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Guns, Drugs And Murder: Nightcrawling On The Streets Of Manila
Feature|May 4, 2018

Guns, Drugs And Murder: Nightcrawling On The Streets Of Manila

Australia’s Ice Epidemic And Crackdown Is Serious, But Nothing Like What’s Happening In The Philippines, Where The Death Toll From President Rodrigo Duterte’s Drug War Is Climbing Past 20,000.
Ben Bohane

There was a time when a little bit of “go-y”, or speed, was enough for some recreational rock-concert fun in the 1980s and ’90s, even if your mate chewed your ear off with gibberish and required a pack of gum to stop his grinding teeth. It kept you a bit hyper and enthused, but nothing too crazy.

Speed may be the poor man’s cocaine, but a lot of its use was also work-related: from truckies to nurses pulling late-night shifts and needing focus. Journo mates doing graveyard radio shifts were not immune to a line or two as they watched the Reuters telex machine clank out news into the wee hours, ready to read their bulletins at the top of each hour in an alert state of mind.

Speed has a long history with soldiers, too. In his book Blitzed, Norman Ohler uncovers the incredible extent to which Hitler and the Third Reich depended on methamphetamines during World War II. Elsewhere, American GIs popped pills in Vietnam during night patrols, and many stories have emerged from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria about how ISIS has been fighting on Captagon pills.

But just as opium and heroin now seem rather quaint compared to the insane toxicities and highs from synthetic opioids, so too has speed been ‘upgraded’ in the past decade or two, from powder to crystal, in the form of ice, to a whole new level of ridiculousness. 

I remember people doing crazy shit on speed, but they didn’t eat babies — literally — or tear their own flesh away, or jerk off in public, or require five security guards to control them as they arrived in casualty wards following four-day benders. No, as someone who keeps an open mind when it comes to drugs, I have always, ahem, drawn the line at ice (meth, shabu, crystal, glass, shard, whatever you want to call it) myself. I mean, is there a more stupid and insidious drug out there? More than any other, ice appears to be an exercise in getting a few highs, followed by a rapid descent into madness and self-destruction. 

Image: Police officer found executed on the street.

Image: Police officer found executed on the street.

Sensible people take drugs to relax, to focus or to enhance a pleasant situation. And you can make a lifelong career out of it without having to wind up in rehab, give everything up and become a Boring Person. Or, you can dive deep into the crystal abyss and totally fuck yourself (and your family) up forever. Choose your drugs wisely, my friends (not that I am advocating, etc.).

There’s been a fair bit of media coverage of the ice wars and its penetration here in Oz. Though it’s often a bit sensationalist, there is no question that ice addiction really is cutting a swathe through a whole generation, particularly in rural communities. It has become a crisis in many small Australian towns and FIFO communities.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said there were 1,649 ice-related deaths in Australia between 2009 and 2015, finding 43 per cent of those were overdoses. Meanwhile, a recent survey found 1.4 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 had used ice in the past 12 months – that’s roughly one in 70 people.

Some headlines from the second half of 2017:

○ “Australian Federal Police seize largest-ever haul of methamphetamine precursor: Australian Federal Police have found almost four tonnes of the drug precursor ephedrine —enough to make up to $3.5 billion of methamphetamine — hidden in green tea bottles sent from Thailand.”

○ “Meth users top 30 per cent spike in ‘toxic blend’ of mental illness and drug use: More than 40 per cent of meth users have a mental illness, as experts warn Australia is ill-equipped to deal with spiking rates of mental illness among drug users.”

○ “‘This is not a beat-up’: Ice-related deaths doubled over seven years, study finds: The number of deaths relating to methamphetamine use has doubled in seven years, with nearly half of those in regional Australia, a national study finds.”

I might have had more personal experiences to relay had I been living in Australia in recent decades, but instead, I have seen the ice explosion across Asia and witnessed the first “ice” war in Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the noughties when several thousand people were killed by cops and gangs. These days, some Australian bikie gangs have set up in Thailand to get involved in the meth trade closer to the source, and violent intimidation, murders and drug busts have ensued. 

Burma, once famous for the tons of opium and heroin carried by mules out of the notorious Golden Triangle, is now the base for massive ice labs and meth factories run by much the same narco-armies who used to run heroin. Ice seems to have a wider market now and is cheaper to manufacture and cheaper to buy. A lot of it is smuggled by Chinese Triad gangs across Asia and into Australia, Europe and the US. 

Given the ubiquity of Chinese involvement through its “snakehead” networks overseas (never for local use in China), it is interesting to ponder whether the Chinese state turns a blind eye to the increasing destruction wrought by shabu (as it is often called in Asia) in western countries. Perhaps it is their revenge for the humiliation of the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when Britain forced an opium monopoly on China, creating millions of addicts. Back then, Britain’s idea of a drug war was to enforce drug supply, not stop it. 

Image: Manila police patrol the streets.

Image: Manila police patrol the streets.

Yet, few countries have found themselves in such a dire situation as the Philippines. While Australia grapples with its own epidemic, in 2012 the United Nations said the Philippines had the highest rate of methamphetamine use in East Asia. According to a US State Department report, 2.1 per cent of Filipinos aged 16 to 64 were using the drug, known locally as shabu. In a nation of now 105 million people, that means a conservative estimate of more than two million addicts.

Some reports blame Chinese triad gangs for importing much of the shabu, or at least its precursor materials, from China. Meth labs were found operating openly in some prisons, implicating their police wardens. So when “Duterte Harry” came to power in June 2016, he vowed a ruthless campaign against corruption and addiction that has not stopped since. Human-rights groups are aghast and many complain that it is effectively a “war on the poor”. But President Rodrigo Duterte remains wildly popular for his maverick style and uncompromising approach to drugs and security.

I was in the Philippines covering tensions in the South China Sea when his drug war kicked off and later ended up covering the night battles in Manila. I also visited the rehab centres that were becoming overwhelmed as tens of thousands of addicts began turning themselves in for treatment, afraid they’d be shot on sight by cops given a “licence to kill” by Duterte, no questions asked. 

Manila is pretty seedy at the best of times, but its back alleys and slums have become more dangerous as the drug war continues. Many innocents are caught in the crossfire, or even by wrong information, but there seems little accountability from the police or state. 

I was enjoying the hospitality of Manila’s nightcrawling media and police photographers at their Manila Police District headquarters in Ermita for barely 20 minutes before the first call came through. We were tucking into some noodles at the time when a photographer serenading us with his guitar suddenly stopped. Others looked up from their computer games of poker, before grabbing their cameras and heading out the door.

Jumping into a convoy of cars from the press corps office, we moved at speed through the tangle of night-time traffic, racing to document the next killing in a drug war that shows no end.

It was 11 pm and the dozen or so photographers from various local media, such as Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star, wire agency photographers and freelancers, had already covered one slaying earlier in the evening. “Last night there were 12 killings around Manila,” said one. “Most nights recently there are at least 10.” 

We head to Marikina City, east of Manila Metro, and find a crime scene already being established by heavily armed police, with a body in an alleyway next to a 7/11 convenience store. As we’re waiting for permission to go under the yellow tape to photograph, we get the next call about a shoot-out nearby.

“Let’s hop to the next one – it’s an ex-cop who’s been killed, so it’ll be more interesting,” says freelance photographer Linus Escandor. Fifteen minutes later, we’re at the next scene. Here, spread-eagled on the ground, with gruesome gunshot wounds to the head and a trail of blood, lies an ex-policemen, dead. He’d been killed in a shootout with police from the Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group (SAIDSOTG) during a raid at midnight, 25 minutes earlier. Identified as PO3 Pelito Basan Obligacion, he was claimed to be drug – and gun-running and, as in most cases, supposedly had “fired first, causing police to respond”. A .45 Colt pistol lay near his limp hand. 

Image: Local media at the scene of a crime.

Image: Local media at the scene of a crime.

There’s a recurring joke among the press photographers: that it seems as if the same revolver is always somehow there, lying next to the dead hand of a victim who “tried to shoot first”, as the cops will invariably say.

Under the glare of headlights, flashing police lights and TV camera lights, the crime scene is lit up and forensics teams get to work once the photographers have their shots. Yellow tape then cordons off the area and spent bullet casings are circled in chalk and numbered. 

“Most of the killings happen in the outer suburbs or central Manila,” says Linus. “Not so much in Makati [the main business part of town], because there is a lot of CCTV there”.

The killings began before Duterte had even been sworn into office, as if in anticipation. 

Within just two weeks of his inauguration as the 16th president of this sprawling archipelago of more than 7000 islands and 105 million people, nearly 300 drug dealers and users had been killed in shoot-outs with police and vigilantes. Duterte had launched a withering crackdown on drugs that gave his cops licence to “shoot first, ask later”. Within 100 days, the death toll had already reached staggering heights, tipping 3500 drug dealers, users and innocent civilians caught in the fray. 

A startling 60,000 addicts handed themselves in for treatment at various regional clinics around the country in those first few weeks – the fear of being killed by police now seemingly overriding their hardcore addiction. Since then, hundreds of thousands more have surrendered, overwhelming the public health system. Rehab centres have reportedly been set up on army bases to help cope with the staggering numbers.

Duterte has vowed he will risk everything to put an end to the drug problem, which he cites as a major security and corruption issue. The former Mayor of Davao in southern Mindanao island, he is credited with creating one of the safest cities in the Philippines for his tough-on-crime approach, although critics have denounced his vigilante-style methods. He has boasted of killing criminals himself which, in the Philippines, only adds to his lustre – the Pinoys love an action man.

At his presidential inauguration speech, Duterte said: “I know that there are those who do not approve of my methods…They say that my methods are unorthodox and verge on illegal…I have seen how illegal drugs destroyed individuals and ruined family relationships…In this fight I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.”

In a speech before the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) shortly after his inauguration, Duterte said of his reasoning for the drug war: “If you destroy my country, I will kill you. If you destroy our children, I will kill you. If I am asked by anybody, including the Commission on Human Rights, I do not know you.”

Nor has he been seen to be only going after the small fish. Within his first month in office Duterte named and shamed five of the nation’s highest police chiefs as “narco-generals” protecting criminal syndicates, and he’s outed many more since. In one province alone, the Visayas region, 123 police were sacked, while Duterte enlisted the help of the New People’s Army (NPA), the communist insurgents, to take out drug dealers in their areas, which its leaders agreed to.

He even showed little sympathy when his own son Paolo was implicated in a drug importation racket in September, publicly vowing to kill him “if the rumours are true” and Paolo is convicted.

Image: Nightcrawling on the streets of Manila.

Image: Nightcrawling on the streets of Manila.

The tough approach has concerned not just civil society groups but ordinary Filipinos who voted for him and who worry that “a war on drugs is also a war on poor people”. One taxi driver, Bobby, said he voted for Duterte, but told me “we have courts for a reason. You can’t let cops be judge, jury and executioner”. 

Back at the station later, the guys are smoking and strumming guitars when the sixth call-out for the night comes. This one is a “salvage” job, slang for “summary execution”, and so named because the victims are often wrapped in plastic and dumped. While corrupt police are often involved in killings to silence potential informers now that the crackdown is in full force, they tend not to bother with salvage jobs since, as one photographer puts it, “They can’t be bothered wrapping them in plastic; they just shoot them and say there was a shoot-out.” 

Later, once again we speed through traffic, pretty heavy even for this time of night. This is actually the most dangerous part of the job, because usually the press and police photographers arrive after the killings and there isn’t much risk. But the urgency to get to the crime scene and document it before police rope it off and remove the body and evidence is the risky part, as I soon find out. 

Speeding across lanes in light rain, a taxi brakes hard in front of us and suddenly we are fishtailing across several lanes and nearly slam into buildings on the sidewalk. We hit the kerb hard and are all jolted into gasps and then jarring silence as we look at each other. Our car is damaged on one side and the driver doesn’t want to continue. At that point, it is after 3 am and we head back to the station. Slightly shaken by the car spin and deaths I’ve witnessed that evening, I decide to call it a night. Jumping into a taxi to head back to my hotel, I leave the photographers waiting on a call out to the next macabre scene as the bodies in Duterte’s drug war keep piling up. 

A whole generation of news photographers and police are dealing with the trauma of covering this horror every day. Especially when the victims are sometimes nine-year-old kids, for God’s sake.

Some in Australia might applaud the fierce tactics of Duterte, but opinions usually change when suddenly it is your son, or friend or sister caught up. Drug wars rarely succeed, and it’s likely the one in the Philippines is no exception.