“If They Are Stubborn, Then We Will Kill Them”: Inside Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drug Suspects in the Philippines

October 7, 2019
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

Shortly after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte launched a brutal crackdown on suspected drug users and dealers in 2016, he compared himself to Adolf Hitler.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews,” Duterte said. “Now there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Thousands in the Philippines have since been killed in the course of Duterte’s “war on drugs” — more than 5,500 by the police, according to the government’s official toll, with thousands more reportedly executed by mysterious masked gunmen.

The violent campaign is the subject of the searing new documentary On the President’s Orders, which has earned acclaim on the international film festival circuit and will have its U.S. broadcast premiere on FRONTLINE Oct. 8.

Over several months of filming in 2017 and 2018 in the Caloocan district of Manila, award-winning directors Olivier Sarbil and James Jones probed suspicions that police have been carrying out extrajudicial killings despite Duterte’s eventual promise to scale back his drug war.

In the above excerpt from the film, SWAT unit leader Capt. Octavio Deimos first denies rumors that drive-by shootings are being carried out by police. Deimos goes on to defend police shootings of suspects who “fight back” — citing Duterte’s hatred of drug users.

“A drug addict or drug pusher— that kind of person has no place already here,” Deimos says. “That’s their choice. They don’t want to live any more.”

Then, when the camera is turned off but audio is still recording, Deimos makes a startling admission.

He tells Jones and Sarbil that he’s heard from people on the force that the drive-by shootings actually were carried out by police officers.

The film then cuts to remarks by the Caloocan police chief at the time, Jemar Modequillo, who had previously vowed to try to reduce deaths in police operations. He’s addressing his officers about how to treat people accused of using or dealing drugs who have turned themselves in.

“Are we going to kill them? No,” he says at first. “They are human beings.”

Then, things take a turn.

“But if they are stubborn, then we will kill them,” Modequillo continues, laughing as he asks, “Am I right?”

As the officers laugh, too, he says, “It seems like you are all anti-life. You’re all just like me!”

Shot in the style of a thriller, On the President’s Orders draws on unprecedented access to the police, as well as time spent with families of users and victims who suspect that the police are running secret death squads. The documentary is interwoven with President Duterte’s own statements and speeches.

“My only sin,” Duterte said last year, “is the extrajudicial killings.”

On the President’s Orders premieres Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on FRONTLINE. Tune in or stream on PBS (check local listings), at PBS.org/frontline and on the PBS Video App.

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