Bennie had a thin, hollow face, the picture of malnutrition at 22 years of age, he had never been to school for more than a few months, could not read or write and he was a one-meal man. He ate once a day. He was dressed in shorts and a dirty t-Shirt. His flip-flops were worn thin. They were his only possessions. He pushed a small wooden cart along the back streets of Manila picking up discarded plastic bottles, bits of metal that fell off a jeepney or a truck. He was a discarded piece of humanity himself.
On a lucky day in a garbage bin outside the gate of a mansion, he found an old computer keyboard. Finds like these were the treasures of his long walk. That was a big day for him and he sold it at the junk shop with the other bits and pieces he picked up. He joined his fellow scavengers and together they cooked what they found in the garbage -a plate of pagpag and a little rice. Pagpag is made from the throwaway leftovers from the plates of the diners that ended up in the restaurant’s garbage bags in the back alleyways. It is retrieved by the very poor and boiled in a big pot on the side of the road. It made an excellent meal– for the hungry poor.
After eating his pagpag, Bennie decided he would celebrate. That night he went down an alleyway to buy a small sachet of marijuana from the local reseller named Joey who was not much better off than him. Bennie just wanted to ease the loneliness of life, the ache in his back and legs, the pain in his feet and to forget for a short while the misery of his daily search for junk and his one meal of cheap pagpag food. There was nothing else in his life.
So just imagine what happened. Bennie was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. The small pusher Joey was a target of the hit squad that very night. They cut off the alleyway and moved in on the hovel of Joey. Two of the killers stepped inside and opened fire. Bennie and Joey were hit several times; their bodies bled copious amounts of blood they died within minutes. The hit team had a signboard ready, it read: “I’m a drug addict. I deserve to die.” That’s how they were found one hour later. It was a fast response. Imagine Bennie’s and Joey’s lives ended over a one-dollar deal.
That can be a typical scene from the war-on-drugs. There has been a lot of success in the one-sided war since June this year. Over 6000 Bennies, Joeys and others too, suspected sellers of marijuana or crystal meth dead, but no one is sure how many more. That’s about 1000 suspects killed a month.
The advocates of the hit squad policy say it’s a big success and takes the hardship and boredom out of routine police work. It is the death penalty in action, they say. There is no need for a death penalty law because in effect we have one already by having no rule of law.
What Bennie and Joey got and thousands more is what the advocates of the war say is a very convenient and effective method to deliver capital punishment. It swiftly bypasses the dangers of investigation, the boredom of surveillance and painstaking evidence gathering, and making dangerous arrests. Think too of the difficult case-building, the preservation of evidence and long drawn-out court trials and the difficulty to get a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. Then there are the endless appeals and finally the stay of execution.
The President knows what it is like to prosecute fruitlessly with thousands of crimes to be solved and prosecuted in a judicial system that is rife with corruption and one case can take seven years or more. He was a prosecutor in Davao City and that’s why he launched the bloody shoot-to-kill war-on-drugs. The old methods, claim the advocates of war, never worked. Instead the elimination by summary execution outside the system has been very effective, according the supporters of the policy. And it will keep on going, no end in sight. This instant solution to crime, just one gunshot, has, it seems, an overwhelming approval of 76 percent of Filipinos. During the same period after the election, President Aquino had 71 percent approval rating and Estrada had 69 percent. Not a huge difference but they were not advocating extrajudicial killings.
The Senate may follow the Congress and may pass a capital punishment law, despite all the arguments against it such as: it doesn’t deter crime, it kills innocent framed up suspects, it is anti-poor because they can’t afford lawyers, it causes cruel punishment, it is vengeance-seeking, it deprives the accused of reform, it’s against the sacred value of life and the dignity of human person. One hundred forty one nations have banned it and the United Nations also. If it is passed, it would be a legal way for President Rodrigo Duterte to kill the convicted. He wants to hang six people a day. “Restore it and I will execute criminals every day – five or six. That’s for real,” he said. Of course he was just joking. The hit squad is quicker.
Killing a thousand people a month as is the present practice is not a cruel joke. Something sinister has been unleashed. It is cruel capital punishment seen every day. Critics say it is one monster crime to counter many little ones. It must stop so life will be respected and cherished and the lives of the suspects are given a chance to defend themselves against their unknown secret accusers, as is their constitutional right. But those rights have been suspended and the challenge to all is how to restore them. We need to call for a ceasefire and stop what is happening to the Bennies and Joeys of the Philippines.