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In Jayson Belleza’s country, you can find two extreme approaches to handling a drug dealer: One is to help him change his life. The other is to shoot him. Both approaches have their advocates in the Philippines, where drugs have ravaged young lives and choked the economy. But this summer it’s the shootings that have been in vogue.
First, a story of change: For 12 years, Belleza felt trapped in his drug addiction. The resident of Cebu had followed in his father’s footsteps as a user and dealer of shabu, the local term for crystal meth, but soon felt his life falling apart: He dropped out of school and lost his family’s trust, and police raided his home and arrested him multiple times. His self-esteem plummeted. “Deep inside I was yearning to change,” he recalls. “I wanted to have a life. But it was wishful thinking: I was just moving inside the box of my drug addiction.”
One night in October 2012, Belleza heard a gunshot and stepped outside his house to find his father hit by a .45 caliber bullet. Rival drug dealers had shot his father, who died in the hospital two days later.
Belleza’s family feared he would be next. A cousin connected him with Set Free Center, a Christian drug rehab program in metropolitan Manila, and Belleza agreed to join. There, he lived with 10 others and took part in Bible studies, counseling, service outreach, and work. He’d heard of Jesus before—the Philippines is 80 percent Roman Catholic—but it was only at Set Free that Belleza says he developed a relationship with Jesus for the first time: “Every day we talked about Jesus, we saw his power being released and his deliverance not just from drug addictions, but from hatred, anger, and vengeance.” Today, Belleza works at Set Free as a staffer, mentoring others.
Contrast Belleza’s life trajectory with the narrative painted by Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines: Duterte sees drug dependents as unredeemable. “If you know of any addicts,” he quips, “go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” Since Duterte took office in late June, police and vigilante groups have, with his blessing, gunned down more than 3,000 purported criminals, and officials claim another 700,000 people have turned themselves in.
While the international community condemns the extrajudicial killings, at home Duterte enjoys a 91 percent approval rating: Locals love how he stands up to drug dealers and corrupt officials, speaks like a commoner, and cares little about critics’ opinions. Even Belleza—who condemns the killings—remains a Duterte supporter, appreciating his tough stance against drugs and his exposure of narco-politics in the Southeast Asian island nation.
Overall, Filipino Protestants (who make up 3 percent of the population) are divided about Duterte, as the promise of effective governance butts heads with the principle of the sanctity of life, including criminal lives. All agree the corrupt, drug-infested country needs to change: The question is how far to go to achieve that change. At the same time, the violent war on drugs has forced addicts to seek help from groups like Set Free Center, which can provide true, lasting change for the seemingly unredeemable.
“Circuslike” is how Alice Foronda of Quezon City describes the current atmosphere in the Philippines. People discuss Duterte and his policies incessantly on TV, on Facebook, in newspapers, and around dinner tables. Online, supporters and opponents of the president engage in heated debates, and even international news media are paying attention. “Every time he opens his mouth, you need to look out,” Foronda said.
It seems no one is immune to Duterte’s profanity-laced attacks: He has joked about the rape and murder of a missionary, insulted U.S. President Barack Obama, and flipped the bird at the European Parliament. Even calling the pope a “son of a whore” hasn’t chilled his welcome with the largely Catholic population. In response to a backlash over his comments, Duterte apologized while claiming his words were taken out of context. That’s just “how men talk,” he said. Yet his harshest words have been reserved for drug dealers and addicts: He vowed to kill even his own children if they were involved in illegal drug activities.
But Foronda said she understands Duterte’s domestic appeal. “Some people say the president has no decency. Others say at least he’s doing his job—the other presidents were decent, but nothing happened.”
The local embrace of Duterte reflects the population’s frustration with a corrupt and weak government, where officials colluded with drug syndicates and justice was rarely served. The shabu trade has flourished in the Philippines as Chinese drug lords easily smuggled the ingredients into the country thanks to lax law enforcement and the many points of entry along the island chain. Local dealers often bribed police to look the other way, and dealers who were imprisoned continued their trade behind bars. Young men got caught in a violent cycle of addiction and dealing that has ultimately increased crime rates and hurt the economy.
Joy Owens, an overseas Filipino currently teaching at Grace Christian Academy in Taipei, Taiwan, said that before Duterte, she had stopped watching the news because all she saw were headlines about rapes, murders, and robberies with the suspects still at large: “There’s lots of victims, but the criminals are not caught.” Voting seemed a waste of time, she said, because no matter who was in charge, nothing seemed to change. Bureaucracy and inept government workers bogged down everyday life, and a lack of jobs pushed 10 million Filipinos to find work overseas.
But when Owens heard Duterte might run for president, she begged her husband to let her fly back to her home country and vote for her “idol.” Owens had known of Duterte from his 22 years as the mayor of Davao, where his tough stance on drugs and crime transformed what was once known as “Murder City” into a place locals now describe as relatively safe and tranquil. As mayor, Duterte took matters into his own hands by driving around in a taxi at night to catch criminals. He installed the first 911 service in the Philippines, imposed stricter traffic laws, and set up a nighttime curfew for minors.
Owens ended up missing the deadline to vote overseas, as Duterte announced his presidency late in the election cycle, but she showed her support through Facebook posts praising the new president. She likes that he drives a modest car, lives in a modest home, and speaks in the plain speech of the common people, unlike former political elites. Within a month of his presidency, Duterte opened a nationwide 911 hotline for emergencies and a toll-free number to complain about poor government services and cracked down on the “bullet scam,” where taxi drivers and airport workers plant bullets in travelers’ bags. His war on drugs has caused hundreds of thousands of drug addicts and dealers to turn themselves in, according to the country’s police chief, with some cities reporting a drop in demand for shabu.
Yet change comes at a high price. Human Rights Watch said that while mayor of Davao, Duterte payrolled the Davao Death Squad, which has killed more than 1,400 people since 1998, including petty criminals, drug dealers, and street children. In his speeches, Duterte routinely encourages extrajudicial killings, granting impunity to police officers and vigilantes who kill criminals. During his campaign, Duterte promised to kill 100,000 criminals: “You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
As president, Duterte has apparently stuck to his word. Every day newspapers display on their front pages photos of bloody, lifeless “criminals,” some with cardboard signs labeling them drug lords. Without due process, anyone with an ax to grind could easily rid himself of rivals by branding them as drug dealers. Many family members of victims have claimed to reporters that their son, husband, or boyfriend was not a drug dependent.
Manila Times columnist Rigoberto D. Tiglao described photographed victims as “famished-looking bodies” with “worn-out rubber slippers and basketball shorts typical of the urban poor’s clothes.” Contrasting those figures with well-known drug lords like Mexico’s El Chapo or Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, who profited spectacularly through their trade, Tiglao wondered in his column: “Is our country so poor that even our ‘drug lords’ are really impoverished people themselves? Or, as is more likely, is Duterte’s anti-drug campaign hitting only small-time, neighborhood drug pushers?”
CHURCH GROUPS HAVE EXPRESSED THEIR CONCERN about Duterte’s actions. In September, the Catholic Church held a special Mass and candlelight vigil to remember the 44th anniversary of martial law under former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos—and also to remember those lost to violence under the current administration. Chanting “Life with dignity for all people,” some attendees told the International Business Times they feared Duterte was following in Marcos’ footsteps, especially since he recently moved the former leader’s remains to a “Heroes’ Cemetery.”
The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches released a statement saying that while it supported Duterte’s desire to eradicate the illegal drug trade, evangelicals should “denounce the unlawful and brutal killings of drug suspects, which demonstrate utter disregard for human life.”
The statement added, “How can we claim justice and peace in our land when murderers are allowed to kill with impunity and roam freely?”
Another group, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, acknowledged the need for enforcement measures, but said “justice cannot be meted out by engaging in more killings or the commission of other acts of injustice, be they done by so-called vigilantes or state security forces. … This creates more fearful and vengeful hearts.”
Some observers draw parallels between Duterte and populist U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Both are blunt and unorthodox, tapping into the frustrations of their country’s citizens. (Of course, unlike Duterte, Trump is not calling for extrajudicial killings.) Filipino Christians’ justification for supporting Duterte seems to echo American Christians’ support for Trump despite his often non-Christian behavior. “We aren’t voting for a pastor, but a president,” some say. Others argue that God can use imperfect leaders to do His will, like King Cyrus in the Bible.
For Owens, the schoolteacher, the support is personal: “I am not into killing, I know it’s a sin,” she stressed. “But I have two grandchildren, so I need to think: Which is more important: the life of the criminal? Or the future and life of these innocent children?”
AS DRUG USERS TURN THEMSELVES IN by the thousands amid Duterte’s crackdown, Belleza said more people are calling Set Free Center, interested in getting help. Yet many balk at the one-year commitment the center requires: “Some are not really broken; they are just hoping to escape death.” Set Free, which runs solely on donations, currently can hold only 15 people, but Belleza and a few other staff members hope to open another house in his hometown of Cebu.
The need in the Philippines is great: The country’s rehab centers can’t fit the influx of drug addicts fearing for their lives and begging for help, Belleza said. To reach them, Set Free program participants go out into the streets of Manila each week to worship, pray, and share the gospel with everyone within earshot. Belleza wants both the drug dealers and Duterte to realize real hope is available.
“If I could talk to [Duterte], I would tell him that it’s possible, drug dependents can be healed,” said Belleza, who watched his own brother, also an addict, go through Set Free’s program and leave drugs behind. “I am recovered, and I already have a glimpse of what my life will be. I’ve experienced great things from God, and I just want the world to know that Jesus can heal.”