Who’s behind brutal Philippines drug killings? A hitman speaks out

The Philippines have been gripped by violence amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drug dealers and users. More than 7,000 people have been killed in the last nine months, according to Human Rights Watch. But who is actually responsible for the killings? William Brangham narrates a report by Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala.

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    It's fair to say a reign of terror grips the Philippines, as its president, Rodrigo Duterte, wages a brutal war on drug dealers and users.

    According to Human Rights Watch, more than 7,000 people have been killed in just the last nine months. But who exactly is doing the killing?

    This story was reported by Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala and narrated by William Brangham.

  • And a warning:

    There are some disturbing images.


    For decades, slums here in the Philippines have been safe havens for the illegal drug trade. Crystal meth is sold in these alleys just like candy. A gram costs at least $25. That's triple the daily minimum wage. And it's the cheapest drug on the market.

    In this drug den, users rent space to smoke without fear of being caught. It does a brisk business. The government estimates that meth can be found in nearly every community in the capital, Manila, and, nationwide, there's an estimated 1.3 million drug users. Even kids get in on the trade, making homemade foil pipes to sell.

    This is the crisis that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to end. One of his many outlandish solutions? Encouraging addicts to commit suicide.

  • RODRIGO DUTERTE, Philippine President (through interpreter):

    Feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun. You have my support.


    Soon after the new president took office, a wave of summary killings swept across the country. Suspected users and dealers were shot dead on the streets by unknown hit men. An estimated 40 people die everyday.

    Political analyst Ramon Casiple believes the violence is part of the president's strategy to sow fear.

  • RAMON CASIPLE, Political Analyst:

    If what they're saying is that he's developing the environment for these killings, then I think I would say yes, precisely, that's the effect he wants, to sow fear among the criminals.


    So, are these killings changing anything in the Philippines, or simply a sign of nationwide lawlessness?

    We found answers from a supporter of the president. She goes by the name Zenny, and she wants to hide her identity. Zenny says Duterte's war on drugs had a positive outcome in her neighborhood. Many users and dealers have turned themselves in, she says.

  • ZENNY, Philippines (through interpreter):

    Our neighborhood became more orderly and peaceful because of his war on drugs. I voted for him because I want the drug crisis solved. It really worked.


    She says her own son was so scared that he stopped doing drugs, which made her happy. But this mother's peace didn't last long. A group of half-a-dozen gunmen shot her 34-year-old son dead.

  • ZENNY (through interpreter):

    Six civilian men barged themselves into our home. They were carrying guns. They told me to leave, so I dashed out. They were surrounding our place. The media was there, the crime investigators, including a staff from the funeral parlor. I heard two gunshots.


    According to police and media reports, her son resisted arrest, and pulled a gun on his attackers. But Zenny doesn't believe it.

  • ZENNY (through interpreter):

    How can my son own a gun, for Christ's sake? He doesn't even have a penny to buy himself a cigarette, much more a gun. How was it possible for him to resist arrest when they had him cornered?


    She thinks it's a cover-up by the police.

  • ZENNY (through interpreter):

    Everything was ready. There were plenty of police, of men in uniform. It looks like they have a systematic procedure in place.


    Currently, Philippine police say roughly 64 percent of these deaths are vigilante-style killings. But the government says they're not responsible. They say only proper investigations can determine the real reasons.

    Duterte's spokesman says the government wants these cases solved quickly.

  • ERNESTO ABELLA, Presidential Spokesman (through interpreter):

    I don't have the timeline, but he wants things to be done quickly and appropriately.


    But nine months into Duterte's drug war, there hasn't been a single arrest for any of these murders. This inaction is deeply frustrating to the Philippine's own Commission on Human Rights.

    GWEN GANA, Commission on Human Rights: The investigation must be done promptly. And not only the investigation, but it must be shown that there is resolve in really coming out with a solution, or the findings are really clear and that it must be made public right away.


    So who is committing these murders? And who's ordering them?

    Correspondent Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala talked with a self-described hit man. He uses an alias, Kevin. He says he belongs to a network of assassins who are protected by a political figure. He also says he's killed 15 people in the last six months. Kara asked him who these killers were and why they were doing it?

  • KEVIN, Philippines (through interpreter):

    They're a lot, but most of them are cops, because there is money involved. They are paid about 310 U.S. dollars per person killed. In one night, you need to kill at least four, at least one drug lord and one pusher per night.


    This means a night of killings can earn these men more than the average Filipino earns in a month.

    Kara asked, so where's the money coming from?

  • KEVIN (through interpreter):

    From our government, from Duterte's office, from the municipal government, from the mayors.


    The president's spokesman rejects these accusations and says Duterte didn't order these executions. He says these killings are likely just fellow drug gangs targeting each other.


    References have been made that the deaths could be attributed to internecine killings, meaning to say people among their own peers doing that. Personally, the president has said that he doesn't condone this sort of killing.


    There will be no letup in this campaign.


    But critics have reason to doubt the president. President Duterte has been linked to a secret death squad back in his hometown, Davao City.

    In the late '90s, then Mayor Duterte launched an anti-drug campaign. And, just like today, a number of alleged drug dealers and addicts were murdered. These killings were blamed on a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. And many said that Mayor Duterte was behind them.

  • MAN:

    If you're a drug pusher, if you're a drug lord here, do not come for (INAUDIBLE) I will not give you any. Who killed them? I don't know. You're asking me? I'm not the one.


    But political analyst Ramon Casiple says Duterte's seeming inaction serves his goals.


    His own assessment of the situation was that he thinks there is a sense to the vigilantism, in the sense that this protects the community, this protects his people.


    Father Amado Picardal, who lived in Davao, believes the president was behind the formation of the Davao Death Squad. The Philippines is a majority Catholic country, and the church is considered a supporter of the president, so Father Picardal's accusations are not made easily.

    Picardal says former members of the Death Squad told him and his fellow priests that Duterte was directly involved.


    I believe what is happening now is a replication and multiplication of the Davao experience. Davao is the template.


    I have been around this area and seen a lot of wakes from extrajudicial killings almost every day. You also must get confessions here from policemen or just vigilantes.


    You know, I heard from my fellow priests that a number of policemen coming for confession has increased. And many of them are really bothered by their conscience.

    So, what I would advise to policemen who would come for confession is, don't follow illegal orders. Follow your conscience.


    In 2009, Human Rights Watch and the Philippines' human rights agency traced 1,000 deaths tied to the Davao Death Squad. They attempted to pursue a case against then Mayor Duterte for, at the least, tolerating these killings. But no one was willing to take the witness stand and no case was filed.

    Now, throughout the Philippines, the body count continues to grow, as murderers remain on the loose.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

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