Police begin 'aggressively implementing' war on criminals

The crackdown to rid the Philippines of criminals, small-time and big-time, began even before the man who promised it, president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, took office.

Incoming president Rodrigo 'The Punisher' Duterte has promised, 'It will be bloody'

Police in Manila detain a man for being shirtless in public, part of their crackdown since Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippines presidential election. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

It's almost midnight when the police officers head out on their mission in Barangay #673. Led by the local police chief himself and shadowed by a sergeant with a shotgun, they weave their way through the poor inner-city Manila district.

The crackdown to rid this country of criminals, small-time and big-time, has begun. And the man who promised it, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, hasn't even taken office.

As residents finish dinner on their doorsteps and merchants prepare stalls for the early morning market, the criminals among them are not obvious. But the police chief is sure he'll find them.

"Don't you know there's an ordinance against being shirtless?" he asks a man, bare-chested in the steamy heat.

The man is led off to the station, along with others who are drinking beer in public, and children outside after the 10 p.m. curfew. Dozens of them.
Police in Manila detain and process children caught on the streets after the 10 p.m. curfew. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Within a few hours, those picked up are crowded outside the police station, waiting to be processed. A woman sits patiently with her three children. "We're homeless," she says. "We're not criminals, we just have nowhere else to go."

Does she think it's fair that she's been detained? She glances nervously at the police officers and swallows her answer.
Philippines president-elect Rodrigo Duterte answers questions from the media in Manila on April 29. (Associated Press)

Asked if he's taking his cue from the popular tough-on-crime Duterte, Chief Inspector Cenon Vargas responds, "Yes sir! His intention is good. We are aggressively implementing these ordinances."

That's what Duterte campaigned on, urging soldiers, police officers and even ordinary civilians to go after drug dealers and other criminals. "Go out and hunt them, arrest them," he said. "If they refuse and they offer a violent resistance … I will personally order you to kill them."

"It will be bloody," he predicted to one business audience during the campaign.

And it already has been. Since the May 9 election, the number of recorded deaths during police anti-drug operations has averaged one a day. The Philippine National Police say 31 suspects were killed in the month after the vote, almost double the previous monthly average of 17.
'We are aggressively implementing these ordinances,' says Chief Inspector Cenon Vargas, head of Barangay #673 police in central Manila. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Duterte's victory was a surprise.

The tough-talking 71-year old shocked Filipinos during the campaign with his off-the-cuff remarks. He called the Pope a "son of a whore" for snarling traffic during his visit to this overwhelmingly Catholic country, joked about raping an Australian missionary, and said it was  acceptable to assassinate journalists if you don't like what they write. He also promised to kill tens of thousands of criminals in his first six months in office. His swearing-in is scheduled for June 30.

He's been compared to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, and dismissed by some as nothing more than a loudmouth. But unlike Trump, Duterte has a history in local politics that worries many.

During his 22 years as mayor of Davao City, the largest centre in the southern Philippines has experienced a wave of extra-judicial killings that's left more than 1,000 people dead, and Duterte with the nickname The Punisher.

Duterte boasts about killings

Human rights groups have accused him of encouraging or even colluding with government-sanctioned death squads that have gone after suspected criminals, including minors labeled as local troublemakers.

Police in Davao dismiss this, and no one has ever been prosecuted for the killings. But investigations by the United Nations and even the Philippine Commission on Human Rights have concluded that officers and government officials have been complicit.

Duterte himself has boasted about killing criminals, including three kidnappers just months after becoming mayor.

"I just shot them," he told a Philippine radio station during the campaign. "I was part of it. Actually, I took the lead because I emptied two magazines of my .45."
Police in Manila detain a man for drinking in public. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

All of this has prompted critics to warn that a Duterte presidency could take the Philippines back to the kind of dictatorship the country saw under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s.

During this year's election campaign, retiring president Benigno Aquino cautioned voters about Duterte's "dictatorial tendencies."

As Aquino prepared to step down, he warned against a return to martial law. "Once, a fellow Filipino stole our freedom," he said. "If we are not vigilant it could happen again."

Amnesty International here says it may already be too late.

"There is an increasing culture of violence that's been embraced," says Butch Olano, the head of the Manila office for the human rights group. "Gun-toting ordinary citizens will now just shoot people in the guise of doing it for preventing or eliminating crime. That's very worrisome."
'It's the criminals who are now afraid, not us,' says Manila resident Gilbert Locsin. If you didn't do anything wrong you have nothing to fear — 'probably,' he says. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

But in the back streets of Manila's poorer neighbourhoods, they are celebrating. "Rody" Duterte is seen as their president, an outsider who has shaken the establishment with his foul language and quick solutions. Someone who understands the common people.

His posters are still up everywhere, and so is the nightly reminder of the change he has promised: the police patrols.

"Things are different already," says Gilbert Locsin as he looks down a lane crowded with children. "It's the criminals who are now afraid, not us."

Sure, he says, there may be corrupt police officers and other excesses, but if you didn't do anything wrong you have nothing to fear.

"Probably," he adds.
Rodrigo Duterte's election posters are a common sight in Manila’s poor neighbourhoods, where his quick fixes for crime hold special appeal. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic