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Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war has killed thousands. Trump just invited him to the White House.


Lorraine Badoy, a doctor in the Philippine capital of Manila, remembers exactly when she began to see Rodrigo Duterte as someone she could call “my president.”

It was November 2013, three years before Duterte became the president of the Philippines, unleashed a violent crackdown on the nation’s drug dealers that has killed more than 7,000 people, boasted about personally executing suspected criminals, called then-President Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” compared himself to Hitler, picked fights with the Catholic Church, and raised serious questions about the future of one of Washington’s most important diplomatic relationships.

All of that would come later. Badoy’s realization that she could see Duterte leading her country came during the deadly and chaotic aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, which ravaged the Philippines in the waning weeks of 2013 and brought the already impoverished country to its knees. The typhoon killed an estimated 6,000 people, left more than 1,000 missing, and did $11.6 billion in property damage. Entire villages disappeared. It was a national tragedy for the Philippines on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in the US.

Badoy, who for years had gone on medical missions in the area hit hardest by the typhoon, watched the news from her home in Manila, feeling anguished and helpless.

Then she saw a news clip of Duterte, the mayor of Davao, a commercial hub in the southern island of Mindanao, who had brought an 80-person government medical team from his hometown and three helicopters lent by wealthy friends to help in the search-and-rescue operations. Duterte also brought the equivalent of $140,000 in cash to help typhoon survivors. In comments that drew enormous media coverage across the Philippines, Duterte cried as he said that “God must have been somewhere else” when the storm hit.

It was at that moment that Badoy began to wish that someone like Duterte, already known for talking tough and literally packing a pistol around Davao, would take the helm of her country. What Badoy watched touched her so deeply that it literally brought her to tears. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there is a local official like that,’” she told me. “Here was someone who mirrored my rage and grief.”

She wasn’t the only one taken with the mayor with the persona as badass as his mouth. Duterte won the presidency in the summer of 2016, elected by more than 16 million votes. He’s often compared to Donald Trump, who sparked outrage Saturday after the White House said the two men had a “very friendly conversation” in which they “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.” There was no mention of the many thousands who have died as part of Duterte’s personal war on drugs.

The tone of the statement, paired with Trump’s decision to invite Duterte to the White House for a formal visit, sparked outrage among lawmakers and human-rights advocates alike. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, in a widely-shared comment, took to Twitter to say “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.”

Still, there are two key differences between the two men. First, the things that bring Duterte the most criticism abroad — an autocratic style that shows little respect for political norms, and an unapologetically violent approach to his country’s drug problem — are exactly the things that make him most popular at home. Second, he’s enormously popular: Some polls have shown him with a jaw-dropping 91 percent approval rate.

Meet the tough-guy president known as “Duterte Harry”

Now entering his ninth month in office, Duterte is known for a surprising combination of violence and compassion, tied together by lurid invectives that dot his often rambling and profane public comments.

The 71-year-old, a father of four children from two different women, ran for the presidency on a clear and concise campaign promise: end drugs and criminality within six months using all means necessary. After his landslide win, he wasted no time showing he was dead serious.

His landslide win launched an anti-drug campaign that promised to reward cops for catching drug users and pushers whom he described as subhuman “zombies” who deserved to die.

Drug dealers and users surrendered en masse. Already congested jails were so overwhelmed with new prisoners that detainees were forced to sleep in shifts, sometimes sitting upright. An Agence France-Presse report showed a jail built to hold 800 inmates filled with 3,800, and compared it to scenes from Dante’s Inferno.

Still, those inmates had it better than those whose names were on neighborhood “watch lists,” a list of suspected pushers and users put together by “informants” motivated by anything from civic duty to personal grudges.

Many of the people on the watch list turned up dead. Bound and gagged, faces mummified in packaging tape, their corpses piled up on street corners and under bridges. Sometimes a piece of cardboard scrawled with “PUSHER. DON’T BE LIKE ME” was left as an epitaph — and a warning.

The brazen and brutal way the killings were carried out shocked world leaders and human rights advocates. Then–President Obama called on Duterte to deal with the drug problem “the right way.” Duterte responded by calling him a “son of whore” who should “go to hell.” Human Rights Watch called Duterte’s drug war “a human rights calamity.”

But while the global condemnation infuriated Duterte, it failed to intimidate him. His reply to the criticism is normally clear and succinct, like when the European Union called for a stop to the extrajudicial killings last September. Duterte answered with a two-word reply: “Fuck you.” He flashed them the middle finger — twice — for good measure.

Like many of Duterte’s supporters, Badoy dismisses outside criticism of him, crediting him for launching concrete programs to help the poor with free medical care and education. Her personal Facebook page is filled with posts about the president and has more than 45,000 followers. In her writings there, she refers to the president as “Digong, my love.”

Duterte seems to love Badoy just as much: On February 13, about a month after I spoke to Badoy for this article, Duterte appointed her as the assistant secretary in his Department of Social Welfare and Development, to serve as the focal person overseeing medicine assistance to drug dependents undergoing rehabilitation.

The country’s strongman president began his career as a strongman mayor

Before there was Duterte the president, there was Duterte the mayor of Davao, a coastal city on the island of Mindanao.

In an article for the Atlantic, Sheila Coronel, a veteran Filipino journalist and now director of the investigative reporting program at the Columbia School of Journalism, described the Davao of the late 1980s, when it was known as “Murder City.”

“The streets were gridded with checkpoints manned by nervous soldiers, their Armalites at the ready. But that didn’t deter unknown gunmen from shooting criminals and policemen, often in broad daylight,” Coronel wrote.

Even then, Duterte flaunted his Machiavellian style of justice. Coronel, who met the then-43-year-old mayor, recalled how he had once bragged about throwing a drug dealer out of a helicopter.

But Davao residents extolled the virtues of Duterte, the mayor who made their once lawless city clean and safe.

There are stories of how Duterte patrolled the city at night riding his motorcycle and carrying a gun. In a speech he made last December, he admitted as much, and added that he personally killed suspected criminals while on his motorcycle “looking for trouble.”

“Just to show the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you,” he said.

For all that, residents were happy to comply with the minor inconveniences: the curfew, the liquor ban after 2 am, the no-smoking policy. They were also ready to dismiss details like a 2009 Human Rights Watch investigation into the murder of hundreds of people — including minors — by the death squads in Davao City.

“Though there is no hard evidence of Duterte’s direct role in ordering the killings, we found proof that Davao City officials and police were directly involved,” Phelim Kine, a top HRW official, wrote in May 2016. His essay was headlined “Duterte Harry Has Been Dirty for a Long Time.”

To Davao residents, Duterte was “our mayor,” their protector and savior. It was a reputation built over more than two decades as mayor, a reputation that was brought to the national spotlight with that news clip that revealed Duterte as one of the first responders at the most destructive natural disaster in his country’s history.

A horrific storm helped a future president make his name

In December 2013, I was assigned to cover the devastation wrought by Yolanda and spent weeks in typhoon-ravaged villages. The typhoon made landfall five times, reducing an area roughly the size of Portugal to piles of wood, scrap metal, and corrugated steel.

In one village in Tacloban, the coastal city with the most casualties, a massive cargo ship had washed up ashore. Here, survivors had similar tales of how the sea had turned against them and swelled into a giant wall of water that engulfed them and swept away everything they had: their homes, their harvest, their loved ones. Until then, many had not heard of the term “storm surge.”

Some had buried their dead, but others were still looking for missing loved ones, living in the void between hope and grief.

Nicole Curato, a sociologist and research fellow at the University of Canberra, has been studying the recovery of Typhoon Yolanda victims for the past two years.

Before the 2016 elections — the first national elections since the typhoon — Curato visited Tacloban.

In a paper published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Curato described downtown Tacloban plastered with blue-and-orange Duterte posters along with a sign that read: “It’s our turn to help him. Rody Duterte for President. From victims of Typhoon Yolanda.”

Another Tacloban resident whose truck was covered with pictures of Duterte’s face told Curato, “We’ve always been on the receiving end of help. Now we are in a position to help him, and that makes me feel good.”

Citizens pooled their own funds to help with the campaigning for Duterte. Local entrepreneurs banded together to provide minivans, sound systems, truck ads, banners, and catering for campaign rallies. A group of Filipino nurses in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed $20 each to order pro-Duterte wristbands that their family members could distribute at graduation parties, Curato reported.

The memory of how Duterte came to help them remains fresh in the typhoon survivors’ memories. They look back on it with much gratitude and more than a tinge of contempt for other politicians who used their tragedy as an opportunity to take photos and promote themselves.

Tattoo artist Ralph Mamuri remembers how Yolanda barreled through the Philippines and seeing the news clip of how Duterte came to help. “He was partially speaking in dialect and couldn’t understand all of it, but I could feel Duterte’s anger and pain,” he says.

The news clip, along with stories of free health care enjoyed by his Davao friends, convinced Mamuri to vote for Duterte, and even to actively campaign for him on his Facebook page.

The Donald Trump of Manila goes viral

Duterte didn’t announce his candidacy until six months before the election. He had little time and money for a glitzy advertising campaign.

Instead, Nic Gabunada, the director of Duterte’s social media team, galvanized an online army of fellow supporters to vigorously campaign for the would-be president.

“The goal was to amplify the opposition’s weaknesses and build [Duterte’s] strengths,” Gabunda said in an interview with an advertising trade publication.

With a budget of just $214,199, Gabunda helped Duterte go viral. Hashtags like #DuterteTilTheEnd positioned character flaws as attributes. Duterte’s tough talk was authenticity, his violent strategies were administrative justice, and his refusal to abide by traditional standards of dress codes and diplomacy were just signs that he was a regular man, not a member of the country’s unpopular elite.

Businessman Ned Villarama didn’t care about Duterte’s use of profanities when he cast his vote for him. Villarama believed Duterte’s tough talk helped cut through bureaucracy and translate straight into action.

“When he wanted to put up an emergency 911 hotline in Davao, the mobile companies opposed it because it would mean putting up additional cell sites. He told them, ‘If you don’t want to put up more cell sites, I’ll just bomb your existing ones.’ And that was that. The cell sites went up,” said Villarama.

This kind of support has allowed Duterte to silence outrage among citizens and normalize the brutality of a drug war that has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people — mostly poor young men in urban slum communities.

The drug war was applauded as the fulfillment of a campaign promise and created instant rock stars out of Ronald dela Rosa, handpicked by Duterte to lead the Philippine National Police (PNP) and mobbed by crowds jostling their way to get a selfie with him wherever he goes.

On paper, it’s easy to characterize Duterte as another populist, one whose campaign was built on an increasingly familiar formula: Identify an enemy, demonize them, and blame all of society’s ills on them. Pound your chest about how you are the only one who has identified this enemy and are thus the only one who can eliminate it.

Duterte’s identified enemy is people who use drugs, portrayed as a 3 million–strong menace that will only grow to 10 million if not stopped immediately, using brute force if necessary. Official government figures peg the number of people who use drugs at 1.8 million.

“Duterte put drugs front and center of national politics and gave voice to a public that felt victimized by illegal drugs. He gave voice to preexisting frustrations and life to new possibilities for conducting electoral policies,” said Curato, the sociologist studying the recovery of Typhoon Yolanda survivors.

Curato describes Duterte’s impact on citizens as being a mix of “the politics of anxiety and the politics of hope.”

“Duterte’s relationship with his voting public runs deeper than one-way manipulation and demagoguery. It is penal populism — a political style that builds on sentiments of fear and justifies the demands for punitive politics,” she said.

Duterte is frequently compared to Trump, and for good reason. Trump brags about grabbing women “by the pussy”; Duterte threatens to kill all drug users and pushers. Both thumb their noses at diplomacy, and both have the habit of injecting sexual innuendo — with occasional reference to their penis — into their speeches.

Unlike Trump, however, Duterte is beloved at home. His current approval rating hovers at 83 percent.

This is a man willing to arrest a senator who questioned his brutal methods

But not everyone is as pleased with the carnage on the streets of the country. The newest, and potentially most significant, criticism comes from one of the places with a following that just might rival Duterte’s — the Catholic Church.

In December, the Redemptorist Church in Manila exhibited photos taken by photojournalists who document the nightly killings of alleged drug users and pushers. Seventy-two pictures lined the entrance of the pilgrimage church and greeted parishioners attending traditional Christmas Mass, a nine-day novena that ends on Christmas Day.

The pictures have since been shipped to a handful of provincial churches that wanted to mount a similar exhibit.

Not one to accept criticism of any sort, Duterte called out the church on its alleged hypocrisy over issues like family planning and revealed that he had once been molested by a priest as a teen.

“I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of shit and you all stink, corruption and all,” he said.

In early February, a pastoral letter from the church was read out in congregations across the country.

While not naming Duterte, the church called for an end to the string of drug-related extrajudicial killings that have resulted in a “reign of terror.”

“The solution does not lie in killing of suspected drug users and pushers,” the letter said. “An even greater cause of concern is the indifference of many to this kind of wrong,” read the letter.

It was the first time the church had taken a collective stand on the issue, and it was only the beginning. On February 18, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in a public park in Manila, where many of the killings have taken place, at the crack of dawn to protest the extrajudicial killings and Duterte’s push to reinstate the death penalty.

Archbishop Soc Villegas called out to Catholics to join the walk, which started at 4:30, the time when corpses are usually dumped in street corners and near trash bins.

Some voters regret backing Duterte, but it may not be enough to change his ways

Catholic leaders weren’t the only ones raising questions about Duterte’s drug war. In mid-January, South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo, 53, was seized by police at his home under the guise of a drug raid. Later, he was killed — in police headquarters in Manila — while officers allegedly continued to extort ransom money from his wife under the pretense that he was still alive.

It was another humiliating blow for the police, who have long been seen as one of the most corrupt institutions of government.

"You policemen are the most corrupt. You are corrupt to the core. It's in your system," Duterte told reporters shortly after Jee’s death.

Duterte promptly announced that police would no longer take part in anti-drug operations and ordered internal probes designed to weed out corrupt police officers and “cleanse” the organization.

But he emphasized that his drug war would continue, perhaps under the military — a move that experts say is doomed to fail.

“Providing the military with a role neutralizing corrupt elements in the police creates a situation of potential friction between the two institutions,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian and security and defense consultant in the Philippines.

He noted that the military’s 120,000 troops are already struggling to contain internal and external security threats like the fight against the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf extremist group, which targets both Westerners and Filipinos. On Monday, the military confirmed that Abu Sayyaf militants beheaded 70-year-old German national Jurgen Kantner after ransom demands were not met. Kantner and a companion were kidnapped last November while sailing in eastern Malaysia.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a prominent Duterte critic, said in an interview that “unless the government's current strategy to respond to the country's drug problem is radically overhauled and the country's security forces are thoroughly cleaned of scalawags ... the anti-drug campaign will continue to be abusive and corrupt-prone.”

Amnesty International also released a report in February that revealed police were behind many of the drug killings and were being paid as much as P8,000 to P15,000 ($150 to $300) per kill.

"Our report shows that there is active police involvement in extrajudicial executions either during police operations or, in cases of unknown shooters, through police hiring killers or disguising themselves as vigilantes to carry out the killings themselves," Matthew Wells, a senior researcher for Amnesty International, told me.

"The financial incentives, the pressure to deliver [on targets], and the impunity have resulted in a license to kill from the highest level of government," he added.

Wells, who was one of the field researchers, also noted a simmering “voter’s remorse” among those they had interviewed.

"The poor are being hammered by this drug war, and there is definitely a growing tension in the poor neighborhoods. ... Some say they voted for Duterte and supported his plans, but this drug war has taken things too far through the relentless unlawful killing."

Maybe, but if so, few are willing to say so publicly. Some have expressed concerns about Duterte on their Facebook page, others in everyday conversation among friends. But when I reached out to them directly, none felt comfortable about going public.

Cherry Lawton (name changed), a 30-year-old call center agent, admitted that she voted for Duterte but is uncomfortable with his drug war. “Why does there have to be so many killings?” she asked. “And so many innocent people caught in the crossfire?”

At a press conference in mid-February, Arturo Lascanas, a retired senior Davao police officer, detailed the existence of the “Davao Death Squad,” a vigilante group Duterte put together to get rid of political rivals and criminals, and admitted his own involvement as a ringleader. He said that Duterte personally paid him $20,000 for killing a broadcast journalist and commentator who openly criticized Duterte on his radio show.

“Here ends my blind obedience and loyalty to one person, Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte who is now president of our country,” Lascanas said, at one point breaking down when he confessed that he had ordered the killing of his two own brothers, who were involved in the illegal drug trade.

The report corroborated the earlier testimony of Edgar Matobato, a 57-year-old self-confessed triggerman, who told a Senate panel last September that he was a member of the Davao Death Squad. Several senators are now calling for a new probe based on Lascanas’s confession — a turnaround from his earlier testimony last October where he denied the existence of the gun-for-hire group and called it all “media hype.”

Writer Miguel Syjuco, a vocal critic of the Duterte administration’s policies, sees Duterte’s rise — and possible future fall — as part of an emerging global trend.

“The popularity of leaders like him relies on smoke and mirrors: fake news, myths, attacks on dissent,” he told me. “Around the world, this is a new form of dictatorship, with dubious elections and the bread and circuses of promised safety and free social services — but opposition isn’t allowed.”

Duterte, Syjuco added, “may prove to be a dictator wrapped in democracy’s clothing, and people may be too happy for it without realizing what they’ll be giving up.”

Freedom is one thing that Sen. Leila de Lima, the staunchest and most vocal critic of Duterte, has had to give up for now. On February 24, de Lima was arrested on charges that she extorted bribes from high-profile drug dealers in prison during her term as secretary of justice to fund her senatorial campaign.

The neophyte senator opened a Senate inquiry into the extrajudicial killings last year and was ousted from her position as head of committee leading the probe.

Since then, de Lima has been on the receiving end of verbal assaults and harassment that included leaking her home address and mobile number, and the airing of the lurid details of her affair with her driver-bodyguard who allegedly collected bribes from inmates.

De Lima fought back and has been in a word war with Duterte, who once suggested that she just hang herself. De Lima, in turn, called him a “sociopath and serial killer.”

“Clearly, this administration has evil and dangerous plans: to make an example of me to intimidate, silence, and destroy anyone who dares challenge them; to draw public attention away from the government's abuses and failures,” read a statement released by de Lima’s office before the senator was taken into custody.

Jose Manuel Diokno, the senator’s lawyer, says that her arrest can silence more voices of opposition. Still, he said it “may also other people to gain courage and start speaking out.”

“If a senator of the republic can be arrested just like that, then all of our rights are in jeopardy and it’s about time that we stand up and make our voices heard,” he said.

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