The primary reason for most of these murders is simple: the country's new president, Rodrigo Duterte.
When Duterte first became a viable candidate for the country's presidency, analogies were quickly drawn between him and Donald Trump, thanks mostly to Duterte's habit of making impolite comments off the cuff. But it was also because Duterte's tough-on-crime rhetoric mirrored the eventual president-elect's: He didn't hold anything back.
Duterte's rhetoric wasn't just rhetoric. As the mayor of Davao, Duterte tacitly approved of roving death squads that murdered those suspected of drug crimes with little recrimination. Since 1998, when Duterte first became mayor of the city, human rights groups tallied that at least 1,400 killings were carried out by the death squads, Reuters reported.
The New Yorker's Adrian Chen explained how the process worked for the Davao Death Squad (DDS):
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the D.D.S. often worked in a style known in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two men on a motorcycle ride up to a target, shoot him with a handgun, and speed off. D.D.S. members told H.R.W. that they worked off a list given to them by police officers and were paid between five thousand and fifty thousand pesos ($104 to $1,041) per target.
While Duterte regularly denied directing the death squads, his presidential campaign included a pledge to nationalize the ferocity for which he'd become known. And once he took office at the end of June, that pledge has apparently been kept.
The historically close relationship between the United States and the Philippines was strained after Duterte insulted President Obama while the U.S. president was touring Asia. Trump, though, has expressed few reservations about Duterte — or about his anti-crime policies, such as they are.
As part of his ad hoc outreach to foreign leaders after the election, Trump and Duterte spoke on the phone. The Trump transition team's description of the call was anodyne. The two “noted the long history of friendship and cooperation between the two nations, and agreed that the two governments would continue to work together closely on matters of shared interest and concern,” it suggested.
In his description of the call, Duterte indicated that there was another topic of conversation.
“He was quite sensitive to our war on drugs, and he wishes me well in my campaign and said that we are doing, as he so put it, 'the right way,'" Duterte said at a news conference after the conversation.
Pressed on the subject during the interview that accompanied his selection as Time magazine's Person of the Year — and which preceded the call between the leaders — Trump didn't express any concern about Duterte's practices. Trump and the Time reporter discussed Trump's hard rhetoric against immigrants with criminal records.
A reporter mentions that what Trump is saying echoes the rhetoric of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen the extrajudicial killing of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users in recent months. The President-elect offers no objection to the comparison. “Well, hey, look, this is bad stuff,” he says. “They slice them up, they carve their initials in the girl’s forehead, O.K. What are we supposed to do? Be nice about it?”
The murders in the Philippines, as the Times photo essay and Reuters reporting makes clear, extend far beyond the perpetrators of bad stuff. “Most of those murdered” in Davao, Reuters' Andrew Marshall and Manuael Mogato reported in May, “were drug users, petty criminals and street children.”