Outsourcing murder

The ratio is about 2:1.  For every drug suspect killed in an acknowledged police operation, at least two others are killed by unknown assassins. Why this seeming preference for anonymous murder in a campaign that has been authorized by no less than the country’s president?

Both types of killings are taking place mainly in the slums, targeting persons who are without the means to seek justice in a flawed legal system. In the usual “buy-bust” operation, the police routinely justify the killing as an act of self-defense. In the so-called “deaths under investigation,” the police shrug their shoulders, vaguely hinting that these killings are done by the drug syndicates themselves in the course of cleansing their ranks and fighting for turf.

No one believes this yarn. The police find bodies, contact funeral parlors, and record these events in their logbooks—as though these killings were normal happenings in their daily work. They have shown no concern that anonymous gunmen attack residents in neighborhoods that are supposedly under their protection.  After more than 7,000 such killings, they have yet to produce any credible account of the nature of these “deaths under investigation.”

But, they know what is happening here.

An authorized police raid is tedious to mount. Not every policeman is ready to kill a defenseless human being in cold blood. Somebody in the team has to be designated to fire the fatal shots. In a large number of the cases, the killing happens at night while the intended victim is asleep with his family. If witnesses see the faces of the police killers, there could be legal suits later. Or, any of the victim’s relatives or friends can take revenge one way or another when things have settled down.

It thus makes sense to outsource murder. Assassins could be recruited from police forces assigned in remote areas, so they are not known in the neighborhoods where they have to do the killing.  But even this has its complications. Given the long list of targets, culled from the names of those who had initially surrendered or from the information given by the latter, the police have their hands full. With every police district under pressure to show results, it would be easier to hire contract killers from the criminal underground itself to do the work for them.

This is what Swiss journalist Karin Wenger has found out from an interview with one such professional killer she met recently just outside Davao.  We don’t know if her informant was merely bragging and had told her a fictional story fit for a thriller, or she had stumbled upon a plausible explanation for the 2:1 ratio in extrajudicial killings. Her chilling account of that interview with a hired gunman who kills drug suspects for money was broadcast on Swiss National Public Radio.

Here are some excerpts from that report: “Since Duterte’s drug war began, he received more orders. ‘I get all through middlemen, from the police. They have the odds, but they do not want to kill themselves. Someone could see and accuse them.  That’s why they hire me.’ P30,000 per contract killing, that was the last deal with the police. Previously he was promised even more.  ‘This is what really makes me angry. They have never kept their promises.  Instead of money, they give me shabu and say: ‘Go sell the drugs, that’s how you make your money.’”

Stories like this sound almost surreal.  But, that’s how the country is depicted nowadays by nearly every report on the war on drugs in mainstream media abroad. James Fenton’s essay, titled “Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift,” which appears on the latest issue of The New York Review, is a vivid account of the morbid normalcy of killing in the dimly lit alleyways of Manila. I cite it here for the way it somehow confirms the outsourcing of murder in this war on drugs.

“An EJK I covered went like this. It was the middle of the night and the family was asleep. Masked men barged in.  ‘Where is Fernando?’ said an intruder.  A woman answered: ‘There’s no one called Fernando here.’  At this point, an eight-year-old girl woke up her father, Ernesto.  As he awoke, Ernesto said ‘Oh.’  He was shot immediately in the middle of the forehead.  The intruders escaped.”

Never too soon, scene of the crime operatives appear to take photos, pick up slugs, and go through the motions of gathering evidence.  But they never seem to be in a hurry to go after the killers. “At one such scene in the north of Manila,” Fenton writes, “a man had been shot in a warren of a building, where the passageway was almost too narrow for two people to pass.  And there was only one exit, a set of awkwardly constructed steps.  I was examining these steps and thinking what confidence it showed on the part of the killers, to choose a place that was so difficult to get out of, for their planned murder.”

That “confidence”—or brazenness—makes sense only in the light of the hidden public script we assume each time someone is shot by unknown assailants. It’s “EJK.” Those three letters have become shorthand for the war on drugs, plus all its complex and unintended consequences.  People say these letters in whispers to communicate a knowingness that wishes to be spared the burden of explaining. And that is how this entire killing culture has become a cover for all kinds of malevolent intentions: for settling personal scores, for extortion, or for the sheer desire to sow fear.

As I reflect on what has happened to us since the last election, I am struck by the words of Elias Canetti: “That which can kill is feared; that which does not directly serve killing is merely useful. It is those who devote themselves to killing who have power.”