Only five people had turned up dead. It was a slow evening.
The journalists on the night shift say Fridays are like that. A predictable rhythm has developed to the killings in this dense metropolis of nearly 13 million. Weekdays are busier, often producing a dozen bodies before morning. One reporter told me the record was 27 one night. Weekends are more tranquil, which is when those who cover this beat attend wakes and funerals of victims, or follow up with witnesses and other sources.
In the eight months of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, reports on the drug war have caused concern around the world and in the Philippines, though the president’s supporters cast the news as biased and the killings as necessary.
Alarmed by the daily death tolls and tales of systemic abuse, I spent a weekend on the front lines with some of the journalists who track the mass death.
The media can hardly keep up. “The night shift used to be boring,” one reporter told me outside the press office of a police precinct. “Fires and domestic abuse and car accidents,” he said. Now their stories on daily deaths, crooked cops and the exploitations of the powerful no longer shock.
Filipinos were forewarned. As a candidate, Mr. Duterte vowed to rid the country of drugs and crime in six months. As president, he has guaranteed a pardon to any police officer who killed people in the line of duty, and said that human rights do not apply to drug addicts because they’re not human. To set a good example, Mr. Duterte boasted of shooting suspects dead himself.
His rhetoric and policies have yielded dramatic results. More than 7,000 people have been killed, while the police point to over 43,000 arrests and the surrender of nearly 80,000 drug pushers and more than 1.1 million users. Crimes like theft, carjacking and cattle rustling have collectively dropped 42 percent. But murder has spiked 51 percent — the consequence, according to a recent report by Amnesty International, of an “economy of death,” resulting from corruption, police abuse and pressure for results that have victimized society’s poorest.
A nightly vigil is kept by a group of local and international reporters, documentary filmmakers and photographers. They call themselves “night crawlers,” and they shadow the police who are armed with lists of alleged users and the mandate of door-to-door visits.
These night crawlers wait for word from radio reports, text messages from funeral homes, calls from colleagues and tips from sources within the police force (though tips have become rare since the media brought international attention to the killings). Authorities are now more guarded, and often the only tip-off reporters receive is the departure from the precinct of “scene of crime” officers. As soon as their van leaves, a convoy of journalists gives chase, lights flashing and horns blaring, on a white-knuckle race through the streets of Manila as calls are made to sources in the area in an effort to find the location and beat investigators to it. Crime scenes have reportedly been altered, official statements often contradict witnesses, and the families of victims have accused police of intimidation.
Media scrutiny has changed the way both murders and investigations are conducted. In recent months, killings have gone from the streets and into the privacy of homes. Police cordons are now established farther out from the scene, to ensure distance from photojournalists’ cameras. Witnesses fear reprisals from authorities. Police officers hasten bodies to hospitals, which journalists cannot enter, clearing away crime scenes before they can be documented.
On the Saturday night, I arrived early at one location to find a 22-year-old man on the ground with a bullet through his head. Witnesses said the police had earlier picked him up nearby. Authorities, however, reported that he was gunned down by vigilantes after he committed theft. In his pocket, the police found two tiny rocks — about $4 worth of “shabu,” the form of crystal meth at the heart of this drug war. The officers took hardly 15 minutes to investigate, document and haul away the body.
As I examined the pool of blood that remained after police left, a teenager on a scooter rode up to have a look. I asked if he knew the victim. “He was my cousin,” he said. I told him I was sorry. He shrugged. “It was expected.”
Polls show that the drug war remains immensely popular, but a similar majority say they are against all the killings. Critics of Mr. Duterte’s methods say this is a war against the poor, because no drug lords, or politicians alleged to be protecting them, have been punished. After months of reports of poor Filipinos being brutalized, the situation changed only recently thanks to a high-profile death.
On Jan. 30, authorities announced a temporary suspension of the drug war after a South Korean businessman living here was found to have been kidnapped by antidrug officers, strangled at the national Police Headquarters, cremated at a funeral parlor and flushed down a toilet — all while his wife was being extorted for a ransom of $100,000. Under pressure from South Korea, Mr. Duterte called the case an “embarrassment” and focused his rhetoric on “cleansing” the national police force, though he vowed to continue his crackdown on drugs until the end of his term.
The killings, though, continue. The Duterte administration is accountable for sanctioning, condoning or being unable to prevent them, and for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice. What was once a dispute about facts surrounding such deaths has turned to public acceptance. It is now a moral question — to which there is no answer, only opinion and conjecture.
“It’s the new normal,” a photojournalist told me. “It’s easier and cheaper to kill them. We can only document it, for a time when Filipinos have regained their sanity.”
More are now speaking out. A rally on Saturday against the killings, led by the Catholic Church, drew at least 10,000 people, and lawyers have volunteered to file cases for the families of four men allegedly killed by police. This week, a high-level officer linked Mr. Duterte to multiple crimes. These voices of protest echo what journalists have been saying for months.
The work is taking a toll on the night crawlers. Some of the journalists suffer health problems or nervous tics from the hours they keep and the things they see. Many cover the beat in their spare time, their publications having moved on from the now-commonplace killings. For their trouble, the media have been called “presstitutes” by Mr. Duterte’s followers; some receive threats of rape, violence and death. I asked some journalists what keeps them going. “Guilt,” one said. “Anger,” added another. “The widows, whose pain I know well,” said a third. “The families of all the victims,” said a fourth.
When the dawn broke that Sunday morning, most of us left the press office, with its badminton tournament trophies and pantheon of portraits of long-passed reporters who covered martial law and revolutions and coups d’etats. Tomorrow the night crawlers will return to do what journalists have always done, and what they’ll always do. Long after Mr. Duterte has gone and his most vociferous followers are footnotes in history, we will write about this terrible era of avarice, injustice and death.
Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.