President Duterte’s List
He has the names of more than a million supposed drug
dealers and corrupt officials in the Philippines. In this
violent new drug war, who is determining who dies?
New York Times Magazine
By PATRICK SYMMESJAN
January 10, 2017
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines waved a thick sheaf of papers on live television, fanning the pages for the public and the national press corps to see. “This list of names, this is it,” he said in the Oct. 27 appearance. “This is the drug industry in the Philippines.”
Filipinos had been hearing for months about what is commonly called the “watch list” for drug suspects. After he entered office on June 30, Duterte began gathering names of suspects from local police officers and elected officials for a new national war on drugs.
The list took many shapes in Duterte’s various tellings, containing anywhere from 600,000 to more than a million suspects. He also once claimed that some three million Filipinos — 3 percent of the population — were drug addicts, and that he would be happy to kill them. “The human rights people will commit suicide,” he said in October, “if I finish these all.”
Duterte made a point of naming names across a broad swath of Philippine society, including 6,000 police officers and 5,000 local village leaders he called corrupt. How they ended up on the list, or even who exactly was on it, was a mystery that fascinated Filipinos. How you got off the list was even more mysterious.
Alvin Mañalac discovered that when, in mid-October, a local police officer warned him that he was on the list. Mañalac was surprised — he had been an enthusiastic foot soldier in Duterte’s drug war. He is the barangay kapitan — a local elected official — in his part of Malabon City, a gritty district in north Manila, and had been assisting the police as they investigated drug suspects in his jurisdiction. Now, somehow, he himself was on what has become, for thousands of people, a death list.
He supported the government, but “I’m worried,” he said.
Mañalac looks much younger than his 40 years, a sharp dresser with one full-sleeve tattoo and an email handle that translates as “da pretty boy.” But he is a diligent and effective local politician and a ubiquitous presence in Malabon City. His face beams from campaign posters along the streets and from a painting on the door of a gleaming blue fire engine that services the community — even if one constituent teased him that the engine appeared at more parades than actual fires.
When I went to see Mañalac one morning in November, I found him sitting in his second-floor office with a handbag on the desk in front of him. It contained a Glock 17 pistol with an oversize clip.
“This is what is keeping me safe,” he told me, drawing the gun into his lap and stroking it as if it were a cat. “This and a rosary.” The special clip held enough ammo to hold out here, defending the stairway against any attackers that came for him in the office. Maybe enough bullets to buy time, to let the local police respond. Two policemen had been assigned to look after him as bodyguards.
The killings began to increase after Duterte was elected president. As a long-serving mayor in the southern city of Davao, Duterte rose to national prominence by declaring war on a drug that has crippled the Philippines, the cheap variant of crystal meth that Filipinos call shabu.
The drug offered the country’s teeming poor an instant tonic against hunger, an illusion of strength during hard labor and a mental escape from hopeless slums. There are more than a million users in the Philippines, according to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Board.
Duterte entered the presidential race at the last minute, vowing to go national with the no-holds-barred campaign he waged in Davao. He promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office. In May, he won the election with 6.6 million more votes than his nearest opponent.
Once in office, Duterte immediately ordered thousands of police raids across the archipelago. To date, these operations have killed more than 2,000 suspects, according to the Philippine National Police, in what have usually been reported as “shootouts” or attempts to take a police officer’s gun. The fights seem to have been suspiciously lopsided — nationwide, in six months, 21 officers have died, and three soldiers. But another 4,000 people — many of them from Duterte’s watch list — have died under even murkier circumstances.
Late last year I visited 10 crime scenes where 18 individual homicides took place, and most of them appeared to have been the work of teams of efficient killers, encouraged by the president’s inflammatory language.
The list was the distilled essence of Duterte’s appeal, a raw and brutal effort at law and order, whatever the cost. As of October, the president enjoyed an 86 percent approval rating nationwide; his popularity was greatest among the poorest Filipinos surveyed. Family members of the drug war’s casualties on several occasions told me they supported Duterte’s violence, even as they insisted their sons and daughters were targeted inaccurately. The list was a promise to cleanse society, and surrendering to the police, or even being innocent, was no defense — not even for politicians who worked to support Duterte’s drug war, as Mañalac had.
In the two weeks since Mañalac found out he was on the list, he had felt his life to be in doubt.
Duterte had singled out barangay kapitans and small-town mayors in his public statements.
Before dawn on Oct. 28, a southern mayor named Samsudin Dimaukom was stopped at a checkpoint by a unit of the National Police looking for a major drug shipment. They claimed Dimaukom opened fire first; the mayor and all nine of his aides and security guards were killed, while no police officers were injured. Days later, a team of elite officers from the criminal-investigation division entered the jail cell of another prominent mayor accused of drug offenses. They were supposedly there to deliver a warrant, but after a reported scuffle the mayor and his cellmate were shot dead, in what Senator Panfilo Lacson called “a clear case of extrajudicial killing.”
At his desk, Mañalac held up his phone to show me a text message, one of dozens of death threats he had received. “You are a protector” of drug dealers, it said. Another message called him “a cuddler” of addicts. One threatening letter had been written carefully, then scanned and forwarded to him.
At 11 p.m. in Pasay City, a busy commercial district in greater Manila, a couple of bodies lay on the asphalt at the intersection of F. B. Harrison and A. Arnaiz. A pair of traffic policemen in high boots had unfurled yellow crime-scene tape, and a crowd of passers-by was squeezing in close. Shoeless children climbed on top of taxis for a better view. The right-turn signal on the scooter the men had been riding was still blinking, as the vehicle lay tilted over on the asphalt.
One body was lying on its back in a black T-shirt and cargo shorts. The man’s eyes stared at the sky; his arms, stiff and opened wide, seemed to be offering a hug. He had been hit in the shoulder and head. Crumpled against the curb was another body in denim shorts, a T-shirt reading CALIFORNIA and a black helmet.
The Scene of the Crime Operatives, or SOCO, arrived, navy-clad technicians who secured evidence. SOCO is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of killings — sometimes more than a dozen a night in Manila alone — but it was still early in the evening, and the technicians, wearing gloves, worked patiently to mark, inventory and photograph the evidence.
Pasay City is a center of the violence, enough so that Philippine reporters have taken to calling it Patay — “Dead” — City. This particular case was notable only because the dead men had been released from police custody shortly before their killing. They were picked up earlier in the day and questioned about internet gambling, according to police officers at the scene, but the official police report from that night listed one of the men as a “suspected drug personality.” They had been released from custody and headed up F.B. Harrison on a red Honda Wave scooter. They were cut off around 10 p.m. by two motorcycles, each with a driver and a shooter.
￼In Duterte’s drug war, death often arrives this way, in the form of two men riding in tandem on a motorbike. Over one night in October, The Philippine Star reported nine vigilante-style killings in greater Manila. Witnesses in five cases described “motorcycle-riding assailants,” “two motorcycle-riding men” or someone “shot dead by motorcycle-riding” killers.
Surveillance-video tapes from different nights show teams of men carrying out coordinated killings; in some cases the victims are seen being taken away alive, their bodies turning up only later. In one case, police officers on Mindoro island happened to spot and pursue four killers on two motorbikes. Two escaped, but two others were wounded in a shootout and surrendered while yelling out “tropa, tropa,” or troops. They turned out to be local police officers.
Duterte has denied both the presence of death squads in the country and the involvement of the police in the killings, but he has also exhorted them openly, vowing to kill so many drug dealers that “the fish will grow fat” in Manila Bay from eating their bodies. “If they pull out a gun, kill them,” he told army troops, who assist in police operations, in a speech in September. “If they don’t, kill them, son of a whore, so it’s over, lest you lose the gun. I’ll take care of you.” One officer of the National Police bragged anonymously to The Guardian that following Duterte’s election, he had joined a clandestine kill team: Volunteer officers in plain clothes were issued a list of targets. A woman in one Manila slum told the BBC she was hired by a local police officer to kill five people on his list.
Duterte has called the existence of death squads “a myth,” and the very few critics who challenge him are overwhelmed by his popular support. This has led to a wave of killings that are meticulously documented (by SOCO, surveillance cameras and the press) but fundamentally unsolvable.
Around the bodies in Pasay City, the SOCO team had dutifully drawn eight small circles on the pavement marking where the cartridges fell. Children worked the crowd, asking for money and picking up candy wrappers. Weeping relatives arrived, one at a time, howling with grief and then composing themselves, briefly, for the TV cameras.
Abundant theatricality accompanies most things in the Philippines, from religious processions to karaoke. Soap operas and melodramas rule the airwaves. The drug-war killings have taken on an edge of this performance culture. Bodies are often recovered bearing crude cardboard signs: “I AM A PUSHER” or “I AM A DRUG USER DON’T BE LIKE ME.” Filipinos refer to the practice as “cardboard justice”; the signs now sometimes include Twitter hashtags, or riffs on popular Facebook memes. The killing teams have become bolder, sometimes not bothering to hide their faces and exploring more baroque forms of cruelty, like covering their victims’ faces with masks of packing tape, occasionally decorated with cartoon eyes and mouths.
Duterte has called both Barack Obama and the pope “sons of whores,” labeled the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “an idiot” and attacked Human Rights Watch for documenting his long incitement of killings. When he ran for office, people saw a foulmouthed rule breaker, and Filipino and later American journalists dubbed him the “Donald Trump of the Philippines.”
Just before Trump’s election, Duterte picked Trump’s business partner on a Manila skyscraper deal as his envoy to Washington. And Trump placed a call to Duterte during the transition period in which they discussed not just international relations but the drug war; according to Duterte, Trump gave him a verbal thumbs-up, saying that he was going after drugs “the right way.” (Trump’s staff has confirmed that a conversation took place, but not what was discussed.)
In Talomo, a poor district insouthern Davao, Grecel Sagpang, a station commander with the Philippine National Police, was sitting in his small, steamy office in Police Station 3, the local precinct house. Many of Talomo’s approximately 60,000 residents are squatters, according to Sagpang, and drug addiction is widespread.
I visited to ask Sagpang about the killing on Sept. 16 of Art Jimenez, a barangay kapitan who, like Alvin Mañalac, had found himself on Duterte’s list. Sagpang, who was in charge of the investigation, told me that surveillance cameras had captured two men following the kapitan as he left an event downtown. Jimenez was shot dead in traffic in front of the Indonesian Consulate.
It was true that Jimenez was on the list, Sagpang said. But the killing “was not extrajudicial,” he insisted. “It’s murder,” he said, “because the police and army are not involved.” Drug-watch suspects were being killed “by their peers.”
Duterte’s reputation derives from what he did in Davao, building a clean and efficient city by Philippine standards. Davao was awash in violence when Duterte arrived, but he tamed both leftist and Muslim insurgents, who had battled the government for years. He banned smoking in public and went after speeders. He crushed street crime and humiliated corrupt officials. By the time he left, the city had drinkable tap water and approved business permits within 72 hours.
According to Human Rights Watch, while Duterte was mayor of Davao, elements of the local police and local government operated a death squad in a clandestine war that killed about 1,000 people, including suspected criminals, drug dealers, leftists and street children. Duterte denied the existence of a Davao death squad for years, although he has also said, in what he claims was only a taunt to his critics: “Am I the death squad? True. That is true.”
In September, Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary who had recently been elected to the Philippine Senate, called Edgar Matobato to testify before the Senate’s justice and human rights committee, of which she was chairwoman. A shaggy-haired, teddy-bear-shaped man in late middle age, Matobato confessed — out of guilt, he said — to working as an assassin for the Davao death squad. He described a large group of killers, organized by the police and local leaders. “We were tasked to kill criminals every day, including pushers and snatchers,” Matobato testified.
Duterte didn’t just inspire or incite the killings from afar, Matobato claimed, but was personally involved in selecting some victims, including Muslims targeted in revenge killings after a bombing. “We pounced on them, and later killed them, and buried them in a quarry,” Matobato said. And Duterte, he said, had even participated in a killing in 1993, when he arrived just in time to unload two magazines of ammunition from an Uzi into a suspect.
The Matobato hearings, which aired live on national television, transfixed the nation. “What kind of a war is this?” De Lima asked when we spoke. But her investigation ended abruptly, at the hands of the world-champion boxer Manny Pacquiao. A national hero who, like De Lima, is serving his first term in the Senate, Pacquiao is a loyal supporter of Duterte. In September, Pacquiao introduced a motion to strip De Lima of her chairwomanship, which passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority. The investigation was shut down, and Matobato is now in a witness-protection program.
When I met Pacquiao outside the Senate chamber in October, he insisted that even with De Lima gone, the Senate would continue investigating Matobato’s claims. “We will remain very active in this case,” Pacquiao told me. The current wave of killings was the work not of the police or vigilantes, he said, but rather of criminals themselves — “drug lords, drug syndicates, drug poseurs.” He said that “the massive campaign of the government against illegal drugs” was a success.
A few days after we spoke, Pacquiao left for Las Vegas, where he won another title belt. Duterte attacked De Lima, accusing her of taking money from drug dealers during her time as justice secretary. Duterte called her ugly and claimed to have watched a sex tape involving De Lima and her driver. Legislators released her private phone number on national television, and Duterte’s fans left her more than 2,000 hostile calls and text messages, including death threats. She is now facing allegations of corruption.
￼The wake for Jenniffer Discargar, who was killed near Manila by masked gunmen in October.
Moises Saman/Magnum, for The New York Times
The list grows longer. The names sometimes come via police posts like Police Station 3, and Sagpang described how he compiled them. “A confidential informant came, to say drugs are very prevalent in such-and-such area,” he told me. “We have to dig deeper. We deploy detectives and intelligence operatives” to verify that “Mr. So-and-So is fiddling drugs in the community.” In other words, the police counted on informants — impoverished squatters, terrified drug dealers and local politicians — telling the truth about one another.
The national watch list that Duterte waved on television was presumably a lot of these smaller lists, a registry of people who had been informed on. Duterte has asked local police departments and governments all over the country to generate information this way, squeezing names from criminals and cooperative neighbors.
Sagpang had personally led more than 100 antidrug raids — though only four of those led to shootouts, he said. There were no death squads in Davao, he insisted, and when Duterte made radical threats, like calling drug addicts “zombies” who should be killed even if they didn’t resist, Sagpang said he did not take the president literally.
“We are so used to him,” he said. “More than 20 years. He isn’t really meaning what he is saying.” Duterte’s threats were “psy-ops, like in war,” designed to scare drug dealers into retreat or surrender. More than 1,500 “drug personalities” had surrendered at Sagpang’s police station, he said. “Operation Double Barrel” — the official name of the drug war — “is really effective. It created a domino effect.”
In the two holding cells of Police Station 3, a couple of dozen men were crowded into a space 15 feet long. Some were lying in improvised hammocks. A scrum of relatives and girlfriends passed bananas and orange soda through the bars. A short man explained that he was arrested two days before in a buy-bust operation. He admitted to using shabu for the last two years but insisted he wasn’t an addict.
Of Duterte, however, he expressed mixed admiration. “His way of eliminating drugs in our country is effective,” he said. “But on the other hand, all the suspects were not given enough rights under law. Their way of capturing us is just from a list. Just because we are on a list. Just hearsay.”
One night, I rode to the scene of a double homicide in Quezon City, in greater Manila, in a pickup with Raffy Lerma, a longhaired photographer for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, who covers the liquidations of the drug war five nights a week. His paper keeps an updated “kill list” on its website, which documents the drug war’s casualties in exacting detail. And yet for all their thoroughness, just as the police never seem to actually solve a case, the Philippine media cannot put names to the killers.
“We may have our suspects,” the Filipino journalist Jose Dalisay Jr. wrote, “but we have no proof, and the breath that exhales those names could very well be one’s last.”
When Quezon City’s streets became too narrow for the pickup, Lerma and I continued on foot, turning down increasingly decrepit alleys. We arrived at the murder scene after the National Police, who had taped everything off, but ahead of SOCO. Two patrol officers moved around slowly, bent over with flashlights and chalk, finding and circling nine shell casings. Two pairs of legs poked out from behind piles of debris.
The closer pair of legs belonged to a 17-year-old girl, who the neighbors said was named Angel. Nearby was another body, this one a 21-year-old male the onlookers identified as her boyfriend, Jerico. Neighbors, including a local shopkeeper with whom I spoke, described two men on a motorcycle following the couple home from a local restaurant. After pulling on masks, they cornered Jerico in a quiet back street and killed him. When Angel screamed, perhaps defending him, they shot her through the throat. After they left, someone threw down a cardboard sign that said “you are a pusher you are an animal.”
Jerico appeared to have struggled; shards of pottery and ferns littered the scene where he was thrown against a rack of house plants. He died in shorts and a striped shirt. SOCO arrived and photographed and bagged the nine shell casings, inventorying the pockets of the dead. An officer carefully, almost tenderly, pushed Angel’s hair aside, to better photograph her face. The girl’s mother arrived and erupted in wails of grief, triggering a sympathetic storm of wailing among other women in the crowd, who had been stone-faced up to that moment. The TV crews directed bright lights in the mother’s face, and soon she was giving a tear-choked interview.
‘The only ones who should feel afraid are the ones who did something wrong.’
Mythmaking by Duterte has its corollary in the journalists and the crowds that gather eagerly at the scenes of the killings, where rumor flies faster than facts. A Barbie doll, all blond hair and pink clothing, lay near Angel’s body. After much discussion, the crowd, based on no actual evidence, settled on the theory that Jerico had given her the doll as a symbol of their romance.
Angel’s open-coffin wake was held at the end of a tiny alley in Quezon City. A sister and one friend sat stoically on their own until a church group showed up to sing a hymn. Angel’s real name, it turned out, was Ericka Fernandez, and she was the third of seven children. One of her sisters denied that Angel had ever used drugs — it was “a made-up story,” she said. Likewise, she said the Barbie-doll romance was invented by neighbors — according to her, Angel and Jerico weren’t a couple anymore at the time of their murders, and Angel had bought the doll herself as a gift for a family member. The coffin was half open, revealing a girl in a white dress with large, poorly concealed sutures holding her neck together. A few doors down, women played a raucous dice game.
Jerico’s wake was held about a mile away, and better attended, if only because it took place in a busy footpath. The coffin stood on display in front of his uncle’s house, as food vendors plied their offerings nearby and children skipped underfoot. A dog napped under the half-open coffin.
Jerico was innocent, said his father, Rommel Camitan. “He’s not a pusher. Hundred percent, sir. Not a pusher. For me he is a good son. Ask our neighbors.” Camitan sat on a plastic stool in the street, sheltered by a tarp that friends had strung overhead. Without enough cash on hand for a funeral, the family was buying another week by having Jerico’s body injected with more preservative against the tropical heat. Inside the coffin, illuminated by a light-up Jesus, Jerico had been cleaned up, though the thick makeup could not conceal the zigzag split in his forehead. A week after death, one of his eyes was caving in.
Despite his anguish, Camitan endorsed Duterte’s campaign. “All this talk of finishing drugs and the drug war is good,” Camitan said. “But he has to be sure that their target is the right person.” He added: “There have been cases around here. Usually they are pushers or addicts.” Good people had nothing to fear, he told me. “The only ones who should feel afraid are the ones who did something wrong.”
There is no certain or easy way to get off Duterte’s list. The mayor who died in his jail cell had flown to Manila to clear his name, and the barangay kapitan Art Jimenez tried before he was gunned down in traffic. After learning that he was named as a “drug personality,” Jimenez presented himself at Police Station 3. Sagpang, the National Police station commander, told me that a drug-screening team gave Jimenez a test: no trace of methamphetamines or cannabis in his system.
But Sagpang still insisted that Jimenez had been involved in the drug trade at a higher level, protecting two “Muslim drug pushers,” according to his sources. The kapitan’s driver and bodyguard that day were also drug users, he said — he seemed surprised that both were wounded in the assassination but survived.
Mañalac tried the same tactics to get off the list. He went to the offices of his local police chief, where he, too, passed a drug test showing that he was clean.
When I emailed him in December, Mañalac replied that things were looking up. He was working with the police and the business community, he said, helping President Duterte “continue the crusade against drug personalities.” The police chief for all of Malabon City had assured him he was no longer on the list.
Nonetheless, Mañalac wrote, “I still have my two policemen as security.”
Patrick Symmes is the author of “The Day Fidel Died,” due in March from Vintage. This is his first feature article for the magazine.