This week, a veteran photojournalist published a nightmarish photo essay and in-depth podcast in The New York Times: “They are Slaughtering Us like Animals: Inside President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal antidrug campaign in the Philippines.”
The searing images and descriptions of unrelenting injustices are dreadful enough to shake up even the most battle-tested war documentarians.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photog and essay author Daniel Berehulak says, “I have worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone, a place gripped by fear and death. What I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers’ summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes’ taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to ‘slaughter them all’.”
Philippine death squads, police and vigilantes alike have killed thousands of people suspected of using or selling drugs since June, an estimated 5,000 extrajudicial executions by some reports. As the Times illustrated, these killings are taking place entirely in poor neighborhoods -- in well-off enclaves, authorities are knocking on doors and distributing flyers, instead of bursting in with bullets.
Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have voluntarily turned themselves in to authorities in an effort to save their own lives. In the Quezon City Jail in Manila, TIME magazine reports that as many as 3800 inmates are being housed in a facility meant to hold only 800 – the images from these jails are especially atrocious. Most jails are holding up to five times their intended capacity.
But turning yourself in does not automatically grant you a reprieve. It was reported in the Times article that some of the victims who were brutalized and killed by masked men in the middle of the night had recently been incarcerated and released.
Intensifying the horror even further, last week U.S. President-elect Donald Trump held a telephone call with President Duterte, in which Trump praised his deadly crusade and invited him to visit the White House. After the phone call, Duterte said that Trump “was quite sensitive also to our worry about drugs”. Trump apparently wished Duterte well in his ruthless war on drugs and said that the Philippines was “doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way.”
“It sounds like Donald Trump just gave a green light to murder,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “By effectively giving his blessing to Duterte’s murderous campaign, the President-elect has signaled to foreign leaders his disregard for both due process of law and human rights – and raised the possibility that he might one day treat U.S. law with the same contempt.”
Despite international calls for Duterte to end the extrajudicial killings, he has refused to change direction, responding to anyone who has questioned his strategy with insults, including President Obama, the Pope, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations. Last week, he also threatened to kill human rights defenders who attempt to intervene in his war on drugs.
Yesterday, in light of Trump’s conversation with Duterte, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest condemned the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. “The position of this administration, the current U.S. government, is simply that extrajudicial killings are entirely inconsistent with the notion of the rule of law and the commitment to upholding basic, universal human right," Earnest said.
The U.S. State Department has continued to send millions of dollars in aid to police stations behind the killings, even as the death toll climbs.
Trump’s indifference to these crimes against humanity is an affront to basic human principles. His appointment of drug war brutes like longtime extremists Senator Jeff Sessions, Rep. Tom Price, General John Kelly, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt also demonstrates his willingness to dangerously launch failed drug policies and tear down all of the painstaking progress we’ve made to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one.
Do you think what’s happening in the Philippines can’t happen in the U.S.? Think again.
Melissa Franqui is the manager of communications and marketing for the Drug Policy Alliance.