targeted by police – or by vigilantes – can “voluntarily surrender” themselves to local authorities through a programme called Tokhang. So far the PNP has registered almost 700,000 such “surrenderers”.

Treatment for drug users who register under the Tokhang programme can include activities such as zumba classes, soap-making classes, and “value formation” sessions. But according to Benjamin Reyes, Chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, implementation of such programmes can vary between regions.

The DDB is hoping to promulgate new regulations so that all local governments will use the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) manual on community based treatments as their guideline, but Reyes said that this was unlikely to happen before the end of the year.

“The confusion right now is because there’s a gap, there is no guidelines on what to do, where to go, who will handle whom,” he said.

Some of those who surrender through the Tokhang programme are referred to inpatient facilities such as The Department of Health Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre Bicutan, the country’s largest public drug treatment centre. The Philippines’ total combined public and private capacity for in-patient drug treatment is about 10,000 and such facilities are seriously stretched.

On a rainy Friday morning Dr Bien Leabres toured Al Jazeera around Bicutan Rehabilitation Centre, located on the police Camp Bagong Diwa. On the top floor of one of the centre’s dormitories, posters reading “acceptance”, “no free lunch”, and “hang tough”, had been tacked to the walls, and an activity called pull-ups was underway.

A patient whose seniority status was denoted by his white shorts asked the group: “Who among my family is not doing his job properly in the maintenance unit?” Six men wearing red shorts stood to receive instructions on how better to perform maintenance tasks.

WATCH: Can Duterte win the war on illegal drugs?

Bicutan Rehabilitation Centre, which uses a range of therapeutic methodologies in line with UNODC guidelines, has an approved capacity of 550 patients but currently accommodates around 1500. Although the facility was overcrowded before Duterte took office, daily admissions have gone up from about seven to eight per day to 15-30 per day, according to Leabres.

“If this keeps on going, we might have to take out all the beds so that everyone sleeps on the floor,” he said.

But Leabres’ most pressing concern was finding qualified staff to deal with the influx. “It’s overburdening the staff. We’re prone to burnout,” he said. Currently, Bicutan has only 12 doctors, of which four are addiction medicine specialists.

The Duterte administration plans to build an additional five public rehabilitation facilities for addicts. In July, he announced that the Armed Forces of the Philippines had made its bases available to house them.

Leabres confirmed that a PNP colonel had come to Bicutan Rehabilitation Centre to observe the treatment practices there. The new facilities, he said, would be staffed by medical personnel from the PNP, with department of health oversight.

But some in the NGO sector and the few politicians who advocate a harm reduction approach to drug treatment have questioned whether the proposed rehabilitation facilities would actually respond to drug users’ needs.

“We have to hear the voices of the drug dependents themselves. We have to talk with them. Let them be part of telling us what the problem is and how we address it,” Senator Risa Hontiveros told Al Jazeera. “That is so totally not in our mind as a public right now.”

The words of the president provide no indication that such needs will be considered. “Give a little space, in the mountain, not here [in the city]. You cannot rehabilitate these guys there if they remain [here]. You have to isolate them,” Duterte said.

When questioned on breaches of human rights, he told reporters: “I’d like to be frank with you, are they [drug users] humans? What is your definition of a human being?”

Before leaving Bicutan Rehabilitation Centre, Al Jazeera spoke with MJ*, 36, nearing the end of his six-month treatment programme there.

MJ had dabbled with shabu as a university student but managed to kick it after he graduated. He worked for HSBC for five years and then launched his own business. After MJ’s company tanked, and a period of depression and unemployment, he took a night-shift job at a call centre to support his wife and children.

Many of MJ’s colleagues at the call centre used shabu, “probably for the same reasons: being able to endure the time”, he said. But his use became more and more frequent: MJ’s weight dropped from 210 pounds to 155 pounds in a year, and around 70 percent of his salary was going to support his drug habit.

DDB figures indicate that shabu users are overwhelmingly male, and three in four of them earn less than 11,000 Philippine pesos ($235) per month.

A supportive family and sound treatment programme has helped MJ to overcome his addiction.

While he said he was confident of staying drug-free, he conceded that he was not in the clear. “There’s a small amount of fear that some of my using friends would pinpoint me or make some stories that I’m one of the pushers or suppliers of drugs, because they say that I look like a Chinese,” he told Al Jazeera. “I would be worried but I have to let go of it. My main priority is to get back [out there] and move forward.”

Family and friends of slain rickshaw driver Eric Sison give their last prayers and farewell [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Family and friends of slain rickshaw driver Eric Sison give their last prayers and farewell [ Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

War of attrition, lessons from Thailand

In 2003 Thailand found itself in the grips of a pill that mixed methamphetamine and caffeine. Yaba, which translates as “crazy drug”, was said to be eating the country from the inside out.

Thailand’s then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drugs, purportedly aimed at the suppression of drug trafficking and the prevention of drug use. Some 2,800 people were killed during the first three months of Thaksin’s campaign – it would later be revealed that less than half were actually involved in drugs – and thousands more were forced into coercive treatment programmes that exacerbating existing public health issues.

Initially the gains made in Thailand appeared impressive: by the end of 2003, 73,231 people had been arrested, more than 23 million drug pills had been seized, and 320,000 drug users surrendered to undergo treatment. With the price of yaba doubling, availability and consumption declined.

But the victories were to prove hollow.

“The world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand,” the country’s Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya said in an interview last month. “We have clear numbers that drug use has increased over the past three years. Another indicator is there are more prisoners.”

As of June, the Thai government was considering decriminalising methamphetamine.

Kasia Malinowska, Director of Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy programme, told Al Jazeera: “We know how futile and destructive these strategies can be, yet only 13 years later another Asian country – the Philippines – is deploying this horrific approach with a similar justification.”

The war on drugs has failed in Thailand, in Colombia, in Mexico, and in the US; it has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of incarcerations, and trillions of dollars of wasted expenditure.

Senator Cayetano and others in the Philippines cite Singapore as an example of a country in which strict repression has beat the drug trade, but London School of Economics’ Drug Policy Programme Director John Collins argues that a city state where drug markets never became established is an inappropriate example for the Philippines.

Sison is one of more than 2,500 people killed between July 1 and September 5 during President Duterte's bloody war [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]
Sison is one of more than 2,500 people killed between July 1 and September 5 during President Duterte’s bloody war [Martin San Diego/Al Jazeera]

“The frontier of expertise on this is that if you have existing drug markets, the best way to deal with them is a harm reduction approach,” Collins said. “You minimise the interaction with society, you strengthen rule of law, community relations, and everything that makes it easier for the community to stand up to and be less impacted by the trade.

“History and economics from around the globe highlight a policy certainty: the Philippines’ new ‘war’ will fail and society will emerge worse off from it.” 

At Pasay Municipal Cemetery, pall bearers wearing T-shirts that said “Overkill” and “Kill drugs, not people” hefted Eric Sison’s coffin over a concrete wall to a spot hemmed by other graves beneath a palm tree.

Twenty-five-year-old Joker stood among the gathered mourners. He had been friends with Sison for five years. “I only have one daughter, no boys. That’s why I want to adopt Eric’s son. Everyone here wants to guide his son because he was really a kind person,” he told Al Jazeera. “Eric earned 200 pesos ($4.3) a day as a pedicab driver. Imagine, they say he fought back with a .38 Gloc.”

That morning, Joker had received news that another friend, Lloyd Rodrigo, had been killed. Rodrigo had been at Sison’s wake and left at around 4:30am – nobody had seen him since. There had been rumours of another killing and eventually news came that the victim was Rodrigo.

“Our neighbourhood is kind of hot now – it’s a hot spot,” he said. “We’re not really afraid of the police. If they do their job well then its OK with us, but if they do something wrong, that’s when it gets scary.”

As Joker spoke, friends and relatives placed Sison’s favourite possessions inside his coffin: a music player with headphones and a pair of Nike flip-flops, along with the live chick for justice.

Family and friends passed Sison’s one-year-old son back and forth over the ground where his father lay. A corrugated-iron roof section was set over Sison’s coffin and then dark grey cement was poured on top.

*Names changed to protect identity

Source: Al Jazeera