Meth. Syabu. Ice. Crystal: call it what you will, but prices on streets of Manila have fallen. A sachet split three ways that used to cost up to 500 pesos (HK$78) now goes for only 200 pesos.
Often “cooked”, Breaking Bad-like, in makeshift, temporary laboratories, the drug is made from a combination of harsh chemicals typically obtained from toxic waste. These include acetone – the main ingredient in paint thinner – and lithium – a highly corrosive and explosive metal found in batteries.
How is it consumed? The crystals are placed on a piece of foil and then heated from below, melting the drug and giving off smoke which is inhaled directly by the user. According to Rey (not his real name) a former meth user from Santa Ana, a municipality within the Metro Manila area, it leads to an intense high as the dopamine kicks in. Of course, the drawbacks of prolonged abuse are immense, including horrible dental problems, psychosis and even strokes.
Rey is a nineteen-year-old pedicab driver. He earns 300 pesos a day working from noon till 7pm in the evening. Up until a few months ago he also had a side-job. He was a “runner” – delivering meth to customers and getting a portion to use in exchange.
Back then the meth was sold very openly (have a look at the Cannes Festival winning film, Ma Rosa from the celebrated Filipino director, Brillante Mendoza) with transactions happening even at the local grocery store.
Like many others, Rey relied on the drug to escape the harsh poverty surrounding him. But even this “consolation” has been denied to him.
“I stopped taking meth when [Rodrigo] Duterte became president. I was too scared. I knew he meant business and I didn’t want to die young.”
Rey wasn’t the only one who got scared. The drug dealers who were once ubiquitous on the streets of his barangay (or ward) were suddenly nowhere to be found. Most of the users in his neighbourhood surrendered themselves to go to rehab out of fear of being executed by unknown parties.
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“One of my friends – he was still a user – got killed last week. They burst into his home at two o’clock in the morning and shot him. They were wearing balaclavas and normal clothes. Everyone thinks it’s the police but we don’t know. We’re all too scared to find out. Imagine, these people will break into our homes and execute whoever they want.”
Asked whether he agreed with Duterte’s support for such punitive measures, Rey said “No, this is too cruel. We should be sending people to rehab instead. It is better for people to be jailed than killed. It’s only us, the little people that are being targeted: not the big fish.”
Visiting Rey’s neighbourhood one evening is a slightly surreal experience as we pass the many CCTV cameras set up at each intersection. Along with scores of informants and plainclothes police, Metro Manila’s streets have become a terrain full of uncertainty, mutual distrust and death.
Indeed, the latest figures from local NGOs monitoring the spate of killings estimate that up to 4,000 people have been summarily executed in this way. The actual number is difficult to say. Police have claimed that there have been just over 2,000 deaths, while local media reports claim more than 3,800 vigilante-style killings – which would bring the death toll to over 5,800 as of December.
When I first met Rey two months earlier, he seemed skinny and listless – tell-tale signs of meth addiction. This time around, he seems tanned and healthier.
“It’s my genes, I’m naturally small-built but now that I have a five-month-old baby [he and the mother are not married] I am determined to clean up my act. I have no dreams for my life – I just want to make sure she has a better future than I do.”
Despite having dropped out of high school, Rey understands the value of a stable household, having grown up with three other siblings and parents who continue to care for him even now.
“My mother works very hard at a local beauty salon. Still she makes me breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and is always giving me money. I owe everything to my parents.”
He says his parents don’t know about his former addiction even though they share a tiny one hundred-foot square slum home. He is clearly very afraid of his father and is ashamed at the thought of them finding out.
Supporters of Duterte’s war on drugs often have a very black-and-white view of the situation. Drugs are evil and stopping it – at any means – is right. But looking into Rey’s wan eyes, I begin to realise that there are many shades of grey in this very thorny issue.