Thousands of people in the Philippines have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte launched his “war on drugs” on June 30, 2016, the day he took office. Among those who died have been dozens of children under age 18 who were either specifically targeted or were inadvertently shot during anti-drug raids, what authorities have called “collateral damage.” Philippine children’s rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) put the total number of child fatalities at 101 from July 2016 through December 2018, both targeted and killed as bystanders. More deaths of children have been reported in the media in 2019 and 2020.
More broadly, official figures from the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency put the number of “drug war” casualties at 5,601 deaths as of January 31, 2020. In virtually every case, police claimed they killed a drug seller or user during a raid after the suspect resisted arrest and fought back. The national Commission on Human Rights and domestic human rights groups believe many thousands more – estimated at more than 27,000 – have been killed by the police, agents of the police, or unidentified assailants.
The overwhelming majority of these killings have not been properly investigated. According to the Philippine Department of Justice in January 2019, just 76 deaths have led to investigations. Even then, only 33 resulted in court cases and 5 were pending before the Office of the Prosecutor, while the prosecutor dismissed half – 38 cases. At time of writing, only one case – the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos by three police officers in August 2017, which happened to be captured on video – has resulted in a trial and conviction.
Human Rights Watch also investigated the killings of adults in which police showed little to no regard for the safety and welfare of children, often conducting raids in the middle of the night while the entire family was at home. In many raids, children witnessed the killing of a parent, or were present while their parent was dragged away and shot.
The harmful consequences for children of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign go beyond the immediate violence of the raids. Many suffer psychological distress after witnessing the killing of a loved one. Some children have had to leave their homes and community, either going into hiding or relocating because they and their family members feared for their lives.
At school and in their own communities, some experienced bullying because of the stigma of alleged drug use by a now deceased parent. Human Rights Watch met one 5-year-old boy who developed aggressive and violent behavior after his father’s gruesome killing. A number of children have stopped going to school because they no longer had enough money for transportation, food, and school supplies.
The loss of a parent who is the main breadwinner can plunge an already impoverished family into even more extreme poverty. Many children are left with no choice but to work, and some end up homeless and living in the streets, further exposing themselves to danger, violence, and criminal activity.
The Philippine government, apart from its refusal to effectively and impartially investigate the killings and its policy of detaining children in conflict with the law, has done little to address the needs of children directly affected by the anti-drug campaign. The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the main government agency responsible for the welfare of children, does not have a specific program directly aimed at addressing the needs of children affected by the “drug war.” Whatever assistance the department gives children and families is derived from existing programs, such as cash assistance for burial expenses or its conditional cash transfer program.
Families have been wary about approaching the government for help because they consider the police and other government officials to be responsible for the loss they have suffered. This leaves the children and their families left with only programs supported by civic and nongovernmental groups, particularly those from the Roman Catholic Church and a few Protestant and ecumenical groups. In some communities where violence is frequent, parish priests and lay workers have been leading the effort to help by providing psycho-social (mental health) support, economic assistance, support for children to attend school, and help in finding and supporting livelihoods for affected families. But as the killings continue, such voluntary efforts have been overwhelmed and are insufficient to address the needs of affected children.
Human Rights Watch believes governments should ensure respect for human rights in their policies and practices on the use, possession, production, and distribution of drugs. We oppose the criminalization of the personal use of drugs and the possession of drugs for personal use. To deter, prevent, and remedy the harmful use of drugs, governments should rely on non-penal regulatory and public health approaches that do not violate human rights.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Philippine government to end its abusive anti-drug campaign and investigate and prosecute those responsible for killings and other human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Council should establish an independent international investigative mechanism into extrajudicial killings and other violations committed in the context of the “war on drugs” since June 2016. The families of victims of unlawful killings by government officials and their agents should be promptly and fairly compensated for their loss. Government agencies should address the dire needs of children whose breadwinner has been killed, especially those living in impoverished communities across the Philippines where the killings typically take place, and ensure the government adopts measures to protect affected children from abuse.
This report is based primarily on in-person interviews that Human Rights Watch carried out between March 2018 and February 2020 in Manila, Caloocan City, Quezon City, Cebu City, General Santos City, and Quezon province. In all, we interviewed 49 people – 10 children; 23 parents, relatives, or guardians of those children; and 16 individuals from nongovernmental organizations and government offices – to obtain information on 23 deaths in which the victim of a “drug war” killing left behind children. Several NGOs assisted in identifying cases and tracking down the families of victims. Human Rights Watch focused on incidents in which a child dependent was left behind and benefited from the assistance of community organizations working with children.
When possible, Human Rights Watch conducted the interviews in a private and safe setting, without the presence of others. Several interviews with children were done in the presence of a parent or guardian. In five cases in which the interview subjects agreed in advance, the interviews were conducted in front of a Human Rights Watch video crew. Interviews were conducted mainly in Tagalog but also in Visayan and English. The interviewees were not compensated but Human Rights Watch paid travel and food expenses when, for security reasons, we interviewed them some distance from their homes.
Except in cases already well publicized, the names of children, parents, and guardians in this report have been changed to protect their privacy and prevent possible retaliation.
Since taking office on June 30, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has consistently delivered on his campaign promise to kill drug users and dealers. In the four years since his inauguration, police have killed 5,601 persons in what authorities called “legitimate anti-drug operations” during which the suspects allegedly fought back (nanlaban), forcing police officers to shoot them. This official death toll from the Philippine National Police (PNP) does not, however, include the thousands more across the country killed by unidentified gunmen, which the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) estimated to be more than 27,000. Research by Human Rights Watch and others has found many of these killings were perpetrated by law enforcement personnel in civilian clothes or members of so-called death squads working with the police or local government officials. In many cases, the police have planted evidence such as drugs and weapons on bodies to justify their “nanlaban” claims. In other cases, the police allegedly have outsourced the killings to armed vigilante groups. While the daily number of killings has declined somewhat since the carnage of the first year of the campaign in 2016-2017, killings still occur on a frequent basis. In the early stages of the campaign, killings were concentrated in the cities comprising the sprawling Metro Manila area, with its vast impoverished neighborhoods where the drug raids usually occur. However, more recently, the violence has expanded to adjacent provinces such as Laguna, Cavite, and Bulacan. The killings have also worsened in other urban areas, particularly in the central Philippine province of Cebu. President Duterte has sanctioned and encouraged the killings. In speech after speech, Duterte has ordered the police to kill drug suspects, and even to plant evidence during raids. He has promised the police cash rewards and promotions for killing drug suspects. Officials who have followed his orders have later secured plum positions in government, among them Ronald dela Rosa, his first Philippine National Police chief whom Duterte strongly supported in his ultimately successful run for a Senate seat in May 2019. Duterte also promised police officers impunity for rights abuses, stating he would protect them, and ultimately pardon them, if ever they are convicted for enforcing his anti-drug policies. There has been virtually no accountability for killings associated with the “drug war.” At time of writing, police officers implicated in the killings have been convicted in only one case. According to the Department of Justice, only 33 cases out of the 76 it investigated in 2018 have resulted in charges filed against police officers. The PNP claims it has disciplined hundreds of police officers, but this claim is misleading because most of those are administrative cases, not criminal, and many involve infractions that are not related to the anti-drug campaign. Police have not only failed to investigate these deaths in an independent and impartial manner, but in some instances have actively frustrated other efforts to gather information on the killings. The CHR has complained the PNP routinely refuses to provide copies of police documents so that it can investigate cases, prompting the CHR to seek a dialogue with the PNP. Litigants in criminal cases filed against police officers have likewise been turned away by the PNP, forcing them to seek intervention by the Supreme Court, which ordered the police to turn over tens of thousands of documents in a 2019 ruling. The police eventually gave documents to the litigants, who called them “rubbish because most of it were cases not related to the ‘drug war.'” Journalists have likewise complained that police have ignored their requests for official police documents of drug raids, which are supposed to be public records. The administration itself has resisted calls for accountability. President Duterte launched a vilification campaign from the very beginning of his presidency against those who criticized the “drug war,” including those from international agencies and foreign countries. His government attacked then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein for criticizing this vilification of critics campaign. Duterte threatened to literally slap Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, for commenting on the killings. In March 2018, Duterte ordered the withdrawal of the country from the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court after the court’s Office of the Prosecutor announced that it would launch a preliminary examination of the complaints filed against Duterte. In June 2019, the government launched a sustained disinformation campaign against UN Human Rights Council members countries that were considering whether to pass a resolution critical of the human rights situation in the Philippines. Domestic civil society organizations and human rights defenders have likewise been targeted with threats by President Duterte, police, and other public officials. Critics of the government have been accused of supporting communist rebels, an allegation that can prove fatal in the Philippines because of military, police, and vigilante violence. In some cases, the government has brought inflammatory charges against activist groups, alleging illegal possession of firearms, for example, in actions apparently designed to harass, intimidate, and ultimately silence them. The government’s Securities and Exchange Commission issued a memorandum in November 2018 tightening regulations on NGOs who receive funding from foreign governments or entities, an attempt to obstruct funding to organizations critical of the Duterte administration. The administration has also targeted the political opposition. In February 2017, police arrested on fabricated charges Senator Leila de Lima, who, at time of writing, remains in detention at the police headquarters in Quezon City. De Lima had earlier launched a Senate investigation into the anti-drug campaign and, as a consequence, was subjected to harassment by Duterte and his allies in Congress – including many misogynistic verbal attacks – before being detained. Government prosecutors eventually brought non-bailable charges of collusion with drug syndicates against de Lima while she was secretary of justice. When she was chairperson of the CHR from 2008 to 2010, de Lima was the first – and so far the only – public official who investigated Duterte for the death squad killings in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than two decades. Duterte vowed to destroy de Lima as a result of that investigation, calling her an “immoral woman.” Other political opposition figures, such as Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, also face various retaliatory legal cases as a result of their critical stance against the administration. At time of writing, Trillanes is facing incitement to sedition and kidnapping charges. Journalists and media outlets who have reported critically on the “war on drugs” have also faced harassment both on social media and from the government. The government’s prime target in the media has been the news website Rappler, which has frequently reported critically on the anti-drug campaign, including groundbreaking reports on the involvement of the police in the killings. Rappler’s owners, editors, and journalists face numerous legal cases, and police have arrested its editor, Maria Ressa. Ressa has also been targeted by a withering demonization campaign on social media. In July 2019, the government ramped up its campaign against critics of the violence, accusing members of the political opposition, human rights advocates, and Catholic bishops and priests of incitement to sedition, among other charges. The inclusion of religious figures among those accused signifies the government’s increased hostility toward the Catholic Church, and to church leaders and priests who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the violence. Much of the church’s criticism springs from the experiences of priests in communities as they go about their ministerial work. The vast majority of the killings have occurred in impoverished communities, prompting accusations that, more than anything else, the “drug war” is a war against the poor. In many cases, the victim has been the breadwinner for a low-income family and their death drives the family even deeper into poverty. “These people are often the most marginalized members of our society and the ‘drug war’ violence has marginalized them even more,” said Father Danilo Pilario, dean of the School of Theology at Saint Vincent’s College in Quezon City, who also runs the Project Support for Orphans and Widows (Project SOW) that provides assistance to victims of the violence. Father Pilario and other community-based priests, as well as human rights defenders, children’s rights advocates, parents and guardians, and children themselves have spoken of the dire consequences for children of the killings. These include psychological distress caused by witnessing the violence, economic hardships that follow loss of a breadwinner, dislocation from their homes and schools, and, when they do go to school, bullying and discrimination. The government has developed no specific programs to address these issues. A former top official from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the main government agency mandated to care for children, told Human Rights Watch there has never been a single cabinet meeting under Duterte in which the effects of the “war on drugs” on children was discussed. The official said that while some of the department’s existing assistance for indigent families can be applicable to affected families, such as assistance with burial expenses, the government has no program specifically aimed at addressing the needs of these children. As a result, families of “drug war” victims either receive no assistance or must seek what they can from NGOs and other civic institutions. Increasingly, families have flocked to parishes whose priests have put in place interventions to provide financial assistance, vocational and livelihood support, psycho-social services such as counselling, and a safe space for them to tell their stories and share experiences with others who are sympathetic and face similar situations. However, the government’s recent aggressive moves against members of the clergy, including the filing of criminal cases against some of the very same priests who help these children, threaten to take away the little help these children and their families are getting.
II. Killings of Children
On the evening of August 16, 2017, officers from the PNP dragged a teenage boy through the dark, filthy alleys of an impoverished community in Caloocan City, one of the cities that comprise Metro Manila. His body was found moments later, slumped in a corner next to a pigsty. The victim was Kian delos Santos, 17, a Grade 11 student who had wanted to be a police officer one day. According to witnesses, the boy had pleaded to his assailants – one of whom held him by the neck-to stop hurting him because he had a school exam the next day. They ignored his pleas and shot him three times while he was kneeling. The police maintained that delos Santos was killed in a firefight, that he was the first to fire at the police and was shot dead in the ensuing shootout. This claim – like similar police nanlaban claims in many other “drug war” cases that the individual killed had been fighting back – was later debunked by witness testimony. While a number of children had died during earlier drug raids, delos Santos’s killing a year into Duterte’s anti-drug campaign was unique because of the discovery of CCTV footage showing the police officers dragging the boy through an alley that led to the spot where his body was found. Later, encouraged by the surfacing of the CCTV footage, witnesses – delos Santos’ neighbors – started to come out to testify.
“If not for the CCTV footage, the truth about my nephew’s death may not have been known and there never would have been a case against the policemen,” Randy delos Santos told Human Rights Watch. Delos Santos, 43, realized there was a government-installed CCTV camera near the site of the killing, in a neighborhood called Barangay 160 in Caloocan City. He immediately asked village officials for a copy of the footage and, according to him, gave a copy to ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network. He said police officers later asked village officials to delete the footage but were told that the boy’s family already had it. “What my neighbors told me about what they saw was exactly what was shown on the CCTV footage,” Delos Santos said. “It was like watching a movie being replayed.” “Kian was the sweetest and kindest boy,” his uncle said. “He was never in trouble and was never into drugs, contrary to what the police alleged.” The worst offense he had committed in school, he said, was cutting classes once. He thought that the raiding police team “used an informant during the raid and pointed at the wrong person.” More than a year later, on November 29, 2018, a Caloocan court found three police officers – Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda, and Jerwin Cruz – guilty of murder and sentenced them to a maximum of 40 years in prison without eligibility for parole. It was the first ever and so far, the only, criminal conviction of police officers for misconduct in the “war on drugs.” A number of the children killed had been targeted during drug raids like Kian delos Santos, but most have died simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time: they lived in the mainly impoverished communities police have typically raided in their anti-drug operations. According to statistics from the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center, nongovernmental groups that track the violence, 101 children were killed from the start of the campaign in July 2016 up through the end of 2018. Several children have been killed from the beginning of 2019 up to 2020. Government officials, including President Duterte, have dismissed the killing of these children as “collateral damage,” as if the anti-drug campaign were an actual armed conflict. “Drug war” killings continue to occur frequently. On the afternoon of January 27, 2020, Ronjhay Furio, an 8-year-old in Grade 3, was out in the street in Santa Ana, a Manila district to buy isaw, his favorite barbecued chicken snack, according to his relatives.  Four gunmen in civilian clothes and motorcycle helmets arrived riding two motorcycles about 200 meters from the boy’s house. One gunman fired a .45 caliber handgun at a group of village officials. The apparent target, councilor Roberto Cudal, 52, and another man were wounded; one bullet fatally struck Ronjhay in the abdomen across the street. “He was waiting for his food when the gunmen on motorcycles came,” said a relative. Human rights advocates helping the family of Ronjhay believe that this shooting was linked to the anti-drug campaign. But even if that was not the case, Human Rights Watch’s investigation showed how such killings can devastate a family. A relative spoke about how he was very gentle and kind to his parents and other siblings. He had already displayed a sense of responsibility around the house. After helping an uncle fix their jeepney (mini-bus) that day, he had become hungry and so fatefully decided to cross the street to buy some barbecued food.
III. Psychological Distress
Children who have witnessed violence against their loved ones are among those seriously harmed by the “drug war.” Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which children saw the killing of their family member or were in the house where the killing occurred. The effects on them have been profound.
Jennifer M., from Payatas, in Quezon City, was 12 years old when her father was killed by police officers in December 2016. Police, some in uniform and some in civilian clothes, entered their home and ordered all the children outside. They couldn’t pry Jennifer away from her father; she later said she was hugging him tight so that “they don’t harm him.” One of the officers finally managed to wrestle her away from her father and flung her to the ground outside. Shots rang out immediately, and seconds later, Jennifer saw her father dead on the floor. Jennifer said she has nightmares since the killing, her hands often shake, she is easily startled by loud sounds, and she has become withdrawn and has difficulties eating. She said: “I was confused because I didn’t understand why. Why my papa? Of all the people outside, why did they pick my father? I was angry at the policemen because my father was begging for mercy, but they didn’t listen to him. That’s why I was so angry.”
When asked about the killings that had become common in her community, Jennifer replied: “I can’t explain it because with so many being killed here in Payatas, it’s like your mind gets muddled. How else to talk about it? What goes through your mind when you remember what happened? It’s like your mind is in disarray.”
Children of Renato A.
The children of Renato A., a scavenger killed in December 2016, in Mandaluyong City, has also experienced enduring psychological distress. Robert A., Renato’s eldest child, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, recalled the night his father was killed as he attended the wake of an aunt who had been shot three days earlier:
We were out to buy peanuts. My cousin and I saw four men riding two motorcycles without plate numbers, their faces covered, wearing jackets. I tried to chase them, I tried to get ahead of them. I did everything I could to reach my father first, but it was too late. I saw my father being shot. Robert said his younger brother John A., who was 13 at the time, witnessed the shooting and was wounded in the leg. Robert said of his brother:
John was more affected by my father’s death because ever since my father died, I don’t see him happy anymore. If I see him smile, it’s forced. He’s still looking for our father because he was my father’s favorite. He easily gets angry now and he lost trust in people. Karla A., the youngest child who was 10 at the time, also saw the killing, cowering in fear beneath her aunt’s coffin as the gunman fired at her father a few feet away. In tears, she told Human Rights Watch: “I was there when it happened, when my papa was shot. I saw everything, how my papa was shot. … Our happy family is gone. We don’t have anyone to call father now. We want to be with him, but we can’t anymore.” Their mother, Andrea A., said Karla was “always in a daze” after the killing:
“Sometimes, before we went to sleep, we would talk about her father, the happy things they did. Sometimes we talk about those and sometimes we would just cry. I would just tell them to go to sleep but the next day they were all still in a daze.” Kyle R.
Children who did not directly witness the deaths of their parents also suffered. Kyle R. was 5 years old when his father, Alvin R., a 39-year-old driver, turned up dead in November 2016. Unidentified assailants had wrapped his head had in packaging tape and stabbed him 19 times before dumping his body on an overpass in Tondo, an impoverished district in Manila. Kyle’s mother, Zeny R., tried to shield the boy from any news about what had happened to her husband, but Kyle learned about it from his friends. One time, Zeny said, Kyle saw his father’s picture being flashed on the TV news.
Zeny said that the boy’s demeanor has changed dramatically since then. He started behaving extremely aggressively and using foul words. During a visit in February 2019, Human Rights Watch saw Kyle pick up a skateboard and hit his mother repeatedly with it as he bounced about the living room shouting, “Putang ina mo! Putang ina mo!” – Tagalog for “your mother is a whore” – and flashing his middle finger. One time, she said, he threatened to kill a friend and wrap him with packaging tape. A crying Zeny told Human Rights Watch:
I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how this happened…. He misses his father a lot and he takes it out on me.
I fear [what will happen] when he grows up [because] he becomes so violent…. He might turn out like the other kids who have gone astray or might be jailed. That’s what I fear.
Children of Julian R.
The six young children of Julian R., 22, who was killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen in June 2017, in Batasan, Quezon City, also had difficulty adjusting to his death. “They watch news every day and they see news about killings,” Julian’s mother, Julieta R., said. “It is not easy to forget it.”
Children of Hamed U.
The children of Hamed U., 29, a carpenter in General Santos City, on the southern island of Mindanao, were so upset by his death by the police in March 2018, that they asked their grandfather to demolish a part of their house that had been his room. The children, according to their grandfather Abdul U., always became sad each time they saw the room, so he had it torn down. Psycho-social Programs Offered by NGOs and the Catholic Church
Social workers and experts consulted by Human Rights Watch believe the violence many of these children have experienced has created a mental health challenge for the Philippines. However, the government has adopted no specific programs for children harmed by the “drug war” to address that challenge. None of the children or parents whom Human Rights Watch interviewed had ever seen social workers from the DSWD. The burden then falls on NGOs, like children’s rights groups, or Catholic parishes to provide psycho-social programs, such as counselling.
In Payatas, Quezon City, the parish’s Project SOW has specifically included counseling as key part of its work. Father Michael Sandaga, the priest of the Ina ng Lupang Pangako parish in Payatas who helped run the program, said 35 children ages 5 or older were enrolled in the program, which meets two Saturdays each month:
The psychological aspect of the program is being taken care by psychologists, among them the priest in charge for this program, a graduate of psychology. So, he is the one taking care of all the modules and then also assessments. And then for the spiritual program, we have our Bible sharing and the personal reflections of the parents. Father Sandaga said that, based on his observations since the program started in 2016, “it was always tragic for the children.” He recounted initial encounters with boys who had turned violent because of what happened to their parents, always quarreling and fighting with other kids. The girls, he said, were very shy and are scared of strangers, including priests. Some of the children, he said, tended to isolate themselves, refusing to interact with other children. These, he said, were the “manifestation of the violence that they saw.”
IV. Bullying and Stigmatization
Several days after her father was killed during a police raid in December 2016, Jennifer M., whose case is detailed above (see Section III), was interviewed by a television network about what happened. The news report identified the girl, 12 at the time, and showed her face. Her account was impactful because, by then, the Duterte’s “drug war” had only been in effect a few months, with killings happening on a daily basis. The TV report, however, meant trouble for Jennifer. She told Human Rights Watch:
I went to school after [it was shown] and my classmate told me I was a show-off. I was embarrassed. Then the teachers were also asking why I was interviewed. Of course, I didn’t know what to tell them because I’m embarrassed to tell them what had happened. I tried to brush it aside. Then one day, one my classmates asked why was my father subjected to tokhang. Maybe my father was using illegal drugs, he said. I said no he didn’t. Then he asked me to tell him what happened. I didn’t want to. He said it must be true. He was bullying me by then. He said my father was an addict. I ignored him. But the other children told my siblings that my father was an addict, that’s why he was killed. Jennifer told her mother, Malou M., about what happened but she did not make much of it at first. Then finally, the month after the killing, Jennifer decided to drop out of school. Malou was disappointed but recognized that her daughter was going through a rough time. She recalled:
They were judging her and saying a lot of things about her father. Then she told me, “Ma, I don’t want to go to school anymore.” I asked her, “Why is that?” She told me what was happening to her in school. So, I said, “All right, if you don’t want to go to school now, then don’t. There’s still next year.” It was okay for me because I wasn’t there, so I didn’t know how to help her. Siblings of Jasper F.
One of the s