Inmates inside the Quezon City jail in Manila on July 18, 2016. These jails are now even more crowded because of the government's latest efforts to rid the streets of loiterers. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodrigo Duterte, the self-fashioned vigilante leader of the Philippines, has a new target.

The President Trump-admiring strongman, known for leading an anti-drug crackdown that has claimed more than 12,000 lives, is going after his country’s “tambays” or loiterers. In the past three weeks, more than 11,000 tambays have been thrown in jail for loitering in the streets, reported Al Jazeera. Some detainees are children as young as 5.

According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Duterte told a room full of police officers on June 13 that “if there are people standing idly by there, they should go home.” If they refuse, Duterte added, “I’ll take care of it. Tie their hands together and I'll throw them in [the river]." Soon after these remarks, the president clarified that he had not instructed police to bring in people for loitering (which was decriminalized in the Philippines in 2012), but that those found drinking or “making a living room” on the streets should be arrested.

But sometimes, people have nowhere else to go.

In Tondo, for example, home to Manila's largest slum, every square mile of land is shared among 200,000 people or more. Many live in small, 50-square-foot shacks made of zinc roofs, wooden blocks and sheets of black tarp. With little space indoors and limited access to public spaces such as malls and parks, these slum-dwellers tend to pass their time on the streets, earning the name “tambays” — an adaptation of the English word “standbys,” explained Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science in Manila. Many of these “street kids” arrested in the past few weeks were probably found outside their shanty houses because they were looking for errands that could earn them an extra buck or were finding a spot to cool off from the 80-degree weather, he added.


Residents stand on a rooftop of a shanty tenement house while newly built condominium buildings are seen in the background in Tondo district, Manila, on March 11. (Dondi Tawatao/Reuters)

Since the order, tambays have been brought in on a variety of charges: some for drinking or smoking in the streets and others for public nudity or for violating local curfew laws, reported the Manila Standard. But in many cases, according to Heydarian, the crime being committed is not immediately clear.

Genesis Argoncillo, a 25-year-old Filipino, was arrested outside his house June 15. Four days later, he died in detention at the Quezon City Police District, sparking outrage across the nation. Last week, dozens gathered outside police headquarters in Quezon City, wielding signs and buckets of animal blood to protest the anti-loitering directive.

Authorities say Argoncillo was taken in for being drunk and fighting with his neighbors. Others say the young man was picked up for not wearing a shirt. The circumstances around his death are similarly murky. Police initially said Argoncillo was “mentally unstable” and died as a result of his own actions and then later said he was mauled to death by other inmates.

Argoncillo’s family has disputed this, asserting that the young man had no mental-health issues and was more likely beaten to death by police. A copy of the Argoncillo’s death certificate obtained by Philippine media group ABS-CBN shows that he died of blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and chest. The Quezon City Police District has also told reporters that at Station 4, where Argoncillo was held, there were more than 130 detainees, even though the facility was only designed to accommodate six.

Duterte's anti-tambay efforts come on the heels of his evolving campaign against drug suspects, which experts have described as a type of police-backed social cleansing. A 2017 report from Human Rights Watch that looked into 24 arrests of drug suspects found that nearly all of them led to extrajudicial killings. Now, tambays such as Argoncillo are joining those at the mercy of a police force with “complete impunity,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution with expertise in the Philippines.

Despite the controversy around Argoncillo’s case, authorities have stated that they plan to continue the anti-tambay campaign. Duterte also told reporters last week that police carrying out their duties on this directive would “enjoy [his] protection,” ABS-CBN reported.

Speaking on these comments, Felbab-Brown said the Philippine president has effectively “signed the equivalent of a blank check to the police, saying, 'Do anything you want.' "

Being tough on crime has been central to Duterte's time in office and to his widespread popularity within the Philippines, Felbab-Brown said. Going after the country's tambays is a visible way that the leader can show middle-class voters that he is still making efforts to expand his anti-crime mandate, she added. But like the bloody drug busts, this campaign disproportionately targets the poor.

“The Philippine National Police are conducting a 'crime prevention' campaign that essentially jails low-income Filipinos for being in public,” Phelim Kine, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement published on HRW's website.

Heydarian agreed. “To criminalize these people for being on the streets is an extreme distraction from the real issues of income inequality and the lack of proper social housing,” he said. “The president is trying to refocus the national agenda on crime, and then defining crime essentially in class terms. He claims to be pro-poor but the way he approaches these anti-crime campaigns — it’s almost entirely focused on the urban poor.”