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Death comes in the middle of the night

It only takes a hint of suspicion to get people killed in Philippine drug war

Eloisa Lopez, Manila

Eloisa Lopez, Manila

Updated: January 04, 2017 10:44 AM GMT
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Death comes in the middle of the night

Family members join the funeral procession for Carlo Isles, one of 6,000 victims of summary executions of suspected drug users and pushers in the Philippines. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez) 


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On Nov. 16 last year, Carlo Isles did not come home. Early morning the next day, his dead body was found. 

"Barker, drug pusher, do not tolerate," read a piece of paper left on top of his body.

Carlo's head was wrapped with packing tape, his wrists were bound with rope, and his chest bore stab wounds.

Carlo was not a drug pusher, says his uncle, Ramon. Carlo, or Caloy as he was fondly called, was a young boy who enjoyed the occasional marijuana hit.

As a young boy, Carlo stuttered when he spoke and would cry for the pettiest of reasons. At 22 years old, he was as gullible as when he was 15.

Carlo’s body was found in a village in the business district of Makati, a few kilometers from his home in the middle class city of Pasay in the Philippine capital, Manila.

Carlo's friends say the young man was abducted by gunmen a few meters from his home and taken away in a vehicle.

For the Philippine National Police, Carlo was only one of some 6,000 victims of drug-related killings in the past six months.


Relatives and friends of Carlo gather outside the family's hut to drink and share stories about the life and death of the young man. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)


'Just like a child'

The night he was last seen alive, Carlo bought medicine for his sick grandmother at a nearby pharmacy. He left home after bringing the medicine to her.

Ramon says it was normal for Carlo to go out because "he was just like a child."

"We were complacent because he was not on the [drug] watch list [of the village]," says Ramon.

Carlo worked as a "barker," earning a pittance by calling out passengers for jeeps and taxis. The money he earned was only enough to buy snacks or a stick of marijuana.

There was talk around the community that Carlo was taken by men in a white van. "They just took whoever … based on suspicion," says Ramon.

On the same evening Carlo died, seven other bodies were found with cardboard signs branding them "pushers" of illegal drugs.

Ramon was worried when Carlo did not return that evening. He was like his own son.

The uncle looked for his nephew everywhere, in the dark alleys, in the lighted streets, in local police precincts where suspected criminals were detained in congested rooms, even in funeral homes.

"I asked God to give Carlo back to us, hopefully still alive," said Ramon.

In one of the mortuaries, Ramon was taken inside a room full of bodies, some covered in blankets, some left naked.

Ramon immediately identified Carlo after seeing a pair of unshod feet.


Who to blame

"Who should I blame for his death?" asks Ramon.

On top of Carlo's coffin rests a chick, a Filipino symbolism to signify an unjust death and a call for justice. 

Outside Ramon’s small home are Carlo's friends drinking and cursing the night away over the death of the young man.

"Everything has a purpose, so they say. But what is the purpose of this?" asks Ramon. "Are my prayers weaker than the purpose of his death?"

When Ramon celebrated his 53rd birthday a few months earlier, he made a pilgrimage to Pangasinan province, home to the "Our Lady of Manaoag," a supposedly miraculous image of the Virgin Mary.

Ramon's prayer and birthday wish was for the protection of his family, including Carlo, from harm.

"I still pray, but I still keep asking why," he says.


A chick rests on top of the coffin of drug war victim Carlo Isles, to signify an unjust death and search for justice. The endless pecking of the chick is supposed to affect the conscience of whoever was responsible for the death. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)


War on drugs 'not normal' anymore

On the first Sunday of December, Carlo was laid to rest. It was a long procession of family and friends that headed to the cemetery.

There, Ramon took out the rosary he bought during his pilgrimage. He placed the rosary beside Carlo's dead body and murmured, "I’m sorry if I had shortcomings. I love you very much."

Ramon does not hide his misgivings against the government these days.

He says that with over 6,000 deaths, the Philippine government's war on drugs is "not normal" anymore.

While Carlo’s death did not happen during a police operation, Ramon has grown suspicious of the authorities.

"The police are supposed to protect people. Are they still doing that? Are they still saving the innocent?" he says.

President Duterte has admitted that he himself has killed criminals. "I used to do it personally ... to show policemen that if I can do it, why can’t you?" said the president.

In Ramon’s home, a candle burns beside a picture of Carlo in front of words the late young man wrote on a wall that read, "Vote for Duterte. President Duterte, Duterte Duterte."


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