The Philippines President has pledged to slaughter every drug dealer and addict in the country, making way for death squads and encouraging vigilante killings. Dateline investigates what his tough justice really looks like and talks to assassins who say they work for the police, as well as the families of their victims.
This woman is selling shabu, a cheap version of ice or methamphetamine.
MAN (Translation): Is that…is that 0.3?
WOMAN (Translation): Yes.
MAN (Translation): I’ll take this one.
She has just sold to an undercover police officer. Within hours, she could be dead. That is because she lives in the Philippines, where police have launched a deadly all-out war against drugs. As police prepare to arrest the woman, they know they have their government's full backing to kill anyone who resists. But is this country sliding dangerously into the dark shadows of state-sponsored violence, where police and vigilantes can kill with impunity?
In just under 4 months, in raids like this, police have killed more than 1650 people. Close to 3,000 more are gunned down by shadowy death squads, many of which are believed to be working for the police. In this case, she surrenders.
WOMAN: This is not ours. Actually...
And survives… She is caught with enough drugs and cash to make her what the police call a significant street pusher.
REPORTER: What is the sentence for this amount of shabu?
POLICE: Life imprisonment.
REPORTER: How long?
POLICE: Life, life in prison.
POLICE: 40 years to 60 years.
The raids are all part of Operation Double Barrel, as it's called, launched by newly elected president Rodrigo Duterte.
RODRIGO DUTERTE, PRESIDENT OF THE PHILIPPINES: I will provide the weapons needed to fight criminality, particularly drugs.
He is the straight talking leader who called President Obama the son of a whore, named police suspects of drug dealing and declared war against drugs.
RODRIGO DUTERTE: Do your duty and if in the process you kill 1000 persons…I will protect you…
He is pledged to pardon any police officer charged with murder as a result of shooting any drug suspect.
RODRIGO DUTERTE: if he flights and he fights to death, you can kill him.
The president's right-hand man in executing the drug war is this man, national police chief General Ronald dela Rosa.
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: Hopefully you are not spying on me…
Known as Bato, the Rock, his tough-guy image and the war on drugs itself have made him a popular personality.
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: Never in previous years have we waged such religious war against crime and illegal drugs…
The general has been travelling around the country, awarding officers who have neutralised or killed the highest number of drug-related persons.
WOMAN: It was for the neutralisation of three persons of interest and the arrest of 40 drug pushers.
But are all of those being killed by the police, guilty? We've been told this unrelentingly hard core policy is leading to mistakes.
REPORTER: Gemma. How are you? Thank you for seeing us. Come inside.
Gemma Garcia shows me in hole left by one of several bullets fired into her family home.
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): This is where… the bullet hit.
The gunman's target was her husband, Maximo. Who is on a police watch list as a user.
REPORTER: And where was Maximo?
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): Here.
REPORTER: And how many shots altogether?
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): Four.
REPORTER: 4 shots?
Gemma says the attack occurred just 3 days after her husband went to the police to tell them he stopped using drugs.
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): He suddenly came and just started shooting. He didn’t talk. He just kept shooting my husband. My eldest daughter shouted to me, “Mama, Danica’s been shot.”
Just five years old, Danica, her grand-daughter was shot in the back and killed. Her mother Daisy was washing her at the time.
DAISY GARCIA (Translation): She’d suddenly fallen to the ground. When I came back, she was gone, she was dead. I begged for help. My child was gone.
Maximo was wounded but survived. He is now in hiding, terrified that the gunman or police will come back to finish the job.
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): Danica was a sweet child. If you were sad, and she saw you frowning, she would cheer you up by doing a dance.
REPORTER: What do you want to see happen?
GEMMA GARCIA (Translation): We just want justice for my granddaughter.
DAISY GARCIA (Translation): A lot of people have become casualties, my girl was one of them.
A child killed by a stray bullet is tragic enough. But just down the road from Gemma's home, we were to find evidence of how shockingly indiscriminate this drug crackdown is becoming.
TERRY TIAMSON, ROWENA’S MOTHER (Translation): You know I really miss you so much.
Terry Tiamson tells me her 22-year-old daughter Rowena loved sinning in the church choir and was weeks away from graduating to become a journalist. Rowena, she says, was never involved in drugs.
TERRY TIAMSON (Translation): She wasn’t.
REPORTER: How do you know? How do you know that she wasn't?
TERRY TIAMSON (Translation): Well… I raised her. I know she knew it was wrong. She wouldn’t do it.
The day after she disappeared, they found her body with a card board placard around her neck, accusing her of being a pusher. But Terry was right. Police later said there was no evidence that Rowena was involved in drugs. Instead, an anti-drug death squad might have killed her in a case of mistaken identity.
TERRY TIAMSON (Translation): The administration is being too aggressive, too impulsive, too swift, with the killing. It’s like they are killing cats or chickens… We’re not bad people. Why my daughter, who was so good? There are many thieves, so many bad people, why my daughter?
The volume of killing here is quite extraordinary. In the 80 or so days that president Duterte has been in power, there's now been an average of somewhere between 35 and 40 police killings of drug pushers and drug users every day.
President Duterte, or the punisher, as he is known, has threatened to keep killing drug suspects until there is none left, and to fill Manila Bay with their bodies. In the slums, every day, that means dozens of police operations like this one, where the police told us they had just killed a suspected drug user. They told me, he shot at them first. A defence used every time by the police.
But is Rowena's mother right? Are the police just too aggressive, too impulsive, in what seems to be a deliberate campaign to kill drug users?
MAN: I’m going to talk to him.
REPORTER: OK. Let's have a look.
Police often identify drug-resulted suspects through what is called a knock and pledge. Informers, former drug users, help the police identify shabu users and pushers.
MAN (Translation): Can we talk to you? Is it all right for your son to surrender?
MOTHER (Translation): It’s okay, no problem.
This man is one of the lucky ones. Instead of death, he's given a chance to get off drugs. Rehabilitation services can't cope with the surge in numbers. So instead, they're sent to local sports courts like this one, every Sunday morning, for an unlikely cure. A weekly class of Zumba is their only rehab.
INSTRUCTOR: Come here. I will teach you how to dance.
In case their enthusiasm is tested, police is on hand to ensure that drug surrenderees, as they're called, do actually attend these weekly classes. If they don't, they risk arrest, jail or worse. 24-year-old Paul Jean Zamora is one of those told to attend and for him, it was just in time.
PAUL JEAN ZAMORA, FORMER DRUG USER (Translation): Our local captain made us surrender to turn our lives around, so we wouldn’t be killed.
So far, 700,000 drug users and pushers were arrested or surrendered to the police, many to avoid being killed. While some of them are given Zumba as a way out of drugs, many more are sent to prisons to await trial, and that's creating another crisis. We arrived at Quezon City still, one of the country's biggest, at dusk and just as hundreds of prisoners were marched out for the start of an extraordinary scene.
PRISON OFFICER (Translation): Quezon city jail, are you ready?
PRISONERS: Wake up, wake up, let’s all get up. Freed from outside temptations.
Prison officials tell me that the president's drug war is creating unprecedented overcrowding. There should be 800 inmates in here. There are 4,000. 61% of them are here on drugs charges. Dozens more caught in the drugs campaign are sent here every week. The true extent of this problem can only be seen by going inside the cells.
So this inmate is telling me that when it's raining outside, they sometimes sleep here, sitting up on the stairs. There are so many people here.
PRISONER: They are sitting up.
REPORTER: You have to sit?
There are 100 to 140 men packed into each cell.
PRISONER: 190 here. Here, 110.
Inmates find space wherever they can. They sit here, day and night, taking shifts to sleep. I have never seen anything like it.
REPORTER: Where do you guys sleep? On the floor. And how many of you guys are in here for drugs related?
PRISON OFFICER (Translation): Drug cases, raise your right hand. Almost 70%.
Most of those are drug charges are awaiting their day in court. Many could be here for years before they're even found guilty of a crime. As night closes in, prisoners who can't find space in a cell sleep on buckets to keep off the cold, wet floor. As we leave, we here there's been another police shooting across town. Police had bought drugs, and then moved in to arrest the man. He is now dead. And again, unsurprisingly, police at the scene insist the man fired first. Not far away, we find another police killing.
WOMAN (Translation): What’s happening to my son? They are so evil.
This relentless killing has now also drawn the attention of the country's Human Rights Commission.
CHITO GASCON, CHAIR, COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS: There are no other markers to be included.
The commissioners tell me that under Philippines laws, a police officer who killed somebody has to prove in court that it was in self-defence. According to commission chairman Chito Gascon, that is not happening. And without that, he says it's just murder.
CHITO GASCON: Every single incident of this nature should be considered a homicide or a murder. The police should mobilise all their resources to ensure the perpetrators are ultimately brought to justice. When the president says it will be bloody, then quick fixes and short cuts may become the norm.
Many believe those short cuts include the police use of death squads or vigilantes to kill drug suspects. They're not easy to contact but after careful negotiations, we manage to convince members of a death squad to meet us.
REPORTER: Hallo, hi Sheila, I’m Evan, you're Ace...okay, thank you.
Ace and Sheila, as they want to be called, are a married couple. They also run a death squad. They are among the anti-drug vigilantes responsible for executing suspected drug users and pushers and they do it, they say, for the police.
REPORTER: How many would you say you have killed in relation to the drug war?
ACE, ASSASSIN (Translation): Since May, more than twenty.
They tell me that most of their targets are pushers selling drugs for a senior police officer.
ACE (Translation): That’s why we get told to kill them, because the boss is a well-known policeman. He is not going to wait and risk someone ratting on him. So he has us kill them off.
REPORTER: Do you think that many innocent people are being killed in this campaign by the police or by hit squads?
SHEILA, ASSASSIN (Translation): Yes, there are. A lot.
They say when the policeman wants someone killed, he sends them the personal details and they are given 3 days to carry out the hit.
SHEILA (Translation): When we get the target’s identification, we study them for one day, where they live, their hobbies. So for example, if they’re into bars, I go to the bar they frequent. If they come to do a deal, I watch out for when they leave the bar and as soon as I get a chance, I act and carry out the hit.
Ace and Sheila have 4 children. Between them, they make almost $100 per kill. They say it's the only way to make that sort of money but for them, it's no longer just about the cash.
SHEILA (Translation): When you go home, you see your kids, and feel guilty. But I tell myself that the person I’ve killed is a much worse person. Many lives will be ruined if he is not killed
After a cancelled interview, and days of trying, I finally manage to catch president Duterte's right-hand man, police chief Ronald dela Rosa.
REPORTER: Going for a shoot? Shoot?
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: Yeah.
I would have put to him some of the accusations I've been hearing about his drug war.
REPORTER: How do you answer the human rights critics, the people who say that these are extrajudicial killings, even if they are in an operation, this is outside the law, that actually you and the president are acting like judge, jury and executer.
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: No we are not. We're only law enforces. I am not the prosecutor. We are not, we are not judge.
REPORTER: People are being killed.
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: People are being killed because we are defending ourselves.
REPORTER: We've been told that some police officers are involved in the drug trade. You mentioned it yourself the other day. Is that true?
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: It's, that's very true. That's very true. We are building cases against them.
REPORTER: We've been told a lot of the vigilante killings are in fact being done to cover up for police officers.
These police officers are ordering hits against those who know of them. Is that happening?
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: That could happen.
REPORTER: What are you doing to do about that?
GENERAL RONALD DELA POSA: Secret. Secrets. Secret. I don't want to surprise you but we're doing something about that. We cannot tolerate that.
REPORTER: I will come back.
But as the official denials flow, the roll call of the dead grows. Relatives are left grieving in the knowledge that no police officer will ever have to justify these killings or prove they actually did have to shoot in self-defence.
LEILA DE LIMA, SENATOR: The whole approach, the whole strategy of this administration is really, kill, kill, kill. Is that acceptable? Not at all.
Leila de Lima is the country's former justice Secretary is now a senior politician. She is so worried about the violence she launched a Senate inquiry into the drug deaths.
LEILA DE LIMA: It's a state-inspired policy. Inspired by the boorish, the bullish, the bold, intemperate language and statements of the president.
There are signs the president's conduct of this drug war is just the start of a new direction for the Philippines.
RODRIGO DUTERTE: If you want to criticise me, you bring the matter to the United Nations. If you treat me like that, my response to you is to curse you. Who are you to lecture on me?
The president now also publicly aligns himself with former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, raising fears of a return to authoritarian rule.
LEILA DE LIMA: Killing is killing. Killing is either homicide or murder and you cannot right a wrong with another wrong.
REPORTER: The president and the police chief say that drugs are a terrible scourge in this country and tough action is needed.
LEILA DE LIMA: Everyone recognises that we have a problem. Drug menace, it's a scourge and we laud the government for its so-called all-out war, intensified efforts against illegal drugs. But there are ways to do it without resorting to short cuts, without summarily killing people.
In our last few hours, we hear of another killing. The lifeless body of this 28-year-old still bleeding into the drain, witnesses say he was shot at close range by 2 masked men on motorcycles, another death squad drugs hit. The dead man's devastated mother said she tried to get him off shabu, but that he was no pusher. No-one will be caught for this murder, and no-one will even try to find the killers. Many here support a war on drugs, but they fear the way this president is allowing impunity to creep back into Filipino society.
CHITO GASCON: He promised in his campaign, Mr Duterte, that change is coming. But to many of us, it appears more like winter is coming and it might be a long hard winter ahead of us. And not everyone will survive winter.
Just days after we left the Philippines, the Duterte-dominated Senate sacked Senator De Lima as head of the drug death inquiry. Like many, who criticised the president, she's been publicly vilified and even received threats, raising concerns about Duterte's increasingly autocratic style. In a statement, she said: they have turned people into weapons of destruction. Who would dare stand up for others now? The real victim here is the people. God save us all.