WORLD

The Bodies Of Drug Dealers Are Piling Up In The Philippines

"Pusher Ako" (translation: "I'm a drug pusher") is written on the bodies of slain targets, who are dumped in the public's view as a warning.

04/08/2016 2:01 PM AEST | Updated 04/08/2016 2:46 PM AEST
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Police wrap their lifeless heads in tape and cardboard scrawled with the tag 'pusher ako'.

It's a sign to the community that this person who lays dead on a street was a drug dealer. You should not remember their face. You should not see them as human.

You should not cry.

"They call it cardboard justice," Marites Vitug tells The Huffington Post Australia.

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Jennelyn Olaires, 26, cradles the body of her partner, who was killed and left with a sign proclaiming he was a drug dealer. She disputes it.

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An alleged drug dealer is killed and left on the street.

Vitug is editor in chief of Filipino news service Rappler, and has previously won the Courage in Journalism Award from the US-based International Women's Media Foundation.

She said courage was needed since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power and gave police free reign to kill suspected drug dealers on sight, with no trial, no evidence, no justice.

Duterte himself estimated 293 people were killed by government forces between July 1-24 but a 'kill list' compiled by The Inquirer has many more names. Countless thousands of drug users and dealers have also turned themselves in across the country, cramping already overcrowded prisons to breaking point.

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So many drug users and dealers have turned themselves in that Quezon City jail is dangerously overcrowded. This is inmates sleeping on an outdoor basketball court.

Let's take a moment to consider how the Philippines got here.

The island nation has long been dominated by a few elite families. These pseudo-political dynasties formed a ruling class of Marcoses, Arroyos and Aquinos.

In 1986, the People's Power Revolution ousted then-president Ferdinand Marcos, and inside his palace, they found more than one thousand pairs of shoes and 800 handbags belonging to his wife Imelda. There is speculation he amassed more wealth than the entire nation's GDP.

Despite the revolution, corruption has remained an ingrained part of culture and progress has been slow, with 19 percent living in extreme poverty. In this culture of corruption and lack of opportunities, the drug trade has found roots in the community.

The drug that's available and cheap is 'Shabu', or crystal meth.

Duterte made it his enemy.

He was not from a famous family. He did not grow up with privilege and as Mayor of the insurgency plagued southern region of Mindanao, he led death squads to stamp out crime.

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The People's Power revolution overthrew presidnet Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of corruption. This is a monument he had built on a golf course which was once indigenous farming land.

Erik de Castro / Reuters
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte salutes next to a military officer at main military Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city Metro Manila, Philippines July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

In the presidential election, he did not shy away from his abhorrent human rights record, promising drug lords would be made to "swallow bullets".

It was music to the ears of more than 16 million Filipinos who voted to elect this self-proclaimed action man who promised to stop a burgeoning drug trade from turning the Philippines into "Asia's Mexico".

The killings started before he was sworn in.

Expat academic Patricio N. Abinales at the University of Hawaii said now that Duterte was in power, politicians would be unlikely to cross him.

"The majority of politicians are either quietly supporting the president or keeping a distance from what has been happening," Abinales told HuffPost Australia.

"There is an element of political opportunism here -- you want to be in the good side of an executive with tremendous amounts of state resources in his hands -- but you also have the fact that many of these politicians agree with what his policies.

"Those who have connections with the drug trade or the illicit sector have also decided to lie low and let the storm pass."

That seems unlikely as Duterte's lawyer this week said that 27 local officials would be revealed as drug sympathisers.

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A woman weeps over the body of her husband, who was killed on a street by a vigilante group, according to police.

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Jennilyn Olayres cries at the coffin of her partner Michael Siaron who was killed by suspected vigilantes acting on Duterte's call to kill drug dealers.

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Inmates sleep on the ground at Quezon City jail because it was built to house 800, but there are currently 3,800 inmates.

Photographer Linus Escandor can capture the emotional embrace of a wedding or the moment when agony turns to ecstasy as volunteers are nailed to a cross on Good Friday in the nation's north. Yet increasingly, he's heading out at night with his camera photographing the bodies of suspected drug dealers.

You might think they would cry and be hysterical but for so many, they're just silent. Just motionless. Especially the children.Linus Escandor

"Last night I went out and 6pm and there were 10 dead in shootouts in one night," he told HuffPost Australia.

"Already there has been a massive war against criminality and drugs but there are shootings maybe seven a night in Manila. There are suspected drug pushers killed during buy/bust operations, maybe 10 a night in Manila and this does not include vigilante killings such as summary executions."

"Sometimes the crime scene is in a house or on a street. Normally the relatives and loved ones are there. You might think they would cry and be hysterical but for so many, they're just silent. Just motionless. Especially the children."

Despite witnessing these moments, Escandor, like the majority of Filipinos, supports Duterte -- he has a current trust rating of 91 percent -- the highest among contemporary presidents.

As Escandor said: "It's a good thing for our country in my own opinion, human rights advocates say it's extra judicial killing but Duterte has plan to eradicate drugs, that's his prerogative, of course people are against him but also 16 million people voted for him."

Student Mary-Beth Cross from Bicol told HuffPost Australia she also supported Duterte.

"When we have no faith in our officials and corruption is up to the highest level of the courts, we can't put faith in the system. Drug dealers will not be stopped through laws or any other way.

"I believe the streets will be safer."

Romeo Ranoco / Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supporters clench their fists during a rally.

Vitug said it was an "uphill battle" to show Filipinos why everyone, even the president, must follow the rule of law.

"I find it dangerous because people do like him," Vitug said.

"He's very authentic, a simple person, he doesn't like frills, he eats overripe bananas, and he doesn't want the life of the powerful so that connects well to the people. They tend to overlook the killings.

"It seems that the outrage isn't there yet."

Vitug said opinion might change if the economy was affected.

"Maybe the killings will reach the point where it alarms the business community. The language they know is money and if it unsettles them, there should be a tipping point coming."

That business-led turnaround could begin with tourism.

Travel company Uncharted Earth has led groups to the Philippines since 2011 and president Leo Cuesta told HuffPost Australia numbers dramatically changed during the presidential campaign.

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The Philippines has a booming tourism sector, especially in Palawan in the south west.

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Australian Brad Scott said he wouldn't go to El Nido, Palawan because he didn't want any hassles associated with Duterte's war on drugs.

"Our business has gone down from the same period last year," Cuesta told HuffPost Australia.

"Every year our sales have gone up and that was also true for this year up until April. If someone asked me, I'd say yeah it might have been Duterte's fault but I don't know. There could be other reasons. I don't have any hard data to back it up except for our experience."

He said that while Australians usually made up one in five of all bookings, there had been not one Aussie booking since April.

West Australian miner Brad Scott told HuffPost Australia he decided against the Philippines for a September trip.

"I've been to the Philippines a few times but really all I want is a good beach and a bit of a party town. You can get all over South East Asia so I'd rather not go the place where bodies are piling up in the street."

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Children play basketball in Mindanao, the Philippines.

For expat Abinales, his birth nation stirs a sense of belonging.

"It's the sense of family; the laughter; the quiet resolve to do or finish a work; and among parents and grandparents, this sense of sacrifice for the benefit of the next generation," he told HuffPost Australia.

"You will do your best to send your kid to school, even if it means going into debt."

Now it's this generation's time to see what type of world they're party to for their children.

For Vitug, it's simple.

"Filipinos have overthrown the president once before," she said. "They can do it again."