[Postcard] One of Us, by Lizzie Presser | Harper's Magazine

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Life and death in Duterte's war on drugs


Photograph by the author

One afternoon in September, I took a walk along the Manila waterfront, in the district of Tondo, where more than half a million people live in cinder-block homes with plywood doors and tin roofs. As I passed through the narrow alleys of the harbor slums, women nursed babies in doorways, kids scarfed down steaming bowls of rice, and families crouched over buckets of laundry. Young men were nearly absent from the streets. President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs had begun, and thousands of Filipinos—mostly men—were being thrown in jail or killed with impunity. Tondo was among the hardest hit.

On one corner, a group of women were seated at a wooden table, playing bingo to raise money for a friend’s burial. I walked past them down a dark backstreet, and soon arrived at a one-room house where drying clothes framed the door. A petite woman with broad shoulders, who introduced herself as Leslyn, welcomed me and sat down on a low wooden bench at the back, laying her two-year-old on a pillow nearby. Cornflower-blue paint was peeling off the walls behind her. Floral curtains suggested a window, but they opened to reveal only more plaster.

Leslyn and her five children were all recovering from the flu. She told me that her youngest, the toddler by her side, had been crying and calling out “papa, papa,” in a feverish dream the night before. Her husband, Gilbert, had been a low-level drug runner, and he’d been shot dead around the corner a few weeks earlier.

Crystal meth, known here as shabu, has been simmering in Filipino cookhouses since the 1990s, but in recent years the trade has been growing. Shabu now arrives from China in the lining of suitcases or on ships that dock along the beaches of the country’s southern coast. More than 1.3 million Filipinos are addicted to shabu, one of the highest rates of use in the region.

Gilbert didn’t have a drug habit when Leslyn first fell in love with him, she told me. As they built a family, the children added new expenses and Gilbert’s working days stretched longer. Leslyn nodded toward a knot of wires by the door, and explained that Gilbert had made money as a black-market electrician, rigging cables to the city’s electric grid to steal power for the homes in the slums. He had also worked as a day-laborer at the piers, and had hauled vegetables at the Chinese market. On a good day, Gilbert brought home around 200 pesos, a little more than four American dollars.

“I’m working hard, I need a boost of energy, it’s nothing,” he’d tell Leslyn when she worried about the shabu. Gilbert couldn’t afford to buy much, so he worked as a runner, shuttling sachets of shabu between dealers and users. In exchange for the risk of peddling, he’d get a small stash of his own.

I asked Leslyn if Gilbert was nervous during Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign last winter. Duterte, the longtime mayor of Davao City, the Philippines’ second largest city outside of Metro Manila, vowed to purge the country of criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay. “Forget the laws on human rights,” he told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a campaign rally in May. “You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better get out. Because I’d kill you.”

Leslyn smiled nervously. “Gilbert was trying to convince me to vote for Duterte,” she said. “He was promising an end to criminality and it drew me to him.”

In May, Duterte won the election with about 39 percent of the vote, fifteen points ahead of his closest opponent, and he immediately began a nationwide manhunt for so-called “drug personalities.” He encouraged civilians to murder addicts and dealers. Local officials and police compiled lists of suspected users and pushers, and authorities went through the slums knocking on doors. No one knew what evidence backed the lists, but suspects could either turn themselves in or risk being killed.

Six weeks later, three neighborhood officials came to Leslyn’s house. While she waited inside, the tall and wiry barangay (“district”) chairman spoke to Gilbert, and gave him twenty-four hours to surrender. At 10 a.m. the following day, Gilbert reported to the barangay hall to sign his pledge. “I, Gilbert Alicabo,” he repeated, raising his right hand, “will not engage in the drug trade.”

On the morning of August 10, about a month after Gilbert surrendered, he went to the barangay hall for a hearing on a year-old drug possession charge. He left the house in a royal blue T-shirt, with 30 pesos in his pocket, or 60 American cents.

Leslyn spread official-looking documents across the linoleum floor, as if preparing pieces of a puzzle. She handed me the missing person flyer she had drawn up when Gilbert didn’t return home that day, which shows Gilbert’s wide face grinning under a mass of floppy hair. Next, the report from the local precinct, saying that police had fatally shot Gilbert around 1 a.m. on August 12, two days later. The cops claimed they had killed him in self-defense, but Leslyn said Gilbert didn’t own a gun, much less the expensive, .45-caliber pistol cited in the report.

Last, Leslyn gave me a worn photo, showing Gilbert’s skinny corpse. A red gunshot wound, small and round as a currant, swelled between his ribs. “I don’t have power. Who am I? I’m just an ordinary person,” she told me. She added that, these days, she worries about her kids. “You look what happened to your father,” she said she tells them. “Someone can just kill you. It’s that easy.”

When I was in the Philippines, almost three months into Duterte’s term, the drug war had devolved into shoot-outs between civilians. More than four thousand five hundred people have been killed so far—most of them street-level players—and more than half of the deaths have been pinned on unknown vigilantes. More than eight hundred thousand users and dealers have turned themselves in, and the country’s forty-five certified rehab centers have been quickly overwhelmed by the demand. For those who surrender, like Gilbert, there is no guarantee of safety. Police interrogators press them for the names of other people involved in the trade, which makes them targets for dealers as well as for the government.

Despite the brutality of the drug war, Duterte’s approval rating remains above 85 percent, buoyed by millions of Filipinos who say they are tired of toothless politicians and corruption in government. Worn out by crime, and frustrated by empty promises of economic progress, Filipinos are willing to try anything, even a strongman.

Across Manila, I saw Duterte’s symbol, the thin outline of a clenched fist, emblazoned on storefronts and chrome bumpers, rickshaws and black T-shirts. He is popular even in Tondo. One young man I met, who had grown up in the slums, was wearing a bracelet on his left wrist engraved with Duterte’s name. As we walked along a main road, past vendors selling candy and women napping on parked motorbikes, I asked what the bracelet meant to him.

“It means,” he said, “he’s one of us.”

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