Editor’s Note: More than six months since Rodrigo Duterte stepped down from the presidency, thousands of orphaned children, wives, mothers, siblings, families left behind by victims of the violent war on drugs continue to relive painful memories. Coming mostly from the poorest communities across the Philippines, they pine for justice and accountability, some still pinning hopes on the International Criminal Court to investigate the killings. In this series, Rappler revisits some of those who were left behind – to listen and retell their stories – as they seek justice in the face of continuing fear and challenges post-Duterte.
Second of 4 parts
PART 1 | Drug war widow: Why is Duterte still free when our loved ones are dead?
MANILA, Philippines – If the narrow and densely populated alleys in Metro Manila could talk, they would say Niño* was more than just one of the lifeless bodies dumped on the streets in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.
He sometimes drank to the point of inebriation, but a sober Niño was often seen mingling with people and spreading the word of the Lord to anyone who listened, freshly picked from the Bible that he loved to read.
Mila described her brother as a good person, generous with compliments and advice for family and friends. He was a caring and thoughtful person who wanted the best for everyone. The last time Mila saw him, Niño reminded her to take good care of her children.
But these did not matter to merciless killers who thrived during the Duterte administration. In the end, it was Niño’s only vice – drinking – that triggered a nightmare that the family would try their best to escape from for the rest of their lives.
A drunk Niño was accosted and brought to the barangay (village) hall one day in March 2017. A younger brother followed not half an hour later to bring him home and resume what should have been another ordinary day, only to be told that Niño had already been released.
“Wala naman siya sa bahay kaya bumalik siya kasama nanay namin pero sabi uuwi rin iyong kapatid namin, pero iyong mga pulis nang-insulto pa, sabi baka nasa bulsa nila,” Mila recalled. “Walang magawa ang nanay ko at kapatid ko kaya umuwi na lang sila at patuloy na naghanap kung saan-saan, pero hindi talaga nila nakita,” Mila recalled.
(No one was at home so my brother and our mother went back to the station only to be waved off, saying our brother would eventually find his way home. But the police also insulted them, that maybe he was in their pocket. My brother and mother couldn’t do anything so they just continued looking everywhere to no avail.)
It was nine in the morning when Mila received a call that Niño was already found. By then, it had been three days since he was accosted. Knowing that his brother did not use illegal drugs, she asked: How is he? What time did he arrive home?
But the reality was far from what Mila expected.
Niño’s lifeless body was discovered near a creek not far from the family home. His head was covered with a black trash bag and secured with packaging tape. Police allegedly found illegal drugs in his pocket.
It was a familiar and recurring scene in Duterte’s drug war. Thousands of Filipinos, mostly from the poorest communities, ended up dead with their bodies wrapped in plastic, dumped on streets that turn quiet at night. In many cases, there would be a cardboard sign tagging victims as either drug users or drug peddlers – a warning sign for what’s to come for those who dared.
The body the family saw in the funeral parlor worsened their suffering. Niño reportedly had black eyes and visibly bruised arms and legs. There was also a questionable mark on his neck. A death certificate Rappler reviewed stated that he had gunshot wounds in the head.
“Nanginig iyong laman ko noong nakita ko siya, parang pinagbagsakan ako ng langit at lupa kasi kitang-kita na pinahirapan nila iyong kapatid ko, napakasakit talaga,” she told Rappler.
“Hindi ko naman inisip na magiging ganoon kasi lasing lang naman siya at wala naman ginagawa sa kanila iyong tao pero bakit nila pinatay?” Mila said.
(My whole body trembled when I saw my dead brother’s body. Like the world collapsed on me because I saw that they tortured him. It was really painful. I never expected that it would happen to him because he was just drunk and didn’t do anything bad. Why did they have to kill him?)
Mila, then nine months pregnant, wanted to cry and yell. She desperately wanted answers about why his 31-year-old brother’s life was cut short. But as the second eldest, Mila knew she had to stay strong for her mother and the remaining siblings.
Niño’s death was only the beginning of heartbreak and pain. Two more brothers would be killed after him – one in 2019 under Duterte and another in September 2022, less than three months into the Marcos administration.
Three family members were brutally killed in a span of five years. Eight siblings were brought down to five.
Dreams cut short
Danilo had big dreams for everyone around him, but most especially for the child he had as a teenager. At 21, he was determined to go back to school to finish his studies, hoping it would lead to a better life than what he’d known so far.
It was the same reason he cited as he begged for his life in front of alleged police one night in June 2019. “Sir, huwag po, wala po akong alam diyan, gusto ko lang po mag-aral (Sir, please don’t, I don’t have anything to do with that, I only want to study),” witnesses recalled hearing from the dark alley where Danilo was dragged to, according to Mila.
He cried for his mother, he cried for everyone dear to him, but the words fell on deaf ears. The neighbors told Mila the police punched her brother, placed a gun to his head, and shot him dead.
It was an anti-drug police operation that reportedly targeted the house of Danilo’s friend, just one of the many operations in the area that night. Mila was awakened by a phone call at five in the morning with the news that her second to the youngest brother was dead.
Her brother, the one who sought refuge at her house to ask advice about life, the one whom neighbors loved for always being available to lend a hand in the community, was accused of fighting back.
When their eldest sibling Niño was killed in 2017, Mila begged her other brothers to stay out of trouble and not leave the house at night. But these reminders were useless.
“Nataranta ako noon, hindi ko alam gagawin ko kaya natulala na lang ako kasi bakit iyong kapatid ko pa na mabait, bakit siya pinatay?” Mila said. (My head was a mess, I didn’t know what to do, because why would they kill my kind brother?)
Careful not to wake up her children, Mila rushed to the scene of the crime where she met the rest of the shell-shocked family. They were still reeling from a tragic loss just two years prior, and now Duterte’s drug war claimed another one of their own flesh and blood.
The atmosphere was tense a few feet from where Danilo and three others were killed. There was an exchange of words on what to do next. Mila’s family wanted to see Danilo immediately, but the authorities told them to just retrieve the body from the funeral parlor.
“Hindi ko makakalimutan kung gaano kasama ang titig [ng mga pulis] sa aming magkapamilya,” Mila recalled. (I will never forget how the police looked at me and my family.)
By some chance, according to Mila, a sibling was able to pull the blanket covering Danilo. What they saw took them back to the moment they saw their eldest brother Niño in the funeral parlor in 2017.
According to Mila, Danilo’s body and face were also black and bruised. A death certificate that Rappler reviewed stated that he also suffered from gunshot wounds to the head and trunk.
“Sabi pa naman ng nanay namin noong 2017, mag-ingat kami at huwag na lumaban noong namatay ang kuya namin kasi baka kung ano pa mangyari sa iba naming mga kapatid, pero nangyari pa rin kaya napakasakit,” she said.
(My mother told us in 2017 that we should be careful and not challenge the police over what happened to our oldest brother because they might go after us. But it still happened, another brother was killed so it’s really painful.)
Then there were three
The absence of Danilo and Niño was felt in the family home in the years following their deaths. There were two less people during celebrations, outings, or the normal meals the family shared in the past years.
There was confusion, there was anger, but most of all there was sadness. Two brothers killed in cold blood just two years apart, leaving a family wondering what they did to deserve such tragedy.
The siblings knew they couldn’t let their mother stay at home, so they encouraged her to continue working in a nearby factory. The silence in the house was all too much for the family matriarch.
“Isang buwan na tulala ang nanay namin at hindi namin siya nakausap kasi laging umiiyak,” Mila said. “Pinapalakas namin ang loob niya at sinasabihan na ‘andito pa kami, lumaban siya para sa amin.” (For a month, my mother kept on staring in space and refused to talk to us, she was always crying. We told her to stay strong, if only for us.)
Duterte stepped down from the presidency on June 30, 2022 leaving a trail of blood across the country. In May, a month before Duterte left office, government data showed that at least 6,252 individuals were killed by the police. This number does not include those killed vigilante-style which human rights groups estimate to be between 27,000 to 30,000.
There was initial confusion as to what the anti-illegal drug campaign under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would look like. But in September, Marcos said it will focus on prevention and rehabilitation as enforcement “only gets you so far.”
But Duterte’s culture of impunity and violence is so far-reaching that the impact would be felt for generations to come. Mila’s family saw it first-hand.
Joel, the third of eight siblings, spent most of the past years in and out of detention facilities for various reasons, including illegal drugs. He had a harder life compared to the rest of the family, Mila admitted, as their mother paid little attention to him growing up.
Joel was let out of prison for the last time in May 2022 and was looking forward to spending Christmas again with the entire family after years of being apart. But six unidentified men had other plans for him.
In September 2022, Joel was shot dead while he was out to buy something from the neighborhood convenience store. The perpetrators used a gun silencer, according to witnesses, and really made sure their target was killed.
Mila considers Joel her closest sibling. They were born only a few years apart and went through the most important periods of their lives together. She didn’t expect she would never share anything with him anymore.
“Akala ko hindi na ako iiyak, kasi baka bato na ako pero nung nakita ko ang katawan niya, nawasak na naman ang mundo ko (I thought I was not going to cry anymore because I’m numb, but when I saw his dead body, my world collapsed again),” Mila said.
In less than six years, Mila lost three brothers to the senseless violence that dominated the country since Duterte came into power in 2016. Their mother grieves for three sons. A child will grow up without a father.
Mila looked at her remaining siblings and told them to be careful. But she knew it was out of their hands, such as in the cases of their three slain siblings.
“Nagtatrabaho sila, lumalayo sa barkada, pero puwedeng bigla na lang silang pinatay kahit na walang may karapatan na gumawa ng ganoon,” she said. “Sabi ko sa kapatid ko sa burol niya, binulong ko sa kanya sa kabaong niya, ikaw na ang huli, isama mo na iyong lahat ng gulo sa iyo, tama na kasi hindi ko na kaya,” Mila recalled.
(My brothers all had jobs, stayed away from bad influences, but they were still killed even if no one had the right to do that. I told my brother Joel during his wake, I whispered to his lifeless body, to make sure he would be the last one, that he should bring with him to the afterlife all the trouble we have had to live through, because I cannot take it happening again.)
When will justice come?
Mila’s family wanted to get justice, to question the police’s narratives about what happened to their three brothers. They took inspiration from other families of drug war victims who organized themselves into groups, who filed communications before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
But the initial steps they took were dismissed, if not met with hostility from authorities. There were many times Mila had to step back and let her other sibling talk to the police, fearing that she’d get carried away.
Sometimes she’s tempted to fight, but she knows the deadly cost of speaking out. The alleged perpetrators, after all, were still assigned to the nearby communities. Her family doesn’t trust the police nor the government anymore.
“Iniisip ko na lang na wala naman akong ginagawang masama pero kung iyong iba nga, hindi naman gumawa ng hindi maganda pero pinatay pa rin nila,” she said. “Kung gusto ka nilang patayin, papatayin ka nila talaga,” Mila continued.
(I tell myself I’m not doing anything wrong so I should not be afraid. But you see several cases where they still killed people who didn’t do anything wrong. If they want to kill you, they will.)
If it was up to Mila, she’d want Duterte to be held responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Filipinos. But as it stands, the former president continues to evade any semblance of accountability six months into the Marcos administration that promised “real justice in real time.”
“Galit na galit ako, masakit, naiinis kasi parang mga hayop na pinagpapatay dito tapos siya ang saya-saya niya sa lugar niya na parang balewala lang,” Mila added. “Iyong kasalukuyang presidente natin ngayon, wala rin siyang ginagawa, kinakalimutan na nila iyong mga pamilyang naghahanap ng hustisya, dahil lang ba mahihirap kami?” she asked.
(I am so incensed, so hurt, and annoyed that people were killed like animals and yet Duterte is still so happy in his hometown as if nothing happened. The current president is doing nothing and just ignoring the families who are still looking for justice. Is it because we are poor?)
Mila is looking forward to proceedings at the ICC, the last resort many families cling to in the hopes of getting any semblance of justice for their slain loved ones. She said she’s willing to engage if needed.
On Friday morning Manila time, the ICC announced that the pre-trial chamber authorized the resumption of the investigation into the drug war killings under Duterte.
Mila will continue calling out the double-faced approach of the Marcos administration to the human rights issue – even if just in front of her television screen.
“Kapag nanonood ako ng balita, para akong may kaaway, sabi ko, hoy ‘wag ‘nyo kaming lokohin,” she said. “Sabi ng asawa ko para akong baliw kasi hindi naman daw ako ang kausap, pero at least alam ko na mali sila.”
(When I watch news on television, it’s like I’m fighting someone, because I say out loud that they can’t fool us. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but at least I know those in power are wrong.) – Rappler.com
*Names have been changed for their protection
PART 3 | After losing mother to Duterte’s drug war, 17-year-old asks: Will justice ever come?
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