Inside the Controversial President of the Philippines' War on Drugs That Has Left Thousands Dead

PHOTO: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews honor guards during a departure ceremony at the Manila International Airport in Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines, Dec. 13, 2016.PlayMark R. Cristino/EPA
WATCH Inside Controversial President of the Philippines' Bloody Drug War

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this story first aired, it has been updated to reflect statements in a speech made by President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been called the Donald Trump of the East.

He rose to fame on a wave of populist discontent and a promise to crack down on drugs. The most popular drug in the Philippines is a form of crystal meth known as shabu.

But behind Duterte’s populist platform, there is a dark, open secret: He has called on police and citizens to kill drug dealers and users on sight.

“Do it yourself if you have the gun. You have my support,” he told supporters at his election victory party in June.

Watch the full story on “Nightline” tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET.

Just five months after Duterte took office, the capital, Manila, was reeling from thousands of murders.

“You really feel that something is changing,” said local photojournalist Raffy Lerma. “Sometimes, it’s just a dead body for me. Sometimes, you get affected, especially if there’s family.”

Lerma is what’s known as a night crawler. He documents the killings that happen across the area for The Philippine Daily Inquirer. He has sources all over who call his cellphone and tip him off when there’s another dead person.

More than 5,800 people have been killed in the rampant violence since July 1, according to the Philippine National Police (PNP).

One of the victims Lerma came across while out with “Nightline” was Alicia Derder’s 23-year-old son, J.R. She said he had stopped taking drugs and never dealt them but was nonetheless was picked up by masked men.

Lerma, reading the official police announcement aloud from his phone, said her son “shot out with police, prompting police to fire back.”

In one day, “Nightline” witnessed the fresh aftermath of seven killings. Police said they recovered 19 bodies the same day.

Duterte, while denying any knowledge of these murders, remains unapologetic. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, he said, “You destroy my country, I kill you. It’s a legitimate thing. If you destroy our young children, I will kill you. That is a very correct statement.”

And his approval rating remains sky high.

Risa Hontiveros, a senator in the Philippines, is a vocal opponent of Duterte’s war on drugs and is critical of his use of the PNP.

“It’s shocking for me that it somehow remains either popular or accepted or unchallenged by a larger part of our people,” she said.

John Nery, the editor-in-chief of Inquirer.net, the country’s largest newspaper website, sees the dangerous potential of Duterte’s words.

“The president has been very articulate and very repetitive. He said, ‘I am behind you. If you do your job ... I will support you,’” Nery said. “Some of the policemen receive this as a signal, ‘We can do what we want.’”

Police officers deny any involvement in extrajudicial killings.

“There have been deaths of suspects during police operations,” said PNP Senior Superintendent Dionardo Carlos. “They have placed the lives of our police officers in dangers … The police have no recourse but to defend themselves.”

In addition to the more than 2,000 people killed in police operations for drug-related crimes, 3,800 have died at the hands of common criminals and apparent vigilantes, according to the PNP.

“There are cases of what they call now the cardboard justice, and there are cases wherein a victim was placed on the street with a cardboard saying, ‘I’m a pusher,’ ‘I’m a drug addict,’ but these are cases that are still under investigation,” Carlos said.

“Nightline” spoke with a self-described vigilante who calls himself Johnnie. He gave a glimpse into what he says are the mechanics behind many of the killings.

“[For] example, if [I] plan to kill you, I know what time you’ll pass by. I’ll wait for you. After you pass by me, then I’ll pull my gun and shoot you,” he said. “There’ll be no chance for you to draw your gun.”

Duterte’s rise to power began in Davao, one of the largest cities in the Philippines, where he served as mayor for more than two decades. He is still beloved there. Reverence for their leader has seeped into every aspect of daily life; his name and his image are ubiquitous across murals, souvenir stores and even on fruit at street stands.

Davao, once a crime-ridden city, is now considered one of the safest place in the Philippines. Critics say that’s because this is where Duterte began legitimizing extrajudicial killings.

Edgar Matobato says he spent 25 years as part of the long-rumored Davao “Death Squad” — a band of volunteers who he says worked closely with police officers to clean up the city.

“I thought we’d be helping the good Filipinos, that we were only killing bad people,” he said through an interpreter.

He claims Duterte ordered the killings.

“Our job was to kill the bad people he ordered us to,” Matobato said. “Personally, I’ve killed almost 50.”

He said he surrendered to the PNP in October after an arrest warrant was issued against him for failing to show up at a hearing on a gun possession charge. He then testified before the Filipino Senate and is now awaiting trial.

He said he now fears for his life because he implicated Duterte in the killings.

“I know that they will kill me,” Matobato said.

Duterte has denied knowing him.

But in a speech late Monday, Duterte seemed to admit that he had taken personal part in at least the search for drug suspects back when he was mayor, saying, "In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys that if I can do it, why can’t you? And I go around Davao with the motorcycle, with the big bike, and I would just patrol the streets looking for trouble also. I really went out looking for someone to confront for killing."

In Quezon City in Metro Manila, drug suspects end up in the jail there. One jail official said the facility’s ideal capacity is 800 inmates, but when “Nightline” was there, the official said there were 3,319.

The inmates are piled on top of one another, passing the days with cooking or working out, all waiting for their day in court, which for some can take years.

Many said they fear for their lives. “President Duterte’s administration will not stop hunting them [drug dealers],” one detainee said through an interpreter.

Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa, whom Duterte accused of being a drug lord, was killed in jail.

“He actually had surrendered,” Nery said. “In fact, he was in jail, and yet at 4 in the morning he was served a search warrant and was supposed to have engaged in a firefight.”

When “Nightline” asked the PNP at a press conference about Espinosa’s death and another politician gunned down by police, the officer said the PNP was still awaiting details of the investigation.

But the NBI, the Philippines’ equivalent of the FBI, issued a report saying Espinosa was assassinated by the police.

Still, last week in a speech, Duterte said he would not allow the officers accused of assassinating Espinosa to go to prison, “Even if the NBI says it was murder.”

It has been almost six months since Duterte’s drug crackdown was launched, but the long-term impact is still unclear.

“The big-time pushers, the real drug lords ... they are armed in the same way,” Hontiveros said. “They have similar money ... They’ve always survived and come out even winning afterward on drugs. We create more victims, traumatized survivors and bereaved families.”