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Feature: President Duterte’s List

The list grows longer. The names sometimes come via police posts like Police Station 3, and Sagpang described how he compiled them. “A confidential informant came, to say drugs are very prevalent in such-and-such area,” he told me. “We have to dig deeper. We deploy detectives and intelligence operatives” to verify that “Mr. So-and-So is fiddling drugs in the community.” In other words, the police counted on informants — impoverished squatters, terrified drug dealers and local politicians — telling the truth about one another.

The national watch list that Duterte waved on television was presumably a lot of these smaller lists, a registry of people who had been informed on. Duterte has asked local police departments and governments all over the country to generate information this way, squeezing names from criminals and cooperative neighbors.

Sagpang had personally led more than 100 antidrug raids — though only four of those led to shootouts, he said. There were no death squads in Davao, he insisted, and when Duterte made radical threats, like calling drug addicts “zombies” who should be killed even if they didn’t resist, Sagpang said he did not take the president literally. “We are so used to him,” he said. “More than 20 years. He isn’t really meaning what he is saying.” Duterte’s threats were “psy-ops, like in war,” designed to scare drug dealers into retreat or surrender. More than 1,500 “drug personalities” had surrendered at Sagpang’s police station, he said. “Operation Double Barrel” — the official name of the drug war — “is really effective. It created a domino effect.”

In the two holding cells of Police Station 3, a couple of dozen men were crowded into a space 15 feet long. Some were lying in improvised hammocks. A scrum of relatives and girlfriends passed bananas and orange soda through the bars. A short man explained that he was arrested two days before in a buy-bust operation. He admitted to using shabu for the last two years but insisted he wasn’t an addict. Of Duterte, however, he expressed mixed admiration. “His way of eliminating drugs in our country is effective,” he said. “But on the other hand, all the suspects were not given enough rights under law. Their way of capturing us is just from a list. Just because we are on a list. Just hearsay.”

One night, I rode to the scene of a double homicide in Quezon City, in greater Manila, in a pickup with Raffy Lerma, a longhaired photographer for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, who covers the liquidations of the drug war five nights a week. His paper keeps an updated “kill list” on its website, which documents the drug war’s casualties in exacting detail. And yet for all their thoroughness, just as the police never seem to actually solve a case, the Philippine media cannot put names to the killers. “We may have our suspects,” the Filipino journalist Jose Dalisay Jr. wrote, “but we have no proof, and the breath that exhales those names could very well be one’s last.”

When Quezon City’s streets became too narrow for the pickup, Lerma and I continued on foot, turning down increasingly decrepit alleys. We arrived at the murder scene after the National Police, who had taped everything off, but ahead of SOCO. Two patrol officers moved around slowly, bent over with flashlights and chalk, finding and circling nine shell casings. Two pairs of legs poked out from behind piles of debris.

The closer pair of legs belonged to a 17-year-old girl, who the neighbors said was named Angel. Nearby was another body, this one a 21-year-old male the onlookers identified as her boyfriend, Jerico. Neighbors, including a local shopkeeper with whom I spoke, described two men on a motorcycle following the couple home from a local restaurant. After pulling on masks, they cornered Jerico in a quiet back street and killed him. When Angel screamed, perhaps defending him, they shot her through the throat. After they left, someone threw down a cardboard sign that said “you are a pusher you are an animal.”

Jerico appeared to have struggled; shards of pottery and ferns littered the scene where he was thrown against a rack of house plants. He died in shorts and a striped shirt. SOCO arrived and photographed and bagged the nine shell casings, inventorying the pockets of the dead. An officer carefully, almost tenderly, pushed Angel’s hair aside, to better photograph her face. The girl’s mother arrived and erupted in wails of grief, triggering a sympathetic storm of wailing among other women in the crowd, who had been stone-faced up to that moment. The TV crews directed bright lights in the mother’s face, and soon she was giving a tear-choked interview.

Mythmaking by Duterte has its corollary in the journalists and the crowds that gather eagerly at the scenes of the killings, where rumor flies faster than facts. A Barbie doll, all blond hair and pink clothing, lay near Angel’s body. After much discussion, the crowd, based on no actual evidence, settled on the theory that Jerico had given her the doll as a symbol of their romance.

Angel’s open-coffin wake was held at the end of a tiny alley in Quezon City. A sister and one friend sat stoically on their own until a church group showed up to sing a hymn. Angel’s real name, it turned out, was Ericka Fernandez, and she was the third of seven children. One of her sisters denied that Angel had ever used drugs — it was “a made-up story,” she said. Likewise, she said the Barbie-doll romance was invented by neighbors — according to her, Angel and Jerico weren’t a couple anymore at the time of their murders, and Angel had bought the doll herself as a gift for a family member. The coffin was half open, revealing a girl in a white dress with large, poorly concealed sutures holding her neck together. A few doors down, women played a raucous dice game.

Jerico’s wake was held about a mile away, and better attended, if only because it took place in a busy footpath. The coffin stood on display in front of his uncle’s house, as food vendors plied their offerings nearby and children skipped underfoot. A dog napped under the half-open coffin.

Jerico was innocent, said his father, Rommel Camitan. “He’s not a pusher. Hundred percent, sir. Not a pusher. For me he is a good son. Ask our neighbors.” Camitan sat on a plastic stool in the street, sheltered by a tarp that friends had strung overhead. Without enough cash on hand for a funeral, the family was buying another week by having Jerico’s body injected with more preservative against the tropical heat. Inside the coffin, illuminated by a light-up Jesus, Jerico had been cleaned up, though the thick makeup could not conceal the zigzag split in his forehead. A week after death, one of his eyes was caving in.

Despite his anguish, Camitan endorsed Duterte’s campaign. “All this talk of finishing drugs and the drug war is good,” Camitan said. “But he has to be sure that their target is the right person.” He added: “There have been cases around here. Usually they are pushers or addicts.” Good people had nothing to fear, he told me. “The only ones who should feel afraid are the ones who did something wrong.”

There is no certain or easy way to get off Duterte’s list. The mayor who died in his jail cell had flown to Manila to clear his name, and the barangay kapitan Art Jimenez tried before he was gunned down in traffic. After learning that he was named as a “drug personality,” Jimenez presented himself at Police Station 3. Sagpang, the National Police station commander, told me that a drug-screening team gave Jimenez a test: no trace of methamphetamines or cannabis in his system.

But Sagpang still insisted that Jimenez had been involved in the drug trade at a higher level, protecting two “Muslim drug pushers,” according to his sources. The kapitan’s driver and bodyguard that day were also drug users, he said — he seemed surprised that both were wounded in the assassination but survived.

Mañalac tried the same tactics to get off the list. He went to the offices of his local police chief, where he, too, passed a drug test showing that he was clean.

When I emailed him in December, Mañalac replied that things were looking up. He was working with the police and the business community, he said, helping President Duterte “continue the crusade against drug personalities.” The police chief for all of Malabon City had assured him he was no longer on the list. Nonetheless, Mañalac wrote, “I still have my two policemen as security.”

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