A volley of gunfire struck Jesus Ocampo shortly before sunrise on August 26, his killers leaving him to bleed out on a busy street in Quezon, the most populated city in the Philippines.
When his sister flew in from New York to identify his corpse three days later, it was unrecognizable — so numerous were the gunshot wounds to Ocampo’s face, head, and torso.
The only reason she’d known it was her brother at all, she said, was his tattoo: a richly colored Philippine flag he’d had etched onto his upper back when he was a teenager.
“The vigilantes killed him like an animal in the street, only for using shabu,” said Mary Ocampo, using a slang term for crystal meth, the drug to which her 27-year-old brother was addicted. “In the Philippines, you don’t have to be a murderer to be executed now. You just have to use drugs. No judge, no jury, just the execution.”
Ocampo spoke through tears while mourning her brother last Sunday at a service inside a small storefront church in Woodside, the bustling Queens neighborhood she’d emigrated to nearly a decade ago to escape a life of extreme poverty in Quezon.
There are dozens of expats like her here: Filipino-Americans whose loved ones have been murdered, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial in their native country, the result of an all-out war on narcotics —especially shabu — waged by the government of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte.
The violence, many of these immigrants said, has upended their lives in America. Some have had to pay for funeral and burial expenses for relatives killed back home — costs that have exhausted their savings and left them destitute.
Others are frantically pulling together funds for airplane tickets, hoping to return to the Philippines and intervene before police or vigilantes kill their relatives.
“Everywhere I go in [New York], I meet people whose sons and brothers are dead or…locked up because of this war, because of the drugs, so this is not a small concern,” Ocampo said, speaking through a Tagalog interpreter. “Right now, there is no rule of law in this war. But we are feeling the pain in America, too. Because our hearts are there [in the Philippines], our families are there. And Duterte is there doing whatever he wants.”
Since the firebrand president took office on June 30, Philippines police have killed 1,578 people in the drug war, according to official government statistics. An additional 2,151 citizens have been killed by unknown assailants, officials said. Human rights groups attribute those killings to paid vigilante squads, who they said receive bounties from police, and work with the approval of the government.
In total, at least 3,729 people have been slain in connection with the anti-drug campaign, Filipino government officials have said. The killings have drawn condemnation from the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, as well as warnings from the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor.
Duterte has repeatedly defended the crackdown, vowing it will continue until drugs are eradicated from his country.
“I will not stop,” Duterte, who was elected on an anti-crime platform and has publicly urged citizens to kill drug dealers and users, said recently. “Be sure of it, you can cast it in whatever stone. I will not stop until the last pusher, until the last drug lord is taken away.” (That posture may finally be changing, Reuters reported today.)
Such rhetoric is met with increasing alarm in immigrant enclaves like Woodside, which is home to more than 13,000 Filipino-Americans. In 2010, Filipinos were the nation’s second-largest Asian-American group, with more than 3.4 million citizens reporting Filipino ancestry, census records showed.
Among the newest arrivals to America is Alejo “Alex” de los Santos, 37, who moved from Manila to Queens in September. He said his 26-year-old brother, Gabriel, is being held in an overcrowded prison in the Philippine capital, without access to a lawyer.
Like tens of thousands of other shabu users, Gabriel turned himself in to police earlier this year, believing the alternative was execution, his brother said.
“The police came to his door one day and said, we know you are using drugs…. You should surrender, or what happens next will be worse,” de los Santos recalled last week at a Philippine restaurant in Manhattan. “Now he is rotting in jail with the other addicts. No one knows what is going to happen to them.”
Rosario Andrada, another recently arrived immigrant from the Philippines, said the imprisoned drug users there are “actually the lucky ones.” The Ozone Park, Queens, resident said that her niece, her niece’s boyfriend, and a male friend have all been killed since July as part of the government’s drug war.
“Three people dead for nothing,” said Andrada, who doesn’t believe police ever gave the three a chance to surrender. “The police said my niece and her boyfriend were selling shabu out of their home…that they had guns. So they killed them. My friend, they killed the next week because he was dealing.”
The Philippine National Police and president’s office did not immediately return calls seeking comment for this story. But government officials have said extreme tactics are necessary, given the amount of meth saturating the Philippines.
Major drug traffickers are undoubtedly targeting the country, which has a population of more than 100 million and one of the highest rates of methamphetamine use in Asia. But human rights groups point out that casualties of Duterte’s drug war include few high-volume dealers.
Rather, the dead are mostly small-time drug sellers and addicts: impoverished men and women who die wearing tattered clothes and sandals, a small amount of shabu still in their pockets. Several children have also been mistakenly killed during the crackdown, government officials have said.
“It shouldn’t be the poor or innocent who are the victims of this drug war,” said Aurora Victoria David, Alliance Secretary for the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, an advocacy group with members in more than 23 U.S. cities, and one of numerous rights organizations calling for an end to the killings. “It’s the drug lords and drug financiers who should be tried and punished, not the needy.”
For Filipino New Yorkers who’ve lost family in the crackdown, there is a sense that there’s little they can do for their countrymen, except pray.
“I had to see my brother lying there after he was massacred,” she said. “I don’t want anyone else to go through that, so I ask God to stop it. But in my heart I know: Only Duterte can stop this.”
Kevin Deutsch is author of The Triangle: A Year on the Ground With New York’s Bloods and Crips, as well as the forthcoming Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire.