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Drug war families fight for justice with scant resources

The poor relatives of those killed in the Philippines purge, struggle with added financial burden of pursuing legal action
Drug war families fight for justice with scant resources

A girl weeps as she talks about the fate of her parents during a gathering of families of victims of drug-related killings in Manila on Oct. 31. (Photo by Vincent Go)


Published: November 09, 2017 10:55 AM GMT
Updated: November 09, 2017 10:56 AM GMT

The numbers pile up with numbing regularity. Wails fill daily prime-time news broadcasts. Crumpled bodies, blood-washed lanes, tears and faces contorted by grief, dominate print and digital platforms of Philippine media.

Almost 4,000 have died in police operations since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power last year. More than twice that number fall under the catchall category of "deaths under investigation."

While there's a noisy debate about the "real" death toll, there's hardly any effort to examine the cost of these deaths to impoverished families across the country.

What is not disputed is that most of the fallen are poor. They are either jobless or engaged in part-time work as vendors, stevedores, trike drivers, laundrywomen, drivers, and other manual low-paid employment.

Most live in slums, often in crammed households. Most earn way below US$10 a day, the capital Manila's minimum wage until October.

For the families of the more than 10,000 killed, the struggle to survive starts with the retrieval of the bodies.

If police bring the deceased to a hospital, it costs about US$200 — the value of 20 workdays at minimum pay — to get release papers. Government health insurance exists, but many of the dead have long fallen through social welfare cracks.

Kimberly Judadora, 22, lost both her parents in May this year. She and four siblings struggled to raise the US$700 fee for embalming and a simple coffin. That's US$100 more than the national average monthly income of US$600. Then the children had to scrape up the money for a burial spot and services in a public cemetery.

Carmelite Father Gilbert Billena, who serves in a community that has lost 50 residents to the drug war, has begged funeral parlor owners for discounts, paid the outstanding balance or signed as a guarantor. The longer bodies lay unclaimed in hospitals and funeral homes, the higher the storage fee.

Most of the slain were family breadwinners. The average Philippine household has four or five members. Poor people in Asia's predominantly Catholic country are also known to take in other relatives in need. Where household incomes are already tight, a death can send a whole family's financial situation into a spin.

Nardy Sabino of Rise Up for Life, an organization helping more than 200 families of drug war victims, said it can be hard to plan a long fight for justice when people barely survive day to day.

The organization has helped ease the families' woes by giving them livelihood training workshops and providing the basic necessities to start up small food businesses.

"These are the working poor. They have immense drive and talent," Sabino said of the widows and the children. "But they need help to stabilize their livelihood," he added.

The state social welfare department has a crisis intervention unit and livelihood aid for needy families.

But at a recent evening forum, widows said many village governments refuse to issue the necessary certificates unless recipients agree to desist from filing charges against the suspected killers, mostly policemen.

When families decide to file a case, the odds stack up against witnesses and their kin, who also mostly come from poor families.

Few witnesses have enrolled for government protection, which does give a small allowance. It's a no-brainer. When the main suspects are law enforcers, the last thing you want is to be "protected" by them.

Rise Up also helps the witnesses. Three families have so far pressed formal charges against more than 30 policemen involved in four deaths. They all need "safe houses" and temporary income as relocation means the loss of jobs and businesses.

Even those "saved" in the drug war bear great financial burdens. More than 1.3 million have "surrendered" in Operation Tokhang, the government's knock-and-invite anti-narcotics campaign.

Government health experts said between 10 to 15 percent of drug users need medical care to beat their addiction. There are less than 50 private and government rehabilitation centers in the Philippines. The private centers, which can charge US$400 to US$1,600 a month, are now full of middle-class drug users out to beat street justice.

The national bed capacity for the rehabilitation of drug addicts is only 5,000. That's not even four percent of what's needed based on the government list of drug users. If you accept the government's current claim of 4.8 million users, the country only has one percent of the beds it needs.

Duterte likes to deride drug addicts. He calls them animals and repeatedly dismisses the capacity for turnaround. His government just slashed the 2018 budget fund for rehabilitation centers by more than 75 percent, from an already small US$76 million in 2017 to just US$15.1 million next year.

Until the government focuses on treatment and prevention rather than rough justice, the vicious cycle of drug addiction and poverty will continue to roil the country.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.

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