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Who is dying in the war on the poor?

Bennie had a thin, hollow face. A picture of malnutrition at 22-years-of-age, he had never been to school for more than a few months, could not read or write and was a one-meal a day man.

He was dressed in shorts and a dirty T-Shirt. His flip-flops, his only possession, were worn thin. He pushed a small wooden cart along the back streets of Manila picking up discarded plastic bottles and bits of metal that fell off jeepneys or trucks. He was a discarded piece of humanity.

On a lucky day he found an old computer keyboard in a garbage bin outside the gate of a mansion. Finds like these were the treasures of his long walks. That was a big day for him and he sold it at the junk shop with the other bits and pieces he picked up.

He joined his fellow scavengers and together they cooked what they found in the garbage—a plate of pagpag and a little rice. Pagpag is made from the leftovers that end up in restaurants’ garbage bags in the back alleyways.

It is retrieved by the very poor and boiled in a big pot on the side of the road. It makes an excellent meal for the extremely hungry.

After eating his pagpag, Bennie decided he would celebrate. That night he went down an alleyway to buy a small sachet of marijuana from the local reseller named Joey, who was not much better off than he was.

Bennie just wanted to ease the loneliness of his life, the ache in his back and legs, the pain in his feet and forget for the misery of his daily search for junk and his one cheap meal for a while. There was nothing else in his life.

However, Bennie turned out to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. The small-time pusher, Joey, was a target of the hit squad that very night. They cut off the alleyway and moved in on Joey’s hovel.

Two of the killers stepped inside and opened fire. Bennie and Joey were hit several times; their bodies bled copiously and they died within minutes. The hit team had a signboard ready, “I’m a drug addict. I deserve to die.”

That’s how they were found one hour later. It was a fast response. Bennie’s and Joey’s lives were ended over a one-dollar deal.

This scene is typical of the war-on-drugs raging across The Philippines. There has been a lot of success in the one-sided war since June this year. Over 6,000 Bennies, Joeys and others, suspected agents for marijuana or crystal meth are dead, but no one is sure how many more. That’s about 1,000 killed every month. 

The advocates of the hit squad policy call it a big success. It also takes the hardship and boredom out of routine police work. They call it the death penalty in action. There is no need for a death penalty law, because in effect no rule of law is already a death penalty.

What Bennie and Joey got is also the fate of thousands more in what advocates of the war say is a highly convenient and effective method of delivering capital punishment.

It swiftly bypasses the dangers of investigation, the boredom of surveillance and painstaking evidence gathering, as well as the dangers of making arrests. Think too of the difficult case-building, the preservation of evidence and long drawn-out court trials and the difficulty of getting a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.

Then there are the endless appeals and finally the stay of execution.

The president, Rodrigo Duterte, knows what fruitless prosecution is like with thousands of crimes to be solved and prosecuted in a judicial system that is rife with corruption and one case can take seven years or more.

He was a prosecutor in Davao City which prompted him to launch his bloody shoot-to-kill war-on-drugs. The old methods, claim the advocates of war, never worked.

Instead, supporters of the war say that the elimination by summary execution outside the system has been highly effective. And it will keep on going, as there is no end in sight.

This one-gun solution has, it seems, the overwhelming approval of 76 per cent of Filipinos. During the same period after his election, the previous president, Noynoy Aquino, had a 71 per cent approval rating and Joseph Estrada had 69 per cent. Not a huge difference, but they did not need to advocate extrajudicial murder to get them.

The senate may follow the example of the lower house of the congress and pass a death penalty law. Despite all the arguments against it, it is not a deterrent; it kills innocent suspects; is anti-poor, because they can’t afford lawyers; it is cruel and vengeance-seeking; deprives the accused of reform; and is against the sacred value of life and the dignity of human person.

One-hundred-and-forty-one nations have banned the death penalty, as well as the United Nations. If it is passed, Duterte wants to execute six people a day.

“Restore it and I will execute criminals every day—five or six. That’s for real,” he said. Of course he was just joking. The hit squad is quicker.

Killing 1,000 people a month as is the present practice is not a cruel joke. Something sinister has been unleashed. It is cruel capital punishment seen every day on the streets.

Critics say it is one monster crime to counter many little ones. It must stop so life can be respected and cherished, and suspects given a chance to defend themselves against their secret accusers. This is their constitutional right.

But those rights have been suspended and the challenge to all is how to restore them. We need to call for a ceasefire and stop what is happening to the Bennies and Joeys of The Philippines.



 • Father Shay Cullen