On a muggy June day, shortly before 4 a.m., a jeepney driver named Raul Domingo drove through Payatas, a hilly district in Manila’s sprawling suburbs. In the darkness, he spotted an obstruction up ahead: two nameless bodies, arms and legs splayed on the road, with cardboard signs around their necks. “I’m a robber,” the signs read. “Don’t emulate me.”
Such scenes have become common in the Philippines. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last summer, he has unleashed a crackdown on drugs and crime that has drawn international condemnation for its brutality. More than 7,000 people have died at the hands of police or masked vigilantes who roam the back alleys of Manila’s massive slums. “There are three million drug addicts” in the Philippines, Duterte has said. “I’d be happy to slaughter them.” His targets are drug dealers and users alike. In the slums, children sniff glue because it helps them forget the pangs of hunger. At the fish port, men rely onshabu, or methamphetamines, to stay awake during their 18- to 36-hour shifts. So, too, do the garbage pickers in Payatas, who spend hours each day searching for recyclable goods in the refuse. Under Duterte, these are capital offenses.
James Whitlow Delano, an American photographer who has reported from the Philippines since the early 1990s, returned to Manila in June to photograph the victims of Duterte’s drug war. “In Duterte, the people of the slums believed they had finally found their savior, their champion,” Delano says. “Instead he has unleashed masked assassins in a spasm of slaughter that has created a siege mentality in the slums, delivering assassination with impunity, without pause.”