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The Deadly Cost Of Duterte's War On Drugs

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Speaking of President Trump, he's wrapping up his Asian tour with a controversial visit to the Philippines - controversial because of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs. It's claimed an estimated 13,000 lives. President Trump, though, has told Duterte he's doing a great job fighting drugs. Reporter Michael Sullivan, in Manila, reports on how the anti-drug campaign looks to Filipinos.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Just a few months ago, Kian delos Santos lived in this alley in Caloocan in Metro Manila, one of the seemingly endless slums where the drug war is played out on a nightly basis.

RANDY: This is the store where my nephew, Kian delos...

SULLIVAN: His Uncle Randy says the 17-year-old Kian used to sell school supplies - pencils, erasers and the like - from this small storefront below the family apartment to kids on their way to the nearby elementary school.

We walk upstairs to where Kian's grandmother is busy making lunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHING DISHES)

SULLIVAN: Kian was a good boy, his uncle insists. The police, however, told a different story the night Kian was killed during a drug sweep in late August.

RANDY: (Speaking Tagalog).

SULLIVAN: His uncle says the police reported that Kian drew a gun on them and fired. The cops fired back in self-defense. The police photo of the crime scene showed a gun and a few packets of methamphetamine next to Kian's body, Randy says, to back up their claim. It's the same claim the police have used literally thousands of times before in the war on drugs. This time, there was neighborhood surveillance footage that told a different story that showed Kian being dragged by police into an alley minutes before he was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the head.

RANDY: (Speaking Tagalog).

SULLIVAN: If the camera hadn't been there, as Uncle Randy says, Kian would've been just another statistic in the war on drugs. The police version would've been the official version, he says. And his death wouldn't have had any meaning. But it did, especially after several witnesses came forward to corroborate the tale on the tape. The cops were detained. And, suddenly, Randy says, everything changed.

RANDY: (Speaking Tagalog).

SULLIVAN: Right after Kian's death, a lot of doors started opening, Randy says. It was like a domino effect. And there were many more stories about police misconduct. A Senate investigation followed. And last month, President Duterte stripped the Philippines national police of its lead role in the war on drugs to satisfy the, quote, "bleeding hearts," he said, and the media. But the killing?

EDGAR GUANTERO: It's still continuing. It doesn't stop. The incidental killing is still rampant. Still rampant.

SULLIVAN: Father Edgar Guantero of the San Roque Cathedral near Kian's home in Caloocan. He says many in the community say the police are involved though not in uniform. But he says nobody is willing to come forward.

GUANTERO: Because of here, we cannot speak. If they will speak about the situation, they will surely be eliminated also and (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: The Philippine National Police force was pulled from the drug war once before back in February after the shakedown and murder of a South Korean businessman by crooked cops came to light. But that suspension lasted for just a few months before they were back again. The latest polls might help explain why.

DINDO MANHIT: Third quarter data tells us that 7 to 8 out of 10 Filipinos continue to support the war on drugs.

SULLIVAN: Says Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, a Manila think tank. And even though more Filipinos are expressing reservations about killings such as Kian's, he says, he doesn't see Duterte pulling the plug.

MANHIT: When you look at this president, he is focused on this war on drugs. It has its excesses. But I don't see any end of it as of now. But one year after, you want to see, really, successes - that there are less drugs on the streets. Syndicates are being brought down - but not killings of ordinary people.

SULLIVAN: As for Kian's case, his parents remain in protective custody along with the witnesses who came forward. And as Uncle Randy says, President Duterte has promised justice. But Randy wants more than justice. He wants vengeance.

RANDY: (Speaking Tagalog).

SULLIVAN: "An eye for an eye - a life for a life," he says. That's what he thinks those who killed his nephew deserve.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Caloocan, Metro Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BOOKS', "CLASSY PENGUIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.