Looking back: Day One, Year One of the antidrug campaign

Text and maps by M. Padilla
Photo by Kimberly Dela Cruz

Two years ago on July 1, the first day of the Duterte presidency, 39 people were slain in drug-related killings. These were the opening salvo of the new government’s antidrug campaign.

The killings on Day One of the new  administration would presage the scale and nature of those that followed. The death toll that day would be surpassed only five other times, according to a study by the Ateneo School of Government study published on drugarchive.ph. The number of daily killings peaked at 49 on  Sept. 21, 2016 and Aug. 15, 2017.

Duterte was sworn in as president at Rizal Park at noon on June 30, 2016. The spate of killings began midnight that very day, with drug suspects slain in simultaneous buy-bust operations and raids on drug dens and homes. The police say all these killings were in self-defense and the result of violent resistance from alleged drug dealers.  While there were 168 drug-related killings in the six weeks between May 9, Election Day, and June 30, the numbers rose once the long-time mayor of Davao City assumed the presidency.

“Do your duty,” Duterte told the police on his first day in office, “and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing duty and I will protect you.”

Bulacan topped the number of  killings, netting more than a dozen drug suspects killed between midnight of June 30 and noon of July 1, according to news reports collected by drugarchive.ph researchers. By afternoon, there were 16 dead in Bulacan.


Questioned by reporters, PSSupt. Rogelio Caramat, Jr., then the Bulacan police chief,  said the killings were not done to impress Ronald Dela Rosa, the new  head of the Philippine National Police. He also said his men followed police operating procedures and fired only when police lives were in danger.

“No other than our new president Rodrigo Duterte has assured the policemen that he will back up the police if they do their job,” he told reporters. “Kung ganun ang commander mo, talagang maha-high morale ka (If you have a commander like that, then your morale will be boosted) .”

The Ateneo study reveals the asymmetrical nature of the antidrug campaign. The data shows 11 police officers were killed while conducting antidrug operations between May 2016 and September 2017.  In contrast, there were over 2,700 drug suspects killed in police operations during that period.

The news reports from July 1, 2016  describe masked gunmen entering homes as well as residents finding bullet-ridden bodies lying on the streets. Most of the killings occurred in the wee hours of the morning, according to drugarchive.ph. Compiled from news articles between May 2016 and September 2017, the Ateneo study found 5,021 drug-related deaths—the most complete list of casualties that exists.

According to the database, the first-day killings spanned nine different regions of the archipelago, 11 provinces and 27 cities. In a pattern that would be repeated in the next two years, most of the killings were in the capital and nearby provinces.

Drug-related killings on July 1, 2016, nationwide

In one incident,  two alleged drug dealers  were startled by policemen at dawn. Ron Ryan Barroga, whom the police say was the No. 1 most wanted person in Santa Rosa City, Laguna,  and Jerome Garcia, a 23-year-old car thief , were in Barroga’s hide-out supposedly dealing in drugs when the police came to serve a search warrant.

The police claim Barroga and Garcia fired first, forcing the cops to shoot back. Garcia’s mother argued her son was just “collateral damage.” He was a pedicab driver, helping make ends meet for his family of seven.  She said his only fault was being “too friendly” and tagging along with people he barely knew.

A similar scenario played out in several places around the country during those early morning hours. At 1:45 a.m. in Norzagaray, Bulacan,  police killed Keith Gibson, a suspected drug dealer, while attempting to serve a search warrant. In Hagonoy, police went to the residence of Lauro Reyes, an alleged robber who also had previous drug charges, to serve a search warrant. The police claim Reyes’s friend shot the police first. The following altercation resulted in the death of both Reyes and his friend.

According to news reports, 20 of the 39 deaths on July 1, 2016 were the result of  police shooting drug suspects, supposedly in self-defense.

I would like to make it clear to the whole world,” said Gen. Dela Rosa in a June 2018 BBC interview. “President Duterte did not give me an order to to kill. Anyone. He just told our policemen that if your life is in danger you have to protect yourself so it’s better that the criminals are killed rather than you.”

The rest of the July 1 casualties were found dead or killed by unidentified assailants.

For instance, at 3 a.m. in Manila, a body was found with one gunshot wound behind the left ear and a cardboard sign hung around the neck that read “Chinese drug lord ako ( I am a Chinese drug lord).” Though unidentified, investigators determined he was between 25 and 30 years old, and just over five feet tall.

Of the 39 victims that first day, only one was female. The woman’s body was found floating in a river in Meycauayan City. She had drugs in a wallet hidden inside her underwear. Her children said they last saw her arguing with two men.

Another man, Jimmy Marasigan Reformado, was found dead inside his house around 5:30 a.m. in Tiaong, Quezon province. According to news reports, the 36-year-old died from multiple gunshot wounds in his head and body. Neighbors said they didn’t hear a gunshot, but witnesses claimed they saw unidentified gunmen entering the house to shoot the victim. Reformado was tagged No. 5 on the list of illegal drug personalities in town.

It’s been two years since Duterte’s anti-drug campaign began, and according to the police, an average of 33 people have been killed daily since that first day. Most were poor Filipinos suspected of being small-time drug dealers.