What Happens to The Families Left Behind in Duterte’s Deadly Campaign Against Drugs

October 8, 2019
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer

Relatives take part in a protest against drug war killings outside military and police headquarters on July 17, 2019 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

The Philippine police said her father was a drug dealer who resisted arrest. Jennifer*, who was 11 at the time, tells it differently: men in civilian clothes entered her home, ordering everyone to leave. Instead, Jennifer clung to her father, trying to shield him as he pleaded with the intruders. Moments later, shots rang out.

Both versions of the story, however, had the same outcome. That day in December 2016, Jennifer’s father became one of the thousands of people killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against drugs, which is chronicled in FRONTLINE’s documentary On the President’s Orders.

Duterte’s crackdown began three years ago, and the gruesome nature of the killings drew international attention. Recently, human rights organizations have highlighted the effects that the extrajudicial killings leave on families and communities.

The story of Jennifer, whose name was changed to protect her identity, was one of several accounts collected by Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos H. Conde. For the past several months, Conde researched what happens to the children caught up in Duterte’s drug war.

“What struck me deeply was the level of trauma that these kids have,” Conde told FRONTLINE. “When I talked to her about that, she was very articulate and forthright, but you could sense the deep psychological trauma that she suffered in witnessing the violence and also being reminded every day of what happened to her father.”

The children Conde met and spoke with paint a harrowing portrait of the long-lasting impacts of the killings. Three siblings, who were 15, 13 and 10 when their father was killed over two years ago, now live on the streets, don’t attend school and work menial jobs for money after effectively being abandoned by their mother. The mother of a 5-year-old boy said he had threatened to kill one of his friends and wrap him in packaging tape. It’s the same manner in which the boy’s father was found after being stabbed 19 times — his head wrapped in tape and a sign placed near him that read, “I’m a drug pusher. Don’t emulate me.”

The Philippines government’s official count of fatalities in the campaign against drugs topped 5,500 this summer. Human rights organizations, however, say the number of people killed by police and by unidentified vigilantes is much higher, between 20,000 and 30,000.

Because of the uncertainty around the number of deaths, it’s difficult to fully understand how many families have been impacted. But the Philippine Human Rights Information Center, a rights organization, has been working to closely document the toll on the families left behind.

In a report released Tuesday, PhilRights investigated the deaths of 118 victims of alleged extrajudicial killings. The report notes that they were mostly men living in poor communities, employed in low-wage jobs, and were the breadwinners for their families. The report found that 125 children lost at least one of their parents.

The children’s caretakers said “the children became quarrelsome. They had mood swings,” Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, a professor at the University of Philippines and executive director of PhilRights, told FRONTLINE. “Sometimes they would just stay in the corner of the house, staring at the wall or staring at the ceiling, which was behavior not exhibited or displayed by the child when the father was still alive.”

The PhilRights report said children and other family members, especially those who witnessed the killing, displayed signs such as anger, aggression, social withdrawal and violent tendencies. Some children had to quit school, either because of the trauma, lack of money for school fees or because of the stigma of being related to a victim of the widely-supported drug war.

Read more: Fighting for Compassion in the Philippines’ Brutal Drug War

PhilRights found that the physical and psychological health of family members deteriorated, with experiences ranging from weight loss to insomnia and paranoia. And because the person who was killed was often the primary breadwinner, families were pushed deeper into poverty.

Even the grieving process was complicated. Pimentel said the association and fear attached to illegal drugs isolates families.

“In the Philippines, usually when there is a wake in the community, people would go to the families and express their sympathies,” she said. However, with those killed in the drug war, “in many instances it will just be the members of the families attending the wake of the dead member, because the neighbors were so afraid to go and visit to express their sympathies for fear of being associated with illegal drugs or fear of becoming a target.”

Father Danny Pilario, an academic during the week and pastoral worker on the weekend, has worked in a poor community in the metro area of Manila that was affected by the drug war from the beginning. As killings ramped up, with police announcing that they had to shoot people on the drug watch list who fought back, families started coming to the parish looking for help with funeral expenses. (A report from Amnesty International in July noted that the “staggering costs of burial and other funeral services” prompted many families to ask churches or local politicians for help.)

The parish asked affected families how the church could help. Many, he said, were reluctant to be part of the effort — some families moved away from the area, some said they just wanted to keep quiet. But around 15 mothers responded to the parish’s call.

“Their first reply actually wasn’t money or food — even if we know there is no food or no money at home,” he told FRONTLINE. “They said that we would like to have this space where we can share our stories.” He said they needed that space because they didn’t have support in their neighborhoods and communities — people were either afraid, or agreed with the sentiment that society was better off getting rid of these individuals.

“With that atmosphere, there was no one in the neighborhood who would commiserate, who would condole with you,” he said.

Initial bimonthly meetings evolved into what became known as Project Support for Orphans and Widows. Pilario said they try to help families heal from the trauma, using Bible scriptures, art therapy and volunteer psychologists and counselors, who work with adults and kids in separate sessions. They also try and assist families with educational aid for their children and training for jobs. He said there are around 25 families taking part in the program, although the number fluctuates.

Conde noted that outside religious groups, parishes and NGOs, few care about what happens to these families. “They are the most marginalized. They are the most voiceless sector of the Philippines,” he said. “They don’t have access to a lot of government services. They don’t have access to politics. There are multiple layers of victimization here that go beyond the act of killing.”

Read more: Before His Bloody Drug War, Rodrigo Duterte was an Iron-fisted Mayor

Beyond the family units themselves, Pimentel noted that the killings and the atmosphere created by the drug war have seeped into entire communities. “Usually in urban poor communities, social support would tend to be relatively strong, and you can run to your neighbors if you have problems or if you need assistance. In some communities that has weakened,” Pimentel said. “One serious effect is the sowing of fear, people becoming suspicious of one another. They did not know if they could trust their neighbor.”

Rights organizations in the Philippines have referred to the drug war as a war on the poor for some time now, and Pimentel said that’s irrefutable if you examine the demographics of the victims. But as the campaign continues, she said, PhilRights is re-framing it: “It’s not only a war against the poor. It’s a war against human rights.”

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