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The Performative Aspect of Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines’ War on Drugs

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by guest blogger Katrina Pineda, a junior undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) pursuing a degree in Science, Technology, and Society. She is the co-president of the Philippine American League, RPI’s cultural Filipino club. This post was submitted at the end of Filipino American History Month (October) and in time for Araw ng mga Patay—Day of the Dead in the Philippines—in remembrance of those who have died in President Duterte’s war on drugs.

"La Pieta" photo by Raffy Lerma

“La Pieta” photograph by Raffy Lerma: Jennilyn Olayres holds her partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver who was shot and killed by unidentified anti-drug motorcycle riding vigilantes along Pasay Rotonda, EDSA on July 23, 2016. According to Olayres, Siaron was not a drug pusher.

Pusher ako. Wag tularan.

“I am a [drug] pusher. Don’t do what I did.”

The crudely drawn message on a cardboard sign beside a man just killed in the street is posed as a warning to the living. The sign appeared next to the body of Michael Siaron, a 30-year-old pedicab driver killed by a vigilante group in 2016. A famous photo of his bereaved partner cradling his body echoes “The Pieta,” also known as “The Lamentation of Christ.”

This particular kind of lamentation is not uncommon under President Rodrigo Duterte’s Oplan Tokhang (Operation Knock and Plead), a war-on-drugs-style government project aimed at curbing illicit drug use throughout the Philippines. Vigilante violence was a regular practice during Duterte’s 22 years as mayor of Davao City and the earlier years of his presidency. However, national concern about drugs, particularly about shabu, a type of methamphetamine, has been rampant in the Philippines since its introduction in the 1980s. The treatment of those who take the drug—regardless of frequency or dosage—has varied in focus between healthcare and treatment or punishment and incarceration, sparking much national debate.

Vigilantes frame their warning messages as from the point of view of the dead. Journalists include the messages in photographs and highlight them in news coverage without investigating their legitimacy.

A Picture and Its Story: A death in Manila

A different view of Jennilyn Olayres cradling the body of her partner, Michael Siaron, who was killed on the street by a vigilante group in Manila, on July 23, 2016. The cardboard sign placed near the body reads: “Pusher Ako. Wag tularan,” which translates to “I am a drug pusher. Don’t do what I did.” Photograph by Czar Dancel/Reuters.

Unexplored and unverified, the signs naturalize anti-drug violence, making it seem to be the almost inevitable consequence of being a drug user and/or dealer. But tolerance of extrajudicial killings is a conscious choice made by the police and the government. The signs justify these deaths, and, by extension, send the message that the victims were irredeemable and deserved what happened to them. The signs ultimately support the goal of eliminating illicit drug users by encouraging the public to view the victims as subhuman.

While these messages are framed as one final warning from the dead, they are not truly legitimate confessions. The perpetrators either stage them or coerce the victims into providing them. There is a performative dimension to these killings, and the vigilantes behind the messages want the public to learn lessons from them.

With warnings such as Marami pa kami (“There are more of us out there”) in addition to “Don’t do what I did,” the signs are intended to make people in a similar situation believe that they might face the same result. Framing the messages to be from the dead is a persuasion tactic. The scarier the message, the more attention it grabs, and the more fear it instills.

These actions are undertaken essentially to put on a show, create a spectacle, and reach an audience of “innocent,” law-abiding citizens, who do not want to become one of “them”—adding to the dehumanization of drug users. The bodies are simply left on the streets, and the stylized death scenes discourage people from sympathizing with or even becoming drug users.

There are cases where vigilantes are responsible, but in many instances police are behind the guns. In these situations, the officers justify the use of lethal force by claiming the victim was a threat. At times, police process the scenes more discreetly and away from the public eye. However, in many cases, passersby witness the horrific sights. The bodies of victims need to be seen or else the story would not not sensationalized—and it would be more difficult to spread the message about the dangers of drugs.

If fear were a good solution to drug issues, this tactic might certainly work. But countless studies and experts about drug addiction have found that fear mongering is neither an effective nor sustainable solution. But evidence-based knowledge does not seem to deter radical war on drugs advocates such as President Duterte, who benefit from moral panics about drug users in the Philippines.

The drug-related killings serve the government not only by eliminating people they deem a danger to society but also by generating free propaganda. President Duterte called the photo of Michael Siaron “melodramatic,” claiming the public and media unnecessarily sensationalized the incident. Yet, the extrajudicial killings and accompanying warning signs are precisely intended to dramatically spectacularize the drug problem in the Philippines.

 

For additional images and more context about the Philippines’ war on drugs, please visit photographer Raffy Lerma’s gallery: “War on Drugs: The First Six Months.”

Be advised that the images in this gallery contain graphic and explicit depictions of death, injury, and violence. Some viewers may find these images difficult or uncomfortable to see. Please use discretion when viewing this gallery.

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