MANILA – It was 3pm in Tondo, Manila’s poorest and most densely packed slum.
The body floated beneath a bridge in the brackish flow of a waterway off the Pasig River.
Its knees, poking just above the water, swayed from side to side.
As the corpse bobbed, details were revealed. The dead man’s legs and arms were bound with rope. His head was wrapped in packing tape. His body was coiled with chains, padlocked to a pail filled with concrete.
This was not anything too unusual in the hardscrabble corners of the Philippine capital.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power more than two years ago, the death toll from his war on drugs has kept climbing. Authorities report that more than 5,000 “drug personalities” have been killed in police operations around the country. Human rights groups believe the death toll could be four times that, with many cases either going unreported or being carried out in the shadows by government-backed hit squads.
Manila also has homegrown perils. Drug gangs, loan sharks and random street crime account for thousands of deaths each year in one of the region’s most dangerous cities.
Rights groups estimate that there have been at least 20,000 killings and drug-related deaths across the country since 2016. That is a rate well-below some of the world’s most dangerous places in Latin America and the United States. But it is among the highest in Southeast Asia.
Whether the deaths are mostly related to Duterte’s war on drugs is unclear. But what connects them all is a kind of numbed silence.
The names of those killed in Manila and elsewhere are rarely known beyond their families and friends. Their stories – and, by extension, the stories of Manila’s dark side – are seldom told.
The body that floated under the bridge January 14 could have been dumped there for many reasons.
The Washington Post found the victim’s name: Ferdinand Jhon Santos, or Dingdong to those who knew him. He was 44. His life unraveled after a bright beginning: dreams of adventure, striving for a foothold in Manila’s middle class. Then came drugs, a shattered marriage and the lure of fast cash.
His is a portrait of one more life broken – and one more death left unexplained – in a city with many such stories.
The police arrived. But not before the crowd.
The fair skin drew cries of “foreigner” from children peeping from above.
Some residents claimed they heard him being thrown off the bridge in the early hours of Sunday – about 36 hours before the body was spotted. “He was still kicking,” said one person who insisted that he knew details of Santos’ last moments.
No one called the police that night.
The next day, the coast guard struggled to bring his body aground.
The body smelled of the river: fetid, dank. The flesh was peeling off. Flies swarmed.
The Duterte government has persistently claimed that it is investigating each and every death.
Yet thousands of cases remain in legal limbo, classified as “deaths under investigation” by the Philippine National Police and never brought to prosecutors. Authorities claim that many fall into the category they call “summary executions,” which they blame on criminal networks.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch say many such killings are either directly or tacitly sanctioned by the government as part of its crackdown on drug use. Officials deny this.
Summary executions are often characterised by bound limbs, taped faces, cardboard signs reading “I am a drug addict” and – in cases like Santos’ – bodies dumped in the city’s waterways. They are often found stashed in metal drums and loaded down with concrete, to try to keep them from floating.
The method is eerily reminiscent of Duterte’s campaign promises to dump drug pushers in Manila Bay to “fatten all the fish there.”
When asked about the Santos case, Manila police told The Post that they could not open a full inquiry without a witness stepping forward. Thousands of other cases face the same dead end: no witnesses, or, if there are, they are too scared to speak.
In private, however, families say local police engineer the killings. In return, the police dare them to prove their claims.
“The drug war and the fact that many of the related murders remain uninvestigated has made it a lot easier to eliminate people these days,” said Carlos Conde, a Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch. “This violent environment enables extrajudicial killings, whether related to the drug campaign or not.”
A lack of legal repercussions or consequences for extrajudicial killings feeds a tense relationship between residents and police.
A day before Santos’ body was found, his family, unable to contact him, drove to where he worked south of the capital to report that he had been possibly abducted.
The next day, January 14, they saw a news report showing a body being pulled from a Tondo river.
“We recognised his knees on the news, you know, his skinny legs,” said one of his cousins, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from authorities.
At a morgue in Manila, Santos’ estranged wife, who last saw him in October, identified him by a mole on his face.
Fruit stalls and funeral parlors dot the highway leading to San Jose del Monte in Bulacan on Manila’s outskirts.
Once an agricultural pocket, Bulacan is being swallowed by the capital.
On the evening of January 19 – five days after his body was found – an image of Santos’ smiling face beamed down from a banner tacked to a glass window at the San Fernando Funeral Homes.
“I never thought this would happen to him,” his sister said in tears. “He would always tell me, ‘Who among us will go first, you think? If I go ahead, bury me in our lot in San Juan. If you go ahead, don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.’ “
Santos grew up under his grandmother’s roof, part of a sprawling extended middle-class family. He was closest with his older sister.
He studied to be a seaman but never seemed to get the paperwork done to find a job on a ship. In his 20s, he joined a private choir that had been set to perform in the United States. Santos hoped to be among the singers and possibly make contact with his half-siblings from his father’s side who live in the States.
His US visa application was denied.
He took up work as a driver for different companies. He met his future wife in 2003 in Bulacan when she was in college. They would have three children. But the marriage was strained. Santos was growing more erratic. A methamphetamine habit was taking a stranglehold.
In 2010, his life began to fracture. He moved out of his wife’s house and jumped from job to job, family members said. Like his cousin and widow, all of his relatives spoke on the condition of anonymity. A colleague accused him of stealing from trucking deliveries and embezzling cash.
His meth habit deepened. He stopped visiting his children.
“He hardly texted. He would also hardly show up,” his widow said. “He always had this series where he’d disappear for some months.” He checked himself into rehabilitation, where he spent seven months in 2015.
Among his belongings: a folder of carefully collated documents and neatly marked lists. Loan applications. Advances on his pay. Debts. He had promised to pay what he owed. But it was mounting beyond his reach: 44,000 pesos, or about USD840 on one debt; 110,000pesos, or nearly USD2,100, on another.
His widow said she had no idea he was in financial trouble. “Sometimes he would tell me one story and tell another to (his sister), and we don’t know which one is true,” she said. – Photos and text by The Washington Post