(I wrote this article at the height of my drug war coverage as a documentary producer. It was originally published in SubSelfie on Sept. 13, 2017.)
“’Yang mga drug adik na yan, dapat lang patayin ‘yang mga ‘yan, mga salot sa lipunan.”
“Bagay lang sa kanila ‘yan, patayin na ‘yang mga adik na ‘yan.”
“Mga pusher at adik, salot sa lipunan!”
These are just some of the remarks that have circulated on social media since the Duterte administration announced its war on illegal drugs. Filipinos have become so quick to judge who deserves to die and who doesn’t. Fingers are pointed at those who are deemed evil faster than you can say “Innocent until proven guilty.”
Meanwhile, the number of drug-related deaths continues to rise.
Opinions have been divided as to how drug addicts should be perceived. Some have branded them as salot: undesirable, undignified, lowlife Filipinos who do not deserve respect.
I believe otherwise.
This was not the case back then. I used to be enraged whenever I heard about crimes committed by drug users during moments of intoxication that resulted to the death of their victims. It was my belief then that the best punishment these people deserved was swift death. A life for a life, as the saying goes.
Everything changed when I became a producer for a documentary show of a major TV network.
In July 2016, barely a month after President Duterte vowed to rid the country of illegal drugs, I produced my first story about a drug raid in a barangay in Biñan, Laguna. It was there that I first saw a corpse, fresh from the killing. The body was mangled and raw, and blood was spattered on the wall behind it. Police officers said the man fought back, and that was why they shot him.
At that moment, I did not know what to feel. Should I be mortified? Disgusted? Scared? I did not flinch at the sight of the corpse. But seeing that man’s blood made me uneasy. I was surrounded by policemen and other people who I suppose are already well-adjusted to similar situations. I, who was a newbie then, did not want to look unequipped to do my job. Thankfully, I survived that night with my sanity intact. But that crime scene has hounded me ever since.
I realized on that memorable night that that man, along with other drug addicts that our society so condemns, was a human. Just like all the others, he, too, had a family. He must have had fears and dreams. They had lives, and most importantly, they had rights. But these were all taken away from them. Instead, they have merely become part of the toll of casualties in this relentless, unnecessary war.
In July 2017, a year after the government declared its war on narcotics, deaths reached an all-time high (81 dead in just one week in August). I was wrong to think that my story in Biñan would be the last because since then, I’ve produced three more. The latest was the murder of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos. So far, it is the most upsetting.
A teenage boy, right on the cusp of manhood was killed because he allegedly initiated a gunfight against armed police officers conducting a buy-bust operation in their neighborhood that night. Claiming that their lives were in “imminent danger,” the police retaliated. Of course.
A 17-year-old boy, a scrawny one at that, against armed, trained, much older police officers.
In all honesty, this story drained me. Not only because of the long hours we had to put in in producing it, but because of its very nature. A young boy, with so much potential, who could have been a productive member of the society, shot dead. A young boy.
What drained me more was finding out that Kian was not alone. Our team came across two more cases of young boys who were killed right before their prime: 17-year-old Hideyoshi Kawata and 15-year-old Edlyn Mejia.
Hideyoshi could have been a wonderful father to his still unborn son, Hyree. Edlyn could have been a skilled chef, cooking delicious meals for his mother Mary Anne (not her real name) who believed in him so much.
Now, all those hopes are gone. They, too, have been reduced to numbers.
Where do we go from here? Where do we draw the line if killing children is not out of the question anymore?
A colleague of mine casually joked that as long as the government is intent in continuing its crusade against drugs, I would continue to tell stories about dead bodies. He added that reporting drug deaths has become my beat.
I shudder at the thought of writing about unnecessary loss of life for five more years. More so, if I would have to write again about young people who lost their lives for something so ignoble.
A police chief admitted to me in an interview that the first year of the drug war was not as successful as they had hoped it would be. Yet, they still find reason to continue. According to him, our cities are still plagued with evil that is illegal drugs. And to them, there is no other way but this: war.
How do we measure success then? Is it the level of safety that Filipinos are supposed to feel because “addicts” no longer run amok in the streets? Is it the increasing number of bodies piled up in morgues waiting to be claimed or disposed of?
As I write this I sincerely hope that these killings—whether in the hands of policemen or assailants on motorcycles—would stop. What drug addicts need is help, rehabilitation, an opportunity to reform, and certainly, not a bullet in the head.