MANILA — Once, when Rodrigo Duterte got to talking about his anti-drug campaign, he mused about murdering his children. If his son used drugs, he said in April, he would kill him himself.
But seven months and about 7,000 deaths into his self-proclaimed “drug war,” the Philippine president’s children are alive and well. The same cannot be said for thousands of Filipino children and youths.
Duterte’s war on drugs is quickly morphing into a campaign against disadvantaged kids. Since he came to power last July promising to “kill all” of the country’s criminals, some of the Philippines’ youngest and most vulnerable citizens have literally been caught in the crossfire, with children as young as 4 and 5 shot dead.
Thousands of others have lost a parent, often the family breadwinner, to the violence, and even more have witnessed the macabre spectacle of a state-backed killing spree, surviving shootings by hiding, or peering at mutilated bodies dumped into ditches where children play hide-and-seek.
Now Duterte and his political allies are backing a bill that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9, giving a police force known for violent impunity more room to target “suspects” who still have baby teeth.
Duterte pitched the move as a way to stop a “generation of criminals” in its tracks. School-age thieves and drug runners must be “taught responsibility,” he said. The draft bill alludes to the “pampering” of young offenders.
Human rights groups and advocates for child welfare counter that the lives of children living at the margins of the drug trade are anything but pampered. Taking aim at 9-, 11- or 13-year-olds, they say, is both cruel and counterproductive.
“The war on drugs has been violent — torture, summary executions and extrajudicial killings have been used to eradicate suspected drug users,” said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center, which is documenting drug-war killings.
The bill is an effort to broaden the campaign, she said, “criminalizing” minors and “legitimizing” state-led violence against children.
Duterte pitched his call to “massacre” drug suspects as a means to protect future generations, but he seems to see the death of young people as a means to this end.
In August, a 5-year-old girl named Danica May Garcia was fatally shot by unknown assailants who had come for her grandfather, a drug suspect.
When the attackers entered her home, her grandfather tried to flee through the back door, according to local media reports. Danica, who was getting out of the bath, was felled by a bullet that entered at the nape of her neck and exited through her right cheek.
Not long after, a 4-year-old was inadvertently shot in a “buy-bust” operation, caught between her drug-suspect father and the police. Both cases generated a public outcry, but no change of policy came from the president or his team.
Asked about their deaths in an October interview with Al Jazeera, Duterte said the dead children were “collateral damage” in his campaign. “We have three million drug addicts and it’s growing. So if we do not interdict this problem, the next generation will be having a serious problem,” he said.
“In my country, there is no law that says I cannot threaten criminals,” he added. “I do not care what the human rights guys say. I have a duty to preserve the generation. If it involves human rights, I don’t give a s---. I have to strike fear.”
For many children and teens, fear is now constant. Minors living with or near adults suspected of involvement in the drug trade are direct victims of the violence — and also witnesses to what many consider state-endorsed crimes.
In late December, a slight, soft-spoken 18-year-old who now goes by “Ryan” went to his girlfriend’s house to see whether her brother could fix his bike. Ryan, who has been working since he was 12, needed to ride it to work, he said.
While he was inside, four men approached on motorcycles, dismounted and opened fire on the ramshackle home, killing seven people, including three teenagers.
Ryan was shot through the right hip but survived. As the only living witness to a “drug-related” massacre, he fears he will be taken out by masked assassins or their allies among the local police.
He now lives in sanctuary at a church in central Manila. “It’s the only place that’s safe,” he said.
Poor children will suffer most if the new crime bill passes, experts said.
The vast majority of drug killings target low-level users and dealers living in congested urban areas. As a recent report by Amnesty International put it, it is less of a drug war than it is a “war on the poor.”
Many of the 7,000 dead worked in the country’s gray economy, driving pedicabs, for instance, or selling food; some were sole breadwinners. Families in Manila’s slums struggle to come up with school fees or buy enough food, let alone pay funeral expenses. The killings perpetuate the cycle of poverty that sucks children and youths into the drug trade, child advocates said.
One veteran child-rights worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that the police would target her work, said some of Manila’s most marginalized children, including orphans and those living in the streets, were being picked up by police officers who needed “numbers” for their anti-drug operations.
Young people are being detained “for having a tattoo or for looking thin, like a drug user,” she said. They are often thrown into jails packed with adults and expected to fend for themselves.
Legaspi of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center said the overcrowded, underfunded system is ill-equipped to protect and rehabilitate minors. “Yes, there are children used by syndicates to commit crimes, but we point out that these children are victims,” she said.
“Children should not be punished by putting them in jail at [an] early age,” she added. “Then they will live in a culture of criminality. Young children will mix with adults or with 17-year-olds who committed murder.”
Her organization and child-rights groups such as UNICEF are speaking out against the criminal-responsibility bill, trying to convince Duterte and his supporters that arresting desperate children will not keep them from serving as “runners” for dealers or from selling drugs.
That leaves young people such as Ryan, the 18-year-old witness, with few options. He will not feel safe until the people who killed his friends are in prison, or Duterte calls off the police.
His only plan, for now, is to hide. He will stay at the church, he said, “until he grows up.”
Kimberly dela Cruz contributed to this report.