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The dark legacy of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines

While in power, former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte ordered the murder of thousands of people without trial.

Journalist Patricia Evangelista chronicles the leader’s bloody ‘war on drugs’ in her memoir “Some People Need Killing.”

Today, On Point: The dark legacy of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.


Patricia Evangelista, journalist. Author of the recent book “Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Patricia Evangelista is a trauma journalist and a former investigative reporter for the Philippine news company Rappler. Beginning in 2016, Patricia reported on former Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s so called ‘War on drugs.’ And we will be talking about what Patricia saw during that time, so as a warning, we may actually also discuss some graphic descriptions of violence and therefore this hour may not be appropriate for all listeners.

But Patricia shares her story about her life during that time and about her country during that time in the new memoir, “Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country.”

Patricia, welcome to On Point.

PATRICIA EVANGELISTA: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: You start the book with a young 11-year-old girl named Love. And you describe how when you meet her, you kneel down and you tell her your name in order to open up at least some kind of rapport between you and her.

And then Love tells you the story of what she had experienced. Can you tell us her story?

EVANGELISTA: I met her when she was very young. She was 11 years old. She was small for her age. All skinny brown legs and big dark eyes. And she was born Lady Love, that was her name. But, nobody called her Lady, everyone called her Love, and only her father called her Love. Just Love. And she lived in the second floor of a shanty with her mother and her father and her many little siblings, and there were many of them.

And one night, late in the night, two men wearing dark masks kicked down the door, and Love’s father was asleep. One of the men with a gun stood over Love’s father and said, Positive. Positive, he meant, positive for being a man on the list of illegal drug users or dealers. Love’s father tried to get up.

But there was a baby asleep on his chest, so he fell back down again. And then he turned his head, he looked at Love, and he said her name. He said, Love. And that was the last word he said before the bullet cracked across his temple. So the baby woke up. And the baby was covered in blood, so he was wailing.

And then Love’s mother dropped to her knees. She tried to proffer the sheet of paper that said she had already surrendered, that she had changed her life. And she begged for her life. But the gunman stood in front of her and lifted the gun. It was Love, who stood between the gunman and her mother.

And it was Love who stood with a barrel of the gun just inches from her forehead. And it was Love, all skinny brown legs and big dark eyes, who swore at the gunman and told her to kill her instead. So the gunman left, and they didn’t, they weren’t gone for long. When they returned, they stood in front of Love’s mother, and then raised the gun.

The gunman said, “[Translation] We are Duterte.” And then he emptied the magazine. And Love’s mother died on her knees.

CHAKRABARTI: What was Love’s demeanor like when she told you what had happened to her parents?

EVANGELISTA: She was quiet. But, when you’re a trauma reporter, you don’t read much into demeanor very often, because people absorb trauma very differently. Sometimes they weep, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they refuse to talk.

With Love, she was shy. She was a little shy. And, but, she was not unwilling to speak. Interviews like this, you don’t really ask about feelings. You can’t. Because to ask someone, “How do you feel?” in the aftermath of traumatic events is uncomfortable and difficult. And a little unfair. Because of course you’re broken, of course you’re traumatized.

So what you do instead is you ask facts. What was your father wearing? How big was the room? At what moment did the gunman raise his arm? Because those things, they’re factual, you don’t have to dig very deep into them. And then when you do what I do, you ask the question, so you can build the scene in your head. So that you can walk into the room yourself again and see the gunman and see the color of the shoe and see how the door opens so that you can tell people the story.

CHAKRABARTI: Did she understand? Not just what, obviously, she knew what had happened to her parents, but did she understand the supposed reason why or where the order had come from?

EVANGELISTA: In the case of Love, the killers were vigilantes. They were not policemen who would, in the aftermath, as is in most cases, would say her father fought back.

As with other little girls who saw their fathers die. In Love’s case, it was two men wearing masks. She was aware that there was a threat. Before her parents died, she was very afraid. Because while she had never seen her father use drugs, there were rumors that he was using, and they were living in a place where anyone could be a snitch.

That’s why her parents surrendered. In the Philippines after the election of Rodrigo Duterte, people who were suspected of being drug dealers or drug addicts or drug users were invited to surrender to the government and promised they would never sin again. So they’re called surrenderees. And allegedly, if you are on the surrendered list you are monitored for your behavior.

There’s a larger list. It’s called the drug list or the narco list or depends on who you’re talking to. These are people who are suspected of using and dealing drugs. And people who are included in that list can be sourced from other surrenderees. Or your next-door neighbor or someone who doesn’t like you who decides to put your name anonymously on a drop box.

Or in the case of one man who was killed in Manila, his neighbors voted that he was the worst drug suspect in town. So the police conducted a raid. It’s what killed him. Love was not unaware of what was happening. She was trying to convince her parents to leave, but they didn’t believe there was a major threat.

CHAKRABARTI: How many interviews like that did you have to do?

EVANGELISTA: I couldn’t tell you if I tried, dozens, possibly a hundred. I really don’t know, because in the course of one night, in the height of the drug war, there were killings every night. There were nights when there were 9, 16, 27, and I didn’t call for all of them because they were happening across the country.

And while there were a handful of us in the night shift, photographers and reporters from across Metro Manila, there was no way we could hit every crime scene. Particularly for myself, I’m a long form narrative investigative reporter, I need to see the whole picture. The rest of the reporters might be peeling out to go to the next scene, I would stay because I have to complete the picture.

So in the course of one story, let’s say Love’s story or someone else’s story, I would be doing three, four interviews. If I were present at the crime scene, which I wasn’t in Love’s case, I would be interviewing. I would be interviewing the neighbors. I would be interviewing the families. I would be interviewing anyone who I could possibly talk to across the next week or across the next few months.

So I can’t give you a number, but there was a lot.

CHAKRABARTI: You write in the book about having to stand over corpses at 2 a.m. And how hard it is to not just process but describe what that is like. Can you describe what that’s like?

EVANGELISTA: I can’t quite describe what it is. Because when I stand over a body, I’m a reporter.

It’s a job. And part of that job is to ground yourself so that you are able to complete the image in your head. I can tell you what the color of the shoe is, or what the tenor of the scream was, but I can’t tell you how I felt. Because I felt nothing. That is also the job. I’ll tell you instead how I ground myself, so that you can see how it operates.

I work with the night shift, as I mentioned, and it was an honor to work with them. It’s photographers and reporters, some of them foreign correspondents, some of them locals, and all of us would stay outside the press corps office of the Manila Police District. Unlike most of them, I didn’t go every day because I had to go to the funerals and to the field and to find the sources, so I would go maybe twice a week.

And when it happens, sometimes you get an alert while you’re sitting in the press office, or sometimes while you’re outside smoking, you see the homicide car spill away and the scene of the crime operatives. So you follow them. Or the longer the war, the more sources we had, families who we had interviewed would tell us about their neighbor or their friend or standing at the corner of the road seeing another body being pulled out.

You go to the scene, and you see the body in the ground. You see the yellow police tape around it. You see the cops counting the bullets. For me, what I would do, was I would ask the same questions every night. Was it a drive by, a salvaging, a body dump, a buy bust? Was the killer a cop or a vigilante? Were the hands bound?

Was their head wrapped in tape? Was the body stuffed into the bag? Was there a sign beside the body? Was there a gun on the ground? So I went through a checklist. I hit every point, one after the other, confirm the street corner, interview the investigating officer, sidle up to the bystanders, find out if they know the man’s name.

But what I learned with the drug war, as well, was that there was a value in standing still and just listening for the screaming. Because that’s what you know where the family is. You walk up to them, you apologize, you condole, you keep your voice low and your questions short, and then you find out what happened, and then what happened next.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: I should note that Patricia did much of this reporting at the time working for Rappler, the online Philippine news source co-founded by Maria Ressa, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, Patricia, President Duterte was elected on promises to execute this war on drugs in the Philippines.

He was very clear about how he would supposedly rid the Philippines of both drug dealers, gangs, and the users, as you mentioned. You quote him in the book as saying, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” Here’s his actual voice.

This is from a rally in 2016, telling his supporters that he had killed criminals himself, and here’s what he said.

PRES. DUTERTE: My campaign against drugs will not stop until the end of my term. That will be six years from now. Until the end of my term, that will be six years from now. Until the last pusher and the last drug lord are [slashing gesture across throat.]

CHAKRABARTI: That sound that he makes at the end is accompanied by Duterte making a slashing gesture across his throat. How bad was the drug problem in the years before Duterte was elected?

EVANGELISTA: The Philippines, like any other country, does have a drug problem, but the most, right before President Duterte was elected, the survey the most recent survey conducted was that the Philippines had half, less than half the global average when it came to drug use. And a lot of those users were one-time users, a lot of the users also used marijuana. Although what concerned the president mostly was the use of meth. He claimed that anyone who had used meth for more than a few months would no longer be people.

And he said anyone who believed him, or who refused to believe him, that the effect of addiction was a terrible thing. He said, I will give you the drugs themselves. Feed it to your children. Watch them become monsters. He created an enemy, he exploited every grievance, every fear, fueled by decades of failed expectations, and he gave it a name.

He called it the drug scourge. And he said he would kill the drug dealers, and he would kill the drug addicts, and he will protect the future of your children.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to talk about his own history in just a moment, Patricia, but you write in detail about Filipino history. And I wonder if you could talk about what you think it was or is about the country’s colonial and post-colonial history that allowed this violent rhetoric and then action by President Duterte to actually resonate with enough Filipinos that they put him into office. Because this war on drugs happened in a democracy, right?

So was the Philippines already a nation so repeatedly traumatized that a president saying, I will kill every last drug dealer and user, regardless of their age, in this country that made that, didn’t make it seem out of the norm.

EVANGELISTA: We are a violent country, but you are correct. We have been traumatized for hundreds of years, and we’re not good with reckoning with our trauma.

Even in near history in the ’70s and ’80s, we had the martial law dictatorship. We called it the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and they were overthrown in 1986, and that’s when the democracy came back to the Philippines. And just very recently, we elected as President, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.

His vice president is Sara Duterte. Just to demonstrate how little we are able to hold our leaders accountable and how much of a failure there is in national memory. It is the same with years of colonization and it is the same with years of trauma that we don’t account for. So when we elected Rodrigo Duterte, we may have elected a man who said, I will kill them all.

But we also elected a man in an excess of hope, that this man was different, that he felt the same rage as everyone else, and that when he came to power, life would be different for all of us who have been shamed, who have been ignored, who have been told that we just have to take it and swallow it and roll over.

Yes, all of it mattered. Colonization mattered, poverty mattered, predation mattered, a failure of accountability mattered. All of it mattered. And then, after years of terrible things happening, the terrible became ordinary. And then we applauded.

CHAKRABARTI: Duterte also frequently called himself an ordinary Filipino. That he understood deeply and knew the sentiment of Filipinos living far outside of Manila, for example. In the eyes of the international community, perhaps we did not pay sufficient attention to someone like Duterte prior to him becoming president.

So I would actually love to hear from you some of a detailed history of who he was, and in fact, how he ruled even before becoming the leader of the entire nation. So first of all, was he an ordinary Filipino?

EVANGELISTA: He does like to say that often. I am just an ordinary Filipino. I am one of you. Occasionally he says I’m just an ordinary killer.

And he said he was with the poor, he understood the poor. But Rodrigo Duterte was a governor’s son. And he grew up in Davao City, in a relatively comfortable life. He went to private schools, his mother was well known in the city, was in fact a very civil minded individual who read, led protests against the dictatorship.

So certainly, he was not poor, he was not very much ordinary, but he was, as most people have described him, something of a troublemaker. He liked women, he liked guns, he was described as a troubled son of privilege. But he eventually became a lawyer, he went to school, in part, in Manila, and did get into some trouble there.

He admits to having shot a frat friend in the hallways of his old school. He was still allowed to graduate. They thought it would be a failure of the system if someone so promising were kept away from becoming a lawyer. So he became one. When he went back to Davao City, he worked in the prosecutor’s office. According to some sources, with some pull from his mother to his father’s friends.

And then the revolution happened in 1986. Corazon Aquino became president after the dictator, the martial law dictatorship. And across the country, people were being put in as officers in charge of cities. Because an election would come in the aftermath of the revolution. They wanted, as vice mayor for Davao City, where Rodrigo Duterte comes from, his mother. Soledad Duterte, but she said she would prefer it was her son who sat in office. So Rodrigo Duterte became vice mayor of Davao City on the heels of the revolution, of the peaceful revolution that overthrew a dictator. And he said he supported that revolution. After that, he ran as mayor. He won and ran again and again and again.

More than two decades of Duterte leadership in Davao that included his sons and his daughters. Until now, actually, the mayor of Davao is also a Duterte. But while all this was happening, Davao was notorious for being a hotbed of communism and crime. That people would be killed on the streets randomly.

The right-wing rose, vigilante groups, and Duterte allegedly, again, supported these vigilante groups that took down the communists. When the communists, when the communist threat lessened in the ’90s. A new threat rose. They call it the Davao Death Squad.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Patricia, do you mind if I just pause here for a second because there’s a lot of detail that you bring in the book about this period in particular.

So first of all, about the sort of the communist groups in Davao. As you write, and this is important to understand, because it really lays the groundwork for what happens later. Yes, there were these vigilante murders essentially, death squads that were organized to purge what was described as a communist insurgency in Davao, but you point out in the book that action was — and please correct me if I’m wrong, but supported by then President Corazon Aquino and the United States?

EVANGELISTA: Yes. The answer, according to Corazon Aquino, to violence from the communists, is the sword of war. At that time, it was supported by Corazon Aquino, it was supported by the U.S. State Department. We were friends with America, and so across the country, this sort of violence was supported. In fact, one of the vigilante groups in Davao City, one of the more violent ones, called the Alsa Masa, the masses arise, was cutting quite a swath in Davao, and Corazon Aquino went to Davao City and said she would, was proud to be standing in the birthplace of the Alsa Masa.

CHAKRABARTI: They were so effective that the so-called communist threat was reduced. But as you said, then under Duterte’s mayoral rule of Davao, there emerges a group called the Davao Death Squad. And reporters at the time wrote, and you quote them in the book, that the repertoire of warfare drawn from both military counterinsurgency as well as communist guerrilla methods and practice was perfected during the dictatorship and proved equally effective in a democracy.

And Duterte himself said, I don’t mind us being called the murder capital of the Philippines, as long as those being killed are the bad guys. From day one, I said henceforth, Davao will be very dangerous for criminals. It’s a place where you can die any time. Now, the extent of how these death squads operated.

Did he ever once admit that there was a direct connection between him and the actions of the Davao Death Squad?

EVANGELISTA: Rodrigo Duterte says a lot of things. Sometimes he will say, “I am the death squad.” Sometimes he’ll say, “I have guilt.” Under oath, he says, I don’t know of any Davao Death Squad. I’m not responsible for a so-called Davao Death Squad.

Perhaps it’s the gangs, perhaps it’s the criminals. Many things have been said about his responsibility. Certainly, he denies it, that he had anything to do with it. And then when he does say, he does threaten. He says it’s a mere rhetoric. He said very often in Davao, as you just quoted, exactly, what he also says to the rest of the country.

If you break the law, if you commit crimes, if you are a danger to the children, my city, my country, I will kill you. That is not a rare thing for him to say. So the death squads, as far as we can tell with investigations, as well as whistleblowers, was composed of former Sparrow Units from communist groups.

Sparrows are assassins, assassin teams working with the communists. They also included former members of the Alsa Masa or other vigilante groups. And they also included former or current police officers.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, regarding the former or current police officers that were in these death squads in Davao.

You tell the story of Arturo Lascañas, who was the police master sergeant in Davao. Duterte’s right hand man there denied any complicity in the violence that was happening there, but had a massive ‘come to Jesus moment,’ is how you call it, in February 2017, where he gave a press conference, and then thereafter admitted to killing after killing after killing, in detail.

And would you tell us the story of one of the descriptions he gave of people he was told he and his group were told to root out and kill. It was about a group of Chinese drug dealers.

EVANGELISTA: Right. You’re right that it was a ‘come to Jesus moment.’ It was a pretty literal come to Jesus moment. He had a nightmare, he was sick, and then he dreamt of Jesus and woke up and he changed.

Arturo Lascañas was allegedly Duterte’s right hand man, at least when it came to the Davao Death Squads. And he had a number of stories to tell in the aftermath of deciding to be a whistleblower. He said that he was asked to kill eleven Chinese drug dealers. He only killed nine because he assigned two to someone else.

He was also asked to kill a kidnapper, except when they stopped the van that was carrying the kidnapper, the alleged kidnapper. He was there with his wife, with his son, and with his father-in-law, and with his household help. Allegedly, he and the other member of the death squad had gone to the mayor at that time, Mayor Duterte, and said, “What do we do?”

And the suggestion of the other person was, “Erase them.” So they were erased. They were killed. And Lascañas stood outside the door. And listened to them shot. He had tried to make a case for the young boy to be allowed to live, but he lost the argument. So he listened, as they were all killed and then the bodies were buried, and he came back a few days later and poured oil over the dead.

And one of them, as you said, was a four-year-old boy. And you write that their wallets, bags, and a pair of children’s shoes were also burned. There’s much more to discuss, to understand not only why all this happened in the Philippines, but the long-term impact on the Filipino people as well. So we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI:  I want to play a little bit more of what Duterte himself has said in the past Patricia, if I may. He has actually admitted to killing people himself. So this is from a 2015 interview that he did with Maria Ressa, whom I mentioned earlier was one of the co-founders of the Filipino news site, Rappler.

And at the time, Duterte was the mayor of Davao City, as we have been talking about. And he said quite clearly to Maria that he believed criminals have no redeeming reason to live.

DUTERTE: There’s no redeeming factor in killing people, robbing them, raping them, robbing them, and.

RESSA: So no qualms about killing killers?

DUTERTE: Yes, of course. I must admit that I have killed. Three months early on I killed about three people.

CHAKRABARTI: Patricia, in your book you write about how Duterte is very specific about not just saying I have killed, but I have killed people. You write that he’s very particular about using that noun. What does that tell you?

EVANGELISTA: Rodrigo Duterte is careful with language, even as he is very verbose with language. It’s not so much the use of people or the use of kill. He doesn’t like to use the word murder. For him, or he claims, murder means killing a bound man or killing a man on his knees begging for his life. That’s why he denies that any extrajudicial killings happened during his term.

He denies that he supports murder. He supports killing, to kill legally. He says they will have to perish. He will say they will have to be wiped off the face of the earth. He would say I would like to do it myself, shove them out of helicopters, let them drown in a ship in the Pacific, hang them with barbed wire.

But he would tell his police in public. You don’t have to kill illegally, because you can kill legally. And he says, I declared a war. What is wrong with that? He says, what is wrong with saying, [Translation] I will kill for my country. His claim is that killing is justified because these are not people.

CHAKRABARTI: And he’s completely unapologetic about it. Every bit of concern that anyone within the Philippines or in the international community raised about human rights violations, he overtly said he didn’t care. For example, here is an interview that he did with Al Jazeera English about 100 days into his presidency.

So he’s now the leader of the entire nation. And this is in 2016. And he claimed that the Philippines had millions of drug addicts and said that he could not help it if vigilantes basically sometimes took justice into their own hands. And he also said, as I mentioned, he did not care about human rights.

DUTERTE: You destroy my country. I’ll kill you. If you destroy our young children, I will kill you. That is a very correct statement. There is nothing wrong in trying to preserve the interest of the next generation. That three million addicts, they are not a residents of one compact area or contiguous place. They’re spread all over the country. I do not care about what the human rights guys say, I have to strike fear. I have a duty to preserve the generation.

CHAKRABARTI: Patricia, I feel it’s important to emphasize to our audience here, that’s mostly in the United States, I’m gonna say it again and again, because you say it in the book.

This all happened in a democracy. The Philippines isn’t some far off nation across the ocean.

EVANGELISTA: Oh, no, we’re not.

CHAKRABARTI: It is a nation that the United States has had a long involvement with, first and foremost. Whose original constitution was modeled after the United States Constitution.

Filipino people, work around the world. So this isn’t something that just happens over there.

EVANGELISTA: No, it’s not.

CHAKRABARTI: So what I want to know is while we are focusing on Duterte and his overt blood lust as the strategy to manage a so-called war on terror, as you said earlier, not all of the killings were done by police.

Some of them were done by vigilantes. You told us the story about the neighborhood that voted, right? To identify someone as needing killing, quote-unquote. Something is also going on with the people of the Philippines that allows the, essentially, the blood to spread across the country. And I think, to be frank, it’s hard for me to understand how that happened again in a democracy, that people embraced, enough of them embraced the idea of extrajudicial killings.

It’s not just wanting vengeance against drug dealers. It’s a vengeance happening completely outside a moral or legal framework. How did that happen?

EVANGELISTA: The Philippines is not an exotic country. What happened there is happening everywhere else in the world. And it’s easy to dismiss the words of a campaigning strongman as just rhetoric, but we can’t afford to.

And it’s a lesson we learned, that when strongmen promise to kill, they mean it. When they say they will suppress the press, they mean it. When they demean women, they mean it. And when they use words to threaten, they will act on those words when they have power. And, but what I want to emphasize is it’s not a strange thing that it happened in the Philippines.

There are charismatic men all over the world who will make promises, say outrageous things and glory in the crowds they draw. And sometimes what they say is dangerous. But not dangerous enough. Take back the border. Make the country great again. Protect the children. Then the dial turns just a little bit, and then they say more dangerous things.

Maybe they’ll say kill the drug addicts, or kill the activists, or kill the journalists. Maybe it’s kill the shoplifters, shoot the migrants, the election workers, the judges. That’s what happens. The terrible dust became ordinary, it’s happening everywhere. And the Philippines? We’re just a cautionary tale for places in the world where a politician is charismatic enough to blow a dog whistle and say, some people need killing.

But it’s not a rare thing. You just have to stand on the line every time and say, it shouldn’t happen here.

CHAKRABARTI: Here’s an example, much closer to home.

DONALD TRUMP [TAPE]: These people are killing people when they go into the stores. You’ll have 300 young people who are not looking for a good future, walk into a store, big department store, and just pillage it.

And if you happen to be there when they’re there, they’ll knock the hell out of you and kill you in some cases. And we will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.

CHAKRABARTI: Donald Trump in California in 2023. But Patricia, I want to emphasize something. Many Americans, even some still in the media will say, “That’s just campaign rhetoric. He doesn’t really mean it. Don’t take it seriously. It’s what you say as a charismatic campaigner.

Don’t take it seriously.”

EVANGELISTA: There are many words for that. Don’t take him literally. It’s just imaginative language. It is just rhetoric. It is too dangerous not to take seriously. And even if he wasn’t serious at that time, it is what the people want to hear. And then he will be forced to do it. Once he is in power, or he will feel that it is important to do this because it is what the nation wants.

Regardless, even the act of saying it matters. To say some people need killing does turn the dial, does reduce a drug addict or a drug dealer, or a shoplifter or an immigrant to less than a human being. So I think the lesson we take from my country, the lesson we take every day is that sometimes wars aren’t just metaphorical.

CHAKRABARTI: You write in the book, speaking of your country, that there came a time where you felt like you could no longer recognize it. Can you tell me what you meant by that?

EVANGELISTA: I have been a trauma journalist for 15 years. I do not traffic in hope. And I have reported on many terrible things, massacres, disasters, events with death tolls of 6,000.

So it does not shock me. Blood on the ground does not shock me. Brutality does not shock me. What surprised me with the drug war was not so much the blood. It was the fact it was applauded. Whenever I covered massacres or traumatic events, my job was to tell the story, investigate what happened, point a finger, if a finger is supposed to be pointed, and then move on to the next story while people at home will say, will read the story, will watch the news and say, what a terrible thing.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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