Patricia Evangelista is a trauma journalist and former investigative reporter for the Philippine news company Rappler. She has received the Kate Webb Prize for exceptional journalism in dangerous conditions. Recently, she authored the book Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country.
For people like me or just your ordinary Joes who speak of democracy, I thought it meant freedom. I thought it meant a free press. I thought it meant that people would not die on the streets.
- Introduction – 0:46
- The Philippines and Duterte – 2:37
- The Drug War – 11:04
- Vigilantes and Police – 25:26
- Democracy in the Philippines – 34:11
It’s not often that a guest moves me the way Patricia Evangelista did. At times I felt myself shudder as she described her experiences as a journalist. Her use of language is so powerful and captivating.
It’s also anchored by very real events that happened in the Philippines over the past few years. Many of us have heard of Rodrigo Duterte and his violent war on drugs. But few of us have really thought through what that really means for the people who experienced it. It’s something that has emotional power, but also raises some complicated intellectual questions. For instance, why was he so popular and what does it say about democracy that he left office with overwhelming popular support?
Patricia Evangelista is an investigative reporter who covered Duterte’s War on Drugs in the Philippines for Rappler. She has won numerous awards for her reporting. Her new book is called Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country.
Our conversation discusses more than just the politics of the Philippines. Patricia paints a picture of what it was like during those years for many of those involved. This is one of my favorite books of the year and one of my favorite interviews.
If you have questions or comments about the podcast or any of the episodes, please send them to me at email@example.com. But for now… Here is my conversation with Patricia Evangelista…
Pat Evangelista, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
Well, Pat, your book was really phenomenal. I mean, it’s one of the best books of the year, in my opinion. It’s definitely among the most powerful books that I’ve read in a long time. It’s called Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country. And the country that it’s about is a country that I’ve read about, but I’ve only really read about it from like a political standpoint. I know about Duterte. I know about some of the things that have happened. But it’s very distant to me. Why don’t we kind of start by just tell us about what the Philippines is to you? What is it like and what was it like particularly before the events of the book really kind of started before Duterte was elected?
Well, I was born in 1985. That was about five months before what we call the People Power Revolution. It was a street revolution that meant we overthrew a dictator. It was called the Marcos Dictatorship or, if you want to be romantic about it, it was the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, she of thousands of shoes. But thousands were slaughtered. People were tortured, disappeared. But by the time I grew up, I was born free. When I became a journalist, I belonged to one of the freest presses in Asia. So if you ask me what my Philippines was growing up, I thought it was a good place. It’s a great place. We were largely lower middle class, so I could afford to go to school and I went to the state college.
But in the aftermath of that, which is why I might be the wrong person to sell the Philippines anywhere, I became a trauma reporter. I started around when maybe I was, I think, 23. For more than a decade after that, I’ve been going from massacre to conflict to typhoon. So, essentially, what I did was to go to places where people died. You know, pack your bags. You charge your cameras. You interview the survivors. You investigate the causes. You file your stories and then you go home to wait for the next catastrophe. I don’t really wait very long.
So, it wasn’t that the Philippines wasn’t violent before Rodrigo Duterte’s election. But the violence was not considered a grand thing, an applaudable thing. Then when he was elected or when he ran for office, he ran on a platform of death. He said the fish would feed fat on the corpses of criminals, that morticians would grow rich with the deluge of dead. He also said that all the problems of the Philippines could be limited to criminality and corruption and the scourge of illegal drugs. He said he would destroy it. If you don’t believe him, he said, I’ll give you the drugs yourself. Feed it to your children and watch them become monsters. Then he won.
So that was a shift, an overnight shift, in that I cover the terrible things. Because they are terrible, they shouldn’t happen. Then, all of a sudden, the terrible was the ordinary and then my country applauded.
What was your first impression of Rodrigo Duterte? I mean, you’ve given a very stunning portrayal of who he was, but did you know about him before he became a presidential candidate? I mean, what did you know about him and when did you know it about him?
Well, because I’m a trauma reporter, I knew about Davao City, the city in the south. They called Duterte the Punisher. So, it is also a fault of, I won’t say Philippine media, but reporters like myself, or myself. I didn’t go down there to investigate. I belong to what is sadly called Imperial Manila, which is where the government is, the education system largely is. But we knew that there were stories from down in Davao City in that hundreds were reportedly slaughtered by death squads Duterte had organized himself. Which is why when he said that if your neighbor’s child is an addict, kill them yourselves. It’s a kindness to their parents. When he said he would slaughter a hundred thousand when he won, all those things were not impossible given Duterte’s public reputation.
He could promise death because he had done it himself or at least he said he had done it himself. Rodrigo Duterte is a phenomenal storyteller. That’s what he is and the story he told was that we all have this problem. It’s the drug dealing. It’s the criminality. And then he took years of uncertainty and years of fear, and then it was fueled by decades of failed expectations. He said, I’m going to change that. Here was a man who was different, but who carried the same rage as everyone else. He said, I’m one of you. He said, I’m no one special. He said, I’m just an ordinary killer. So, if I had to be asked what Duterte was like, the man is a storyteller. And we bought the story.
Who was doing the killings in Davao? I mean, was it the police? Was it vigilantes?
In Davao, because there was a communist insurgency during the 80s and 70s or… it’s still there, actually. It’s just not at the same level. From the reports we get from whistleblowers and investigations, some of the killers were from the old paramilitary groups that were hunting down communists. Some of them were former communist killers themselves and some of them were cops. From what we know and what was reported, all of them allegedly reported to someone they called CM – Charlie Mike – the city mayor. Some of them just called him the father, which was again, allegedly Rodrigo Duterte. The people they killed as per witnesses were petty thieves, small time dealers, kidnappers, essentially whoever would be considered enemies of the city.
So, when Duterte becomes president, when he’s no longer just a mayor of a decent sized town, but he’s actually president of the entire country of the Philippines. Is it just the same thing that’s happening in Davao, but on a larger level or is there something different about the violence?
Well, the interesting thing is that the general threat that Duterte would deploy in Davao is that if you are a criminal in my city, get out or I will destroy you. How can you say that about someone in another city in the country? How can you say that? Because there’s no going out of the country. You are the president of the republic of millions of people. You can’t say get out of my country because I will kill you. So, certainly he had the entire police machinery.
These were people who felt disempowered as well, but suddenly it was the golden age of the police. Or at least that’s what one cop told me. Not golden age. What was his phrasing? The golden days of the Philippine National Police. He said that before Duterte came to power, they were afraid of addicts. They were afraid of criminals. Now, they can walk down the streets and everyone is afraid of them.
The justification for all these murders was about the drug trade and about illegal drugs and drug use.
I would clarify the phrasing of that. Duterte will not call this murder. He would say these are legal deaths. So, when it’s police killing, they would say these deaths are a result of legitimate police operations, meaning, an addict, a dealer, a criminal pulled out a gun and therefore the police had no other choice but, this is the language of the police report, to be forced to retaliate or if it’s someone who is killed in the street, shot in a drive by, or salvaged in the language of my people, he would say we had nothing to do with it. That’s them killing themselves. Killing each other as retaliation for some petty drug crime or whatnot.
So, he says there’s no need for you to murder anyone. You can kill them legally, because an addict is always off his head. An addict is always armed and because an addict is always armed, an addict will fight back, therefore all addicts fight back, therefore all addicts can legally be killed. That’s the logic.
Tell me more about this term salvage. You mentioned it in the book and you just explained that it’s a term from the Philippines, from your country. What does it mean in the context that you’re using it in the Philippines?
Remember, we were colonized by Spain for about 300 years and then 50 years by the US. The joke is we spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. So, our language, while Filipino, Tagalog, is a local language, a lot of it borrows from the Spanish, and then the Americans came and we borrowed from them too. So, it’s a mishmash of quite a lot of things. But salvage came from the Spanish, salvaje. It just means wild, but in colloquial terms, ever since the 1970s during the dictatorship, salvage was a particular sort of word that meant a particular sort of death. Anywhere else in the world, salvage is a hopeful word. It means to rescue. Whether the rescued is a ship or a soul, so it shares the same root as salvus, salvation, to save.
So, it’s a hopeful word. But for those of us who grew up in the Philippines, salvage means to kill in a very particular fashion. I think the easiest way is to tell you a story to tell you how to use the word salvage. For example, Rene was salvaged. Crisanto was salvaged. Jose was salvaged. That’s the usage, but I’ll tell you how Rene was salvaged. So, I was standing at the high point of a bridge. The body lay in the shadow of a parapet wall. He was a big man and he had big bare feet. His head was wrapped in packing tape and there was a sign beside him. It said he was a drug dealer. And that’s when I heard the screaming. It came from the bottom of the bridge.
It was a woman’s voice. It was high and shrill. She came running past the trucks, over the curve of the hill, right beside me outside the yellow crime scene tape. Then she dropped to her knees. She said her name was Ivy. She said the dead man was her husband. And she said she knew him by his feet. The police tried to rip the tape off the man’s face, but the adhesive had hardened. So, they used a pair of scissors, but the scissors broke. They took a cutter and then they cut from the edge of one ear to the chin to the edge of the other ear and then lifted the whole thing off like a mask. René Desierto had been suffocated, garroted, and stabbed 19 times with with what may have been an ice pick.
So, in the aftermath, Ivy lost her job. She cut open her wrist twice. Occasionally, she would wrap her head in packing tape, because she said she wanted to know how it felt. And she thinks she might have been responsible for her husband’s death, because he had disappeared. She thinks, if she hadn’t filed the missing persons report, maybe whoever took him would have kept him alive. She thinks if she had run up that bridge faster, she would have maybe done CPR in time. She also thinks, the same way her very young son did that maybe she asked for this because when they were fighting before. The kid remembered that she had screamed at Rene and said I wish he would die. For all these reasons, she thought maybe, maybe she was at fault.
I can tell you that for years, I visited her. I would show up at her door. I would have, say, a box of chicken for her son and then we would sit at the dining room table. I would shove my cigarettes across. She would put down an ashtray and we would light up. I would say we’re on the record. I told Ivy once that I was writing a book. She said tell my love story. That’s why I’m telling you now. It was a love story before it ended. Salvage means that is how you die, as a scarecrow, to terrify people. The sign by the body, the packing tape around the head, the hands bound, it is a symbol of what will happen to you, if you become like him.
To be fair, if you wanted to be metaphorical about it, salvage is a contronym. It means both things. In this case, it means both things. He was killed in the horrific fashion that we believe in, but his death is recycled to terrorize everyone else.
How violent of a place was the Philippines before Duterte came to power?
The Philippines has never been a particularly quiet country. It is violent. For a time, it held the record for the most dangerous place for journalists in the world. Sometime, I think it was 2009 when the Maguindanao massacre happened. It was election related violence. One warlord wanted to be governor and another warlord didn’t want him to, so in the filing of his certificate of candidacy, one of them lay in wait. Then there was a convoy of people who were going to file the certificate, not the candidate, because he thought it was dangerous for him. But 58 people, including his wife and his friends and a parcel of journalists, would be safe. All 58 died. There was a group waiting by the side of the hill.
In fact, by the time people came upon it, they had abandoned the place. But some of the bodies were on the ground. Some of the bodies had already been buried in a mass grave that they had waiting, including the cars. It has never happened anywhere in the world that 32 journalists died in a single day. So, we’re a violent country. We’re loving and we’re charming, but we’re violent. It’s just that one day we said that violence was a good thing.
How many people were dying at the height of the drug war in the Philippines? How many bodies were you actually coming across? How visible was all of this violence?
Well, the way we were operating, we were going crime scene to crime scene. In the morning, I would check the actual toll, because I was pulling reports from everywhere. It can go up to 26, to 30 across the country, but there was no way we could cover every crime scene. I worked for Rappler. We had what, two cars? And because Rappler believed that what I was doing was important, I got one car. In the nights we didn’t have that one car, I would hop into another journalist’s car. There were very few of us also from other news agencies. The safe thing to call us was the night shift. Maybe we would cover at the most four or five in the night. I would cover far less because some people went crime scene to crime scene. They’re photographers or breaking news reporters.
I was an investigative reporter, so sometimes I stayed it out in that I’d wait for the entire investigation when the cops would pick up the bullets and then if they let me, I would go with the families. When I did the night shift, I didn’t do it every night because the other nights I would go to the wakes and sometimes for two weeks I would follow the same family or three months. It really depends, so I can’t quite answer the maximum of every night, but there were a lot.
What would you say to the families?
Well, I came up with my own methodology. It’s the only thing you can do to survive. I would ask the same questions every night. When I walked into a crime scene, I would ask the cops, because the cops would be there, or maybe the people who were watching from the sidelines, I would ask, was it a bybus? Was it a salvaging? Was it a drive by? Was it a body dump? Was the killer a cop or a vigilante? Were the hands bound? Was the head wrapped in tape? Was the body stuffed into the bag? Was there a gun on the ground assigned by the body? Then you went through the steps, you know, verify the street corners, find out if there are witnesses, question the investigating officer, and then find out if any of the bystanders knew of the dead man’s name.
Then, remember, I told you Ivy’s story earlier, I learned something in the drug war. I remember when I learned how to stand still and just listen for the screaming, because that’s when you know who the family is. So, to your question, what do I say? I learned to walk up softly, to apologize for my questions, to condole just enough, because there is no imagining what they go through. Then you keep your voice low and you keep your questions simple. What was his name? Where was he born? What was his job? When did you see him last? How did you know he was gone? Those are questions that are straight up. They’re factual. The answers exist. I never ask, how do you feel? Who asks how do you feel to someone who has just lost everything?
For trauma journalism, the easiest way to get information is to ask questions that are factual. But I need to know everything that’s happening. I need to know what they’re feeling and thinking, even if I can’t ask it. So, what they ask is then, instead is, what was going through your mind at that time? Because it’s a factual thing. What were you thinking? Or at the moment when I’m speaking to them, what are you thinking now? That methodology was also important to me as a field reporter because it kept me grounded. It is easy to get lost in all the blood. Before I would leave a crime scene, I would do a test whether I got everything.
So, if I could close my eyes and see the bridge or the highway or the room in 360 degrees. If I knew that the blood on the ground had a consistency of tomato ketchup, if I knew that the note shoved into the man’s back pocket folded in fours that called him a drug dealer was typed in Times New Roman 12 all caps, if I knew that the cop had wiped away the blood on his hands on his own shirt or that the killer walked away instead of ran, or that the bullet cracked through the left temple instead of the right, if I knew the color of the shoe and the tenor of the scream, and the fact that the dead man had on bikini briefs when they stripped his body on the street, that’s mostly when I knew I could go home.
That I did the job, because I could take the story home with me. I can’t write about what I don’t see. I can’t make people feel if I can’t imagine.
With so many victims, so many people’s lives that were disrupted due to the policies of Duterte, policies that he encouraged, was there any backlash against him? Did people change their minds about their support for him?
Absolutely. There were people who voted for Duterte without believing that Duterte would lead a slaughter. It’s the same for a lot of places. You assume your politicians are not going to deliver on their promises. He certainly didn’t deliver on a lot of promises. He did on this though, although I am uncertain if he actually made it to his 100,000 dead number. But for the many who didn’t believe the slaughter would happen, they regretted their votes or when people did die that they didn’t expect would die, like cousins or neighbors or this one kid, his name was Kian, whose death was actually caught on CCTV.
He was a young boy. He was a schoolboy, actually, and when the cops were, according to the investigative reports, according to the witnesses, when he was being shot, he was about to be shot, he was begging not to be killed because he had an exam the next day. So, stories like that affect other people like mothers who voted for Duterte who said Kian’s death was their responsibility. That they had killed him, in essence, because they voted for Duterte. So yes, there has been a lot of the regret for a number of people. It’s not as if there was no resistance to this. There was. It’s just it was very hard. It was dangerous.
But some people certainly continued to support him, not despite of the violence, but possibly because of it. I mean, was that really happening?
Well, certainly if you have vigilantes killing in his name, absolutely they believed in the cause. I didn’t just talk to the victims, I talked to the killers. While it is hard to get a cop to admit, I’ve never had a cop admit that he killed just because the criminal was in front of him. The cops will always say it was within the performance of regularity, but there were vigilantes and I investigated a local gang. The vigilantes told me that the cops had been outsourcing murder to them. That’s when you can use the word murder. But one vigilante I interviewed, we were sitting in a hotel room and it’s a little bit of a funny story.
So, we were in a conference room. with my photographer and my editors were saying that, you know, we have to be careful because here is Pat about to interview another vigilante and we need to take precautions. One of those precautions was to make sure that before we started interviewing that the vigilante was unarmed. Just pat him down and make sure he doesn’t have a gun. Of course, we said, yes, absolutely we’ll do that. So, the next day we’re in a hotel room. My contact delivered the vigilante to the door and I opened the door. He walks in and he says, ‘Ma’am, kailangan kong banyo,’ which mostly means, ‘Ma’am, I need to use the bathroom.’
So, he goes straight to the bathroom. I hear the door locking and I hear some clicking in my head. I don’t know what is happening. Then I look at my photographer and I say, ‘You have to pat him down. You promised. We have to check for a gun.’ And my photographer goes, ‘Sure. What happens if I find a gun?’ And I realize at that moment none of us had asked that question. And being asked that question, my answer is I don’t want to know.
So up to now, I don’t know if the man had a gun, but what I can tell you is that the vigilante who I’ll call Simon, because I made a promise, I would not name him, Simon had a wife and children, considered himself religious, owned a gun, and he voted for Rodrigo Duterte because he believed Duterte was correct that drug addicts should die. Simon had killed, at least by the time I spoke to him, it was in the first seven months of the war, Simon said that he had only killed two people. By killed, it meant he pulled the trigger, but he was part of surveillance for other cases. He drove the getaway van.
So, there was nothing he was unwilling to do, because success at what he called the job, the killing, meant that there was going to be one less drug addict who would threaten the future of his children. Then he said, when I asked him how he felt about all this killing and he said, ‘Ma’am, I’m not a bad guy. I’m not all bad. It’s just that some people need killing.’ We ran maybe a three, four-hour interview. Then he apologized. He had to go. He said he had to leave at seven because he had a job.
It’s not just vigilantes that you talk to that were part of killing other people. You also talk to some of the police officers. You got very close to a number of the police officers. One of them you describe as your friend Domingo was very high level. Can you talk a little bit about who he was and his role in some of these, I don’t even know how to describe it, atrocities?
Well, in the early days of the war, which was the first seven months before the war was suspended because of another killing, the cops killed a South Korean businessman and it didn’t pan out right. So, the war was suspended for a little bit. But before that, the cops were willing to talk to us. Some more than most. And in a particular district in Manila, there was a young boy who was killed. He was 20, not a boy. He was 20 years old and it raised some concern because he was a scholar. He was well loved by his community and people were protesting that this could not have been a legitimate police operation. They described him as a very good boy, so I was following that story.
I wanted to talk to the commanding officer whoever it was who was running the station whose men killed couldn’t get to him. When finally, I did, I found we could be friends, because like me, he was a chain smoker. Like me, he liked to read John Grisham. Like me, he has a particular taste for language and metaphor. So, he’s the one who said it was the golden days of the Philippine National Police. We had a relationship in that, yes, I reported on what his people did, but because the case I was investigating, the family and everyone else involved was afraid, it became a feature on Domingo himself. When I asked him what he thought of Rodrigo Duterte and everything he said Duterte was legendary. So that’s what the story is called. It was called Legendary.
I was worried in the aftermath, because he might be angry at the framing of the story, at my putting him side by side by the man who would say, kill them all. Then one day I walked into another police station, not his, and I heard a voice from a back room going, ‘Trish?’ Now nobody calls me Trish, except Domingo. He had moved stations. He invited me back to his office. We lit cigarettes and then I looked at the wall. My story was framed there. I started laughing. I go, ‘Well, alright. We’re good. He likes my writing.’ I thought he was a born storyteller. Every time something would happen or if I needed background on anything, we would just talk. I wouldn’t publish.
Then he got into trouble. Story after story, not even the ones I covered, uncovered that there was a secret jail inside of his station where cops would extort in order to make money off very terrified suspects. There were shooting incidents, and I think there was another extortion case I covered myself. But we kept the relationship, because he knew I would not lie, but he also knew if I said off the record, it was off the record and I was always very meticulous about getting people’s sides. Then when I was doing this vigilante story, Simon, who I told you about… I wasn’t only talking to Simon. I was talking to quite a number of people, many of whom are not named in the book.
Then source after source identified the cop who was ordering them to kill and was handing out the payoffs. It was Domingo, my friend, according to them. So that was that. I reported that. I think on the day that the story was going to be published, Rappler got me out of the country. It wasn’t the safest thing. And I never talked to him after that. I tried. In that before we published, I tried to get his side. He took my call. He responded to my email that he got the questions, but he said he couldn’t answer. No comment. So, when the book was about to be published, I’m not sure if he made it all the way to the endnotes of the book.
When the book was about to be published, I was doing my due diligence. I didn’t think he would respond. I sent letters by courier. I also sent emails. I sent text messages. Then finally I went down to Viber, the messaging app. I messaged and he replied, ‘Hello, my dear friend Trish.’ I told him what I was doing and I said I needed his side. He said he’s so sorry he can’t do that because there are court cases. He wasn’t allowed to speak, but he said God bless you, my dear sister, my dear friend. My dear Trish. So, I don’t know if we’re friends. But people are very complicated.
One of the most stunning lines in the book paints a big picture perspective and kind of brings everything together. You write, “I was born in the year democracy returned to the Philippines. I am here to report its death.” Do you feel that democracy is dead in the Philippines?
No and because this is a democracy podcast, I want to be very careful by what I mean. You see, I’m not a scholar. I’m a journalist. The reason I became a field reporter instead of an opinion columnist is because I have nothing, no academic background, to draw from. I have no specialization beyond the fact I like language. It’s not an academic thing. I just like words. I like stories. So, my contribution to the universe in general is I would go out and see things and then write about them. My only expertise is at that moment where I’m standing. So, when I use words like democracy, I didn’t know the implication. Don’t worry. I work it out in the book.
For people like me or just your ordinary Joes who speak of democracy, I thought it meant freedom. I thought it meant a free press. I thought it meant that people would not die on the streets. My version of democracy was the democracy we got after 1986. That when there is a massacre we say, hell no. In that individual rights, the freedom of speech, human rights were protected. That’s my version of democracy. But the thing was we voted for that autocrat. Nobody had to threaten people to vote for Rodrigo Duterte.
So, when I say, I was born on the year democracy returned to the Philippines and I am here to report its death, that’s my democracy I’m talking about. My version of a people who look at the nation and said we will not allow our citizenry to fall. I thought that was what democracy was. That we looked at autocrats and said never again. Is democracy dead? No, just mine.
Well, I don’t think that you should minimize that interpretation of democracy. I mean, there are many different views about what democracy means. It’s one of the reasons why I talk to so many different people about it. There’s a lot of scholarly debate that would think of democracy exactly the way that you just described it. So, there’s nothing wrong with thinking of democracy as such a big picture concept like that. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Taking that idea of democracy in terms of the book and just the history that you’re describing, it then portrays the idea that there really is a role of the people in terms of the death or maybe just the decline of a democracy, if we want to put it like that. Tell me about that. What exactly did you find the role of just everyday people was in terms of that decline of democracy in a country?
Well, not everyone voted for Duterte. As I said earlier, there are many others who did and didn’t believe the slaughter would happen or who have regretted their vote since. But I don’t think any of that is sufficient as citizens to have a stake in the making of a nation in the same way I didn’t vote for Duterte. But in the aftermath of his win, it’s under my watch. Those responsible for the slaughter on the streets of Manila and across the country are not limited to the men who pull the triggers.
It was your presidential spokespersons. It was your village captains who said we can smell a drug dealer. There was one who said I can tell you what a drug dealer is by his aura. It’s the mayors and it’s the congressmen. It’s the clerks who insisted on drug testing the men on the drug list and the neighbors, who slipped the names of people they thought were drug dealers into anonymous drop boxes. It’s your morticians and your informants and your investigators, even the good cops who stepped over the blood and said, ‘Well, you know what? We can’t find out who the killer is.’
It is all the people who are ordinary and respectable and think of themselves as good who decided that they’re doing what is best for their families and those who would prefer that someone else die instead of them. They made their own reckoning. And while I understand that reckoning, I’ve reckoned with myself. That’s why I’m here talking to you about the book I wrote. So, what happened in the Philippines? That’s an example of what happens when autocrats and dictators rise and we let them.
As Duterte is leaving office, as he’s fulfilled, not the promise that drugs would be eradicated from the Philippines.
Not at all.
Yeah. But the promise that there would be so many people who would die. He did fulfill that part of his promise. How popular was he? I mean, how popular was Duterte the day that he walks away from the presidency?
I am not certain what the numbers were on that day. I know at last check though, he must be, I think, 73 percent in the approvals. It’s very high. And even if you ignore the surveys, perhaps you want to look at the result of the presidential elections. I think of it as a referendum on Duterte. We don’t have two term presidents. That was knocked out in the aftermath of the EDSA revolution because the Marcos has stayed decades. Duterte stepped down and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. won as president, hand in hand with Sara Duterte, Duterte’s daughter. So, it’s the dictator’s son with the Punisher’s Daughter and it’s interesting that they won that way because in as much as there is slaughter and death and violence, people voted in hope the same way they voted for Duterte that things would change.
In the 70s, Marcos had promised a new society, a better one. When Duterte won in 2016, he said change is coming. This new government, it’s roughly the same thing. Unity is what they said. We will come together. But it’s not as if they have talked about the slaughter. Instead, there will be a reckoning. We have a traumatized nation. And while they are popular, there will never be a proper reckoning the same way there was never a proper reckoning after the Marcos’ left. So, you can keep washing away the blood. But you can’t heal if you can’t concede that there are wounds.
Is the drug war over in the Philippines or is it ongoing?
An interesting question because now you don’t have a man standing on the podium saying kill them all. Marcos will not do that. But people are still dying on the street, suspected criminals, suspected addicts. Near the end of the drug war, you can transpose any word on top of drug and the slaughter will be the same. There was a time during the pandemic that people were being shot for not wearing masks and somewhere in the book, in one of the final chapters, there was a mother and son who was killed because the son had been exploding fireworks in their back garden. So, the impunity is the same. The reasons might be different, but the danger, because it’s quiet, is more terrifying.
In a lot of ways, this has been a pretty pessimistic conversation. Do you have hope?
I am a pessimistic person. Hope!
Do you have hope for the future of your country? Do you have hope that things are going to get better and improve and become more democratic once again in the Philippines?
That’s the thing, you know, when I say it’s a traumatized country, it’s a real thing in that my generation got lucky. We had time to grow up, figure out who we were and not to exist in terror if we ever spoke. But this new generation, these are going to be the children of those who were killed and the children of the killers, and the children who stood on the sidelines as those of us who were covering the dead were counting bullets. They will grow up in a universe where the terrible is ordinary. I used to live with a belief that all we needed to do was write about terrible things and people will rise and protest. I learned that was wrong in my mid-twenties.
But I don’t believe that I live in a state of negotiated expectations. I lowered the bar a long time ago and there are no guarantees for me anyway that journalism will save lives or lead to legislation or even cause a minute of shame to those who deserve it. All I do is keep a record. So, my hope, the only hope I have is that the record will be useful someday.
Do you feel that the Philippines is unique in its experience? I mean, we’re watching democratic decline, human rights decline throughout the world. Do you think that the experience of the Philippines, which in many ways is unique in terms of the way the drug war played out? Do you think that it’s unique or do you feel that it’s very similar to the experience people are having in other places around the world right now?
I don’t think Rodrigo Duterte and the experience of the Philippines is unique. It’s not a story from the exotic Global South. Everywhere in the world charismatic men will say outrageous things and they’re funny and they’re shocking. Sometimes they make headlines and they draw crowds until they say things that are a little dangerous. But not dangerous enough. They might say that addicts deserve to die and that’s okay, because some people do believe addicts deserve to die. Then after people clap, they might say journalists are legitimate targets of assassination. They might say it about lawyers and leftists and activists and priests and judges. Then they pull the bar down so low that we don’t know what terrible is anymore.
It’s not just the Philippines. You’ve seen it happen all over the world. Then it becomes a punchline. It gets funny, and then more people die. So, some people need killing. When I heard it from the vigilante, there was a shock of recognition when I heard the line in that I thought that is the bluntest way I’ve ever heard it put and the clearest way that people think except we never say it out loud. So, all over the world, we ask that question, ‘Do some people need killing?’ Except we don’t put it that way, but that’s the way we think. Some people’s lives are less grievable than others. So, at the time of great conflict all over the world, maybe we should ask that question more. Do some people need killing?
Well, Pat, thank you so much for joining me today. To plug the book one more time, the book is called Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in my Country. It’s one of those books that just captivates you as you read it. It draws you in. It’s difficult to read in many ways, but it’s also difficult to put down. Thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.
Thank you so much for this.
Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country by Patricia Evangelista
Read the original “Some People Need Killing” published in Rappler.com
Follow Patricia Evangelista on X at @patevangelista
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