The tide of public support for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war may have finally turned. In a special operation last week, police killed more than 80 people in three nights, the highest death toll since Duterte came to office last summer and pledged to eradicate drug traffickers. And he’s kept good on that promise: While official estimates put police killings at about 3,500, human-rights groups and activists estimate that it’s between 7,000 and 13,000. Many of the country’s poorest citizens live in fear, not of criminals, but of police who are accused of committing extrajudicial killings. Even so, Duterte, the tough-talking populist, has enjoyed wide support—in fact, a poll last month showed the highest public support since he took office. But this may be changing after the apparent police killing of 17-year-old Kian Lloyd delos Santos.
Last Wednesday, officers shot and killed delos Santos in a special operation, saying he was a drug trafficker. They even claimed the young man fired a gun at them. Then security footage emerged that seems to refute this story.
In many similar instances, Duterte’s critics say police fire indiscriminately on people in poor neighborhoods, or target addicts, not traffickers, then plant guns on them to make it appear like they fired on police. This is what the footage in delos Santos’s killing seems to capture. Witnesses said that after officers grabbed the teenager he begged to be let go, saying, “Please can I go home, I have school tomorrow.” Security footage also shows officers dragging him down an alleyway, where they allegedly handed delos Santos a gun and told him to run. An autopsy found delos Santos was shot first in the back, then twice more at close range into the side of the head, suggesting he was executed. Duterte’s critics say this same act has played out thousands of times since the drug war began. But delos Santos’ story has struck a chord.