In Photos: Drug Pushers in the Phillipines Die by the Hundreds at the Hands of Police

Influenced by newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine police have killed at least 700 suspected drug pushers since he took office. This story contains graphic images depicting violence and death. Viewer discretion is advised.
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In Photos: Drug Pushers in the Phillipines Die by the Hundreds at the Hands of Police Ezra Acayan

This story contains graphic images depicting violence and death. Viewer discretion is advised.

It was a warm summer evening on July 18 when Ezra Acayan, a freelance photographer, saw his first shooting victim. The dead body was lying in a fetal position alongside railway tracks in the Philippine capital of Manila. The police officers responsible for it were standing nearby, behind yellow tape. Farther back, a crowd of residents had gathered, many on their way home from work.

Acayan couldn't see the corpse very well, so he asked the police to shine their flashlights on it as he snapped away. They told him that the man—Acayan never learned his name—was a suspected drug pusher. An undercover cop had bought drugs from him earlier that evening, paying in marked bank notes, they said. When police arrived to make the arrest, the suspect had fought back—so they shot him.

In the man's hand was a gun, and next to him were packets of shabu, Filipino slang for methamphetamine.

Acayan does not know if the police planted the drugs and the gun, but in the following weeks, he saw the same scene over and over again. (The photos that he took, of the dead men and their grieving families, make up the accompanying slideshow.)

The killings of suspected drug pushers began just before the inauguration of the country's new President Rodrigo Duterte on June 30. He was elected in May promising to end the country's drug epidemic, and he had a novel solution for how to do so—shoot the dealers.

After the election, Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. Their bodies would be dumped in Manila Bay, he said, for the fish to grow fat on.

The Philippine police force took his promise seriously. Since Duterte entered office six weeks ago, police have killed at least 700 suspected drug pushers in various operations. Acayan says he now photographs dead bodies every night.

When evening comes, he waits with the local press by the main police station in Manila. A call will come in, from a police officer or a citizen, alerting the reporters to another body. Some nights, Acayan will see multiple corpses.

"I feel afraid because anyone can just kill anyone and say they were a drug pusher," Acayan says. (Rights groups say vigilantes have been responsible for several more of the killings.) "I could have an enemy who wants to have me killed, and he could."

The photographer says the streets are quieter as a result of the deaths—young men in particular don't want to walk around at night, lest they be mistaken for drug dealers. But people's fear is not a sign of disapproval. Duterte commands a 91 percent trust rating among Filipinos, many of whom want an end to the country's drug problem, no matter the cost.

The president, too, shows no sign of changing his strategy. On Wednesday, Duterte gave a speech at the national police office in Manila. "We are willing to submit ourselves for an investigation before anybody," he said. "But…the fight against drugs will continue unrelenting until we have destroyed the apparatus operating in the entire country."

The message of his speech was clear. The deaths will continue, and so will Acayan's sleepless nights.

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Warning, this story contains graphic images depicting violence and death. Viewer discretion is advised. The corpse of a suspected drug pusher and victim of a vigilante-style execution with his hands tied and head wrapped with tape lies under a bridge in Manila on July 31. At least 700 people suspected to have been involved with drugs have been killed by police or vigilantes in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte came into power more than a month ago. Duterte pledged to kill thousands in an all-out war against drugs, the only real plank in an election platform that won him the presidency by a massive margin in a country where drugs and crime are deeply rooted. Ezra Acayan