MANILA, Philippines – On the day he was sworn into office, President Rodrigo Duterte went to a Manila slum and exhorted residents who knew any drug addicts to "go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful."
Two months later, nearly 2,000 suspected drug pushers and users lay dead as morgues continue to fill up. Faced with criticism of his actions by rights activists, international bodies and outspoken Filipinos, including the top judge, Duterte has stuck to his guns and threatened to declare martial law if the Supreme Court meddles in his work.
According to a survey early last month, he has the support of nearly 91 percent of Filipinos. The independent poll was done during his first week in office, and no new surveys have come out since then.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa told a Senate hearing this week that police have recorded more than 1,900 dead, including 756 suspected drug dealers and users who were gunned down after they resisted arrest. More than 1,000 other deaths are under investigation, and some of them may not be drug-related, he said.
Jayeel Cornelio, a doctor of sociology and director of Ateneo de Manila University's Development Studies Program, said he suspects only a few of Duterte's supporters are disillusioned by the killings and his rhetoric because voters trust his campaign promise to crush drug criminals. They also find resonance in his cursing and no-holds-barred comments.
Duterte's death threats against criminals, his promise to battle corruption, his anti-establishment rhetoric and gutter humor have enamored Filipinos living on the margins of society. He overwhelmingly won the election, mirroring public exasperation over the social ills he condemns.
Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia has said the killings "may be a necessary evil in the pursuit of a greater good," a sentiment echoed by a deluge of comments by Duterte supporters in social media deriding his critics and defending the brutal war on drugs.
"The killings are OK so there will be less criminals, drug pushers and drug addicts in our society," said Rex Alisoso, a 25-year-old cleaner in Manila. He said people have gotten used to the way Duterte talks and voted for him knowing his ways.
Kim Labasan, a Manila shopkeeper, said she does not like Duterte's constant swearing, his "stepping on too many toes," and his decision to allow late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be buried in the Heroes' Cemetery. But she supports the anti-drug war despite the rising death toll because, she said, she has personally seen the effects of drugs. Addicts in her hometown north of Manila have ended up with "poisoned brains" and even robbed her family's home.
"A battle of moralities is being waged right now by this administration — before, if you were a human rights advocate you are a hero of the country, now you are seen as someone who can destroy the country," Cornelio said.
He said that Duterte fosters "penal populism" — identifying a particular enemy, a criminal, and then hunting him down to death. Because the results are is visible, tangible and people feel it, "it becomes more important than many other things to the ordinary person."
Duterte has said drugs were destroying the country. In his State of the Nation Address last month, he said "human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country."
He also lashed out at U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, calling him gay in derogatory terms, after he criticized Duterte's rape comments during the presidential campaign. He threatened to pull the Philippines out of the United Nations because of U.N. comments condemning extrajudicial killings, saying he did not "give a shit" about the consequences. The following day, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the Philippines was not leaving the U.N. and Duterte made the comment only because he was tired, angry and frustrated.
Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, said Duterte "is streamrolling the rule of law and its advocates both at home and abroad." The killings suggest his aggressive rhetoric advocating extrajudicial solutions to criminality has found a receptive audience, Kine said.
"His supporters are cheering him on, but wait till one of them is killed," said Ferdie Monasterio, a driver of a ride-sharing company who doesn't support Duterte. "He is no different from Marcos and it looks like he wants to establish a dictatorship."
Cornelio said the death toll is not the clincher in turning public sentiment against Duterte, because a lot of people look at them as justified killings. He said that Dutere's first year in office will be crucial since he promised quick action.
"I think the threshold has to do with the delivery of the promises," he said. "Are changes going to happen sooner or later? If they don't then, people will start getting disillusioned."