Rodrigo Duterte stands accused of mass murder. So why do most Filipinos still love him?
Photos by Hannah Reyes Morales
MANILA, Philippines — In July 2015, Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City, made an appearance on the popular Philippine TV show “Gandang Gabi Vice.” The show’s host, Vice Ganda, whose name roughly translates to “beautiful vice,” is a flamboyant trans bakla (gay) and her audience is mostly composed of working Filipinos in their 20s. As with many things Filipino, the tone of the show is high humor and profound emotion, somehow simultaneously. Vice Ganda’s questions are gossipy and intimate. How many girlfriends do you have, mayor? Which of the three women in this picture is the most beautiful? But they also slide into more serious territory. Do you support gay marriage? (Duterte does.) What would you do if your son told you he was gay? (No problem.) Were you a bully in high school? (He wasn’t, but the other boys were anti-gay, and this is the origin of his loathing of oppression.) Duterte shows great humility and warmth. When Vice Ganda asks him how many guns he owns, Duterte demurs, saying he could be arrested, which would put him in prison, although then Vice Ganda could visit him because anything goes in conjugal visits. At one point Duterte says that Vice Ganda’s eyes are fluttering like butterflies.
If it sounds like Duterte is flirting, he is. He is flirting with everything: an out-gay voting bloc and everyone who has been crushed by knee-jerk Catholic sentiment, a population enraged by the level of corruption in its government, and — as we now know — a run for the presidency of the Philippines. Duterte sings a song. He talks about eternal love as only possible with God. People cry. Vice Ganda compliments Duterte on his English, and Duterte shakes his head and says, “Probinsyano lang ako.” (I’m just a hick.) As the show closes, Vice Ganda asks Duterte if he will run for president. He says no. Vice Ganda composes a list of three known candidates and adds Duterte as the fourth. It’s a sweet moment. Vice Ganda is flirting back. Vice Ganda will vote for him. Everyone in the audience will vote for him. And in this moment, given this appealing man, I would too.
Duterte won the May 2016 Philippine presidential election by a landslide, his margin so solid that I have yet to hear the win contested — this in a country where just about every reality is up for debate. Exit polls showed that he led the next-closest candidate, the Liberal Mar Roxas, not only in his native Mindanao but also in metro Manila. In addition to showing strong in rural communities, Duterte also won a solid majority of college graduates and higher-earners, a demographic that includes both the wealthy and a growing middle class. By the most recent available reckoning, 10 months into his tenure, his popularity still holds near 80 percent.
Duterte has been accused of mass murder before the International Criminal Court, and from the time he took office at the end of June, his war on drugs has resulted in the slaughter of somewhere near 8,000 people. The number of deaths is not questioned, though whether these people were killed in compliance with Duterte’s mandate to rid the country of drug users and pushers sometimes is. The national police force’s director general, Ronaldo “Bato” dela Rosa, maintains that thousands of killings are still under investigation, but he has yet to admit that more than a few hundred are the result of the president’s ongoing anti-drug campaign. In March, the vice president, who ran on a separate ticket, sent a message to the United Nations decrying the murders and accusing Duterte of abusing the poor.
But for his supporters, the anti-drugs rampage is only one aspect of Duterte’s presidency. Many Filipinos will call Duterte a murderer, but a number of other descriptions stick. In the time I spent in Manila in late January, I heard him referred to as a strategic genius, a crazy lolo (grandfather), a charmer, an enigma, and a philosopher king. From outside the Philippines, it’s difficult to see past his headline-grabbing exhortations to “kill all the drug addicts,” or his reference to President Obama as a “son of a whore,” but there is whole lot more at play here.
His biggest draw is the hope — both material and aspirational — he offers to poor Filipinos, who make up a significant portion of his base. Duterte was not elected for his overt mastery of words, nor his ability as a diplomat, but rather for what he represented to a nation beaten down by typhoons, tidal waves, overpopulation, traffic, and a crippling culture of corruption that bankrupted an already poor country, making many of these problems impossible to remedy. Even his detractors note that the economy is doing well and that his stance on environmental issues marks him as progressive, as does his recognition of the LGBT community.
Even though Duterte comes from the established Filipino political machine and has maintained connections with some of the most deeply entrenched and historically corrupt families — notably the Marcoses — he’s been able to present himself as an outsider and an underdog. He is perceived as strong, a tunay na lalake (real man), a tough guy, astig, a reputation earned from his merciless approach to cleaning up the streets of Davao City, where he was mayor from 1988 until 2016. The Tagalog astig comes from the slang inversion of the word tigas, meaning hard. It is most often translated as “thug,” but the word also denotes a certain amount of glamorous swagger.
To understand Duterte and his supporters, one must look at the full range of issues that appeal to Filipinos, most of whom don’t see Duterte as a hick who made a successful grab for power but instead see a shrewd manipulator of the entrenched Philippine power structures: dangerous, volatile, and uncompromising, maybe, but not stupid.
The Philippines, where my mother was born and where I spent much of my childhood, is a nation of more than 7,000 islands, 170 unique languages, and a population of 102 million. Close to 13 million live in metro Manila, the capital. The city teems with people, some of whom have amassed world-class wealth, but most of whom live well below the poverty line. Philippine culture is complex, singular, and difficult to navigate, even with a decent grasp of Tagalog. So it’s easy to be skeptical of the way the Philippines is presented in the foreign press, of how the nation and Filipinos in general are thought be to understood by Americans, and are, therefore, largely misunderstood. It’s hard to have a clear view of the state of things without being there.
When I arrived in Manila at the end of January, the biggest news story was the kidnapping and slaying of a Korean businessman, Jee Ick-joo, who was abducted by two rogue policemen who demanded entry to his house claiming that they suspected Jee was involved in a drug-related crime.
This practice of the police appearing suddenly and demanding entrance is widely known as TokHang, a neologism combining two Cebuano words, tok, from tok-tok (knocking), and hang, for hangyo, which means to beg for mercy. We know the police knock, we know that the suspect begs, but there is no official script for what happens after that.
In the case of the Korean businessman, he went along with the cops, who drove him to the gates of the metro Manila police quarters at Camp Crame, strangled him in the car, and then called his wife, demanding a ransom of 5 million pesos ($100,000). They then bribed an undertaker with an undisclosed amount of cash and a set of Jee’s golf clubs, and the undertaker helpfully incinerated Jee’s body and allegedly flushed the remains down the toilet. The undertaker was quickly identified, tracked through the golf clubs. But the authorities aren’t sure whether the clubs were planted.
The murder was one of the first indications that the extrajudicial killings, so ubiquitous that they spawned the acronym EJK, were not limited to the poor nor to Philippine nationals. Under pressure, Duterte would soon call for a pause, saying that he, too, felt the executions had gotten out of control. (A month later, the drug war would resume under the title “Project Double Barrel Reloaded.”)
The vast majority of EJK victims come from economically struggling Manila areas such as Tondo, Caloocan, and Mandaluyong. Mandaluyong abuts the Manila business district of Makati, but there are no glittering glass high-rises and no wide sidewalks there. It is home to Barangay Plainview. Barangay is often translated as “village,” but the feel is often more of a neighborhood, and within a barangay, few people are strangers. In December, three people were killed and two wounded in Plainview in the span of two hours. This incident quickly drew the headline “Season of Fear,” a season that for many residents has yet to end. During the holidays, the local bars are usually hopping into the early hours of the morning, but this year they were empty, the streets, reportedly, a “graveyard.”
There is a drug problem in Plainview — mostly methamphetamine referred to locally as shabu — but previous to TokHang, policies targeting drug users focused on rehabilitation and offered employment, most often positions as street sweepers. Many drug users registered themselves for rehab at the start of Duterte’s presidency, hoping to avoid becoming victims of TokHang. Now, showing up to rehab can feel dangerous. Exercise is one requirement, and in Barangay Plainview, that exercise is Zumba. As participants perform their hip-hop routines, they scan any observers, wondering if soon they might see them behind the barrel of a raised gun.
Most people in the barangay are the working poor: cleaners, construction workers, seamstresses, mechanics. The barangay headquarters, or community center, is housed in a tidy two-story building. A banner covering an entire outside wall depicts different sets of people on motorcycles: a man driving with a woman passenger, a man driving with a child passenger, and the last with two men. The first two options were puede (allowed), the last was bawal, or forbidden. When I asked what the banner meant, I was told that murders resulting from motorcycle drive-by shootings, referred to locally as tandems, had become such a problem the barangay had ingeniously introduced a policy forbidding two men from riding together.
Upstairs in a room kept pleasantly cool by a rattling air conditioner, I met several women who head up a group committed to women’s issues: education, livelihood opportunities, and breastfeeding. Talk soon turned, predictably, to the extrajudicial killings. Many Filipinos manage to distance themselves from the terror because they are not personally affected, but this is not the case in Plainview. One woman said she had lost a nephew, a result of mistaken identity. He was not a drug user, nor a pusher. He’d been sitting on a bench with a suspect and was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle in broad daylight. Her neighbor, a baker, was taking a cigarette break with his co-workers in the early-morning hours, when the heat from the baking drove them outside, and had barely lit up when a motorcycle rounded the corner and he found a gun leveled at his head. A last-minute intervention from the driver informed the shooter that the baker was actually not the suspect, and he was spared. But now he is too scared to go back to work, or even leave his house.
I asked the women if any good things had come of Duterte’s anti-drug mandate. They were thoughtful. It was possible that someone considering drug use could be scared away given the current climate. But beyond that, dealing with a police force emboldened by Duterte’s statement that he would “be happy to slaughter all the drug addicts” had left them feeling vulnerable.
Even so, they were hesitant to assign sole responsibility to Duterte; after all, it’s not the president who is riding around on motorcycles shooting people. It’s the police and sometimes random killers, often in collusion with drug pushers.
Police officers’ erratic and often predatory actions as law enforcers is a problem that predates Duterte, and the president is astute enough to use this history of police corruption to his advantage. By early February, the negative publicity surrounding Jee Ick-joo’s slaying and the outrage of organizations such as Amnesty International at human rights violations in the Philippines was impossible for the president to ignore. Duterte was going to contain it.
After he announced the temporary halt to the extrajudicial killings, on Feb. 7 he rounded up a group of 300 “rogue” cops for an orchestrated dressing-down that was broadcast on Philippine television and picked up by the international press.
Duterte started his speech, unscripted, by calmly explaining that he understood the lives of policemen, that they have it hard. They have wives to support and they would like to buy a car. The police make little money. Duterte pledged to double their salaries. Although he sounded sympathetic, he was actually describing the reason — material gain — the police had become corrupt. He was stern in a fatherly way, and even though profanities — his usual putang ina (son of a whore) and the softer ulol, which means something like jackass — were peppered throughout the speech, the volume of his voice hardly wavered. He shook his head frequently, as if these rogue policemen, “scalawags” in Manila lingo, had wronged him personally.
Then he launched into a narrative of how police officers worked in collusion with the drug syndicates. As someone from the provinces, he didn’t understand the machinations of Manila corruption, he said, but he explained how the official money meant to expose drug operatives just ended up in police officers’ pockets. He continued, sliding into some moody English, “It has been the sad experience of this country that the most vicious criminals are ex-police or sometimes ex-military.” He added later, “Kayo ang mag droga droga anak mo,” or, “You are the ones turning your children into addicts.” “Kayo ang Extra Judicial Killings.” “You are the EJK.”
If a plausible narrative had been missing for just how thousands of people had died in the Philippine war on drugs, Duterte had just supplied it. It was a corrupt police force — one that he was trying to bring in line — on an unchecked rampage. They were not following his orders. These “scalawags” were not his soldiers, but his enemies, and they would pay in colorful ways. If they resisted retirement, he would send them to the island of Basilan to battle Abu Sayyaf, a violent jihadi terror group. He would make the scalawags clear out the Pasig River, a once-glorious but now fetid waterway that splits Manila in two. He would — once he was out of office — fight them in a gun battle, like a “High Noon” hero.
In these two moves — the temporary halt of the extrajudicial killings and the public berating of the Philippine National Police — Duterte found someone other than himself to blame for the murders and underscored his desire to clean up corruption, an essential part of his platform.
Watching this, it was hard to know what to believe, except for one thing: Despite his reputation to the contrary, Duterte is a capable orator. There was profanity, but to focus on that is to lose sight of the skillful movement of his language: acknowledging the situation, assigning blame, and meting punishment. If there was one slip-up, it was Duterte’s slide into lyrical English, which exposed the fact that he is not the simpleton he so often claims to be.
Despite his wealth and the fact that his father served in Ferdinand Marcos’s Cabinet, Duterte entered the national political ring by appealing to those frustrated with the establishment. To understand how he accomplished this, it helps to watch the debates of the candidates as he prepared to sweep the presidency. Standing at the podiums are Grace Poe, celebrity royalty with her smooth hair and classy accent, and Mar Roxas with his yellow shirt marking him as a staunch Liberal of the old regime. And then there’s Duterte, who looks around smiling in a bemused manner as if his presence at the debate is a wacky dream.
To start off, Roxas begins by thanking people for being there, his supporters. He ticks through a list of the powerful and noteworthy in current politics. Poe picks up after him, and her roster of power brokers is equally impressive. Duterte just looks out at the audience and exclaims, “Ay! Wala akong makilala dito,” (I don’t recognize anyone!) Then, the punch line: “Yung hindi natawag itong dalawa, yun sa akin.” (All of you who weren’t called, you’re with me.)
Anyone who did not identify with the status quo, who felt that the last administration had failed on key issues — traffic, population control, the environment, and particularly corruption — had a friend in the head-scratching, awkward, genuinely funny mayor from Davao. And anyone who had witnessed Duterte’s ability to work a crowd would regard him with a cautious respect. Like Trump voters, and Brexit voters before them, Filipinos were voting for something “different.”
Duterte has scored some not inconsequential wins on these key issues, and problems that were inadequately addressed by the last administration are starting to look different. Moreover, the economy is growing impressively at a rate of close to 7 percent. Various projects that stalled out under the watch of President “Noy Noy” Aquino — the revamping of the airport, the improvement of Manila’s light rail transit system with plans to expand it beyond the limits of metro Manila — have all gotten traction under Duterte’s stewardship, some of this underwritten by Chinese and Japanese aid. Manila’s business world, mostly run by a wealthy Chinese-Filipino elite, is thriving. (“Business as usual,” said one local businesswoman, with a dark chuckle. “The business sector will always side with whoever is in power.”)
The outrage in the American and European media over the extrajudicial killings or Duterte’s more inflammatory statements can irk Filipinos who feel they have a deeper understanding of the president’s positions. For example, it seems hard to defend Duterte’s desire to reduce the incarceration age to 9 years old, but Filipinos will point out that organized crime preys on children, using those young enough to dodge incarceration for pickpocketing, carjacking, drug trafficking, and even murder. Yes, imprisoning children is wrong, but the president is trying to remove the incentive for criminals to recruit children, they’ll say. They will tell you that Duterte doesn’t want children in jail, he wants them safe from the predatory actions of culpable adults. They also resent the idea that the West holds a moral high ground.
Traditionally, Filipinos have turned to their faith, feeling that divine mercy is likely the only one to present itself. Improvement in this world, rather than the next, can seem impossible. The vacuum of Spanish colonialism and a powerful Catholic Church was quickly filled at the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1902 by the United States and its cult of capitalism, and focus on power through wealth weighs most heavily on the city of Manila but also in all of the country. Power passed to the wealthy oligarch families, such as the Aquinos, who remain tied to the U.S., traveling back and forth as suits them and often sending their children to be educated in American colleges. From an American perspective, these ties can look like friendship. From the perspective of a poor Filipino, it can look more like abandoning one’s own to be a tuto (puppy dog) to endlessly patronizing, undisguisedly racist Americans.
So when Duterte, in an infamous rant, deploys putang ina (son of a whore) in reference to Obama, he is voicing a nation’s discontent with colonial history, with what Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. has called the “invisible chains” that keep the Philippines in thrall to the United States. When he refers to the American ambassador as a “gay son of a bitch” for “meddling in the elections” and reiterates that the Philippines is a “sovereign nation,” he is speaking to his people — not only the ones who are still in the Philippines but also the scores of overseas workers who take positions as nurses, nannies, construction workers, and an infinite array of jobs that put them in menial positions. To many Filipinos, Duterte’s presidency is sort of like the Jimmy Stewart film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where a naïve underdog battles corruption, only here it’s a macho Filipino man and he’s ready to take on the world. As my college friend, a staunch Duterte supporter, posted on Facebook, “Sorry, but the Age of Imperial Europe and Pax Americana is over.”
Duterte’s tough stance on drugs is widely rumored to spring from his own son’s struggles with addiction. And you can easily find links between some of his other unorthodox policy positions and his own life experience. According to the local businesswoman, “Duterte’s personal issues become national issues.” After he was diagnosed with Buerger’s disease and had to quit smoking, Duterte imposed draconian smoking bans in Davao. He claims to have been molested by a priest, and that could well fuel his disregard for the Catholic Church, a force in the Philippines that he continually insults, and a force that he could never — as a self-admitted killer and an advocate of birth control — effectively court.
Although the majority of Filipinos are Catholics, the Church is strongly allied with the establishment, and standing against it on some key issues is necessary to realizing some of Duterte’s goals. He also breaks with the Church on gay rights, having voiced tolerance for gay unions. This position may seem at odds with his tendency to use homophobic slurs, but Duterte says a lot, and it doesn’t always express a solid point of view.
I checked in with Danton Remoto, a journalism professor, TV personality, and founder of Ladlad, the Philippines LGBT party. Remoto is a busy guy. He teaches at two different universities and is acting president of a third. He tapes his show every weekday evening and travels frequently, but he was able to meet me at Max’s Fried Chicken in old Manila. Remoto has no illusions about Duterte’s ruthlessness, but he did repeat the idea that many of the extrajudicial killings were not sanctioned by the president. “Half of the deaths are attributed not to Duterte’s police but to vigilantes, ex-policemen, or, as the police spokesman told me when I interviewed him for my show, crimes of vengeance perpetrated by common people,” he said. No one seems to have more reliable numbers, and it’s doubtful a full accounting of the identities of the victims, or the perpetrators, will surface any time soon.
More important to Remoto is Duterte as a potential advocate for gay rights. In 2010, when Ladlad first applied to run in the presidential election, the party was denied permission by the Commission on Elections because of “immorality.” Duterte, who was then still the mayor of Davao, spoke publicly on their behalf and called the commission’s position “bigotry of the highest order.”
As president, Duterte has recognized violence against women and LGBT folks, and he approved the installation of special help desks for these groups in police stations nationwide. But his tenure has yet to yield significant advances for the Philippines’ LGBT community — relatively new as a political entity and still finding both its feet and its numbers. In March, Duterte unexpectedly reversed a campaign pledge to legalize same-sex marriage.
Yet when I followed up with Remoto to gauge his opinion of this flip-flopping, he wasn’t discouraged. “[Duterte] took back his anti-gay statement the next day. He said LGBTs have the right to be happy and form relationships. It is just unfortunate that, as of the moment, the law does not allow it.” There are currently no lawyers in the Philippines focusing on LGBT issues, and gay marriage is one of these things that needs to be addressed legally. He’s glad that the president at least isn’t hostile to it.
Duterte is also an advocate for the environment, and he recently pushed through legislation that would change mining practices to curtail water contamination affecting the rural poor, whose needs are easy to ignore. In the past, mining profited a select few as the result of corrupt deals and old alliances, so reforming the sector fits with Duterte’s disregard for the old establishment. Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez said in March that she was “deeply and profoundly touched by the support of the president. He is the real thing. He is not plastic at all. He deeply cares for our people and he deeply cares for the country.”
This forward-thinking Duterte is the one who appeals to some younger and better-educated Filipinos, people tired of the predictable corruption that follows the promises of every campaign. During the election, Duterte led Roxas, the runner-up, by 28 points among college graduates. But this group also includes what opposition exists, along with the Catholic Church and those concerned with the violation of human rights. They fear that Duterte, who has said the drug problem is a crisis so extreme that he needs free rein to solve it, will reinstate the martial law that defined a decade of the Marcos dictatorship. During that period, from 1972 to 1981, 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 lost their lives. A significant number of those imprisoned right at the start were student organizers and activists.
Some students from the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest university, agreed to meet me at a café close to campus. Most were the first in their family to go to college, and support for Duterte in this group was thin. Ray Padao, a first-time voter in the last election, did not vote for Duterte, but his father, who is from Davao, did. I asked the students how life had changed under Duterte, for better or for worse. For some, the killings hit close to home. Phil Cruz’s parents are pork sellers in one of the big Manila open markets. The people who butchered the pigs for them, allegedly involved in drugs, were shot down in the slaughterhouse. “The butchers were butchered,” he said. But the biggest issue wasn’t drugs or killings but fake news — the hallmark of an Orwellian dictatorship — and the specter of martial law. “Duterte keeps saying he’s not going to declare martial law,” said Harvey Castillo, a budding intellectual well-versed in socialist doctrine, “but why does he keep saying it?”
In fact, he has raised the possibility. In a March 12 address on the 35th anniversary of his PDP-Laban Party’s founding, the president said that should he implement martial law, “talaga tapos ang problema,” (it would be the absolute end of the problem). The immediate “problem” was a combination of terrorism and drug culture, but I got the sense that Duterte sees a larger problem looming: opposition — as protected by the Constitution — to anything he might want to do.
One of Duterte’s most outspoken detractors is Senator Leila de Lima, who branded the president a “sociopathic serial killer” and declared that the extrajudicial killings were tantamount to a war on the poor. In response, Duterte accused de Lima of running a drug ring during her recent term as justice secretary. De Lima was arrested on what are widely believed to be trumped-up accusations built on shady testimony from inmates at Bilibid prison, and she is currently detained at Camp Crame awaiting trial. In Duterte’s skewed pragmatism, going after de Lima accomplished two things: First, he showed that the war on drugs did not target only the poor and powerless; and second, he sent a message to be careful what one says about the president. Whether de Lima was a drug kingpin or the victim of bald injustice, Duterte was convincing in this regard: You do not want to be a panlaban (opponent) of his.
There has been some protest during Duterte’s presidency, notably over the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery in November, a hurried, sneaky affair accomplished after the Supreme Court threw out several petitions seeking to stop it. Thousands gathered at the People’s Power Monument, erected to commemorate the ousting of Marcos, in a display of public outrage. Duterte is close to the Marcos family and this burial was a demonstration of his loyalty, although to soften the gesture he made sure he was away at an economic summit in Peru for the actual event. And the move may not have been that risky in the end; not all Filipinos hate the Marcos dynasty. The son of the late president, Bongbong Marcos, placed second in the contested vice presidential election and is popular with many Filipinos, as is his sister Imee Marcos, the governor of Ilocos Norte, a powerful province in the northern end of the Luzon.
Sister Josephini Ambatali, a dean at Saint Joseph’s College in Quezon City and a veteran of the People’s Power Movement, remembers the unified trinity that made the Edsa Revolution to oust Marcos possible: the Church, the military, and the United States. But killing alleged drug pushers and addicts does not create the same kind of organized outrage, and she sees few signs of similar resistance under Duterte. Revolutions are rare when only 20 percent of the population is inclined to change things. Ambatali remains adamantly opposed to Duterte’s policy of killing, as she says all religious Filipinos must be, but she isn’t sure what will bring an end to it. “Where are the Americans when we need them?” she asked, with a grim chuckle.
My sense of Duterte’s power changed significantly during my time in Manila. He is not the buffoon portrayed in the American press, but he is a dangerous figure. His real strength derives not from his casual dispensing of human life but rather from a canny manipulation of the Philippine people that he manages through clowning, macho posturing, and — awkwardly — the championing of worthy causes.
For now, the majority of Filipinos back the president because he makes them feel more safe than vulnerable. His reliable base remains the poor and working class, although he counts supporters among businessmen, people in opposition to the previous government, and idealists who would like to think that Duterte is the champion of the poor and the foe of corruption he says he is. Even if the capriciousness of the extrajudicial killings can make it seem like just about anyone could fall victim, the fact that one is still alive can make it seem less relevant. Moral outrage is a luxury, an indulgence of the intellectual elite or the religious or rebellious college students. Otherwise, business as usual is still business, no one is perfect, and if the poor have nothing left but dreams, the illusion that a probinsyano tough guy can be president is one to believe in.
Sabina Murray is a writer who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Hannah Reyes Morales is a Filipina photographer currently based in Manila.