No rest for the victims of Duterte’s drug war

“His grave will be cleared in ten days,” said Elmilita dela Cruz, 61, gasping for breath. Leaning on her stick, she stands in front of her son Jinbilly’s grave. She has lost her walking ability and has just walked a mile across the dilapidated North Manila Cemetery in the hot sun. Her son’s body lies in a concrete wall behind one of the stone name signs. Jinbilly was shot and killed in 2017 at the age of 33 at the height of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.

Jinbilly is one of many victims of that drug war. According to human rights groups, 30,000 people suspected of drug smuggling or use have been killed by police or death squads, mostly plainclothes agents, since Duterte took office in 2016. Reducing drug abuse was one of Duterte’s most important election promises. “If you know an addict, shoot him,” he shouted shortly after his deployment. Perpetrators are rarely or never prosecuted.

Elmilita dela Cruz by her son Jinbilly’s “apartment grave.”
Photo by Saskia Konniger

At the time, Dela Cruz borrowed 100 euros to rest his son in the tomb wall. Temporary, because such an ‘apartment grave’ is a rental grave for five years. An extension costs another hundred euros to buy a burial ground many times more, and Dela Cruz does not have that money. If she does not pay, Jinbilly’s remains are thrown into a mass grave on the edge of the property. “His bones would be thrown away like garbage,” she says. “I’m very happy that Father Flavie will now cremate him instead.”

In a nice office in Manila’s poor city center, Flaviano Villanueva (51) or ‘Father Flavie’ walks back and forth on the phone. The Philippines is choosing a successor to Duterte. Villanueva, father of the Catholic mission ‘Company of the Free Word’, is campaigning for presidential candidate Leni Robredo, human rights activist and outspoken opponent of Duterte. With his hard, bald head, Villanueva is not your average father. He wears a T-shirt with a print of Rappler, a critical news site in the Philippines, created by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa. “And to think that I myself voted for the monster,” Villanueva says, pressing down a phone call. “I thought he was going to be a crucial politician. But a good politician has a conscience, and Duterte does not. ”

Also read this interview with Maria Ressa from 2020: ‘We journalists are already more or less in Siberia after 4 years with Duterte’

“The more children and widows of those executed I encountered, the more involved I became,” Villanueva says. The poorest quickly proved to be the most frequent victims of Duterte’s drug war. In addition to the soup kitchens he runs in poor neighborhoods, Villanueva started a program for the relatives of murdered drug suspects. “We help them get their lives back on track. Or submit a report. At least the truth has been written down somewhere. ” Villanueva is on the government radar because of its activities. Lawsuits have been pending against him since 2019. He and other activists are being charged with libel and conspiracy against the president. He receives death threats. “From people who protect Duterte.”

Villanueva is in contact with 250 families whose tenancy is about to expire or has already expired. Using donations, he arranges a cremation so that relatives can show the deceased their last honor.

Enclosed corrugated iron loft

Elmilita dela Cruz lives with her four surviving children and six grandchildren in the Tondo slum. She has done her best to turn a cramped corrugated iron ceiling, for which she pays 50 euros a month, into a home. She has hung family portraits around an old television, framed in colorful paper. Jinbilly hangs in front, a tough pose with sunglasses. Dela Cruz is glad she was able to visit his grave today. In ten days, Jinbilly’s remains will be cremated at the expense of the church. Villanueva will lead the ceremony.

Duterte’s drug policy has the support of the majority of the population, explains political scientist Victor Manhit at a cafe in Manila’s business district. “Especially in the middle class, a culture has emerged that has normalized this deselected policy. It is often assumed that the person executed is guilty. “

‘If you see an addict, shoot him,’ shouted Rodrigo Duterte

In recent years, there has been only one case where a verdict has been handed down. On August 16, 2017, 17-year-old Kian delos Santos was shot and killed. The case received a lot of media attention. “It is essential that only Kian’s case is considered unfair. Most victims live in slums. Kian went to a good school. He was a victim with whom the middle class could identify. ”

Also read this profile of Duterte: Filipinos are raving about their blunt leader

Kian’s murder was captured on security cameras. “The whole country could see how the officers stopped and searched Kian for no reason,” said his uncle Randy delos Santos, 44, behind his desk in Villanueva’s office. On his jacket he wears a button of presidential candidate Robredo. “Then they dragged him towards the river. Kian shouted, ‘Stop, stop! I have a school exam tomorrow! ‘ These words then circulated around the Philippines and touched many people. Kian had done nothing wrong. He just lived in a poor neighborhood. He had obtained a scholarship, which allowed him to go to an expensive school. He worked in the evenings in his father’s street shop. ”

Kian was found with three bullet holes in his head. His body was in the fetal position with clenched fists. The cameras show the officers forcing him to hold a gun, only to later argue that Kian made resistance armed. Partly because of Delos Santos’ efforts, the three officers who shot Kian were sentenced to life in prison. He is now helping other victims get the same justice.


The injustice has also gripped Jinbilly’s mother. “He fell into a trap,” she says. Sitting on a wooden stool, she tells how her son was shot. “He was at the home of a prison buddy. My son was visiting his wife. It was just before midnight. The woman was out to get some ice cream. They say he was making noise. That there was loud music. Police arrived that night. “Neighbors told Dela Cruz that officers were looking for her son’s girlfriend. But it was not there.” They knew my son was a different person, for witnesses heard officers say, ‘Then shoot him.’ “No one wanted to explain this in a lawsuit. I think the officers had to meet their quota and then my son was shot.”

Like many relatives, Dela Cruz does not dare to complain. She is afraid the police will retaliate. “I have other children too.”

Villanueva hopes Robredo wins the election, but he knows her opponent, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is ahead in the polls. “If Marcos wins, hell will break loose for me.” Villanueva is considering captivity or whether a threat is being carried out. “Of course I’m scared, I’m just a human being. But people are counting on me. Besides, I’m not alone. It’s a collective struggle.”

This is Saskia Konniger’s first contribution as a correspondent in Southeast Asia.

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