Murder in the Name of Drug Prevention

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Under Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, drug dealers routinely get assassinated on Manila’s busy streets. Dead bodies get dumped in the bay and on city sidewalks, with signs reading, “I’m a pusher” hanging from the deceased’s necks. Those who resist, including clergy, have been shot in broad daylight. For Virginia Quarterly Review, Adam Willis examines the president’s brutal war on drugs, and how this Catholic nation seems torn between support and outrage. Many Filipinos applaud Duterte’s efforts to curtail the drug trade, while many Catholics have actively started resisting them and his violent, dictatorial rhetoric, risking their own lives in the process.

In the Philippines, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against a drug war that has claimed, by some estimates, more than twenty thousand lives. It is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. It is a familiar dilemma, exacerbated by deep historical fissures between conservative and liberal clerics, and it has heightened pressure on the church’s most prominent prelates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, who splits his time between duties on behalf of the Vatican and leading packed services in the cathedral of Intramuros—the Catholic heart of the Philippine capital—has been criticized by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to dealing with Duterte. Such soft-pedaling, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those responsible.

In a country where vigilante executions have become commonplace, this work is perilous at best; Catholic leaders who speak out are often inundated with death threats, sometimes from Duterte himself. In the last year and a half, three Filipino priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances. One was ambushed in his car after negotiating the release of a political prisoner; another, while saying blessings on a group of children, was shot dead by a motorcyclist; a third was murdered at the altar in front of parishioners just before Mass. In 2017 and 2018, such violence against clergymen prompted more than two hundred priests and religious leaders to petition for licenses to carry firearms.

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