Fruits of Impunity: Collateral Damage in Duterte’s War on Drugs.

James Whitlow Delano

2017 - Ongoing


Fruits of Impunity: Collateral Damage in Duterte’s War on Drugs.

In the slums of Navotas, 3 generations of the Dela Cruz family live in a two-storey plywood hut, raised on the posts over a stagnant, contaminated estuary. There are, well were, 11 in all. The shell of the makeshift house is fitted with discarded corrugated tin and plastic.

When the winds delivered the first swollen drops of rain, signaling the arrival of yet another tropical downpour, 16 year-old “Toto” would climb up to the roof to secure the ropes and heavy stones that prevented the swaying structure from being blown over. "He could climb so fast and so high, you'd think he was Spiderman," his mother Dolores fondly remembered.

The only way to get to the house by land was by navigating the kind of raised, rotten boardwalk where one misstep could mean taking a plunge into the black water below - polluted with raw sewage and so much plastic and Styrofoam flotsam, that in some places you couldn’t see the water at all. The Dela Cruzes were no better or worse off than their neighbors.

In the early morning hours, as Toto and his 15 year-old wife, Jasmine slept with their newborn, Hazel between them, four armed men wearing black masks came for Toto. Jasmine described how two of the assassins held guns to her head while the other two dragged Toto by the hair onto a wooden porch, shooting him a total of four times in the face and mouth. As he died, Jasmine cradled him as she cried, “Pa, not yet…Not yet please…We have a baby”.

Metro Manila’s massive slums are a vast dumping ground for the multigenerational poor and they make up the vast majority of the victims – an estimated 12,000 deaths (Human Rights Watch/ Dec. 2017) - in Philippines President Duterte’s War on Drugs, or “Tokhang”. Statistics obscure that for every life lost in the “Tokhang”, there is a family, like the Dela Cruzes, left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Justice for families is not possible because assassins operate with impunity. Assassins know who they are, where they live but families don’t even know who the killers are.

The goal for this project is three-fold. The news cycle has clearly moved on from covering the extrajudicial killings (EJK) in the Philippines but I’ve been able to keep up to date by maintaining contact with collaborators in Manila.

1. I will work hand in hand with local activists like Father “Bong” Sarabia, director of St. Vincent Seminary in Quezon City, documenting his fearless work with widows in the slums communities there. Thus far assassins have not targeted outspoken clergy. Because Father Bong lives there and is trusted, I can learn about the true fears and hopes of residents and how best to document their struggle without endangering anyone in the community.

2. Outreach and amplification: The existing series, documented in June/July 2017, was been published in the Guardian and New Republic. Publishing stories in global media effectively amplifies the voices of victims.

Partnering with the Pulitzer Center, I discovered that outreach like photo exhibitions, complemented by panel discussions that encourage audience participation and classroom visits, leave a longer lasting impression. For example, the Head On Photo Festival in Sydney, Australia has invited me to exhibit the existing “Tokhang” project and participate in panel discussion this May.

While expanding the kind of outreach, outlined above, Facebook and Instagram posts will help generate interest by initiating the conversation about the issue.

3. Dig Deeper: Slum dwellers believed that, in President Duterte, they’d finally found their savior, their champion. Instead Duterte unleashed a spasm of slaughter that has created a siege mentality in the slums - delivering extrajudicial assassinations with impunity. Even if the killing stopped tomorrow, the damage done to thousands of families will affect them, and Filipino society, the rest of their lives. By gathering photo evidence, the photographs may actually help survivors to seek justice on behalf of their slain loved ones.

The vast majority of those left to raise fatherless children are women. I will reestablish contact with multiple families, including two teen widows and an 84-year old grandmother, who are left to raise as many as 7 children without male partners in the most crushing poverty.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the silence of the good people is more dangerous than the brutality of the bad people”. This story must be told and my goal is not to rest until I find a way to document their stories.

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  • Crime scene investigator lifts a towel to examine Manuel Borbe, 28, who was shot dead by assassins wearing black masks who arrived on motorcycle. Manuel died immediately while his friend Jeffrey, with whom he was drinking coffee, was taken to a hospital but he'd lost a lot of blood. Manuel, according to his sister, Vivian Borbe, was a drug user and pusher not by choice but was forced to sell drugs to support his addiction to methampetamine, known locally as "shabu". Barangay Holy Spirit, Quezon City, Philippines.

  • Family members of Junmar Abletes, killed in an extrajudicial killing by black-masked assassins in President Duterte's so-called "War on Drugs", resist an attempt to close his coffin at Navotas Cemetery in Metro Manila. Junmar's father, Pedro, on far left, supports mother, Lucia, as siblings mourn in their final moments before his body is interred into its tomb chamber. Family members insist that Junmar was no longer a drug user but was targeted, as his name was apparently on a hit list, while he had returned from the island of Samar to gather up his parents and return with them so that they could visit him in his adopted home there. Navotas, Philippines.

  • Remy Fernandez, 84 years old, holds her grandchildren that she is raising, there are seven in all, because her son, Constantino de Juan, a Methampetamine user, was killed by masked men and the mother is in prison due to a drug arrest. The chair in which she sits has a hole in it after it passed through his body. Baby RJ was born in prison. Constantino, upon seeing the masked assassins, instructed CJ, five years old and wearing the red tank top, to take care of his siblings because he knew he was about to be assassinated. Payatas, Metro Manila, Philippines

  • Ginnalyn Soriano, 21, and her youngest brother, Jonas bid a final farewell to elder brother, Julius, 24 years old, whose corpse showed signs that his hands had been bound before he was shot to death during a police operation in Caloocan, Metro Manila. Philippines

  • Jasmine Dorana, a 15 year old widow, holds her baby, Hazel, born just a month before her husband, John "Toto" Dela Cruz was pulled by his hair out onto this porch and shot four times in the face and mouth. Bagung Bayan, C4, Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Ginnalyn Soriano, 21 encounters the body of her elder brother, Julius, 24 years old, whose corpse is being carried away in a body bag after he was executed. His body showed signs that his hands had been bound before he was shot to death during a police operation in Caloocan, Metro Manila. Philippines

  • Jocelyn Banting, a 14 year old widow, was 13 when she realized that a customer at the bar in the Navotas Fish Port complex, as a sex worker, had impregnated her. Despite carrying another man’s child when they met, Alan “Boy Muslim” Uba, a drug dealer, accepted Jocelyn’s child took her to be his wife. One night he told her that he’d be joining friends for a beer but would come home early. He never returned. Assassins wearing masks gunned him down. Tondo, Manila, Philippines.

  • Son of Junmar Abletes at his father's wake overlooked with a worried glance by his grandmother. Market 3 slum, Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Grafitti on a wall on the main road in front of the Market 3 slum delivers a grim message. Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Roda, 29 years old, and the 7 children for whom she is responsible, after her husband, Crisanto, a garbage picker , and Methamphetamine user, at the massive dump site nearby, was killed in an extrajudicial killing as part of Duterte's "War on Drug". Roda cannot work because she has a ulcerous infection on her thigh and she also needs to look after the children. Some of the older children are sent out to sell fried banana and other food on the street to bring in a little cash. Payatas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • House where 14 year old widow, Jasmine Dorana met her partner, John "Toto" Dela Cruz, 16 years old. He was pulled out by the hair and shot on this front porch by masked assassins. Bangung Bayan C4, Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Signs of execution - The indentation on the wrist of Julius Soriano, 24 years old, shows signs that his hands were bound before he was shot to death during a police operation in Caloocan, Metro Manila. There is a bullet wound in his arm too, and the slug is still embedded in his arm, coming to a stop exactly were the indentation line left an impression in his skin, suggesting that whatever caused the indentation stopped the bullet too. In fact, all 3 victims of extrajudicial killings examined by the photographer that night (21 June 2017) had bullet wounds in their forearms suggesting that the victims had attempted, and failed, to protect themselves from assassins' bullets by blocking shots with their arms. Philippines

  • There are vast slums in Navotas, which are adjacent to the vast slums of Tondo, sit next to the vast slums of Malabon and so it goes. This so-called "War on Drugs" is a de facto war on the poor, the segment of Philippine society which hope more than any other that Duterte, the people's president would lift up. Now their slums have become killing fields. Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Two young men of the age that are prime targets for assassins in the drug war, look on as the body of Julius Soriano, 24, is to be carried out after he was killed in execution-style with several bullets to the heart and a bullet to the head. The official account is that Soriano was killed in a buy-bust operation where he allegedly drew his 38 caliber handgun and fired at the undercover police officer. Indentations on his wrists suggest Soriano's hands had been bound before he was shot. Caloocan, Metro Manila, Philippines

  • Roland Obletes 30 years old and incarcerated on drug charges, is allowed to say farewell to his brother, Junmar, who was assassinated by unidentified men wearing black masks and hoods. Roland is handcuffed to brother Mario, also incarcerated, as they were led out of the Navotas City Jail to the hearse. Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • This sofa bears a hole from one of the bullets that passed through the body of 84 year-old Remy Fernandez's son, Constantino de Juan's, body on the night that masked gunmen murdered him in her living room. A month passed before Remy could bring herself to scrub the blood off the sofa. The family cannot afford another, and so they live with this reminder of that day. Payatas, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • Aftermath of a disagreement that resulted in Jocelyn Banting, 14 years old, handing back her 8 month old child, Angel, to her mother, Lenie Banting, 51, who is raising her child because she has chosen to continue living in a bar where she works as a sex worker. Her partner, Alan Uba, AKA, Boy Muslim, was killed in President Duterte's "War on Drugs". Jocelyn met her husband after a client impregnated her. Smoky Mountain, Tondo, Manila, Philippines.

  • Mary Grace Llimit, whose 16 year old daughter, Liezel, was killed with along side her boyfriend as part of President Duterte's "War on Drugs", or "Tokhang" as it is called locally. Liezel was 16 years old and the autopsy showed that she was 3 months pregnant. Mary Grace works overseas in Singapore and was there when she received news that her daughter was killed. Liezel was shot 8 times, including 4 times to the head, leaving her unrecognizable to her mother. Appolinaria Salita, 58, Mary Grace's mother is to camera left, and youngest son, Noel, 3 years old, looks on from behind with his father, Cerlon, 27. Navotas Catholic Cemetery, Metro Manila, Philippines.

  • A group of young boys sniffing glue on a street corner in Payatas, a community of people who sustain themselves by picking through a mountain of garbage for recyclable materials. The community has lost several young men to extrajudicial killings and this activity could be a death sentence (their faces have been obscured for their safety). Payatas, Metro Manila, Philippines

  • The bodies of two slain young men have been laid out at daybreak on a lonely stretch of road at the edge of Metro Manila with signs hung around their necks in Tagalog that translate roughly to "no more hold up robbers". Payatas. Metro Manila, Philippines