Nightfall in Philippine slum revives specter of deaths in drugs war

MANILA, Feb 5 Reuters) - As night falls in Manila, the Philippine capital, few of the 700 families living in the sprawling portside shanty town known as Market 3 dare to venture out of their homes.

The crime-ridden maze of sheet metal, crumbling cement and wooden boards has become a frontline of the bloody war on illegal drugs that has defined Rodrigo Duterte's presidency since it was unleashed in June 2016. 

Dozens of Filipinos who lived along the slum's narrow dirt-floor alleys have wound up dead. The community lives in fear of masked or mystery men dragging away slum dwellers, or police and their notorious "Tokhang" operations, where officers are required to knock on doors of suspected dealers to urge them to surrender. But those visits have been fatal.

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Community lives in fear of ongoing Philippine drug war
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Community lives in fear of ongoing Philippine drug war
A man, whose wife was arrested during an anti-drug operation and has a bout of tuberculosis, coughs outside a window while his daughter plays with candles inside a shanty in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Residents are seen outside their shanties in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman whose son was killed during an anti-drug operation, plays with her puppy at the entrance of her shanty in Market 3 in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A boy uses a computer at a makeshift internet shop inside Market 3 in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman shows a picture of her son, a soldier killed during the battle against Islamist militants in Marawi, on Mindanao island, inside her shanty in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Residents walk through a partially-flooded street in Market 3 in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Fishermen cast their nets off Navotas Bay, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A belt, a rosary, shorts and a couple of candles adorn a jeepney that was converted into a shanty by a man, whose wife was arrested during an anti-drug operation and was found dead a day later, in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 9, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Children play with a baby at the fish port in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man, whose wife was arrested during an anti-drug operation and was found dead a day later, sleeps on a mattress next to his niece outside his shanty in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao TEMPLATE OUT SEARCH "MANILA SLUM" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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"Many people have left. They leave because of Tokhang," said Nenita Bravo, a 56-year-old Market 3 resident.

"We can't really count them anymore," she said, referring to those killed, adding that she had witnessed many killings in the area. "We can't really count them because there's been so many."

Bullet-ridden corpses are found hours or even days later, often just a few minutes away, although police say there have been no illegal killings in their anti-drug campaign.

Yet the frequent police operations and shadowy murders have hit the slum hard and those who live there say more blood has been spilled since he was elected president on the promise to wipe out drugs and crime in six months.

"Since Duterte came, that's when there was a rise in killings. It was pitiful, especially so for the many women killed," said Visitacion Castellano, 73, a long-time resident of Market 3.

"They should have given them years. Put them in jail. But not kill."

In Spanish colonial times, Navotas, as the area was known before the patchwork of shanty communities emerged, was the home of a middle class that lived off the sea, either as owners of fishing boats or shipbuilders.

Now employment is in short supply, with men jumping from one informal job to the next, such as scavenging or unloading fish from returning trawlers.

Although life is hard, people get by, but there is never enough.

Scarcity fuels desperation and the desperate turn to petty crime, or dealing and using drugs, mostly "shabu," the methamphetamine Duterte says could destroy a generation of Filipinos.

One 28-year-old man who spoke to Reuters was among those who sold and used shabu. During one of the deadliest chapters of the drugs war in August 2016, he said his partner and mother of his five children was murdered, her body found riddled with bullet wounds in the head and chest.

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Everything you didn't know about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
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Everything you didn't know about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte was born on March 28, 1945 in Maasin, Southern Leyte, Philippines.

(PHILIPPINES-DAVAO/MODEL REUTERS/Renato Lumawag)

Duterte became the mayor of Davao City in 1988, where he earned the nickname “The Punisher.” He served as mayor for 20 years, non-consecutively.

(PHILIPPINES-DAVAO/MODEL REUTERS/Renato Lumawag)

Duterte comes from a family of politicians. His father, Vicente Duterte, was the governor of unified Davao and a member of President Ferdinand Marcos' cabinet. His daughter, Sara Duterte, is currently the mayor of Davao City.

(REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines in May 2016.

(REUTERS/Czar Dancel)

Duterte once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, saying he would kill millions of drug addicts.

(REUTERS/Ezra Acayan)

Duterte has led a violent anti-drug crackdown, and more than 7,000 have reportedly been killed since he has taken office. 

(Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Duterte called President Barack Obama a “son of a wh**e.” He made the comments after Obama brought up concerns about human rights violations in 2016. Duterte later apologized for the comment.

(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Weeks before being sworn in as president, Duterte fueled an already hostile environment for journalists when he said, "Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a b****." 

(REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

In 2015, Duterte vowed to execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies into Manila Bay. 

(REUTERS/Czar Dancel)

Duterte cursed Pope Francis over traffic that was generated by his visit. 

"We were affected by the traffic," Duterte said. "It took us five hours. I asked why, they said it was closed. I asked who is coming. They answered, the Pope. I wanted to call him: 'Pope, son of a wh**e, go home. Do not visit us again'."

He later apologized. 

(PHILIPPINES - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Duterte came under fire in April 2016 after he made a joke about a missionary who was gang raped and murdered during a prison riot in 1989. “But she was so beautiful,” Duterte said. “I thought the mayor should have been first.” 

(REUTERS/Harley Palangchao)

A witness testified in Sept. 2016, claiming he was a member of Duterte's alleged "Davao Death Squad," and that the Filipino president gave orders to kill drug dealers, drug users and others who may violate the law. 

(Photo credit should read Ezra Acayan / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In December of 2016, Duterte said President Donald Trump endorses his violent and deadly campaign against drugs after a brief phone call. 

(REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

Congressman Gary Alejano filed an impeachment complaint against Duterte in March 2017, claiming he is guilty of crimes against humanity and murder.

(REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

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DESPERATE TIMES

The former drug user, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals, then fled Market 3 and says many of his friends did the same, or are now dead. He even tried, unsuccessfully, to take his own life, he said, by hanging himself with his belt.

The man is in poor health, skinny and coughing frequently due to tuberculosis. Nuns now take care of his youngest children.

Too weak to work, he spends his days at the port waiting to beg for scraps of fish from returning boats.

His dream, he says, is to regain strength so he can work, and build a home for himself and his children in the Market 3 shanty town where they can live, free of drugs and the fear of police raids.

"My only concern now is for my four kids to have a different life," he said.

One woman in the community told Reuters that four of her seven children are in prison, three on drugs charges and one accused of murder.

Her youngest son was killed in June 2016 in what police said was a sting operation in which he was armed, and refused to go quietly, a typical description of the almost 4,000 cases in which police say a suspected drug dealer was killed.

Police in Navotas could not be reached for comment on the killings during their anti-drugs operations.

The woman, who asked for anonymity, is certain that police killed her son in cold blood while he was asleep, adding that she even heard them joke about it.

Reuters could not independently verify her account.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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