Photographs by Jes Aznar
Text by Ye Ming
A note to our readers: Some of the photographs in this story are violent and disturbing.
Since taking office in 2016, the Philippines’ populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, has waged a merciless and blood-soaked crusade against the country’s drug trade. According to the Philippine police, this has resulted in the deaths — with no hearings or charges filed — of some 4,000 people. Human rights groups, meanwhile, put the toll at more than 12,000.
Jes Aznar/Getty Images
The staggering number of extrajudicial killings has drawn journalists from all over the world to one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, and their reporting has helped spark an international outcry. (The International Criminal Court has said it’s looking into the drug war’s human rights violations.)
But most foreign photojournalists spend only a few days, or at most a few weeks, in the region before heading to other assignments elsewhere in the world; it’s the local photographers — like 42-year-old Jes Aznar, a Filipino photojournalist who took the pictures that appear here — who keep the unfolding horror in the spotlight. (Pictured: the body of a man splayed over his motorbike, on Nov. 15, 2016 in Mandaluyong City, east of Manila. He was last seen in CCTV footage being shot twice by unidentified assassins on a motorbike.)
The police carry out most drug raids at night, as do the vigilantes allegedly paid by the police to target drug users. Photojournalists like Aznar have adapted their schedules, sleeping during the day and documenting the killings after dark. While journalists are never allowed to document police raids, every night they huddle inside the press office of the Manila Police District, the headquarters for the city’s cops, and then tail police cars to crime scenes. (Pictured: Police investigators inspect the body an 18-year-old man who was killed by assailants on June 26, 2017 in Manila.)
What awaits is, almost without fail, gruesome: a corpse on a quiet street, head wrapped with plastic tied with packing tape. Sometimes, there’s a cardboard label on the body, claiming the corpse is that of a drug “pusher,” a tactic that practically guarantees impunity for the killer. (Pictured: A unidentified body found in a street in Makati City, Metro Manila on Nov. 17, 2016.)
While covering death and disaster is hardly new to journalists in the Philippines, the scope — and brutality — of Duterte’s drug war are utterly, frighteningly new. “These killings, the nature of how [the victims] were killed and why, is hard to rationalize,” Aznar told FOTO. (Pictured: An unidentified body inside a morgue after being shot by police in an alleged anti-drug operation on August 17, 2017 in Navotas.)
Motivated by a cash reward of about 20,000 pesos ($400) per person killed, the police hunt down drug users, most of whom use marijuana or crystal meth; frequently, they plant evidence and fabricate reports to justify the deaths. That is why their accounts of how drug suspects died often sound both flimsy and familiar: A drug suspect pulled out a gun or tried to grab an undercover police officer’s gun during a raid, prompting the officer to shoot back in self-defense. (Pictured: residents view a crime scene where a male drug suspect was gunned down by police on August 17, 2017 in Caloocan City, Metro Manila.)
Aznar began documenting victims of the drug war shortly after Duterte took office. At times, he has covered more than 20 deaths in a night. He has learned to detach himself while photographing the brutality, but the shock still kicks in after visiting the victim’s family and learning “who the person was, who the family was, and what's going to happen to them afterwards,” he said. “Seeing death and extreme sorrow every day and every night will definitely take a toll on you.” (Pictured: Elvira Miranda, 69, cries during the burial of her son, Leover Miranda, on August 20, 2017 in Manila.)
The hundreds of deaths he has witnessed — including many killed mistakenly — have made Aznar wonder if it will happen to him or his loved ones. Aznar remains extra alert when out on assignment. “You have to be always aware of your surroundings, what’s happening around your car.” For safety, reporters and photojournalists work together, often riding in one car to crime scenes. “We made it a [rule] that no one goes out alone.” Aznar said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re working for competing publications.” (Lilly Padilla, 23, sits near the coffin of her husband, Sonny Mangalindan, during his wake on June 30, 2017 in Quezon city.)
The vast majority of those killed in the past two years of the drug war have been urban poor; many were teenagers. In January 2017, Aznar attended the funeral of Sonny Espinosa, a 16-year-old who was among seven killed in one incident, including two other teenagers and a pregnant woman. They were shot dead by vigilantes in two adjacent shanties that allegedly stored narcotics. Aznar saw Espinosa’s friends carrying his coffin and remembers the cries of Espinosa’s mother. “One thing the boys had in common,” the mother told journalists there, “was poverty, [it’s] the reason why they were killed.”
Duterte, increasingly agitated by negative media coverage, is not shy of voicing his disdain for journalists. “Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination,” he said at a press conference in 2016, instilling fear in the press corps. (Pictured: Friends and family pay their final respects to Jerico Camitan in a public cemetery. Camitan, 21, and his partner Erica Fernandez, 17, were killed by two gunmen on motorcycles. Drug tests during the autopsy cleared them of any drug use.)
The fear instilled by Duterte’s threats is not unfounded. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists; 79 have been killed in the country since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mexico, which has a reputation as one of the most deadly places for reporters, had 43 killings during the same period. More recently, a number of local newspapers critical of Duterte were shut down or sold to his allies. And a former policeman has alleged that Duterte had ordered and paid $60,000 for the killing of a journalist in 2003 when Duterte was the mayor of Davao. (Pictured: Protesters light candles and call for an end to drug-related killings in Manila.)
Aznar himself has long endured threats on social media from Duterte’s supporters for his coverage on the drug war, but the photojournalist is undeterred. “The thing is, this is what we do,” he told FOTO. “We understand that our profession is most needed in these dark times.”
Follow @EverydayImpunity, an Instagram account documenting the drug war by local photojournalists, including Jes Aznar.