BOGO CITY, Philippines — Police Chief Byron Allatog insists that he is an ordinary cop. And in another time or another place, that might have been true.
The 39-year-old runs an ordinary station in an ordinary city set amid the sugar cane fields on the island of Cebu. People here farm and fish. They sing karaoke. Some take a form of methamphetamine known as “shabu.”
But these are not ordinary times. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, ordinary police in cities such as this have waged a spectacularly brutal and lawless campaign against anyone they suspect of using or selling drugs.
Officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP), which receives funding and training from the United States, have shot and killed thousands in late-night raids that often look a lot like executions. Thousands more have been murdered by masked assassins, often after being accused of doing drugs.
Yet of the thousands of Filipinos shot dead in Duterte’s self-proclaimed war, not a single man, woman or child has fallen on Allatog’s watch, according to the local government.
His extraordinary strategy: “I just told my officers, ‘Don’t kill.’ ”
Don't kill. That ought to go unsaid, but Duterte and his top cop, Gen. Ronald dela Rosa, talk incessantly of slaughter, casting mass killing as necessary, even just. The scope of the violence is such that the International Criminal Court's lead prosecutor warned that they could be investigated on charges of crimes against humanity.
If rank-and-file officers oppose what is happening, few say so publicly.
There is a sense that there is nobody left to police the PNP; the lack of accountability irks Allatog.
A proud graduate of both the Philippine National Police Academy and more recently a course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., he values procedure, order, discipline. The FBI teaches “no shortcuts, due process, rule of law — that’s their standard,” he said.
Policing, to him, is not politics but principle. “I’m not saying anything against the president. I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
Hands up, don’t shoot
Allatog never planned to be here — not in Bogo City nor in the unenviable role of dissenting voice.
After graduating from the police academy in 2001, Allatog took several postings across the Philippines, working his way up. In 2014, he was named one of the country's most outstanding officers.
When he returned from his training in the United States last year, he expected to be put on a specialist team in Manila. Instead, he was sent to Cebu. “I’d never heard of Bogo City,” he said. “I had to look it up.”
By the time he started his assignment, officers across the country had killed thousands, and journalists, human rights groups and foreign governments had gathered extensive evidence of police abuse, from staged crime scenes to off-the-books hits.
Allatog saw that it would be tough to keep his men in line. They knew that the president had promised to pardon officers who shot drug suspects. They also had heard rumors that off-duty officers were making 5,000 to 10,000 pesos, or $100 to $200, for freelance "vigilante style" kills.
He told his men that they would be doing things differently. If they shot needlessly or for money, he would not protect them. And they should not count on the president either, he warned.
“Those are politicians. They don’t give a s--- about you,” he recalls telling them. “You are just a low-level officer. If you go to prison, that doesn’t affect the economy. They will not care.”
He believed anti-drug operations should tackle supply (big-time dealers) as well as demand (users). From a policing standpoint, shooting street-level users would not be enough.
Nor could he, as a Catholic, stomach it. “I’m not active in church, but I know what’s right, and it’s not right to kill somebody,” he said.
“It’s within the Ten Commandments that I’ve been memorizing since grade one,” Allatog said.
So when dela Rosa talks about “neutralizing” drug suspects, Allatog interprets the word differently than his peers. “When we ‘neutralize’ suspects — the thing is, they are alive. They are in jail,” he said. “The others don’t know how to use Google to find the meaning?”
Progress, not perfection
When Allatog landed in Bogo City, he found allies in the mayor and vice mayor, Carlo and Maria Cielo Martinez, a brother-sister ticket who shared his belief that curbing drug use is part policing, part public health.
“Give them time, talk to those people, let them change for themselves,” Mayor Carlo Martinez said. “Violence is just a shortcut. It doesn’t really solve the problem.”
Rather than shooting suspects, the city gave them a chance to join a community-based rehabilitation program that combined twice-weekly drug testing with meetings led by a volunteer nurse.
The scale is small and the budget modest. Lacking doctors and trained drug counselors, the city has improvised and focused on helping a few people at a time.
At a recent meeting, about a dozen recovering users gathered in the humid locker room of the local sports complex. Most were men. Many were poor. One was still a teenager — exactly the demographic dying elsewhere.
Aldwin Alburo, a 45-year-old recovering addict wearing a “Progress, not perfection” T-shirt, said that he voted for Duterte and supports the idea of stopping drug use, but also that he wishes more men had had the chance to clean up before getting killed.
“They could have shown that they could really change,” he said. “We should put more value on life rather than just taking it easily.”
Although a recent outcry over the apparent execution of three teenagers has Duterte talking occasionally about due process, he mixes that message with calls for more violence.
Same for the PNP. In August, in the middle of the drug war's deadliest week on record, the force gave policing prizes to districts that have become synonymous with police-led violence and abuse.
Does Allatog feel pressure to fall in line? “Of course I feel the pressure,” he said. “But I don’t give a s---.”
He recently put forward a petition that called on the PNP to focus on community-based rehabilitation. "We enjoin the rest of our colleagues to stand with us, To Serve and Protect with Honor and Justice," it read.
And he stands by his record of ordinary, slow-and-steady work: “I didn’t kill anybody, but I was able to accomplish a lot.”
Kimberly dela Cruz contributed to this report.