Rodrigo Duterte

Drug war widow fears being used as a weapon in Marcos-Duterte rift

Jodesz Gavilan

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Drug war widow fears being used as a weapon in Marcos-Duterte rift
'Aasa na naman ba kami tapos saan ba kami pupulutin sa huli? Tototohanin ba nila iyan?' Lina, whose husband was killed in 2016, asks

MANILA, Philippines – Lina* could no longer remember some of the many changes in her life since one fateful day in 2016. The things she’d gone through, the challenges along the way, became a mass of memories she sometimes forces herself to forget if only to numb the pain. 

It was the third month of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, and police had already killed at least 1,105 people in anti-illegal drug operations. On September 21, 2016, Lina’s husband Boyet was added to that bloody trail. 

Seven years later, Boyet and thousands of other drug war victims are yet to see justice at the domestic level. While President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is changing tune when it comes to cooperation with the ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation, victims are wary that the administration’s position is highly dependent on the twists and turns of its alliance with the Duterte faction.

Hindi natin alam na sa ngayon kasi nagpapatutsadahan sila pero mga pulitiko ang mga iyan, may kanya-kanya silang strategy kung anong gagawin nila sa taumbayan,” Lina said. “Ginagago nila kami.

(We are not yet sure because they’re all bickering. They’re politicians who have their own strategies. They are just treating us as fools.) 

Lina doesn’t know what exactly happened when her husband was killed by the people who vowed to serve and protect. The police narrative, as usual, claimed that Boyet and the other victims fought back. Neighbors said he just happned to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

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But here are things Lina is sure of: Their family is poor, contrary to claims that Boyet was a high-ranking member of a drug syndicate. He had not taken a job since getting laid off years before, forcing Lina to become the sole breadwinner to support her three children. 

This was the reason why Lina was far away when Boyet was gunned down. She only goes to their residence outside Metro Manila on weekends. The unplanned trip back home led Lina to a room full of corpses, mostly victims of drug war operations. 

From the moment she heard the news from a phone call, throughout the three-hour travel home, Lina did not want to believe that Boyet was dead. But on the floor of the crowded funeral parlor was the lifeless body of her husband of 26 years. 

Akala ko dumi lang iyong nasa pisngi niya, pinilit ko pa alisin, iyon pala tama na ng baril,” she told Rappler in an interview on November 29. “Akala ko iilan lang ang tama, pero marami pati sa dibdib pala, halos trenta, walang-awa ang ginawa nila sa asawa ko.” 

(I thought there was just dirt on his cheek, I tried to brush it off, but it was a gunshot wound. I thought there were only a few hits, but his body, including his chest, was riddled with bullets, almost 30. They showed no mercy to my husband.)

Adult, Female, Person
JUSTICE. Families of victims of extrajudicial killings light candles beside the portraits of their deceased loved ones on July 18, 2023,
‘We’re just weapons’

If it was only up to Lina, she would’ve pursued legal action against the police who killed her children’s father. “Hindi sila tao, wala silang puso (they are not human, they have no heart),” she described the people responsible for the killing. They should rot in jail, she cried. 

But the harassment her family experienced was too much. Strangers lingered in the shadows during Boyet’s wake, scaring mourners away. Some wore bonnets, some were riding motorcycles. Friends told Lina unknown people were looking for her. 

In the past seven years, they have moved homes five times, the first time just after her husband was buried. Lina is aware how this affects her children, the youngest only seven years old at the time. But she had no choice. She does not want them to wake up one morning as full orphans.

Para na lamang sa kapakanan ng mga anak ko kasi kung ako naman, hindi na ako natatakot, galit na galit ako, at laban na laban na, pero hindi lang naman ako ang maaapektuhan, ayaw ko naman iwan mga anak ko,” Lina said.

(I’m doing these for the sake of my children. I’m not scared anymore, I am so angry and I am willing to fight. But it’s not just me who will be affected, I don’t want to leave my children behind.)

Since 2016, Lina has also taken more jobs than she’s used to. She worked in a school canteen, a nail technician who offered home services, even selling afternoon snacks to customers, anything just to get enough money to support her children. 

In between her day jobs, Lina joined a local community of families whose loved ones were killed in the drug war. She found comfort among widows who lost husbands and mothers who lost sons. But they do not only share grief, but the good news too.

Such include positive ICC developments and the changing government response. There are more lawmakers, including non-opposition legislators, urging the government to cooperate with the ICC. Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, who was Duterte’s justice secretary, also now does “not see any reason why [the ICC] should be prevented from coming in.” 

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said cooperation with the ICC needs “serious study.” while Marcos himself said that rejoining the ICC is being studied.

But for Lina, “to see is to believe.” She and other families of drug war victims are aware that the ongoing conflict between the Duterte and Marcos camps is a big factor in the latest turning of the tide. 

Marcos, if he was serious, should have explicitly vowed to give justice to Duterte’s victims even at the start of his presidency in 2022. Right now, Lina and other widows feel like pawns in a chess game dominated by politicians who are trying to survive until the next elections.

Kailangan namin makita na ginagawa niya, kaso wala pa eh, so aasa na naman ba kami tapos saan ba kami pupulutin sa huli? Tototohanin ba nila yan? Pero walang assurance, pulitika lang,” she said.

Parang ginawa kaming sandata kasi alam nila na marami kami, na iyong pagnanais namin na makamit ang hustisya ay malakas so kukunin niya kami against Duterte,” Lina said.

(We want to see him do it. But there’s nothing yet. So are we just going to hope against hope again? Where will we end up? There’s no assurance that they are going to make good with their promise, it’s all politics. They are just using us as weapons against Duterte because they know there are many of us who have a strong desire to obtain justice.) 

The President’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, said Filipinos should be ashamed if the Philippine government cooperates with the ICC probe, claiming that domestic courts are working well. 

But only three cases have led to a conviction seven years after Duterte waged his violent drug war, and more than a year into the Marcos presidency. Government data show that at least 6,252 individuals were killed in police anti-drug operations by May 31, 2022, while rights groups estimate the number to reach 30,000 to include those killed vigilante-style. Rappler obtained data from the Philippine National Police, however, showing that 7,884 drug suspects were killed in police operations by August 31, 2020.

Wala akong pinag-aralang tao pero iyong sinabi ni [Senator Marcos], hindi ba siya kinilabutan kasi aba ang tingin niya sa mga namatay at kaming mga naiwan, wala kaming problema?” Lina asked.

Ang tingin ba niya sa amin ay mabababang uri na walang pagkatao, na walang mga pangarap?” she added.

(I am uneducated but was Senator Marcos not mortified by what she said? Does she think that we – who lost a loved one, who were left behind – don’t have problems? Does she see us as lowly beings who don’t have humanity, who don’t have dreams?)

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PROSECUTE DUTERTE. Groups on November 29, 2023 gather outside the House of Representatives to call on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s investigations into Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler
Need concrete actions

Lina’s fears are not unfounded. While the Duterte-Marcos alliance may perhaps look like it is on the brink of collapse, the entire premise of seeking justice for the drug war victims under the current president is still on shaky ground.

“If the Marcos government will have a change of heart for justice, it should not only be through rhetoric,” Philippine Coalition for the ICC (PCICC) co-chairperson Aurora Parong said. 

“Legislative resolution is not the end all, it must be followed by concrete steps and actions to show that at the end of the tunnel, delivery of justice will be achieved,” she added.

The concrete actions toward actual delivery of justice should include the following priorities, according to Parong:

1. Craft a comprehensive plan against drug abuse in the Philippines “that integrates due process, human rights, and a public health perspective.” 

This includes withdrawing the existing PNP circular that operationalizes the war on drugs signed under Duterte, investigating and holding to account the big-time drug syndicates, and legislating human rights-based laws and policies to control illegal drugs.

But the immediate importance is to stop the killings. While Marcos has ordered the “respect of human rights” in the implementation of anti-illegal drug operations, the bloodbath continues well into his second year in office. At least 482 drug-related killings were recorded from July 1, 2022, to November 30, 2023, according to the Dahas Project of the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center.

2. Ensure independent investigations into human rights abuses, including drug-related killings, that will work towards “accountability, justice, and reparations.” 

While the ICC does its job, Marcos should also not veer away from giving justice at the local level and ensure that there should be diligent investigations, and that government officials complicit in the killings be held responsible. Parong said that the government “must not be content with sloppy investigations and non-investigation of killings.” 

Human rights lawyer Kristina Conti, an ICC accredited assistant counsel who represents a group of victims’ families, said that allowing the ICC to move “could both be a boon and bane to the Dutertes.” 

“Perhaps the best way to take politics out of the equation is to let the ICC proceed with an impartial investigation, and conjointly, to rejoin the court,” she told Rappler, adding that the cooperation of all parties in the investigation “is critical to a comprehensive resolution of an intricate problem so deeply imbued with public interest.”

What would be the next moves to watch out for? Political analyst and Ateneo de Manila University professor Arjan Aguirre said that the next step depends on how the Duterte bloc would react to the offensives. 

“Should the Duterte bloc choose to go head-to-head, expect the government to go full throttle in mobilizing government resources against [the former president],” he told Rappler. 

“The Marcos-Romualdez bloc should be careful in threading this moment for this can backfire at them [since] the Dutertes may use the underdog card to their favor and turn the tables on their rivals.” 

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If it was up to drug war widow Lina, Marcos should just stop engaging in political play and just act. The long wait for justice – seven years for many of the drug war victims, including Lina’s husband – is already too much. The last thing they want to be is an ace up the sleeve of Marcos. 

Kung puwede lang ako magsalita sa harap ni Marcos, gusto ko kunin ang pagkakataon na habang kailangan nila kami, pumunta kami sa Malacañang at sabihan si Marcos na tumawag siya sa ICC at sasabihing sasama siya ulit at papapasukin sila dito,” she said. “Baka kung gawin niya iyon, maniwala talaga kami,” Lina added.

(If only I could go and speak before Marcos, I would want to take the opportunity since he still needs us, families left behind, to go to Malacañang and tell him to call the ICC and tell them the Philippines is rejoining, and that he’ll allow investigators to enter the country. If he does that, then maybe we’ll finally believe him.) –

*Names have been changed for their protection

Visit this page to read more stories about families of drug war victims as they seek justice in the face of continuing fear and challenges even after the administration of Rodrigo Duterte.

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.