Omerta-Like Silence Shrouds Vigilante Killings In Philippines
Since Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated two months ago, some 2,000 people have been killed across the country in the past two months in what experts say are extra-judicial vigilante murders. Fear and silence make it all possible.
MANILA — Lea Bascguin, the owner of a funeral home in this city, runs her finger down the page as she counts the names in a file that records the dead. The number has tripled since the start of Rodrigo Duterte's drug war.
Across the country, almost 2,000 people have been killed so far — 712 in police "shootouts" and more than 1,000 by so-called vigilantes.
Many are "salvage" victims, unidentified bodies that turn up in the street overnight, Bascguin explains. "When the body is just dropped, they will leave the cadaver somewhere in the street without knowing who is the perpetrator. We consider that salvage," says Bascguin.
No one knows for sure who the vigilantes are, although some suspect that the police or the military is involved. Every day, distraught relatives turn up at Bascguin's morgue looking for their loved ones. In some cases, the families learn about the victims from TV after their picture, or an identifying tattoo, is flashed across the news.
That's what happened to the family of 32-year-old David Miraran. A few weeks ago, he got on his bike to see his girlfriend and never came back. Miraran's sister Vivian found out about his death three days later. "On the news the police said the robber fought back, so that's why they had to shoot him. They said he fired at them with a 38-caliber gun in a dark street," says Vivian.
"He doesn't have a gun. He lived in our house and we never saw a gun in his room. If my brother was a robber it would be us who would know first," she says.
In Manila, many of the victims are from shantytowns and poor neighborhoods. Miraran barely had enough money for food. When he was hungry, he would sometimes ask neighbors for plain rice and soy sauce.
Occasionally he sniffed a cheap solvent, or glue, to get high because he didn't have money for shabu, or crystal methamphetamine. But there's no way that Miraran had the money to buy a gun, his sister says.
Activist Max de Mesa says the drug war is a cover for police to commit violations. He believes the human rights abuses echo the days of martial law in the Philippines.
Duterte has said drug users and dealers don't deserve human rights. In his first state of nation address in July, Duterte declared that, "we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars, or below the ground if they so wish."
Duterte, a former mayor of Davao, has been linked to death squads in the past. Strikingly, his methods appear to be popular among Filipinos. Many believe the deaths are necessary collateral when it comes to combating drugs and crime in the Philippines.
Then again, if you do want to speak out it's not that easy.
That's the feeling I got when I went to the scene of a double murder. Two women had been shot dead in broad daylight on a rainy Tuesday in August. They lived in a small room connected to dozens of others along a narrow path in a crowded slum by the port. The area is so small that it's difficult to believe that no one saw anything.
While police investigators examined the crime scene, I started talking to the crowd of residents who had gathered around. Trono, one man I spoke to, told me of his "see nothing, hear nothingr" policy.
"Just keep your mouth shut if you want your life to be long, if you want to keep breathing, don't say anything. We don't know what happened, why she is lying there because of a gun. I don't say anything, but in my mind I know what happened," Trono says.
Rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly condemned the killings in the Philippines, and called for an end to the climate of lawlessness.
But as the bodies continue to pile up, the country's new president has shown no sign of letting up.