In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs rages on, its death toll of 8,000 dwarfed only by the estimated million more condemned by the president’s ‘kill lists’. GQ reports from Manila, a city caught in the crossfire of state-sponsored hits, where an indiscriminate death row has thousands of the accused living in perpetual fear of an assassin’s bullet.
Raphael is on the run. He is a softly spoken, middle-aged man of wiry build – and he is wired. The friend who put me in contact with him said that Raphael had been in this hyper-adrenalised state for months, ever since he had learned he was on the police “watch list”. A local councillor had casually asked him to pop down to the police station one day and, when he complied, he realised he had inadvertently “surrendered”. Now, like more than one million other Filipinos, Raphael is on the “kill list” database. Being on it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be taken out, but the chance is always there.
“But if I’ve been killed by the time this comes out, feel free to use my real name,” he told me with gallows humour. This was a man spending his life glancing over one shoulder and listening out for motorbikes.
Assassins wear a smoked-visor helmet over a black balaclava. They wear black T-shirts, black jeans, the barrel of an unholstered Colt 45 “Duterte pistol” [in 2017, the Philippine president distributed 3,000 guns to his armed forces] jammed into the pillion’s belt. This is the uniform of the Philippine army of freelance executioners tasked with interpreting the dog whistles of their godfather-president. It’s lucrative enough work – the going rate is rumoured to be at least £140 for a hit on an addict or local pusher, the money divvied up among the kill team. Each night’s handiwork is faithfully reported in the media within a day or two, a paragraph here or there and then nothing. No investigation. No risk of getting caught.
Raphael was being monitored and didn’t want me coming to his city, which he refused to even let me name. We decided to meet on neutral territory, in a crowded place. We ate well and had a couple of Red Horse beers to take the tension down a notch, though at no point did Raphael look relaxed. In better days he might have had a rakish charm. But these were not good days. He came with very strict conditions of total anonymity – Raphael is not his real name – which was a shame because, in real life, he is a compelling character with a colourful story.
He’d had it rough. Raphael grew up with his grandmother in Tondo, a sprawling Manila slum, before accidentally killing his violent, drunken uncle with a karate kick and then wisely moving far away. His aunt, possibly grateful for this intervention, had not pressed charges, although money did change hands. But the odds on Raphael having a long life himself had recently got a lot shorter. He had been informed by a couple of friendly police officers that his name was not only on the watch list, but also on the police high-value target (HVT) register, identifying him as a purveyor of methamphetamines and licensing the henchmen of the Fillipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs to shoot to kill. He was now even more likely to be dispatched in one of the notoriously fatal buy-bust operations, with alleged dealers entrapped by police or liquidated by “vigilantes”, who are actually off-duty officers.