Though recent polls suggest broad public support in the Philippines for President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, the recent death of a 17-year-old boy in what appears to be an execution style killing by police, has resulted in mass public backlash and has dominated headlines since the boy’s August 16th death. But in typical Duterte style, instead of dialing down his rhetoric he went off script Monday while delivering a prepared speech and addressed police across the nation with the directive, “you are free to kill idiots.”
The inflammatory words came just two days after the funeral-turned-protest of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, who was laid to rest in a Manila cemetery Saturday. The funeral procession quickly became one of the largest protests to date against Duterte’s drug war, as it was joined by thousands expressing anger at what is widely perceived as a national police force run wild which kills innocents with impunity while targeting poorer neighborhoods.
Such domestic opposition had been largely muted until the Delos Santos case. Released CCTV footage now featured frequently in national TV broadcasts is likely what has galvanized people to take to the streets after particularly bloody summer. According to reports, the police say they have killed 3,500 people in anti-drug operations, though many others have died in mysterious circumstances, including in some cases children caught in the cross-fire.
According to Reuters, the circumstances of the Delos Santos killing were particular heinous:
Delos Santos was dragged by plain-clothes policemen to a dark, trash-filled alley in Manila before he was shot in the head and left next to a pigsty, according to witnesses whose accounts appeared to be backed up by CCTV footage.
Police say they acted in self defense after delos Santos opened fire on them, and Duterte’s spokesman and the justice minister have described the killing of the teenager as an “isolated” case.
Philippine broadcast featuring the CCTV footage purporting to show high school student Kian Delos Santos escorted by police shortly before his death, which begins at the :30 mark.
While Duterte appeared to feel the increased political pressure of late, telling police last Wednesday that they should only kill in self-defense and that he would not protect those found guilty of killing unarmed suspects, his off the cuff words Monday are sure to inflame tensions further, especially his use of the word ‘idiots’. He told police what he described as an “order” that:
“Your duty requires you to overcome the resistance of the person you are arresting. If he resists, and it is a violent one, you are free to kill the idiots. That is my order to you.“
Duterte has been in office for 14 months and his iron fisted anti-drugs campaign has continued strong and is generally backed by a Philippine public weary of criminals running the streets and a slow moving judicial system. But the Delos Santos killing is the first major incident pitting the official police narrative against video footage, which appears to show the unarmed teen being escorted to his death.
Delos Santos was reportedly found with a gun in his left hand, but his family testified that he is right-handed and has no involvement with drugs. Three police officers admit to being the officers shown on the CCTV tape, but that the suspect they were escorting was not Delos Santos. The Philippine justice department is currently investigating the killing.
But critics are now seizing the opportunity to highlight police brutality. The Delos Santos killing came amidst a week of intensified raids which authorities called “One Time, Big Time”, which reportedly had Duterte’s wholehearted support. The operation targeted a particular drug infested district.