Sunday, February 5

Duterte lifts the dead in the Philippines anti-drug campaign from their graves


  • The deceased are exhumed after having expired the five years of rent for their niches and their remains thrown into a mass grave

  • Official figures speak of 7,000 drug addicts and drug dealers killed by the police, although human rights organizations have counted more than 30,000

The victims of the anti-drug crusade in Philippines they have not found peace in the cemetery either. Their bodies are being exhumed after the lease on the graves has expired because their relatives lack income to extend it. It is not a delicate operation: the tombstones are smashed with hammers and the remains are placed in bags that will be thrown into a mass grave or any corner out of sight.

It is the last and foreseeable effect of the Rodrigo Duterte’s most mediatic campaign. No one can accuse the president of breaking his electoral promises: he said that he would put an end to drug addicts and he worked hard at it. Official figures speak of 7,000 drug addicts and drug dealers shot down by the police and human rights have counted more than 30,000. The uproar was concentrated in the first year with an average of 35 deaths per day. Those expelled from their graves are now those who fell in that first wave.

The dead are concentrated in suburbs of the metropolitan belt of Manila such as Nabotas or Caloocan. A walk reveals a painful poverty. Wooden shacks, swamps where half-naked children, chickens and malnourished dogs are squeezed, no running water and disturbing electrical junctions. “If you’re poor, you’re dead,” Amnesty International headlined its report on Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. The painting explains the drama: the rental of those humble cubicles stacked on cement blocks costs a thousand pesos a year, about 17 euros, too many for those who barely fill the bowl of rice. The average salary in the Philippines does not reach 270 euros and the pandemic has fattened the poor account. The deceased, moreover, were the main breadwinner for the family in many cases.

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space shortage

The alternatives, after five years, do not go beyond an ossuary the size of a shoebox or the mass grave. Many relatives have found their tombstones smashed before choosing because the scarcity of space in the cemeteries of the metropolitan region of Manila pushes the feverish turnover of tenants. Father Flavie Villanueva, a tenacious scourge of Duterte, provides relatives with a more dignified exit. Since last year, when the expirations began, he has organized exhumations and cremations so that relatives have an urn to keep at home. It’s not much, and it’s not in the Filipino tradition, but it improves the pile of anonymous bones.

Philippine cemeteries highlight social inequalities. Just a few dozen meters separate the solid family crypts from those pedestrian niches with the name of the deceased sometimes written in ink. The cardboard, beer cans and the rest of the waste certify a deterioration that is nuanced by the bright colors of the concrete blocks where the most humble tombs are pressed.

Also the children who run around and play give a festive air. The Nabotas cemetery, one of the districts hardest hit by the anti-drug campaign, seemed like the scene of a Berlanguian tragicomedy years ago. The young people had fastened a net between the graves to improvise a volleyball court and they lamented that the frequent funeral processions interrupted their parties. “We don’t have parks, where do you want us to play?” they asked. Emong Ramos, on the other hand, welcomed the frenzy. The undertaker, with 40 years of experience, charges on request. “I have never worked so much,” he told this correspondent. These days he revealed to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Moning Post that some 300 bags of unclaimed remains are scattered around the cemetery.

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old tradition

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Burials are not a minor issue in the most Catholic country in Asia. In that maelstrom of stories of dramatic losses, the greatest regrets were directed at the costs of the funeral. It’s usual the neighbors play bingo organized by the family to raise funds. Only when the sum has been covered will the body be buried, which has been injected with formaldehyde so that it can last a month in the open air. It is not uncommon for the police to intervene after several weeks to close down the bingo and order the burial. Family visits to the cemetery after nine days, after 40 days and on anniversaries of the deceased are common. Against all that old tradition are the rude current exhumations.

The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, investigates whether Duterte’s anti-drug campaign crimes against humanity have been committed. There are doubts about its jurisdiction: Duterte has described the allegations as “idiocy” and recalled that the country has not been a member of the court since it withdrew it in 2019. For the judges, however, the excesses committed before that date are prosecutable. It does not seem that the matter worries Duterte, who will soon run out of his mandate.


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