Manila, Philippines – Jose flipped three coins into the air when two gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire.
They shot the 15-year-old suspected drug user seven times. The boy hit the ground, along with the coins that he had tossed as part of a traditional Filipino game called hantak. He had been playing with his friends while selling cigarettes on a rundown street in Caloocan City.
Jose, whose name has been changed for this story to ensure his safety, was taken to hospital. He survived, but is fearful of being targeted again. His attackers were never arrested.
Now three months later – with vigilantes still on the prowl – he seldom goes out at night. Though his future remains uncertain, Jose acknowledges his fate could have been much worse. His story, however, reveals the dark reality that the Philippines’ “war on drugs” spares no one, even the most vulnerable people of society – children.
A total of 31 minors under the age of 18 have been killed by police and vigilantes since President Rodrigo Duterte launched his campaign against illegal drugs in June, according to Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Centre, a non-government group that has documented the killings. Legaspi said the number “could be higher if other cases were documented”.
Most victims were direct targets. Some were innocent. In an interview with Al Jazeera in October, Duterte referred to the death of innocent children as “collateral damage”.
Many children have been orphaned or left behind without a breadwinner. Others, especially in urban poor communities, remain traumatised after witnessing at firsthand the killings of loved ones in their homes.
“For Duterte, no matter your age as long as you’re doing drugs, you are a salot – it’s like you’re a weed,” said Pilgrim Bliss Gayo, an activist with the Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE), a human rights group based in the southern Philippine city of Davao. “Your age does not exclude you.”
A total of 26,415 children allegedly involved in using, selling, or transporting drugs surrendered to police between July 2016 and January, according to statistics provided by the Women and Children Protection Centre of the Philippine National Police.
Maria Lucero, a legal researcher at the centre, told Al Jazeera in an email “the admission of involvement in illegal drugs came from the surrenderers themselves”. Whether the authorities were able to verify those admissions and ascertain the children’s motivations for surrendering remain unclear.
Lucero acknowledged that the national police had “issued memorandums” to investigate the deaths of minors, and the centre has “treated child drug users as victims and has encouraged rehabilitation”.
Human rights groups, however, have questioned whether the Duterte administration accepts child drug users as victims. In June, the president’s allies in Congress filed a bill that would lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine, arguing that this would deter adults from using children for criminal activity. Amnesty International and the UN children’s fund UNICEF condemned the measure.
Davao’s death squads
The campaign against illegal drugs began nearly eight months ago, but its roots can be traced back to when Duterte was mayor of Davao, where he waged a similarly popular yet brutal “war against crime”. Death squads allegedly connected to Duterte were responsible for roughly 1,400 extrajudicial killings, including 132 children, according to data compiled by CASE from 1998-2015. Duterte was mayor for 12 of those years.
“Davao was a laboratory,” said Amado Picardal, a Catholic priest and human rights activist formerly based in the southern city. “What he did in Davao, he is doing now in the entire Philippines, just on a bigger scale.”
In total, the war on drugs has left more than 7,000 people dead. Most of the victims were suspected drug users and pushers shot dead by what critics describe as death squads involving masked vigilantes emboldened by Duterte’s tough-on-drugs rhetoric. They are accused of working in tandem with local officials as the president turns a blind eye.
Duterte faced similar accusations in Davao, where he presided over death squads that were responsible for hundreds of targeted killings, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report.
Although Duterte denied the accusations, his comments at the time suggested that he not only condoned extrajudicial killings of criminals but encouraged them – even against children.
“If they offer resistance, I will not hesitate to kill them. I don’t care about minors,” he told reporters in Davao in 2002, referring to teenagers involved in criminal gangs.
Carlos Conde, a former journalist based in Davao and currently a researcher for Human Rights Watch, covered the city’s death squads from 1996-2007 during Duterte’s war against crime. He also documented the abuse of children living on the streets, as well as summary executions of juvenile offenders, “many of whom [were] petty thieves”, he wrote at the time.
Duterte’s crime-fighting approach included a strict curfew for minors. In Davao, police often used the curfew to discriminate against impoverished street children already suffering from abuse and neglect. After Duterte vowed last May to impose a nationwide curfew similar to the one in Davao, some children’s rights defenders worried it would have the same effect.
“Children on the streets is a social problem, not a police problem. But Duterte’s response is always the police,” said Gayo at CASE.
In the capital Manila, where the curfew law is already in effect, children who primarily live and work on the street are often exploited, according to Catherine Scerri, deputy director for Bahay Tuluyan, an advocacy group for street children.
Scerri said that for years the government has had “an approach of just going to the streets with vans, picking kids up [past curfew], packing them in the back and taking them to shelters”. She is concerned that the drug war has “exacerbated” this practice.
Since the start of the anti-drug campaign, Scerri has noticed fewer children on the streets, and those who remain have been more transient because she said “they’re feeling hunted”.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the agency responsible for the protection of street children, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Last November, however, the department’s assistant-secretary Jose Antonio Hernandez justified Duterte’s unflinching approach to eradicating drugs by invoking the youth.
“The war on drugs, it’s really for the children,” Hernandez said.
Duterte has repeated similar claims, assuring critics he is simply “trying to preserve the interests of the next generation”.
But Duterte’s vision appears to exclude the interests of children such as Jose. Out of school, out of work, and in constant fear that men on a motorcycle will come looking for him again, Jose stays close to home at the request of his mother. Sometimes, he ventures out to earn some cash by recruiting neighbours to bet on the final scores of basketball games on television. He keeps track of the wagers, collecting tips along the way.
As he drags his finger along a makeshift scorecard, scanning the names of bettors, he forgets just for a moment about the shooting and that he was not supposed to have a second chance at life. Then, he’s reminded when asked what he has learned from his experience.
“Now, I’m afraid,” he said. “I don’t want to go outside.”