'El Narco' author Grillo on Duterte: An open, interesting character

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte got a chance to not only meet but be interviewed by one of his favorite authors, British journalist Ioan Grillo, best known for his work covering the Mexican drug war.

Grillo is the author of El Narco and Gangster Warlords, books about drug and gang violence in Mexico which Duterte mentions in almost every speech.

Duterte and Grillo met in Malacañang Palace on Tuesday evening, December 6, when they talked for over an hour, mostly about the Philippine drug problem. 

During their meeting, Duterte showed him his thick list of suspected drug personalities – a document no Filipino journalist has seen up close.

"He gave me a very open interview, he answered all my questions extensively," said Grillo in an interview with Rappler on Wednesday, December 7.

Grillo is in the Philippines to write an in-depth piece on Duterte, his politics, and his administration's campaign against illegal drugs. Aside from being a book author, Grillo writes for news media like TIME, BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, The New York Times, and CNN.

'Not aggressive'

SHOW AND TELL. President Rodrigo Duterte shows Ioan Grillo his thick list of suspected drug personalities, a document no Filipino journalist has seen up close. Photo by King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo

SHOW AND TELL. President Rodrigo Duterte shows Ioan Grillo his thick list of suspected drug personalities, a document no Filipino journalist has seen up close.

Photo by King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo

The first time Grillo got wind of Duterte mentioning him and his books in public speeches was in August through Twitter.

"First time I found out through Twitter was through a somebody from the Philippines, from Davao who was living in New York who was saying the President mentioned your book," said Grillo.

He grew interested in Duterte and the President's anti-drug campaign. Eventually, the Philippine embassy in Mexico, where Grillo is based, reached out to him. He met with their officials and expressed interest in visiting the Philippines to cover the drug situation.

The embassy has helped arrange interviews but Grillo is using his own resources to fund his visit.

Grillo said Duterte struck him as a "very interesting character."

"I asked him about the colorful language, the times when he used curse words about journalists or about politicians and he was open to talking about this," he said.

Grillo also asked him about the accusation of extrajudicial killings and other criticism of his drug war.

Having seen video footage of Duterte angrily responding to questions from foreign journalists, Grillo took caution when asking the most "challenging" questions. 

But the Duterte that answered back was more sedate.

"I was cautious because I had seen videos where he'd been asked difficult questions. He wasn't as aggressive. He was very open, very calm. He gave a very thorough interview," said Grillo.

Duterte did not ask Grillo about his opinion on anti-drug strategies or his experience covering the drug war in Mexico. 

But he did take out his copy of Gangster Warlords, and, like any other fan, requested for Grillo's autograph. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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