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Philippine President's War On Drugs Criticized As Crimes Against Humanity


We have a story of a person killed in the Philippines drug war. His death is one of thousands. Police admit to killing more than 5,500 people in the campaign ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte. Police had previously admitted to killing more. And the official number, whatever it should be, does not include extrajudicial killings that human rights groups estimate at 20,000 people. But this is the story of just one man.

NPR's Julie McCarthy heard the dead man's story from his mom.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Nanette Castillo hands me a photograph, eerie streetlights illuminating the scene. She's in the foreground, crumpled beside a dead body. In the background, scores stand mute.


MCCARTHY: It was October 3, 2017, and Duterte's drug war was sweeping through this sprawling Manila slum of Tondo. Witnesses that night told Nanette that four masked men roared up on motorcycles, one stopping next to her son Aldrin, who'd been talking with friends in the street.

NANETTE CASTILLO: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: "His friend said the man pulled out a gun," Nanette says. "He forced Aldrin to kneel and said, what's your name? - then shot him."

The post-mortem report cites multiple gunshot wounds to the head, neck and body. Nanette says when the police arrived, they stood by and made no attempt to determine whether her son was still alive.

The Duterte administration's anti-drug operation, now in its third year, has targeted poor small-time peddlers and drug users. Nanette admits that her son, 32 when he was killed, did use drugs. She speaks of him in the present tense.

CASTILLO: (Through interpreter) As a mother, I know when he's using. We fought over it. But he's not violent. He doesn't steal. It's not reason enough to kill him. If the government really wants to, it can rehabilitate him.

MCCARTHY: The Dangerous Drugs Board says there are now 60 drug treatment centers nationwide. It's no comfort to Nanette Castillo, who says more than a half a dozen men were gunned down on the same street as her son, either in police drug raids or by masked gunmen who she says operate with impunity.

CASTILLO: (Through interpreter) The question is, how long are they going to keep killing? They're so shameless, especially that Duterte. He's given so much power to the police. They're not police anymore. They're murderers.

MCCARTHY: Families, including Nanette's, have moved off the street that has seen so much killing.

CASTILLO: (Through interpreter) A lot of them are scared.

MCCARTHY: Aldrin Castillo's death echoes many that have been profiled by human rights groups, including Amnesty International. The past year, it investigated on the new front line of the war on drugs - Bulacan, just north of Manila.

Amnesty's Nicholas Bequelin says in every police operation they examined, lethal force was used because police said suspects were armed and fought back.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: And that's the justification for killing thousands of people over the last three years. And of course, it's a complete myth.

MCCARTHY: These are the stories that the U.N. Human Rights Council is seeking. Bequelin says it's the proper venue because Amnesty found that the Philippines' justice system is broken.

BEQUELIN: The courts are not powerful enough to rein in the police. And therefore, there is no hope for getting justice in the Philippines.


MICHELLE BACHELET: Mr. President, my office is following the situation of human rights in the Philippines very closely.

MCCARTHY: Under Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. Human Rights Council will become the first United Nations body to officially review alleged human rights abuses in the Philippines. Last week, the council approved a resolution proposed by Iceland initiating the inquiry. It also urges the Philippine government to cooperate with the U.N.

President Duterte, who bristles at international criticism, raged, threatening to pull out of the Human Rights Council and break ties with Iceland. Duterte depicts the U.N. resolution as an assault on Philippine sovereignty and fumed that if it ever came to a trial over crimes related to his drug war, he would not answer to an international tribunal.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: I will not answer a Caucasian asking questions, a white man. You must be stupid. Who are you? I am a Filipino. We have our courts here.

MCCARTHY: Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan says, while he's saddened that the U.N. must step in, he says the pressure could prompt a rethinking of the policy on illegal drugs and establish basic facts.


FRANCIS PANGILINAN: We'd like to know why and how we may be able to end the daily killings and hold those accountable.

MCCARTHY: While the U.N. probes how thousands died in Duterte's drug war, Nanette Castillo says she will go on searching for the truth about who killed her eldest son and why.

CASTILLO: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: "It shouldn't have gotten this far," she says. "It's inhuman."

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "UNTIL TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.