The fifth commandment
I’ve been following the drug war for roughly two years. As a reporter, it may seem a short span, but if you’re on the graveyard shift, two years of churning stories of killings is grueling, disturbing and, at times, depressing.
I joined my current network back in October 2017, and at that time, “Oplan Tokhang” was already suspended. The night grind was very new to me, having been earlier accustomed to covering endless hearings in the House of Representatives or press conferences in air-conditioned halls.
On my second night at duty, while shadowing with a senior reporter, I saw my first corpse. It was in a lowly computer shop in Tondo, Manila. On the most unholy hour of the night, the body lay on muddy ground, drenched in rain. Fresh blood spewed from a wound caused by a gunshot from an unknown assailant, who might not be too far away. The victim’s blood flowed freely, such that it almost reached our feet.
Reporters circled the site, gathering whatever facts they could get. Out of fear, witnesses kept their mouths shut. The CCTVs weren’t working. Shortly after, everyone left. The body remained there, unidentified. He could have committed a heinous crime, peddled drugs or was innocent. To this day, we never knew.
However shocking each casualty could be, if you get to cover the same stories again and again, things become a routine. I used to sympathize with the families of the victims, but it’s unfortunate that things have become more mechanical now. I’m sad that I seem to have become so desensitized to the fatalities of the drug war very early on. Each killing is just another story to write.
There were instances when the victims of the drug war were still alive when we came. We also covered arrests in drug-bust operations.
In the spirit of fairness, we’d talk to the apprehended suspects, and 99 percent of the time, they followed a very common script: 1) they were clueless about the drug transaction; 2) they were users but not peddlers; 3) they had no jobs; 4) and, the most glaring fact, they were invariably poor. They didn’t have to spell it out: They had no choice but to peddle drugs, because it was the most stable source of income to feed their children.
In two years of “Tokhang,” I’ve only covered one arrest where the victim was actually affluent, and I’ve never seen a rich man die.
Recently, the Presidential Communications Operations Office presented the number of drug war fatalities in a #RealNumbers forum. The agency pegged it above 5,000. Maybe it was a figure straight from thin air, because it’s unbelievably low — so low that even ordinary police officers would not be convinced. That paltry number would be embarrassing to a police force that believes every killed addict is an achievement to brag about.
But the drug war isn’t a story of numbers: It is a story of faces, of grieving families, of real lives. It’s a story of denied justice. It’s a story of orphaned children losing a father or mother or siblings. It’s the story of Kian delos Santos, Gian Habal and Myca Ulpina—children with presumably bright futures ahead of them, but are now in graves because of senseless violence.
The first agenda President Duterte mentioned in his latest State of the Nation Address was the restoration of the death penalty. If Congress complies with his wishes, we’ll only be legalizing what has been happening in the streets since 2016. And for a predominantly Catholic country that spends most of its Sunday mornings in Church, may we all be reminded of the fifth commandment.
Thou shall not kill.
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Jervis Manahan, 27, covers the crime beat for a broadcast network. He is also an advocate of media literacy.
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