Sheryll recounts her brother’s murder swiftly and with relative ease, interspersed between bouts of doubt, regret, confusion and anger. His name was Alfred, one of the first victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines. Sheryll is the first person I have met in months that is willing to speak up, even just a little.

As far as wars against drugs go, we should be counting and dissecting the extent of reduction in drug proliferation. Instead, like the reality of most drug wars, we are engulfed in the violence. We count the dead and try to make sense of the faces victimized yet so often buried under alarming statistics. It somehow seems pointless to refer to the number since it is growing exponentially, making it near impossible to keep track. Still, at the time of writing, there have been around 6,000 deaths since the elections came to a close in May. Most have come from the poorest communities in and around Metro Manila.

Alfred was a 37-year-old sidecar driver from Tondo, Manila. An area fraught with shanties often seen when conjuring up images of Manila’s slums. He lived in a shed next to his family’s house. Alfred had a lot of friends in the area and has been described as one of the more helpful people in the neighborhood. He volunteered to fix roofs and run errands, among other things. Admittedly, Sheryll says that he did have his vices, although this did not diminish his community contributions.

Before his death, Alfred was arrested by the authorities last March for purchasing illegal drugs. Sheryll recollects that their family was given “offers” by the police that her brother be freed in exchange of 50,000 pesos (US$1,000). Already dubious at the seemingly random amount for bail (given that no charges had been brought), the family nonetheless haggled with police. The price was lowered to 4,000 pesos. But to their surprise, Alfred was heavily injured and found it too difficult to walk upon his release. Sheryll alleges the police was responsible for beating her brother inside the prison. Alfred told her that he endured a beating every time his “bail” was decreased. He rarely peddled his sidecar after the incident.

After some time, Alfred started receiving death threats. When urged to leave town, he replied that he has nowhere to go and saw no way out. His meager earnings from driving a sidecar also preventing him from escaping.

Looking for a way out

He voted for Duterte. Motivated by his win, Alfred voluntarily surrendered himself on July 2 — going to the local government office, swearing to rid himself of substance abuse, giving all his personal information and that was it.

Looking back, Sheryll and her father think it may have been a wrong move; except how could they have known? Three days after his “surrender,” a man entered Alfred’s home and shot him four times at point-blank range. Sheryll saw her brother’s masked killer as he exited. Their eyes met for an instant before he rode off with someone on a motorcycle. It all happened so fast, she says.

“He needed help. There is a lack of facilities for drug dependents,” Sheryll says. Alfred thought that his surrender would lead to a more accessible form of rehabilitation. He, along with the hundreds of thousands who also gave themselves up, would soon find out that it was more for ceremony and surveillance.

Alfred's siblings had previously looked at both public and private facilities, both proved to be too expensive. Around US$100 a month for public rehabilitation centers (not inclusive of food and other basic necessities) and US$800 or more for private facilities.

Duterte’s new "Mega Rehab Center" will house around 10,000 patients, adding to the meagre national bed capacity for drug users pegged at 3,216. The problem is: around 700, 000 people have surrendered since the drug war kicked off and await government services, not death, for their volunteerism. The country is ill-equipped to accommodate this number of people, yet it persists in going door to door, aggressively and forcefully coaxing suspected drug offenders into surrendering. Based on the Dangerous Drugs Act, every province must at least have one accredited rehab center, but the country only scratches above half the number required (41 out of 81 provinces).

The drug problem is real. According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, as of 2015, 92 percent of barangays (towns) in Metro Manila see illegal drug activity. Illegal drug money is also impacting the Philippine economy. Authorities in 2013 valued the illegal drug trade in the Philippines at US$8.4 billion — more than three percent of the gross domestic product for that year.

Sheryll is a public school elementary teacher in one of the poorest sections of Manila. She says that her brother’s killing was bound to happen, though she wished it had not.

At one point, Sheryll learned that one of her fifth-grade students was involved in buying and selling marijuana — a testament to the extent of the penetration illegal drugs into poor communities.

“Why do they do this? It’s easy money, easier than looking for a job you won’t find. They know this. Poverty pushes them into doing it,” says Sheryll. Despite this, the state killings have received a significant amount of public acclaim. The lives of drug offenders are better off terminated than uplifted. This speaks to not only the gravity of widespread drug trade in the country but the stigma it heaps among the most defenseless of its victims.

Poverty and desperation suck you in, reinforced by the crippling effect of being deprived social and human rights. The government, on the other hand, only offers one way out; a byproduct of the depravity hawked by social inequalities.


Photo Credit: Sheryll

Alfred (far right) a few years ago.

Funeral woes

One would think that funeral parlors would be one of the few place to benefit from the genocide. Hundreds of bodies are left unclaimed all over the Metro. Mass graves have been created to make way for more dead bodies.

One can speculate on how the war on drugs has engendered an economy of death, so to speak. Sheryll’s brought her brother’s body to a respected funeral home which charged her US$700 for the autopsy and death certificate, things which are normally free. Outraged, she decided to transfer the body to a more reasonable establishment, but they would not let her do so without paying first.

Word on the street is that police officers are raking in kickbacks for every scalp they bring in. While a sizeable number of the killings have been perpetrated by alleged “vigilante” operatives, they are operating under police and state directives to stalk and liquidate suspected drug offenders.

Sheryll knew she could not take the matter to the police. No investigation was made into the circumstances of Alfred’s death, so why would they bother being stern on a funeral home they were probably collaborating with? In the end, she was forced to pay US$260 to claim a body that the funeral home merely housed for a few hours.

Funeral parlors are stockpiled with corpses. They are either charging extra to make up for the fact that many families cannot afford to claim their loved ones, allow proper burials, or to cope with the under-the-table rackets authorities are running over the mounting deaths. In any case, ordinary Filipinos are getting the hard end of the deal while those who traffic and pile up the corpses are literally making a killing.

For the first time, members of the police will forego the sealing of their gun muzzles during the holidays. It is symbolic of the discipline among their ranks, according to Police Chief Dela Rosa. The top brass are also set to receive up to 400,000 pesos of cash gifts for the first time.

A stark contrast with Sheryll’s family and thousands of others who will receive nothing. It is ironic how the state collects taxes from the people, uses it to massacre people, and in the end families are forced to pay for the deaths that the police have taken responsibility for.

Duterte’s bravado is lost on Sheryll and people like her. She says that Duterte is not a brave man. A brave man would not gloss over real issues while massacring its symptoms — symptoms who happen to be people.

We need more faces like Sheryll and there will be more — those who are brave enough to speak for those who will never be able to. Their stories are a cry for justice.


Photo Credit: Michael Beltran

A protest earlier this month calling for 'housing not coffins.' It was organized by KADAMAY - National Alliance of Filipino Urban Poor and was the first big march of urban poor Filipinos calling for an end to the killings under Duterte's war on drugs with around 3,000 trooping to the gates of the Presidential Palace.

Sheryll and Alfred's surname has not been published for safety concerns.

Editor: Olivia Yang