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Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, a prominent critic of the drug war, has opened 14 Catholic missions in the Manila slums where the anti-drug campaign has largely been waged. (Photo by Vincent Go)
The Big Story

The risky business of corpses and souls in Duterte's drug war

In Manila, funeral homes and Catholic clergy count human cost of the three-year crackdown

DOMINIC FAULDER, Associate editor, Nikkei Asian Review | Philippines

CALOOCAN CITY, Philippines -- A pair of gleaming Harley Davidson motorbikes sit in the lobby of the upmarket Floresco Funeral Home, where President Rodrigo Duterte's 32-month drug cull has done little for business. Receptionist Marvin Darilag observes that it kills mostly poor people whose relatives cannot pay the tab.

Business is brisker not far off in Malabon City, at Eusebio Funeral Services. Orly Fernandez runs the operation for its owners, and has been handling corpses since 1975. In a windowless office beneath a sign confirming "autopsy is free of charge," Fernandez adjusts his baseball cap and professes support for the war on drugs. He hopes one day the Philippines will be rid of the scourge of shabu.

In the first 18 months after Duterte -- dubbed "The Punisher" -- sanctioned drug killings, about four bodies came in every night. The supply has tailed off lately. Only one body turned up the previous day, and Fernandez is waiting for another.

A complete Eusebio funeral service with mandatory autopsy, paperwork and burial costs about 30,000 Philippine pesos ($576). Fernandez's biggest problem is that not all his corpses are paying clients. Only two in five that enter his twin-bay garage are claimed. Unclaimed bodies go to a mass pit -- for which a fee of 5,000 pesos must be paid. For Eusebio's owners, that is simply a cost of doing business, but it reduces revenue on five corpses from a possible 150,000 pesos to 45,000 pesos.

Sitting outside Fernandez's office with her niece is Erlinda Payumo, 72, a widowed church worker. She has no idea how she will pay the funeral expenses of her son, Rodmar. A few weeks earlier, the 24-year-old house-painter went to a party with friends and disappeared. His body was discovered 20 km away. He had bullet holes in the right leg, slightly above the knee, one in the forearm, and was dispatched with four gunshots to the chest.

Payumo is tormented by the terrible death of her son, not least because it was she who reported his drug abuse to police in 2016 in the hope of helping him rehabilitate. She believes Rodmar did stop using, but wonders if perhaps he was still keeping the wrong company. And what did his killers want? Nobody expects an investigation.

Near the Floresco Funeral Home is Caloocan Cathedral, where Bishop Pablo Virgilio David ministers. The security guards recently warned against his nightly habit of pacing the car park with his rosary -- he can be easily seen from across the street through the railings. Duterte has mentioned the bishop's prayer habits -- and also accused him of taking drugs and stealing church funds.

"It is like we are back to biblical days when Jesus said how blessed you are when people slander you," Bishop David told the Nikkei Asian Review.

He arrived in Caloocan in early 2016, just before Duterte entered office. The bishop's pastoral concerns were soon upended by the killing of the poorest in his flock, and he issued his first letter condemning the murderous campaign in October that year. With his diocese forming ground zero in the drug war, the bishop has established 14 mission stations deep in some of Manila's worst slums, where Catholic clerics live and minister to the forgotten.

In front of the darkened cathedral stands a gleaming black marble memorial to Kian Delos Santos, a local youth whose casual murder in 2017 by three policemen caused rare public outrage. Unusually, the killers were convicted late last year.

"He was a total nobody," the bishop told Nikkei. "But he gave a name and face to the victims who are nameless and faceless. You don't get moved by somebody anonymous.

"There are a lot of Catholics who don't see anything wrong with this," said the bishop. "That really breaks my heart."

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