This June, 2019 marked three years since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power and launched a nationwide anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.
In towns and cities across the country, the lethal policy that the government calls the “war on drugs” continues unabated. Since 2016, thousands of poor people suspected of using or selling drugs, or otherwise linked to drugs, have been killed by police and unknown armed persons.
While during the first year of Duterte’s tenure as president these killings were fairly well-documented, now they often go unreported, contributing to a perilous normalisation of extrajudicial executions, police abuses, erosion of the rule of law and victimisation of the poor in the country. This situation leaves the victims’ families feeling even more powerless and isolated than before.
The Philippine government says the campaign has led to 6,600 deaths. Human rights organisations, however, estimate a death toll as high as 27,000.
And the victims of drug-related killings are overwhelmingly from poor and marginalised communities, in line with past research findings showing that the government’s anti-drug efforts chiefly target the poor with the vast majority of the victims of drug-related killings coming from impoverished communities, the “war on drugs” has been consistently described as a “war on the poor.”
The loss of a breadwinner, and the staggering costs of burial – compounded by funeral home rackets involving the police – push poor families even deeper into poverty.
Thousands of cases remain in legal limbo, classified as “deaths under investigation” by the Philippine National Police and never brought to prosecutors.
And many families find themselves facing the same dead end, unable obtain justice for their loved ones, citing the enormous obstacles to filing cases, the extreme difficulty of obtaining police or autopsy reports, and authorities’ failure to investigate, and their immense fear of retaliation.
And so, the war on drugs rages on with thousands of deaths painting a portrait of the cycle of impunity in a city where many are never identified and the majority of murders are not investigated.
Many deaths remain unresolved, but this doesn’t stop human rights advocates and families of the victims from believing these killings were done in the name of the police and the war on drugs.
Since 2017 my work has been focused on documenting victims not identified and deaths not investigated amid the President's war on drugs.