The Philippines has seen some of its largest protests yet against President Rodrigo Duterte in recent weeks, as public scrutiny grows over recent deaths in the country’s violent anti-drug campaign.
Much of the outrage has stemmed from three highly publicized killings where police are alleged to have targeted young Filipinos and covered up their brutal murders. Evidence has emerged in each case that contradicts police accounts of the deaths, highlighting what rights groups have long alleged are widespread abuses in Duterte’s drug war.
Earlier this month, a body believed to be that of 14-year-old Reynaldo de Guzman was found in the Philippines’ Gapan City. The teen’s body had been stabbed around 30 times and his head was wrapped in packing tape.
Guzman’s parents identified their son in the morgue on Sept. 6, after he had been missing for 20 days. He was last seen near his home on the outskirts of the capital of Manila with 19-year-old Carl Arnaiz, a friend who was also found dead 10 days earlier in a separate town over 50 miles away from where Guzman’s body was recovered.
Police claimed Arnaiz died in a shootout after attempting to rob a cab driver, but forensic reports showed that he had been shot while on his knees and potentially tortured. Police also stated that the young boy’s body found in Gapan City did not match Guzman’s DNA, but both Guzman’s parents and the Public Attorney’s Office disputed the police findings and questioned their credibility.
Public suspicion of police accounts in the drug war is common in the Philippines, and a poll released on Wednesday showed that about half of the country believes that many of those killed are neither drug dealers nor resisted arrest.
Although the exact series of events that led to the deaths of Guzman and Arnaiz is currently unknown, the incident fueled outrage from activists and rights groups who saw echoes of a third extrajudicial killing of a teenager last month.
Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student, had been at the center of protests and investigations into police conduct after CCTV footage from Aug. 16 captured plainclothes officers taking Santos from his home on the fringes of Manila. Santos was dragged to an alley, where an autopsy report revealed he was shot twice in the head and once in the back.
Footage showed two policemen walking with the incapacitated 17-year-old in a headlock before his death ― seemingly contradicting official claims that he pulled a gun on them during arrest.
Rights groups say the recent high-profile killings of teenagers are just a few of the dozens of minors that have died in the Philippine drug war, which is persisting despite blatant abuses of authority and human rights violations.
“Kian’s death sparked a national outcry, but we have seen that was not an isolated case,” Amnesty International researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said.
“We’re seeing a breakdown in the rule of law, and the killing of Kian and Carl and Reynaldo are all examples of how the drug war has spiraled out of control.”
At Santos’ funeral, over a thousand people gathered to protest in one of the country’s biggest public displays of dissent against Duterte’s deadly drug war. Weeks later, thousands more demonstrated in the streets to oppose Duterte’s growing authoritarianism and the surge in police killings under his presidency.
Police and vigilante groups have killed at least 7,000 people since late June of last year, when Duterte took office and followed through on a campaign promise to violently target drug dealers and users. Rights groups say that at least 54 children under the age of 18 have been killed as part of that total.
“Children have been victims of the drug war since Duterte launched in July of 2016, but what we have seen is a sinister evolution in how children are targeted,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
In the early days of the drug war, many of the children killed were hit by stray bullets while with older relatives, but Kine says that the recent deaths highlight that police and vigilantes are also targeting minors.
Although Duterte has promised an investigation into the killings and police are carrying out internal probes, rights groups believe that the government and security forces can’t be trusted to credibly hold themselves accountable.
“We’re no longer calling for the Philippine national police to investigate. They are basically beyond redemption. What we have consistently been calling for in recent months is an urgent, United Nations-led international investigation,” Kine said.
Duterte and his allies have continuously supported the drug war ― often viciously objecting to human rights groups’ concerns ― and have attempted to crackdown on any dissent against their rule. Prominent Duterte opponent Senator Leila de Lima, for instance, has been jailed on what rights groups claim are false charges.
“The jailing of Senator Leila de Lima really put a chill into public discourse about this, because the message that was sent was, ‘If we can target a senator and former secretary of justice with trumped up, politicized drug charges, what do you think we can do to you?’” Kine says.
Duterte has also targeted institutions that aim to put a check on government abuses, and earlier this month lawmakers voted by an overwhelming majority to cut funding for the Philippine Commission for Human Rights from $17 million per year to just twenty dollars.
But despite continued killings and international criticism, public opinion polls have consistently shown that Duterte enjoys widespread support both personally and for his violent crackdown. Most recently a Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring and released last week showed that around three quarters of Filipinos backed the drug war, while 86 percent held a favorable view of the president.