WARNING: Some of the following images contain graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.
ONCE nightfall besets the city of Manila, the bustling metropolis turns into a scene reminiscent of the Purge, a movie in which one night a year, for a 12-hour period, all criminal activity – including murder – is sanctioned by the state. No longer is this just a Hollywood script turned silver screen thriller, it’s the reality for the citizens of the Philippines, a country ravaged by crime and rampant drug use.
It is past midnight, usually the time that the killings start, in one of the many violence-prone barangays, or neighborhoods.
A tipster’s message causes the driver to suddenly stomp down on the gas pedal, accelerating and nearly careening into oncoming vehicles.
Even the thick sheets of rain that caused a distorted view through the windshield seemed to have little effect on our sense of urgency.
Sept 27 at 11:14pm, not far from Delpan Police Station on the corner of Lara Street, there’s been a triple homicide in an apparent drug bust, resulting in approximately 150 alleged users and dealers surrendering to the authorities. There were reports that this location was a massive drug den.
The crime scene is stifled with a barrage of foreign media and local news crews. SOCO (scene of the crime operatives) are already there in droves and the bodies have been covered, processed and soon to be taken to the local morgue.
It doesn’t take long for another incoming text message to start the process all over again.
This time, a masked vigilante has stormed a residence in C. Arellano Barangay, San Agustin Malabon, shooting a man point-blank in front of his wife and son.
The rain is suffocating and the streets are flooded. We roll up our pants to the knee and wade through nearly a meter of water, down a cumbersome alleyway, and enter the household.
Behind police tape, a body lays lifeless, on a bed surrounded by personal effects, a fatal gunshot wound delivering a dosage of death administered by an unknown assailant.
The shrill wailing of the deceased’s wife can be heard off in the distance.
Just six hours earlier, we left a street funeral where a mother leaned over the casket of her second son to bear the brunt of this controversial and widely condemned form of social justice.
Sadly enough, these recurring themes have become all too frequent in a city where the criminal justice system hinges on the precipice of lawlessness. Murders go uninvestigated, while average citizens act as phantom killers, eradicating the city of what the government deems as vermin. Without any form of structured due process, the armed gunman serves as judge, jury and executioner.
Welcome to the era of Duterte.
Since May 30, 2016 when Rodrigo Roa Duterte won in a landslide election, being named the 16th president elect, his controversial tactics for ridding the nation of drug pushers and abusers alike consisted of “extreme measures.”
Condemnation for any outside opposition and a habit of finding himself in the international spotlight, typically topping headlines with statements likening himself to Hitler and the now famous State of the Nation Address (SONA), where he exclaimed, “We will not stop until the last drug lord … and the last pusher have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish,” he rules with an iron fist and lives up to his nom du guerre, “The Punisher.”
The result of this war of drugs is more than 3,000 casualties of alleged drug users and dealers at the hands of police officers and vigilantes.
Though some believe that number to be severely understated, one thing remains uncontested… the death toll continues to rise with no definitive end in sight.
The following morning, another casualty is claimed. The mother of the two slain sons whose funeral we attended the day prior, learned that her third son was murdered at approximately 6am the morning of Sept 28 by vigilantes wearing masks.
At the funeral we attended before, she was asked if she feared for the life of her two remaining sons.
With great resolve and apprehension, she expressed concern that they were in imminent danger.
“My sons that died were involved with drugs,” she confesses before turning away. The first was killed prior to Duterte becoming president. Her fifth child, a daughter, was safe for the moment.
Her second son to perish wasn’t even in the ground yet, and news of the third death within an eight-month time span was more than her family could bear. The cost to claim a body is PHP35,000 or roughly US$717.
She doesn’t know where she’ll get the money and can only hope to rely on the generosity of family and donations from the local community.
After a stop at the wrong funeral home, eventually her son’s body is found at the Eusebio Funeral Home. The all too difficult process of claiming the body of the dearly departed is to make rounds to local morgues, as there’s no effective system for locating the deceased.
Three friends escort her through the open garage door and as she approaches the holding room, she can barely support herself as she’s overcome with grief.
Her eyes furtively dart in the direction of where the body is laid, her head bending around the corner when the full brunt of reality cascades over her worn face.
Barely able to walk, her emotional fortitude finally cracks as tears stream down her face and she realizes she can’t bring herself to see her son in this condition.
Just moments after leaving the scene at the funeral home, the alert comes through that armed assailants on motorbikes gunned down a police officer.
A few hours later, Pasig City Police will get into a shootout in a “buy and bust” operation on Eastbank Road, killing one suspect.
A second suspect, however, gets away. And the hunt is on.
In this unforgiving crackdown on the drug trade, casualties are sustained on both sides.
And if President Durterte’s intentions ring true, this is only the beginning of a long and bloody war where the line between alleged addict, dealer, enforcer and innocent bystander become blurred beyond recognition.
Despite that, the murders continue.
**Darius Askari was in the Philippines for a week in September to document the Duterte administration’s controversial war on drugs. Through the aid of a fixer, he accompanied local law enforcement on crime runs and raids; witnessed first-hand several murder scenes; visited one of the nation’s more notorious prisons; and conducted interviews with locals.