Addicts’ families live in fear of vigilantes as Rodrigo Duterte’s drug purge continues
Marcelo Salvador claimed he had quit using drugs but after his name was added to a ‘Kill List’, he was on borrowed time
The bodies terrified Betchie Salvador, because she always knew her husband could be next.
They had begun turning up all over the Philippines ever since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a controversial war on drugs this year – so many that one local newspaper had to create a “Kill List” just to keep track. Dealers and addicts were being shot by police or unidentified gunmen, who were dumping them on darkened streets beside cardboard signs that warned: “I’m a pusher. Don’t Be Like Me.”
With each new death, Betchie imagined losing the man she had loved for a decade – a proud father of three who was also an addict.
“We talked about it a lot,” she said. “I told him, ‘Please don’t go out at night.’”
Marcelo, who worked as a driver, had been introduced to the methamphetamine known as “shabu” two years earlier by a colleague who said it helped him stay awake at night.
In his campaign for the presidency, Duterte described the drug as a life-or-death threat to a nation. And the nation, exasperated by decades of crime and corruption, believed him.
After he was sworn into office on June 30, the anti-drug operation – called “Double Barrel” – began. Police drew up “watch lists” of suspected addicts and dealers, and security forces began carrying out raids. Vigilantes also went to work. Near Marcelo’s home, a couple was found murdered in their rickshaw. Later, another man was found with his neck slashed beside a placard labelling him an addict and a thief.
By then, Marcelo’s family was starting to fear for his life. He made a living driving a “tricycle” – a rickshaw taxi – earning just enough to support their two boys, aged six and seven, and a newborn baby girl. His mother, Betty Soriano, decided to accompany him to keep him safe and discourage him from doing drugs.
At one point, a government official told Marcelo to turn himself in, a process called “surrendering” that has drawn about 700,000 drug users so far. Most are released after acknowledging their crimes and pledging never to use again. Marcelo waved the man off, saying he had quit.
But then, on the night of September 5, Marcelo parked his rickshaw at a small roadside kiosk, where he had stopped to buy essentials for the morning – coffee for his family, chocolate drinking powder for his kids. When Malvin Balingatan, who worked at the shop, leaned forward to hand him change, shots rang out, according to the police report. It was 10.05pm.
As Balingatan ducked, he caught a glimpse of two men in black on a motorcycle, helmets covering their faces. Marcelo managed to run 10 or 15 metres to the corner, where more shots were fired. He collapsed.
By the time Betchie got to the scene, Marcelo – her Marcelo – was sprawled face-down in a pool of blood, his body lit by a halo of light from a bank of television cameras. A small translucent packet of white methamphetamines was visible beside his fingertips. Her mother-in-law said the drugs weren’t there when he died. She doesn’t know who put them there, or why. But she won’t press the issue with police, who say they have no leads.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Betchie asked. “What’s the point? What for?”
Outside, Marcelo’s rickshaw was still parked on the curb, empty and quiet. A pair of red and blue wrist bands are wrapped around its headlight and speedometer, propaganda from the election campaign. Each is inscribed with seven white letters: “D U T E R T E”.