QUEZON CITY, the Philippines — On the second floor of a nondescript coffee shop in a trendy neighborhood outside of Manila, patrons were welcomed by a marble gravestone with a tiny inscription written in gold: “Stop the Killings.”
The gravestone, part of an art exhibition at the coffee shop, is dedicated to the memory of those killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs.
Another marker in the exhibition featured the Filipino word “nanlaban,” which means “resisted.” For the authorities, the word suggests a drug suspect who resisted arrest and engaged in gunfire before being lawfully killed by the police. But for the families of the dead, it suggests the person was victim of an extrajudicial killing.
The coffee shop, Silingan, opened last year and is staffed primarily by the mothers and wives, sisters and daughters of those killed since 2016, when Mr. Duterte took office. Beyond serving lattes and cappuccinos, these women aim to educate the public about the brutal truth behind Mr. Duterte’s promise to rid the streets of drug dealers and addicts at all costs.
According to the Philippine National Police, roughly 8,000 people accused of being involved in the illegal drug trade have been slain since Mr. Duterte launched his deadly war on drugs. Rights groups have reported higher numbers.
“Here we don’t just sell coffee,” said Sharon Angeles, the head barista at Silingan. “We tell customers about our life, and how this place serves as a place of healing for us. We also tell them, if they care to listen, why Duterte’s drug war is a war on the poor, and not on drugs.”
Sharon Angeles at work in Silingan, in Quezon City, the Philippines. Silingan, which means “neighbor,” is run by women whose husbands, fathers, or brothers were killed during President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
The women of Silingan, which means “neighbor,” hope to see Mr. Duterte held accountable for the violence before it is too late. This month, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the former dictator, was elected to succeed Mr. Duterte, with Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, as his vice president.
But they, like many others in the Philippines are increasingly concerned that once Mr. Marcos and the president’s daughter take office next month, the new administration will block any effort to investigate Mr. Duterte once he is out of office and no longer immune from prosecution.
Ms. Angeles’s brother Christian became one of the first victims of the extrajudicial killings when he was picked up by the police just four months into Mr. Duterte’s term. Christian, who was 20, never took drugs, Ms. Angeles said. But his two companions at the time of the raid were known users with petty criminal records.
When the two companions saw the police approaching, they fled.
“But Christian did not run because he knew he was clean,” Ms. Angeles said. “Still, I had warned him before that a bullet will not listen to his excuses.” Her brother was a volunteer watchman who believed in the law, she said, adding that the results from the autopsy the family ordered came back negative for drug use.
Sharon Angeles at home with her family, just around the corner where her brother was slain in Quezon City, Philippines.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
“My brother was killed like an animal,” Ms. Angeles said. “If Duterte did not win, this wouldn’t have happened, and Christian would be alive today.”
On a recent weekend at the cafe, Ms. Angeles talked to two university students who had wandered into the shop.
The film majors said they grew curious when they saw a painted message on the steps of its black metal stairs leading to the art exhibition on the second floor: It’s not a war on illegal drugs. It’s an illegal war on drugs.
“Nanlaban” was no excuse in 2018 when a court convicted three officers for murder and sentenced them to life in prison in the death of Kian Loyd delos Santo, a 17-year-old college student.
The officers claimed he was a drug suspect who shot at the police. But surveillance video showed the police leading him away moments before he was found dead near a pigsty.
A portrait of Christian, center, a slain victim of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, is seen in his sister Sharon Angeles’s family home in Quezon City, Philippines.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
The uproar prompted Mr. Duterte to temporarily suspend his antidrug campaign, only to relaunch it weeks later.
“We talk to customers about the drug war, and how it has affected us,” Ms. Angeles said. “It’s up to them to do what they want with the information.”
Grace Garganta, another employee at the coffee shop, said “nanlaban” was the pretext the police used to justify the killing of her 52-year-old father and her 27-year-old older brother.
Days after Mr. Duterte took office, the police raided their home in one of Manila’s sprawling slums. The father, Marcelo, was killed in what police said was a shootout.
Ms. Garganta’s bother Joseph was later arrested when he protested against the raid. She said his body was fished out of a river the following day. His face was wrapped in packaging tape and his genitals were mutilated, she said.
Grace Garganta, a barista at Silingan, speaking to film students about her experiences losing family members in the war on drugs.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
The Garganta family soon became the face of Mr. Duterte’s unfolding drug war after local tabloids began depicting the father as a “big-time pusher,” Ms. Garganta said.
Neighbors kept silent for fear of being identified as accomplices. Ms. Garganta, who was studying for a degree in hotel and restaurant management at the time, dropped out of school.
But at Silingan, she has found some redemption.
Now a mother to two young children, Ms. Garganta said her only wish is for people to hear her story and those of the other women at the coffee shop who seek to hold the authorities responsible for the killings. “I am no longer afraid,” she said. “The public needs to know the truth.”
Mr. Duterte remains overwhelmingly popular in the Philippines and has denied any wrongdoing in the drug war. He has insisted that violence was a necessary part of his effort to eliminate the scourge of drug use afflicting many poor Filipinos.
Grace Garganta, a barista at Silingan, at home. She said she wants people to know the story of how her father and brother were killed.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
But the local Commission on Human Rights has said that of the nearly 600 episodes it reviewed involving drug-related extrajudicial killings, nearly all of them showed signs of foul play by the police.
Many of the victims were fatally shot multiple times, usually at close range, according to the commission. They also showed blunt-force injuries and signs of torture.
The commission’s findings resemble those of international rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch, which has been campaigning to have Mr. Duterte investigated.
The International Criminal Court has said there was evidence to show crimes against humanity had been committed in the Philippines under Mr. Duterte, who officially withdrew the country from the international body in 2019, after it began its preliminary investigation into the matter.
“There are people who come in here and angrily tell us they support Mr. Duterte,” said Ms. Garganta, who was among the first to join street protests calling for Mr. Duterte to be investigated by the I.C.C.
“I just keep quiet, because I don’t need to engage them. They have their own minds.”
Yet with Mr. Duterte on his way out next month, Ms. Garganta fears no one will be punished for the thousands who were killed in the Philippines without trial. “All we want is to be given the chance to be heard,” she said.
Jocelyn Garganta, Grace Garganta’s niece, with photographs of her grandfather and father, both of whom died in extrajudicial killings.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times