MANILA, Philippines – The bodies of dozens of suspected drug peddlers have turned up in the Philippines in recent weeks, providing an eerie backdrop to the swearing-in on Thursday of Rodrigo Duterte, who has warned of a bloody presidency in his bid to eradicate crime.
Some of the dead were killed in gunfights with police; others mysteriously turned up on the street. One was dumped with sign: "Don't follow me or you'll die next."
The numbers of bodies have spiked since Duterte swept the May 9 elections on promises to wipe out crime and corruption within six months. That bold pledge won him huge support but also sparked concerns about vigilante justice and a lack of due process.
Nicknamed "Duterte Harry" after a Clint Eastwood character with little regard for rules, he says he plans to fulfill his promise despite criticism from human rights advocates and church officials and dares his critics to impeach him.
"If I couldn't convince you, I'll have you killed. Just imagine if I kill 10 persons a day for the next six years," he was quoted as saying by Cebu Daily News in his native Visayan language, referring to drug suspects. "If you're into drugs, I'm sorry. I'll have to apologize to your family because you'll surely get killed."
So far, the threats seem to be working to some extent: Hundreds of drug pushers and addicts have surrendered to police in recent days, signing pledges to reform.
National police data show 39 mostly drug peddler suspects were killed since the start of the year until the election. But since then, 72 killed have been killed, bringing the yearly total so far to 111 deaths.
Outgoing national police chief Ricardo Marquez dismissed speculation that the spike in deaths was timed to the beginning of Duterte's presidency, saying he already promised an intensified anti-drug campaign when he took over last year.
"There is no truth to what is being said that it is only now that the police have stepped up the fight against drugs," he said. So far this year, 183 have been killed in clashes between police and clandestine drug lab workers, dealers and users, he added. The reason for the discrepancy in the totals wasn't immediately clear.
In one television report, a mother wailed as she saw the body of her son sprawled on a roadside in eastern Camarines Sur province, apparently shot with four wounds and a slash on his neck.
"What they have done is too much," she said, sobbing on the shoulder of another woman.
Nearly 5,000 suspects have been arrested in anti-drug operations after the election, bringing the number of arrests in a nationwide drive to nearly 19,000 since January, according to police records.
"We are alarmed about the rate of almost everyday killings of suspected criminals and members of drug syndicates," said Wilnor Montilla Papa, a human rights campaigner for Amnesty International in the Philippines. "Our concern is on the lack of due process, the seemingly abusive stance" of authorities.
Last week, the head of the influential Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines issued a letter saying the group was disturbed by the reports of growing numbers of drug suspects being killed as well as the spike in vigilante killings. The letter reminded law enforcers that one can "shoot to kill" solely on the ground of legitimate self-defense or the defense of others.
"To kill a suspect outright, no matter how much surveillance work may have antecedently been done on the suspect, is not morally justified," Archbishop Socrates Villegas said.
Others praised Duterte's drastic approach to combatting crime.
Arsenio Evangelista, whose son was kidnapped and killed 5 years ago, supports the incoming president's plan to restore the death penalty and promise to eradicate all major crimes, especially drug-related offenses in three to six months. But he said the recent increase in drug dealer deaths could not have been on orders of Duterte because he isn't in office yet.
"We want results out of frustration, dismay" with a criminal justice system that is corrupt and does not work, said Evangelista, who is also a spokesman for a group called Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption.
He said his group believes the deaths could be part of an effort by police officials to burnish their accomplishments in the face of Duterte's plans to revamp the police force. Under pressure to step up efforts, police have clamped down on mostly small-time drug pushers who are easier to find and apprehend, he added.
In the past, such peddlers would rather bribe officers than engage in a shootout, Evangelista said. "It's not believable that street-level drug peddlers' behavior changed totally," he said.
Police Senior Inspector Donelle Edep Brannon, head of a small community precinct in Manila's tourist district, said the spike in deaths is the result of an intensified anti-drugs campaign initiated by the police leadership in view of Duterte's strong pronouncements.
Police follow procedures, but deaths could not be avoided if law enforcers' lives are put in danger by those who choose to fight instead of surrendering to arresting officers, he added.
He said he expects the anti-crime drive to intensify even more once Duterte is in office — and he welcomes it.
"Being a police officer," he said, "it is better for us to feel that the president himself is our ally in fighting criminality."
Follow Teresa Cerojano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mtmanila