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Saturday 27 July 2019

Photo Essay

Mass murder

In Duterte’s killing fields, life is cheap and masked gunmen are all-powerful

By Ezra Acayan

When Rodrigo Duterte came to power on a promise to kill tens of thousands of criminals, those who didn’t know him had a question. Was he serious? Those who had seen his tactics as mayor of the southern city of Davao already knew. He was serious, but he was also out of control. He would act first and not even bother to ask questions later. He would allow police to kill and torture with impunity, and most of their victims would be those already victimised by the war on drugs: the poor, the young and the powerless.

Since 2016 as many as 27,000 men, women and children have died in a wave of extra-judicial killings that peaked in the summer of 2017 but continues today.

The International Criminal Court has launched an initial investigation to establish whether Duterte and his enforcers should be charged with crimes against humanity. He has responded by withdrawing the Philippines from the court’s jurisdiction.

Ezra Acayan is a Manila-based photographer who has spent more than two years on the front lines of his country’s epidemic of violence. He believes that with three years left in Duterte’s term it is more vital than ever to record the atrocities committed in his name.


Supporters revere a portrait of Rodrigo Duterte on his inauguration day in 2016.

Duterte’s presidential campaign was based on a promise to wipe out crime by any means necessary.

Signs reading “I am a thief, do not tolerate me” were left on the bodies of two men dumped near Quezon city outside Manila. 

The victim of a vigilante-style execution by suffocation lies with his head wrapped in tape on a street in Manila. The sign reads “I am a Chinese drug lord”.

The bodies of Paul Lester Lorenzo and Danny Laurente are hauled away on a railway trolley. They were shot in what police said was a drug bust in Manila.

Isabelita Espinosa weeps for her 16 year-old son, killed when armed men opened fire in a Manila slum. Six others including three children and a pregnant woman were also killed. 

Funeral workers remove tape from the head and wrists of a man who police said was executed by vigilantes in Manila.

Luzviminda Siapo arriving home from Kuwait after her son’s death. He was killed by armed men a day after a neighbour reported him for selling drugs. 

An alleged drug user, shot dead in Manila after witnessing another drug-related killing. 

Human rights workers inspecting a police station in Manila found dozens of alleged drug suspects crammed illegally into a tiny detention cell behind a bookshelf.

Family and friends in the funeral cortege of 16 year-old Nercy Galicio, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by unknown men in Navotas. She was said to have been a drug courier.

Francisco Santiago Jr., an alleged drug dealer, after a 2016 shootout with police in Manila. Police said he had earlier “played dead” after being shot by a plain-clothes officer.

The body of 5-year-old Francis Manosca lies in a coffin during his funeral wake in 2016. He was shot at home, standing behind his father when gunmen killed them both by firing through their front door. 

A police investigator covers a shooting victim with a poster in Quezon City.

Police at a Manila murder scene in 2017.

Sixteen year-old Arjay Suldao was kidnapped and killed by unknown men looking for his older brother in 2017.

Raymart Siapo, a teenager, was killed by armed men a day after a neighbour had reported him for selling drugs.

A father smokes in the stairwell where his son was murdered by masked men. 

Relatives follow the bodies of two cousins killed by masked gunmen in Caloocan.

Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother, killed by police during what they said was a drug sting operation in Malabon.

More than 100 people were killed in the bloodiest week of Duterte’s drug war so far, in August 2017. They included this suspected dealer outside a restaurant in Manila.

Jing Perez at the site of the slum home of her adopted son, murdered by unknown men in June 2017. The graffiti reads ‘papatayin’ (‘to be killed’).

Family and friends of Leah Espiritu, mother of six and a suspected drug pusher. She was shot dead by unknown killers in Caloocan.

Mourners at the funeral of Jennifer Taburada, shot dead a year after her partner was killed and allegedly mutilated by police.

A tricycle driver lies dead in Manila at the height of the drug war.

A man weeps for his son, killed by police in what they say was a shootout after he fled from a police checkpoint in August 2017. 

Joshua Laxamana, in pictures laid out by his father. He was killed aged 17 after supposedly escaping from a police checkpoint in Tarlac, north of Manila.

Andrea Salonga mourns her 17 year-old brother, who relatives said was a drug user. He was shot dead by unidentified assailants.

The word “missing” marks a tomb at a public cemetery north of Manila. It contains unclaimed bodies of drug suspects killed by police.

Diana Vinculado weeps after finding the body of her husband in July 2017. She was told he died in a shootout with police. 

The body of a man said to have fought back in a drug bust by undercover police, July 2016. 

 A sign outside the house of a teenager who left home with a friend to take part in a video game tournament, and never came back. Police say the friend engaged them in a shootout after fleeing a roadside checkpoint.

Nercy Galicio, 16, at her funeral. 


Ezra Acayan is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work focuses on social issues and human rights. He won the Ian Parry Scholarship Award for Achievement in 2018 and in 2017, together with a team of Reuters journalists, was awarded a special merit at the Human Rights Press Awards for his multimedia reporting on the Philippines’ drug war. His photographs have twice been exhibited as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines.