Twenty-three thousand dead. That’s the latest estimate—and maybe a low one—of people killed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines drug war. Duterte won the May 2016 presidential election on a brutal tough-on-crime ticket, playing on an impression in many Filipinos’ minds that the country was on the verge of lawlessness.
He pulled it off thanks to a 2014 scandal at the New Bilibid prison in Muntinlupa, just outside Manila, where drug lords were revealed to be living in luxury. As well as murdering thousands of his own people, the scandal helped Duterte to crack down on political opponents like Senator Leila de Lima, who was accused of ties to the New Bilibid gangs.
Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Amid a national prison population counted at 188,000 in 2018 (a rate still vastly lower than the United States), New Bilibid is the biggest correctional facility in the world, housing over 26,000 people.
I got access through my fixer, Sherbien “Bien” Dacalanio. I found a fixer to be essential when you’re reporting on the Philippines drug war; finding sources can be tricky when anyone who tells the truth instantly becomes a magnet for cops, insurgents, drug dealers and vigilantes.
But even with Bien, getting inside was a pain in the butt (talking to hitmen in Manila slums, on the other hand, was no problem). After weeks of negotiations, we were finally allowed onto the minimum-security part of the compound, where they keep prisoners deemed too old to escape, their hellraising days long behind them.
After walking through the castle-like main reception, past a guard wearing the tightest shirt I’ve ever seen, and undergoing all the usual checks for phones or escape tools, we crossed a parking lot, passing a group of prisoners on work leave, and entered the low-sec, which felt like a retirement home with barbed wire.
We were met by JP, a man in his 50s who’s doing time for a fatal frat house fight in the ‘90s. He’s now a maths teacher and a head of the Lamb of God Foundation, which helps look after other prisoners.
“It used to be different a long time ago, we used to have privileges,” he recalled. “Before, visitors could enter cells and dormitories, even children.”
I was bracing myself for something like Escape from New York, but New Bilibid felt like pretty much any other prison I’d been to. Videos and documentaries from a couple years back, however, show a totally different place. New Bilibid looked more like a small, walled-in town, with little shops, kiosks, taxis, tennis courts and even its own TV channel, BTV3. The one- or two-story barracks where prisoners live, sprawled out across the massive perimeter, were divided into little “neighborhoods” ruled by gang bosses who slept in palaces. And it was here that the Filipino drug war began.
There were 12 of these prison gangs, the leaders of which held weekly meetings to keep the peace.
“Prison gangs are widespread throughout the country, and officially the policy is to eliminate them,” Inspector Eusebio Del Rosario Jr, the prison’s chief public information officer, told me in his office. “Before, we didn’t really have a budget so we let the inmates police themselves for the betterment of the facility. Each gang has their own inmate code which allows them to discipline their own. But now, we don’t let that happen.”
There were 12 of these gangs, the leaders of which held weekly meetings to keep the peace. In 2014, a well-publicized raid on the prison uncovered the lavish lifestyles the drug lords were living behind bars—enjoying jacuzzis, bars, strippers, sex dolls and widescreen TVs—while keeping their operations running on the outside. The leader of the Commandos gang, Jaybee Sebastian, even kept a framed picture of him and then-Justice Secretary Leila de Lima hung on his wall.
It’s no secret that in the Philippines drugs and corruption were rife. My fixer, Bien, once wound up in another jail after an exposé went wrong. The case has now been dismissed, but he spent two weeks locked up on drug charges and another four years on probation, getting to know Manila’s less law-abiding residents, as well as getting a taste of the privileges available to more moneyed prisoners.
“I called my best friend: ‘Alma, can you please hurry up and bring some pizza for lunch!’” he laughed of his brief spell of incarceration. “Every day I was like, ‘can you bring me pasta, can you bring me pizza’, so I bribed all the killers and pushers and lived like a king. I had my own nice space to sleep while everyone else was crammed 30 to a cell.”
“One prisoner tried to escape, and when the guards found out they got everyone in a line and beat them.”
While in jail, Bien witnessed drugs being smuggled in—and police brutality.
“They were all packed around smoking shabu [meth] and marijuana, and it was right next to the police station! It’s crazy!” he told me. “One prisoner tried to escape while he was high by punching a hole through the ceiling, and when the guards found out they got everyone in a line and beat them.”
“Another time they arrested a Muslim and they were beating him inside the office, and everyone was just so high listening to all those screams and flying chairs.”
There was a sense that anything went behind bars. There was even a rumor there was a meth lab on the grounds of the New Bilibid jail (it’s not inconceivable; San Pedro prison in Bolivia had an onsite cocaine factory). But was the Philippines really on the verge of turning into a narco-state, one of those corrupt countries where the president is basically a drug baron?
“I’ve been here for 19 years, and they say there’s a drug lab here but it’s impossible!” declared Inspector Rosario. “No-one will take that risk. Not even before 2016.”
It’s no surprise that just like Americans, Filipinos think of their country in before and after terms following a 2016 presidential election.
It began locally. Since the 1990s, hundreds of bodies had been piling up in the city of Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao, as a vigilante group known as the Davao Death Squad carried out its mission to exterminate social outcasts: street kids, drug dealers, petty criminals—or those merely accused of such things. At the time the city’s mayor was one Rodrigo Duterte, also known as “The Punisher.”
Duterte latched onto the New Bilibid scandal, proclaiming it a sign the Philippines was turning into a drug-infested warren of despair.
“Come to Davao City, Philippines, and do drugs in my city,” he once said. “I will execute you in public.”
By 2012 an investigation by the country’s Commission on Human Rights, which included Senator Leila de Lima, found that Duterte, at the very least, turned a blind eye to the killings. Later, a hitman revealed he might have taken a more active role (that is, if you count emptying two Uzi clips into someone as “active”). Not that it seemed to bother voters: In 2016, Duterte was elected president of a country of 100 million people.
In his campaign, Duterte latched onto the New Bilibid scandal, proclaiming it a sign the Philippines was turning into a drug-infested warren of despair.
Statistically, crime in the Philippines was going down. But public perception—as with the supposed meth factory behind New Bilibid’s walls—was at odds with reality. Of course, problems with drugs and crime did exist, but whether they posed an existential threat is a very different question.
A plain-clothes narcotics officer in a Manila slum
“The drug problem is a grave, severe problem and I believe every country needs to address it, but I believe Duterte created his own demand for his brand of politics,” said Senator Antonio “Sunny” Trillanes, the loudest voice in the Philippines’ opposition, when we met at his Senate office. “He’s tried to magnify this as the biggest, in fact the only, problem in this country, and to his credit, it’s been very, very effective.”
Shortly after Duterte’s victory, a battalion of the Special Action Force, the paramilitary corps of the Philippine National Police, swept into New Bilibid and took up residency. Uncompromising and supposedly incorruptible, they meant to publicly show that the drug lords’ cushy life was over.
“We interact with the normal guards every day. They have their rules and we have ours. But they don’t hurt us like the Special Action Force,” JP complained. “They go in, cover their faces and ransack our rooms.”
It didn’t end there. Invoking Hitler is normally considered a faux pas for politicians, but someone didn’t get the memo.
“Hitler massacred 3 million [sic] Jews,” Duterte said at a September 2016 press conference. “There are 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
“They took my husband and told me not to follow, and that’s when I heard gunshots.”
It wasn’t just talk. On the night of August 14, 2017, masked gunmen dressed in black entered a ramshackle building in the slum of Old Balara in Quezon City, east of Manila. Their original target, an alleged drug dealer who lived on the second floor, fled over the rooftops, so they went downstairs and found Ignacio Yutero with three friends.
“They took my husband and told me not to follow, and that’s when I heard gunshots,” his widow, Jenny Yutero, told me.
They executed Ignacio, two other men and one woman.
Jenny broke down. “I didn’t want to leave my room, I was so scared what might happen,” she said of the aftermath. “I don’t know why he was killed. He was using, not selling. Later, when the police talked to me, they said, ‘You know he used drugs, why didn’t you stop him?’ And I just stared at them, I didn’t know what to say. The people here are scared, they won’t come out at night. In this area 15 people were killed, and some outsiders were brought to be killed as well.”
Jenny Yutero’s neighborhood of Old Balara
Most of the victims in the Filipino drug war have been, like Ignacio Yutero, poor and living on the margins of society. People who aren’t visible to, or missed by, the 66 percent of Filipinos who still support the president. But drug users, dealers, kingpins, street kids—Duterte said he wanted to make “fish food” out of them all.
Of course, the police deny the systematic extermination of the poor.
“Who uses shabu? It’s the poor man’s cocaine,” police spokesman Dionardo Carlos told me. “But if you look at the drug syndicates and their clients, how can they say it’s a war against the poor when it’s at all levels? They’re all breaking the law. If you’re using shabu, we don’t distinguish between rich and poor; we will come to your house.”
But it isn’t just the police and their proxy vigilantes who do the killing. Gangland assassins, too, have joined the fray. When you consider how drug dealing is overseen by powerful figures, for whom outlaw cops sometimes carry out hits, this makes sense. It recalls how crackdowns in Mexico would leave certain cartels curiously untouched—and illustrates how Duterte’s drug war could just be an excuse to crush private competition, as Senator Antonio Trillanes told me.
“You can look at it as a war of competition to monopolize the drug business.”
“I believe his war on drugs is a sham,” Trillanes explained. “His son was involved in importing 6.4 billion pesos’ worth of shabu, but when Duterte’s confronted with this he doesn’t lift a finger. So you can look at it as a war of competition where [the Duterte clan] are trying to monopolize the drug business.”
While it’s hard to prove the president’s son is a drug lord, police corruption and extrajudicial killings, especially at the lower levels, are not in doubt. Some may claim that Duterte is not personally responsible if an officer breaks the law, but his presidency has normalized cold-blooded murder. A month after his election victory, Duterte told would-be vigilantes, “Feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun—you have my support.”
A vigilante in Manila
“Duterte’s not as fucking crazy as he seems,” Bien explained. “Remember he’s a prosecutor, and sometimes when you’re a prosecutor you have to make a scene to get a reaction, and he’s good at that. So now every single word that he says, it’s taken literally in the media, but he just stirs the water. All the drug dealers and some police, they’re the ones killing each other. And he knows in the end all those killings will be pointed to him because he’s the one stirring the water.”
In another sign that Duterte’s actions are more calculated than they seem, he has used the drug war to remove political opposition. In 2017, former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was arrested for allegedly taking bribes from the New Bilibid gangs. Inside the Gangster’s Code, a 2013 documentary in which Commandos boss Jaybee Sebastian showed off his snaps with Leila de Lima (and his music—as well as a crime lord, Jaybee is a Lord of the Sax), was a big hit at the Filipino Congress.
The whole affair around de Lima is murky—her arrest was condemned by organizations from the European Union to Amnesty International—but what’s certain is that Duterte’s had a beef with her ever since her probe of the Davao Death Squad, and now he’s taken his chance.
Leila de Lima
“She’s doing well,” Trillanes told me. “I visit her in detention every now and then. So far she seems to be in high spirits, but to be blunt, as long as Duterte is president I don’t see her getting out of there anytime soon.”
Senator Trillanes is a former naval officer who’s served some time himself, having led a mutiny in 2003 over corruption in the presidency, and was re-arrested by Duterte’s government in September 2018 over the same affair. But he didn’t stand to retain his seat in this year’s midterm elections, which cemented Duterte’s grip on power. With de Lima conveniently locked away, the Philippines lurches closer to being a one-party state.
“If you’re against me, I’ll do everything in my power to silence you; that’s the message he’s trying to send.”
“Then after the war on drugs, comes the war on media,” said Bien.
Duterte has a particular vendetta against the online outlet Rappler, a site headquartered in greater Manila and known for its scathing critiques of the drug war. In 2018 the government revoked Rappler’s licence and arrested its chief editor, Maria Ressa, on libel charges.
That move sums up another “bad side” of Duterte, according to Bien. “If you’re against me, I’ll do everything in my power to silence you; that’s the message he’s trying to send.”
Meanwhile, there is no sign of an end to the killings. Since Duterte came to power, officially at least 6,600 people have died in anti-drug operations, but 23,000 deaths are classified by police as “homicides under investigation,” including thousands of killings by unidentified gunmen—and even this higher figure relies on police figures for recorded deaths. Nor should we forget the indirect casualties—the 68,000 Filipinos living with HIV, whose numbers have been rapidly swelled by current policies, and the thousands of bereaved families. The genocide is now being investigated by the UN.
Suspects being led into a Manila police station
Bien was in Manila during the early days of the drug war, when more bodies were appearing every night. I asked him how it felt, to hear about or see somebody get killed almost every day.
“During the first week of extrajudicial killings, I met a woman whose husband got killed, and she told us how she saw a masked man standing in front of her, and he shot her husband straight in the head,” he related. “After the interview I fell asleep, and I just woke up shouting when I saw the man pointing the gun at me [in my dream].”
“After that it was calmer, but it still never sat right with me. Maybe they take drugs for work, or they have family problems, but everyone has the right to live. You cannot kill the problem. It’s crazy.”
A murder scene in Manila
Sherbien Dacalanio contributed to the reporting of this article.
The top photograph shows the entrance to New Bilibid prison. All photographs, except where stated, by Niko Vorobyov.