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Filipinos Flee Duterte’s Violent Drug Crackdown

Men and children sleeping in front of a church in the Tondo district in Manila. The church served as a safe haven from police raids. Credit: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

MANILA — Every morning before dawn, Rosario Perez checks to make sure her sons are still alive. The three brothers, all in their 20s, sleep at the houses of friends and relatives, moving regularly, hoping that whoever may have been assigned to kill them won’t catch up with them.

They are not witnesses on a mob hit list, or gang members hiding from rivals. They are simply young men living in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“How could I not send them to hide?” said Ms. Perez, 47, after peeking in on two of her sons and phoning the third. “We can barely sleep out of fear.”

Nearly a year into Mr. Duterte’s violent antidrug campaign, in which more than 4,000 people accused of using or selling illegal drugs have been killed and thousands of other killings are classified as “under investigation,” fear and mistrust have gripped many neighborhoods of Manila and other cities.

Residents are cobbling together strategies to hide and survive. Many young men are staying indoors, out of sight. Others have fled the urban slums, where most of the killings occur, and are camping out on farms or lying low in villages in the countryside.

The Roman Catholic Church has vocally opposed Mr. Duterte’s deadly campaign, and an underground network of churches and safe houses is offering sanctuary — quietly, to avoid the attention of the vigilantes responsible for much of the killing.

In the most heavily targeted slums, neighbors are wary of talking to each other, unsure who among them are police informers. Most try not to get involved if they hear someone is in trouble, not wanting to be blamed if the person ends up dead. One man said that just talking to the wrong person could be fatal.

“What we’re seeing here is the rule of law being replaced by a system of fear and violence,” said Jose Manuel Diokno, a human rights lawyer in Manila.

According to a recent survey by Social Weather Stations, a local polling firm, 73 percent of Filipinos are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that they or someone they know will be killed in the antidrug campaign.

Those who have gone into hiding are often people who think their names are on government watch lists of drug users. The lists are compiled by local officials using information supplied by the police and by informers, and include people who have surrendered to the authorities. They are not public, and it is unclear how some on them are marked for death.

Two of this woman’s sons were beaten and detained by the police. One is still in prison, and the other is hiding in a rural village. Credit: Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Many on the lists are past or current users of shabu, the local name for the methamphetamine at the heart of Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign. Many others are not.

Ms. Perez, for instance, says that two of her sons have never used drugs but that the third once did. He surrendered to the police, hoping that he would be spared, and she has required all of them to take drug tests and has shared the results with neighborhood officials.

Still, she has been told that all three of their names are on a watch list, and a photo of her home has circulated with it. “With just a name and a photo, they’ll kill you,” she said.

The death threats are often passed along in whispered warnings between neighbors, anonymous text messages or handwritten notes.

Most people hiding from the police or vigilantes are reluctant to talk because they are afraid of disclosing their location and being killed. But several dozen people spoke to The New York Times about their lives on the run, or those of their neighbors or loved ones, on the condition of anonymity.

One young man who was picked up by the police, beaten and then released after a month and a half in detention said he had moved to his grandmother’s house in a different district of Manila to hide.

When he returned to visit his neighborhood, one of his friends told him that vigilante gangs were looking for him. It was a warning he took seriously. One of his friends had already been killed.

“I was afraid,” he said, adding that he has had trouble sleeping at night. “I thought they were going to kill me.”

His mother worried that if he stayed in Manila, he would be shot, so she made him move again, to a rural village of bamboo huts, dirt roads and banana trees in the northern Philippines. He texts with his friends, but tells them that he is in a different part of the country, just to be safe.

His mother said she had voted for Mr. Duterte, but now wishes she could take her vote back.

The clergy providing sanctuary, part of a coalition called Rise Up, operate in secret, fearing the church’s protection will not be enough to keep vigilantes from coming after them.

“The most vulnerable are always an easy target, even if they are under our sanctuary,” said Jun Santiago, a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and a member of Rise Up. “We don’t know who the killers are.”

Crime investigators examining the body of a suspect killed in Caloocan, north of Manila, in a “buy-bust” operation by the authorities. Credit: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

One recent evening, at a convent at the edge of Manila, a teenager who was the only surviving witness to a massacre that left seven people dead slept on a narrow bed on the rooftop under clotheslines and a tattered plastic tarp.

A priest, the Rev. Gilbert Ballena, said the boy had been hiding in the convent for four months, using an assumed name, keeping busy by painting small canvases of the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary and by grinding turmeric, which Rise Up sells for extra cash.

The teenager texts with his girlfriend, but he is afraid to go see her or his family. For his safety, and for a change of scenery, he recently moved to a different church, where he changed his name again.

At another church in Manila, most people seeking sanctuary spend a few nights on spare mattresses before they are moved to safe houses or helped to leave Manila, staff members said.

This church has sheltered more than 30 people so far, they said: people under immediate threat, witnesses to a family member’s death and others who have filed complaints against the police.

Mr. Santiago said he had received threats for his work with survivors. “That will not be the reason to silence us,” he said. “It is our mission to help the needy.”

Another person who believes he is on a death list is a skinny young man with crude tattoos on both arms. He said he had used drugs and had surrendered to the police in November.

Since then, he said, he has lived in fear that he will be killed. Whenever the police or men in balaclavas walk his neighborhood, he climbs a tree and hides in the branches until they leave.

He would not say whether he still used drugs. Whether you quit or not, he said, “they’ll still kill you.”

In the single-room, concrete-block home she shares with her husband and two granddaughters, Ms. Perez catches sight of a news clip on a muted television playing in the background. Another killing: the thin, loose limbs of a young man zipped into a body bag, a woman collapsed against a vehicle, crying hysterically.

Her eyes well up with tears, and her voice trembles. “That’s what I don’t want to happen to my sons,” she said.

Correction: June 6, 2017

Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Monday with an article about Filipinos who are fleeing their government’s violent crackdown on drugs misidentified, in some copies, the woman shown silhouetted. She is a mother who asked not to be identified, one of whose sons is hiding in the northern Philippines; she is not Rosario Perez, another mother mentioned in the article.

A version of this article appears in print on June 5, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: On the Run From Duterte’s Drug Crackdown.


(C) 2017 The New York Times

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