President Donald Trump attracted bipartisan criticism in April for enthusiastically endorsing one of the world’s most brazen human rights catastrophes: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous anti-drug campaign. Since Duterte took office last June, police and vigilante death squads have killed more than 7,000 people, and devastated poor communities in cities across the country.
Now, a new film shows the human toll of Duterte’s campaign. “Duterte’s Hell,” by Aaron Goodman and Luis Liwanag and produced with the documentary unit Field of Vision, shows graphic images of Philippine police examining and carting off dead bodies, and grieving communities struggling to cope with the government-sanctioned murders.
In 2016, Duterte campaigned on a policy of mass extermination for anyone involved in the drug trade — not only drug traffickers, but addicts as well. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” Duterte said in September. “Now there is 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
In April, Trump stunned observers of the crisis by placing what his aides described as a “very friendly” call to Duterte, inviting the Philipine president to the White House. Weeks later, The Intercept, in partnership with the Philipine news site Rappler, obtained and published a transcript of that call, showing Trump heaping praise on the drug campaign. “I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” he told Duterte.
Human rights groups have documented how small groups of plainclothes police or vigilante assassins will gun down subjects on the street or burst into the roadside shacks in urban slums. Uniformed police frequently show up later and routinely plant drugs or guns on the corpses to justify the killings.
“I swear on my family, my son is not a pusher, my son had no gun,” one mother wails, turning to the camera. “Please! Tell [this] to the whole world. Please help me! He’s not a dog, my son. He’s not a dog or a pig to kill like them.”
Set in Manila, Field of Vision’s film demonstrates the impact the war has had on urban slums — an effect so disproportionate it lead Amnesty International to label the campaign a “murderous war on poor.” “Duterte’s Hell” intimately portrays crowds gathering around grieving mothers in the slums, watching as police load the corpses into trucks and cart them off.
Duterte has an answer for why his killing campaign has overwhelmingly focused on cities’ slums, not affluent drug users: Duterte once explained to anti-poverty groups that he can’t go after rich drug users because they fly around on private jets and he “cannot afford the fighter planes,” according to a profile in the New Yorker.
Duterte was infamous for extrajudicial killings long before he became president. As early as 1996, as mayor of Davao city, a port city on the southern island of Mindanao where he is still wildly popular, Duterte relied on a several-hundred member death squad to kill criminals and suppress opposition. Multiple former members of the group have come forward and said Duterte personally ordered the assassinations, and the now-president has even bragged about killing people himself from the back of a motorcycle.
In many ways, Duterte is a product of political environment he grew up in. He is the first Philippine president from the island of Mindanao, which has a long and troubled colonial history. For hundreds of years, the Muslim community in the south of the island resisted the Spanish, who had conquered the northern part of the island and tried to spread Catholicism. After the Spanish-American war, thousands died under U.S. military rule as the result of a “pacification” campaign in Mindanao.
The legacy of that history is that Mindanao has been home to several armed rebel and terrorist groups over the years, as well as mafia-like criminal organizations. It was Duterte’s bloody approach to fighting back against those organizations that earned him a nickname he still embraces: “the death squad mayor.”