Around 11 p.m. on July 25, Restituto Castro received an anonymous text message asking him to leave his house in northern Manila and go to the corner of the MacArthur Highway. Just hours earlier, the new Philippine President, 71-year-old Rodrigo Duterte, had given his first State of the Nation address, in which he vowed to destroy the country’s illegal drug trade by any means necessary. “We will not stop until the last drug lord … and the last pusher have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish,” he said.
Castro, 46 and a father of four, was neither a drug lord nor a pusher. He never bought shabu—a local name for methamphetamine—for himself. Too poor to become a proper user—shabu starts at $31 a gram—he purchased the drug on behalf of his friends in exchange for a bump or two. “He always had a hard time saying no to his friends,” says his wife Merlyn. But even dabbling with meth didn’t sit well with his life as a family man and his work as a chauffeur for a nearby hotel, so Castro promised to stop cadging recreational hits before he became dependent. According to his cousin, Castro told them his next drug run would be his last.
So it was. A single bullet to the back of his head that night made Castro one of the first of the 3,000-plus Filipinos killed so far in Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. According to figures provided to TIME by the Philippine national police, 1,506 people had been killed in police operations as of Sept. 14, just over two months since Duterte took office. The rest were likely killed by vigilantes who may have been inspired by Duterte’s words—deaths the authorities say they are investigating. “We shouldn’t jump the gun and say that they’re automatically extrajudicial killings, such that extrajudicial means it has the badge of the government,” says Kris Ablan, assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Office.
Nobody can claim to be surprised. The carnage is exactly what Duterte promised. “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” he said before his election. While he was President-elect, Duterte offered medals and cash rewards for citizens who shot dealers dead. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he told police officers on July 1, the day after his inauguration. “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” he was quoted as saying to another crowd that day.
Executing people for nonviolent drug-related offenses, inside or outside the law, is common in this part of the world. According to a report by drug-policy NGO Harm Reduction International, the only countries other than Iran and Saudi Arabia known to have executed drug traffickers since 2010 are all in Asia: China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. Yet the wanton ferocity of Duterte’s war eclipses those of his regional neighbors. The U.S.—by far Manila’s most important ally—might wish that Duterte shift his focus to an encroaching China or the Philippine economy. But the new President—who made his reputation as a tough-on-crime mayor—seems unlikely to be swayed: “This fight against drugs will continue to the last day of my term.”
That day is six years away.
When Duterte made the eradication of crime the cornerstone of his campaign—pledging to kill “100,000 criminals”—he earned an emphatic victory, bagging 38% of the vote in a five-candidate race. “People really feel insecure and unsafe,” says Camilo Montesa of the Manila office of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an NGO dedicated to conflict resolution. Law and order is just one of many chronic national ailments, including poverty, corruption and civil rights abuses. But Duterte’s singular focus on drugs has struck a chord—with reason. The U.S. State Department cites 2011 U.N. figures for methamphetamine use in the Philippines, the latest available, “as having the highest abuse rate in East Asia at 2.1% of the adult population ages 16 to 64.” Duterte once even vowed to kill his own children if he caught them using drugs.
That’s how he talks. On the campaign trail, Duterte joked that he “should have been first” in the 1989 rape of an Australian missionary in Davao, where he spent 22 years as mayor, and publicly branded his daughter as a “drama queen” after she revealed that she had been raped. The statements were seen as salty speech, not evidence of an ungoverned mind. His boast of the “1,700” suspected criminals killed by death squads when he was mayor—correcting, on live television, allegations that the number was 700—created no uproar. He compares the killings under him to police violence in the U.S.: “They’re shooting blacks there,” he said during a press briefing. “What’s the difference between America and the Philippines? Nothing.”
Duterte’s choicest insult—“son of a bitch”—has been deployed against the Pope (for clogging Manila traffic during a visit in January), the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines (whom he also derided as “gay”) and, most recently, President Obama, for wanting to broach the drug war with Duterte. Obama responded by canceling a planned meeting between the two leaders at the Sept. 6–8 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Duterte quickly expressed “regret” at his “strong comments,” though he later insisted he had not directed the vulgar phrase specifically at Obama. But in a reflection of how critical Manila is to the U.S.’s geopolitical influence in Asia, Obama still met Duterte briefly before the summit dinner and later downplayed the Philippine leader’s coarse language. “I don’t take these kinds of things personally,” said Obama. “I think it’s just a habit, a way of speaking for him.”
As an American colony for nearly five decades until 1946, the Philippines has always had a complex relationship with the U.S. While 92% of Filipinos reported a favorable attitude toward the U.S. in a recent Pew poll, anti-Americanism surfaces from time to time. In the early 1990s, Manila shut down U.S. bases in the country, and it wasn’t until 2014, during the administration of Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor, that the two governments signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which rebooted the U.S. military presence. “Both need each other,” says Carl Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales. “The U.S. can’t stand up to China in the South China Sea if the Philippines is kicking one of the legs out from the stool that’s defending its sovereignty. And Duterte, likewise, can’t really stand up to China unless the U.S. is backing him.” But on Sept. 13, Duterte said the Philippines would forgo joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea and called on his military—whom he urged to focus on terrorism and drugs—to buy hardware from China and Russia.
A week after Duterte took office, a poll conducted by Philippine research firm Pulse Asia showed that an astonishing 91% of Filipinos had a “high degree of trust” in him. Among them are people like Ray Antonio Nadiera, a 33-year-old maintenance worker in the country’s second largest city, Cebu, who says that by the time Duterte’s campaign is over, “all the addicts will be straightened out.” In Manila’s Pasig Line district, local resident Jaime Co says, “The people killed are the dirt of society. What Duterte’s doing, his war on illegal drugs, is right. It’s good.”
But some are appalled at the forces that have been unleashed. “We’re on a slippery slope toward tyranny,” says Philippine Senator Leila de Lima. “Whether it’s state-sanctioned or not, I would say at the very least all of these killings are state-inspired.” Her sentiment is echoed by the human-rights community. In June two U.N. representatives condemned Duterte’s “incitement to violence,” not only against drug dealers and criminals but also against journalists. Duterte’s response was, “F-ck you, U.N.” More recently, he called the U.N. “very stupid” for criticizing his war on drugs, threatened to pull his country out of the organization and declined a meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Laos summit.
Duterte’s authoritarian leanings have become increasingly pronounced. In August he threatened to declare martial law if the judiciary obstructed the anti-drug campaign. In September—using a terrorist attack in Davao as justification—he declared a “state of lawlessness” in the country, which he then ratcheted up to a “state of national emergency,” a status that could give the military policing powers.
“This is going to damage democracy and the rule of law as we know it,” says a Philippines-based human-rights campaigner, who requested anonymity out of safety concerns. “This notion that you can solve all your problems just by killing people will only have a detrimental effect in the long run.” Global advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also denounced the slaughter and called on Duterte to change both his rhetoric and his policies. He’s unlikely to listen. “I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” Duterte has said. “There is no due process in my mouth.”
At 2 a.m. on a recent Saturday in Manila’s south, Jenny, a young woman, stands in a crowd of about 50 people surrounding her neighbor’s house. Gunshots were heard just over an hour ago, and the police have emerged to announce that the occupant, a man named John Paul, has been killed. “It’s like a death penalty is handed out without due process—Duterte gave free rein to the police,” she says. “They say if suspects fight back, they can kill them, but people are getting killed without a fight.”
The police say any killings by them have been in self-defense. And they applaud Duterte, who has promised to “die” for them as long as they do their “duty.” “This is the first time that the President or the administration are really focused on eradicating illegal drugs,” says a senior police official, who asked not to be identified. “The support of the President makes it very encouraging for the law enforcer.”
The poor in the barangays—as the smallest units of municipal organization in the Philippines are called—pay the highest price. In these impoverished communities, children play beside open sewers, families often share one room, and, for a few people, shabu is an escape—both psychologically and financially. “A lot of the people involved in the drug market have no other opportunity for income, so a lot of that money also goes to support families in communities,” says Clarke Jones, a researcher at the Australian National University who studies the Philippine prison system and the drug trade within it.
Rightly fearing for their lives, Filipinos are surrendering in droves. More than 700,000 people have turned themselves in to the authorities for drug-related offenses since Duterte took office, according to police data. Rehabilitation is an option for only a few thousand, owing to the scarcity of government-approved centers. Other than the grave, that leaves prison, which even by Philippine standards is a special kind of hell. On a recent visit to Manila’s Las Piñas City Jail, TIME estimated that about 50 men were sharing a 3-by-3-m cell—a nationally ubiquitous scenario thanks to nearly 16,000 arrests over the past 10 weeks. Many had been there for more than a month.
The President is unapologetic about his grim campaign and its fallout. “Rich or poor, I do not give a sh-t,” Duterte said at a recent press conference. “My order is to destroy.” —With reporting by KIMBERLY DELA CRUZ and RAMON ROYANDOYAN/MANILA •