Dispatch

The Philippines Is Losing Its ‘War on Drugs’

New President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has promised a more compassionate approach, but that’s not what it looks like in the slums of Manila.

Police officers stand outside the scene of a "buy bust" operation in the Philippines that resulted in the shooting death by police of an alleged drug dealer in 2016.
Police officers stand outside the scene of a "buy bust" operation in the Philippines that resulted in the shooting death by police of an alleged drug dealer in 2016.
Police officers stand outside the scene of a "buy bust" operation that resulted in the shooting death by police of an alleged drug dealer in Manila, Philippines, on Sept. 20, 2016. Dave Tacon photo
By , a principal honorary fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

MANILA, Philippines—On Nov. 30, a typically steamy night in the slums of metropolitan Manila, Maricel Gualvez is presiding over the wake of her husband, Jesus, who was shot and killed by masked gunmen the previous Sunday.

The corpse lies in a white coffin under a Perspex sheet. He is dressed in his best clothes, and his face is made up to hide the signs of how he died.

As is tradition in the Philippines, the wake will go on for about a week, with the coffin open for view. Despite their poverty, visitors will scrape together a few pesos to help pay for the funeral.

Police officers stand outside the scene of a "buy bust" operation in the Philippines that resulted in the shooting death by police of an alleged drug dealer in 2016.
Police officers stand outside the scene of a "buy bust" operation in the Philippines that resulted in the shooting death by police of an alleged drug dealer in 2016.

Police officers stand outside the scene of a “buy bust” operation that resulted in an alleged drug dealer’s death by police in Manila, Philippines, on Sept. 20, 2016. Dave Tacon photo

MANILA, Philippines—On Nov. 30, a typically steamy night in the slums of metropolitan Manila, Maricel Gualvez is presiding over the wake of her husband, Jesus, who was shot and killed by masked gunmen the previous Sunday.

The corpse lies in a white coffin under a Perspex sheet. He is dressed in his best clothes, and his face is made up to hide the signs of how he died.

As is tradition in the Philippines, the wake will go on for about a week, with the coffin open for view. Despite their poverty, visitors will scrape together a few pesos to help pay for the funeral.

Jesus, 44 at the time of his death, was the father of two children under 12, a tricycle taxi driver, and the breadwinner of his family.

The previous Sunday evening, neighbors rushed to Maricel’s house, shouting at her to come quickly. Her husband had been shot while riding his tricycle in a nearby street.

Jesus took three shots to the head and one to the knee from a masked gunman riding in tandem on a motorcycle.

Maricel said she knows of five other deaths following this pattern in Caloocan, her city in northern Manila, since the beginning of October 2022. None have been reported by the media. Although these deaths will not be included in the official figures as victims of the Philippines’s “war on drugs,” they are almost certainly casualties of it.

These killings—and an unknown number of others—took place months after the election of a new president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who ran on a platform that included a more compassionate approach to the “war on drugs” started by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

The new president is the son of a dictator with the same name who was head of state for 20 years—until he was forced out in the so-called People Power Revolution of 1986, after years of martial law, human rights abuses, and rampant corruption.

Bongbong came to power promising a continuation of the “war on drugs” but with a change in focus to catching “bigger fish” and emphasizing rehabilitation for drug users. This was also meant to include an emphasis on eliminating the root cause—poverty—of the Philippines’s drug problem. In a news release to mark his first 100 days, Bongbong claimed the drug war was now “less bloody, more holistic.” But evidence on the ground tells a different story.


Six years ago, following the election of Duterte as president, the country’s “war on drugs” began. Duterte promised to “slaughter” drug pushes and addicts, and he incentivized the police to deliver.

It is hard to get reliable figures on the extent of drug abuse in the Philippines, though it is undoubtedly rampant. At the start of the war on drugs, Duterte said there were 3 million addicts, with shabu, a variant of methamphetamine, the most concerning. Duterte’s figure is almost 3 percent of the population. The official statistics are lower and suggest that in 2015, there were only 1.8 million drug users in the Philippines. Regardless, the impact of shabu is clear on the streets of the poorer areas, where people work long shifts in awful conditions, and shabu is normalized as a means of staying awake.

When Duterte declared his war, the world’s media flocked to Manila and engaged in a nightly gruesome chase—following the police from killing to killing, shouldering their way through shanties to record footage of corpses before they were cleaned up.

Alongside them was a group of local freelance photographers who stayed on the job long after the foreign media had left. They became known as the Nightcrawlers, which became the title of a National Geographic documentary about their work. They resolved to record as many deaths as possible to hold the police and the government accountable. They are still trying, but even after the election of a new president, it’s getting harder and more dangerous.

At the peak of the killings, in 2016 and 2017, there were sometimes more than a dozen corpses in Manila each night and more in the provinces. People woke to find bodies in the street, sometimes bound with packaging tape or with cardboard signs proclaiming them to be drug pushers.

Routinely, those killed by the police had scars on their wrists showing they had been handcuffed with cable ties.

By the time Duterte stepped down as president in the middle of last year at the end of his six-year term, official government figures in the war on drugs were 6,252 deaths.

But human rights groups and International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan have a higher estimate of between 12,000 to 30,000 deaths. This includes the many so-called extrajudicial executions (EJKs) in which masked motorcycle riders shoot people for reasons that are often opaque. “Riding in tandem” has become a euphemism for motorcycle assassins.

According to documents lodged at the ICC by Khan, these unidentified perpetrators are “apparently acting in coordination with police.”

Recently, there has been evidence to suggest that six years after the so-called war began, the situation has slid out of the government’s control and become the domain of contract killers working with corrupt authorities.

For instance, last October, Police Master Sgt. Rodolfo Mayo Jr.— described by the Philippines’s media as the nation’s best policeman in the drug enforcement group—was arrested in an operation that included the confiscation of almost a ton of shabu worth 6.7 billion pesos (or $122.4 million). It was, according to Interior Secretary Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos, the biggest drug haul in the nation’s history. At least another 10 police officers have been suspended from duties in the resulting investigation. A spokesperson for the Philippine National Police said the drugs had been in a stockroom and were either imported from China or had come from previous police operations where shabu had been seized.

There is little information on the progress of the case against this officer. Reliable information is hard to come by in the Philippines these days. Local media has come under increasing pressure—buried in lawsuits or with broadcasting licenses withdrawn and many journalists threatened.

An aerial view shows Tondo in Manila, the scene of scene of many extra judicial killings during Philippines' war on drugs
An aerial view shows Tondo in Manila, the scene of scene of many extra judicial killings during Philippines' war on drugs

An aerial view shows Tondo—Manilas largest, most populous, and second most densely populated district—on Nov. 30, 2022. The area has been the scene of many extrajudicial killings during the Philippines’s war on drugs. Dave Tacon for Foreign Policy

In October 2022, radio journalist Percy Lapid, a critic of Duterte and Bongbong, was killed by masked motorcycle-riding gunmen when he was stopped in a traffic buildup outside his gated community home. He was the third journalist in the Philippines to be killed in 2022, according to UNESCO, and the second during Bongbong’s presidency.

A man who confessed to being the gunman identified a “middleman” as having hired him. That man was found dead in jail a few days later—first said to be from natural causes and later, in a second autopsy, from suffocation with a plastic bag.

Bongbong ordered the suspension of Bureau of Corrections Director-General Gerald Bantag while allegations that he ordered the killing were investigated. Bantag claims he has been framed.

It may be a lie, or it may be the truth. We will likely never know. Experts say the media increasingly reports what the police say—uncritically.

Three media outlets—the Philippine Daily Inquirer, broadcaster ABS-CBN, and online outlet Rappler—have all been targeted by the government. All conducted investigations in the early years of the war on drugs. Rappler and its founder, Maria Ressa, are buried in lawsuits while ABS-CBN had its broadcasting license removed. In 2021, the Philippines Daily Inquirer reported that a public opinion poll had shown that 45 percent of adult Filipinos agreed that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

One piece of information though circulates freely. There was always a market for hired assassins, and the war on drugs has made that market boom. In a week of tracking the networks of families and victims in the slums, Foreign Policy asked several people how much it cost to have someone killed these days.

The answer was consistent: 30,000 pesos (or about $548)—more if it is someone prominent, which may result in more attention. In the slums, the cost of falling out with someone—like a local government official, a police officer, or your employer—can be high.

Maricel said she has no idea why her husband died. He had been a drug user many years before but had been clean since he married her 14 years ago.

“I really want the police to investigate so I know who killed my husband,” she said.

Does she think the police might have been involved?

“I really don’t know, but he was shot four times,” she replied. “Whoever did it must have been really angry with him. … But he was very kind. Ask anyone around here, and they will tell you he was a very kind man.”

Men gather at the wake of Jesus Galvez Jr. in Manila, Philippines. Neighbors say his death was drug-related.
Men gather at the wake of Jesus Galvez Jr. in Manila, Philippines. Neighbors say his death was drug-related.

Men gather at the wake of Jesus Gualvez in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 27, 2022. Neighbors said they believe his death was a drug-related killing, probably carried out by police officers. Dave Tacon for Foreign Policy

Other attendees at the wake tell a different story. They say Jesus owed money to “a policeman drug dealer” and he was killed as a warning to others. Nobody wants to go public with such allegations.

Foreign Policy heard a number of stories about police offering payouts for silence from the families of victims or, on the other hand, making threats. There is consensus among observers both official and on the street that there are fewer deaths these days than at the height in 2016 and 2017. But the best available statistics suggest there has been no change between the latter days of the Duterte regime and that of Bongbong.

The pattern of killings, however, has changed. The picture that emerges from academics, human rights activists, and residents of the Philippines’s slums is that the operation has gone underground.

Randy delos Santos, the uncle of Kian delos Santos, in Manila. His nephew was shot to death by police in August 2017—his is the only case in which police have been convicted of murder in the war on drugs.
Randy delos Santos, the uncle of Kian delos Santos, in Manila. His nephew was shot to death by police in August 2017—his is the only case in which police have been convicted of murder in the war on drugs.

Randy delos Santos, the uncle of Kian delos Santos, is seen on Nov. 29, 2022, in Manila. His nephew was shot to death by police in August 2017—his is the only case in which police have been convicted of murder in the war on drugs. Dave Tacon for Foreign Policy

Freelance photographer Vincent Go is one of the “nightcrawlers” who committed to trying to report on as many deaths as possible. He has tagged the deaths he has reported on his mobile phone—there are more than 1,000 of them.

Go said it is no longer possible to follow the police around from corpse to corpse because so many of the killings now are committed by contractors. Rather, he visits the families as soon as possible after a killing, finding out about them from his network of contacts.

At the Third World Studies Center at the University of the Philippines, a small team of researchers led by Joel Ariate Jr., a researcher in state-sponsored violence, has been attempting to keep track of deaths in the war on drugs. They include any death, whether at the hands of police or unknown perpetrators, where police allege the victim was involved in drugs.

When they started work in 2018, several media outlets were also trying to maintain death lists. Now, Ariate’s team is the only one left standing, drawing on reports of deaths in national and provincial media outlets, even on Facebook, and distributing its monthly reckonings through Twitter.

Ariate does not claim the database is complete; he knows many cases are not reported by the media. But he is confident it reveals trends. These include a shift to the provinces and more EJKs.

In December 2022, Dahas, a research and advocacy project, reported that there had been 152 drug-related killings in the first five months of Bongbong’s regime. This surpassed the 149 killings in the last six months of Duterte’s reign.

Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. recently told a group of journalists that there had been 46 drug-related killings under Bongbong, which he described as “very minimal.” But that figure included only the killings the police “own”—not the EJKs by masked motorcycle gunmen nor the corpses shot and dumped in the street, parks, or in Manila Bay. Besides, sometimes a body is never found.


Patients fill a room at a Department of Health Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Manila, Philippines, in 2016.
Patients fill a room at a Department of Health Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Manila, Philippines, in 2016.

Patients fill a room at a Department of Health Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Manila, Philippines, on Oct. 3, 2016. Dave Tacon photo

Why does the war on drugs continue? Duterte, having introduced state-sanctioned executions, has bequeathed a bitter legacy to Bongbong, who shows few signs of tackling a culture of impunity.

Ariate thinks that underlying it all is business—an underground economy in which the police have a stake and where the national government is not really in control. “The war on drugs will continue so long as people are making money from it,” Ariate said, adding that drug peace would involve harm reduction and decriminalization. But whereas the Philippines has proved itself up to reform in other areas—for example, broadening access to contraception despite the opposition of the Catholic Church—drug law reform has not been seriously proposed.

In just one week of tapping into the networks of victims, survivors, and their supporters, Foreign Policy heard of another six deaths, none of which were reported by the media and hence not in the Dahas database.

In one case, a man arrested in a drug operation along with his wife and brother last July was, according to the family, tortured by police. The media reported his arrest but not the fact that the next day his corpse was found in the street, bearing obvious bruising.

Because the other family members remain in the hands of the police, the family is too terrified to go public, though they communicated with Foreign Policy. The official death certificate records the cause of death as cardiac arrest, and the family doesn’t want to diverge from that story in public.

One of the slim hopes for justice is the International Criminal Court, which went into effect in 2002 by U.N. member states to investigate and adjudicate human rights cases that member countries are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

The ICC announced a preliminary investigation into the war on drugs in February 2018. Duterte responded by withdrawing the Philippines’s membership, with that decision coming into force a year later. That meant the ICC had jurisdiction to investigate deaths only up until 2019, and on top of that, the process has been moving very slowly.

Duterte is 77 years old. His daughter Sara is serving as Bongbong’s vice president. The Bongbong regime has made it clear it will not rejoin the ICC. Ariate asked: “What chance is there that this process can lead to justice?”

A portrait of Sarah Celiz in Manila, Philippines. Two of her sons were killed during the war on drugs.
A portrait of Sarah Celiz in Manila, Philippines. Two of her sons were killed during the war on drugs.

A portrait of Sarah Celiz is taken in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 30, 2022. Two of her sons were killed during the war on drugs. Celiz attends wakes for similar deaths in her district and keeps a list of victims of extrajudicial killings. “Its no different under Bongbong,” she said. Dave Tacon for Foreign Policy

One of the attendees at the wake of Jesus is neighbor Sarah Celiz, 57. She lost her two sons to the war on drugs in 2017, and since then, she has made it a personal mission to attend as many drug war wakes as possible.

She thinks there is no difference between the latter days of the Duterte regime and that of Bongbong. It is just that the deaths go unreported.

“The police are all demons,” she said. “They want to eliminate all the poor and all the drug addicts and pushers.”

As for what she would say to Bongbong if she could speak to him, she refers to his father and the period of martial law under which so many people died.

She would urge Bongbong not to do what his father did. But, she said, “An apple tree will not bear a guava. He and his father grew up on the same tree. I think nothing will change.”

Margaret Simons is a journalist and principal honorary fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is also the author of a 2019 biography on Penny Wong, titled Penny Wong: Passion and Principle. Twitter: @MargaretSimons

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