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Barangay officials make tough choices in drug war

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PHILSTAR/MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By PCIJ Story Project

First of two parts

The barangay officials who will take office next month after winning Monday’s election will find themselves at the frontlines of the war on drugs. President Duterte has repeatedly said he needs strong barangay officials who will implement the anti-drug campaign. Noncompliance, he warned, is not an option.

January 21, 2018. It’s fiesta time in Tondo, Manila. High-spirited marching bands compete with the trill of videoke machines on nearly every corner. It is almost impossible to navigate the winding alleys without tripping on a child.

Entire families and gangs of children are out on the streets, wearing the orange, blue or red of their respective neighborhoods, each shade representing one of Tondo’s 300 barangays. Over 600,000 people live in Tondo, crammed in an area less than nine square kilometers.

When Oplan Double Barrel, the government’s anti-drug campaign, was launched nearly two years ago, Tondo’s barangay captains faced tough choices. Throughout the country, local leaders were told to submit a watchlist of suspected drug users and dealers in their communities. They were supposed to share those lists with the police, who then conducted operations that resulted in drug suspects being killed.

It is hard to know the precise number of drug-related killings. Based on data collected from news reports, there were at least 380 drug casualties in the city of Manila from July 2016 to December 2017. Tondo has one of the highest casualty rates: 117 of those killings, 30 percent of the total, took place in Tondo.

Data from the Manila Police Department show that between July 2016 and February 2017, Police Stations 1 and 2 in Tondo conducted 77 operations that resulted in 88 casualties. These figures, however, include only those killed during uniformed police operations, not vigilante and other type of killings.

This is the story of three barangay officials in Tondo who responded to Oplan Double Barrel in different ways.

Barangay officials have the power to decide the shape of the war on drugs — they have the choice to go along with death, to submit to authority, or to adapt and resist.

But such power is constrained. Village officials have to comply with the directives of the national government. Refusal to do so may be seen as complicity with the drug trade. Authorities have said they have a list of over 200 barangay officials involved in illegal drugs. The President himself has stated that “if those backed up by drug money will win as barangay captains, it will be another war. It will be another killing.”

The barangay is the linchpin of the administration’s anti-drug operations. Faced with national government directives on an all-out war on drugs, what should barangay officials do? — Mixkaela Villalon, Abbey Pangilinan and Ica Fernandez