Warning: This story contains graphic imagery
At midnight on March 3, just outside Manila, 29-year-old Kristita Padual plunked herself down on a plastic chair for a quick roadside snack of watermelon.
Did she see the masked gunmen on motorcycles?
They had two bullets for her. One went right through the little Hello Kitty purse tucked into her bra, through the $10 she had stuffed into it — and through her heart.
Kristita in that red dress, headphones still in her ears, her hand still clutching her phone, her dead body balanced so precariously, impossibly, on that chair — that’s how photographer Vincent Go first saw her.
It’s not an image you shake easily. It’s also hard for Go to shake the terrified silence of witnesses he meets at these crime scenes.
“Things like this, everyone is afraid to talk,” he explained. “We really don’t know what happened.”
Police said they found tinfoil with traces of shabu, or meth, on Kristita. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. Finding shabu is a frequent police claim now in the Philippines.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte vowed last year to wage war against drug crime, it's believed more than 7,000 suspected addicts and pushers have been killed.
These deaths have startled people around the world, but what sometimes gets lost are the compounding cruelties for the families left behind.
Kristita’s family would get a sad sense of that.
Duterte’s tough talk while running for office largely won him the presidency. So the fact that he would make good on his promises shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
In June 2016, while still president-elect, Duterte encouraged police and citizens to shoot dead any drug dealers who violently “resisted” arrest.
Someone has obviously been listening and broadly interpreting the president’s ambitions. But who’s doing the killing is far from clear. Vigilantes? Pushers targeting users who could identify them?
Police have also killed many people — some during and after sting operations, some in deeply suspicious circumstances yet to be explained.
Earlier this year, police briefly stopped drug war operations, as the outcry from human rights organizations possibly became too loud to ignore.
But it has all started again, under the new and less-than-nuanced name Operation Double Barrel Reloaded.
And so, the blood of the likes of Kristita flows.
The initial shock to her family was twofold. They were horrified that she had been killed, but also surprised to learn where she was killed.
Truth is, her father, Samuel Padual, hadn’t seen her in a long time.
“Kristita was a stubborn girl. I kept advising her but she never really followed my advice,” he explained. Samuel had presumed she was far away, spreading her wings.
He didn’t know she was likely living only a few kilometres away — close to him, but not ready to go see him. That detail stings.
He doesn’t know why she was killed. He just knows the child he dearly loved didn’t deserve to die like that.
A family's burden
No family should have to face what sometimes happens after that first, horrible phone call.
Photographers like Vincent Go and his ever-present colleague Raffy Lerma talk a lot about extortion at funeral homes. At times, bodies are taken to funeral parlours whose staggering prices — including charges sometimes for picking up the bodies from the crime scene — are beyond the reach of poor families.
Lerma pulled up a photo on his camera of a mother with a frozen, agonized scream after her 16-year-old son Espinosa had been killed. His body was being held in a place for a fee she couldn’t possibly afford.
They killed her son “like a chicken,” she told Lerma, adding that “they killed our children and they also want to rob us.”
“This is so cruel,” Lerma said.
The family pleaded with photographers to stay close while they negotiated to get Espinosa’s body taken to a more affordable funeral home. All those journalists standing with the family eventually brought the price down.
It was a tiny win. But keeping up with the indignities is hard.
At Kristita’s wake, Go pointed out that the date on her interment notice was still blank. That’s because two weeks after her death, her family still hadn’t secured enough money to pay for her funeral expenses.
Her body was still in an open casket under a tent.
On the hot, buggy night CBC visited, a half dozen tables surrounded the coffin. The tables were packed with people gambling, the mahjong tiles clacking in bursts.
Samuel Padual moved quietly amongst them, watching. Nearby, his wife, Kristita’s stepmother, was perched on a stool, diligently doing sums and smoothing out 10- and 20-peso bills (roughly 25 and 50 cents, respectively).
Setting up gambling tables was a last resort to pay for the funeral costs. Until they secured the roughly $950 Cdn for expenses, they couldn’t book that burial date.
For a gardener like Samuel, that kind of money was beyond reach. It often is for the victims of this drug war, who tend to be among the poorest Filipinos.
“If we don’t get enough, I’ll have to pay in installments somehow,” Samuel said, shrugging in what looked like exhausted grief.
Between buying food and drink for the gamblers, the family’s take-home earnings during the wake were sometimes as little as $10 a day, sometimes more — a slow lurch towards the total.
In cases like these, the longer it takes to raise money, the more the body decays. Plenty of families end up dipping into what they’ve raised to pay for more formaldehyde.
‘They want to forget everything’
Go and the other photographers were so bothered by Kristita’s case — and yes, many cases bother them — that they returned to her wake several days later, this time with their colleague Brother Jun Santiago.
His work with a church means sometimes his congregation raises money for drug war victims.
He’d arrived to pay the rest of Kristita's funeral costs.
Kristita’s father took the cash with a soft thanks. Santiago also offered access to support groups and lawyers to help pursue a case with the police.
But the family’s response to his outreach was sad, scared silence.
“They want to forget everything,” Santiago explained. “They are afraid they don’t know who is the killer. They don’t know the motivation. They don’t even know if Kristita was the target.”
On the night of her killing, another man was shot a few metres away from her — hit 10 times. But who was he to Kristita? That’s not clear.
“Maybe he was shot first, and Kristita witnessed it and was killed,” Go offered while scrolling through digital photos of the scene.
Go asks the questions families often shy away from. Some worry demanding answers will get them killed. That’s not an imagined threat.
A fear of how far police might go isn’t fabricated, either. The photographers often say they see the truth when they stare deep into their pictures.
Go pulled out one of a dead man’s broken and bloodied hand, which appeared to hold a shiny, clean gun. Police said they had been forced to kill him because he was a threat.
But Go points at the marks on the man’s wrist.
“The sharp angles show he’d been tied with plastic ties. How do you pull a gun if your hands are tied?”
Good point. Not good enough, though, for anyone to be held accountable. But the photographers record and post what they can to make sure the public knows.
‘It is better’
The thing is, Duterte is popular. So is his drug war.
When CBC visited Duterte’s legal spokesman, Salvador Panelo, he seemed unmoved by the wrenching photos of the dead. Kristita’s contorted, tiny frame was emblazoned on the front page of a newspaper in Panelo’s office. He glanced at it, but shook his head.
He seemed dismissive of concerns there are too many unexplained killings, and the idea that some may be innocent victims.
If you thought there was a place where that view might infuriate people, it would be at the side of Kristita’s coffin on the morning of her burial.
But Aflor Pargala, who was cooking chicken for the mourners just a few metres away, didn’t hesitate when asked if she supported the drug war.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said. “If you go out at midnight now, there is no harassment. It is better.”
She says her life is safer with presumed users and dealers off the streets. That’s good enough for her.
What about Kristita?
“I don’t know her. She was not living here.”
At rest — for now
Eventually, Kristita did get a resting place.
Sixteen days after her death, Samuel Padual and Kristita’s cousins stood in the heat of Bagbag Cemetery outside of Manila, amidst a crush of other families burying their own.
It has always been an overcrowded cemetery, but the drug war has overwhelmed it.
Bodies are placed in small, concrete compartments and stacked like shipping containers. Kristita’s compartment, like most of them, is only leased for five years.
After that, families pay on a yearly basis. Many can’t afford it and so the bodies are moved out.
Samuel doesn’t know what he’ll do then. On this day, he joined the others watching as a cemetery worker etched Kristita’s name in the fresh concrete.
That would have to do as a marker for now.
This was an ending for the family, but the photographers continue to pursue Kristita’s death, and will chase it while they can until someone else’s death comes calling.
Which it will. This is the Philippines. These days, there’s always another.