Memoir of a Murder in the Philippines

Patricia Evangelista’s Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country is not an easy read. An account of genocide is never an easy read. Now, some may quibble that former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s taking the lives of only (!) 27,000 people does not qualify as genocide. But Duterte himself knew it was genocide he was unleashing on his country when, in the third month of his war on drugs, he made his celebrated remark: “Hitler massacred three million Jews… Now, there are three million drug addicts…I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Because it is an account of genocide, I would be surprised if Patricia Evangelista’s Some People Need Killing were to become a bestseller in my country. For many Filipinos now want to forget the Duterte years, treating them as a nightmare from which they have fortunately awakened. And, indeed, for a very large number, among them avid readers of bestsellers, the book will be an unwelcome reminder that they had a hand in bringing the man to power.

Executioners and Victims 

That many of Evangelista’s compatriots will consider the book a repository of memories that are best left in slumber is unfortunate since they will not encounter the unforgettable characters that she profiles in painstaking detail. There is, of course, Duterte, who does not hesitate to tell his audiences, “There will be blood,” or something to that effect, that invariably triggers their enthusiastic applause. There is Evangelista’s main contact in the police force, a Colonel Domingo, who revels in her portrayal of him as an all-knowing malignant presence in an article even as he distances himself from the actual snuffing of lives. There is Simon, a vigilante to whom the killing of suspected drug dealers and users is subcontracted by the police, who tells Evangelista, “I’m really not a bad guy…I’m not all bad.  Some people need killing.”

But for this reviewer, the most distressing—and poignant—case is that of Normy Lopez, the mother of Djastin, an epileptic brutally gunned down by the police in one of those executions they tried to pass off as a result of “resistance” on the part of the victim.  Normy, however, was not one to take the murder of her son sitting down. She sought justice through the Commission on Human Rights, through the courts, and she succeeded in getting the murderer identified and charged.

Then, her determination to get justice for her son faltered, and the reason was not a threat from the police but poverty.  She decided to withdraw the case against Djastin’s killer because the lure of a monetary settlement was too great and her family’s economic circumstances were too wretched. “I regret it,” she tells the author. “Until now, I regret it. I regret it every time I see Djastin’s picture. I’d stop it if I could. If we never signed, I’d take it back. If we never got the money, if it hadn’t been spent, I’d give it all back.”

Why They Went for Duterte

How could people be taken in by Duterte?  The author offers not a formal sociological analysis but has Duterte’s supporters speak for themselves. Jason Quizon, who considered himself a liberal, said it was because Duterte was a “man of action” who would get rid of corruption and whose tough words about killing criminals were meant mainly to impress “simple-minded people.” Dondon Chan, a law-abiding man, said it was because Duterte would get rid people who were a “drain on the country’s resources.“ Joy Tan, because the preceding administration had been incompetent. Ann Valdez, because she finally found in Duterte the father figure she had been in search of.

But were these people taken in?

In my view—and most likely Evangelista’s, too—Duterte’s appeal lay in people seeing in him what they wanted to see: a law-and-order guy, someone who would get rid of corruption and officials on the take, someone who would take on the rich and powerful. Indeed, for some on the left—and there were not an insignificant number—“Digong” was the medium of the social revolution that had eluded them.

So, were all these good people taken in? Or did they delude themselves?

The Duterte Puzzle

I would like to add my two cents worth in solving the puzzle that was Duterte. Evangelista does not explicitly acknowledge this, but her narrative implies that the guy had charisma. Not the inspirational type, like that of his authoritarian buddy, Narendra Modi of India. Rather, it was gangster charm, that powerful mix that both attracts and repels, similar to that conveyed by Robert De Niro in his best mafioso chieftain roles.

This perverse charm was connected to Duterte’s discourse—a mixture of boasts, outrageous revelations, and curses that people did not hear from run-of-the-mill politicos, and therefore, was captivating, indeed, for some, hypnotic. Regarding Duterte’s discourse, let me put on my professional sociologist’s hat and make three observations.

First, from a progressive and liberal point of view, his discourse was politically incorrect. But that was its very strength; it came across as liberating to its middle-class and lower-class audience. Duterte was seen as telling it as it was, as deliberately mocking the dominant discourse of human rights, democratic rights, and social justice that had been ritually invoked during the annual celebrations marking the so-called “EDSA Revolution” that had overthrown the dictator Marcos but was increasingly regarded as a cynical coverup for the very real lack of human rights, democracy, and genuine equality in post-EDSA Philippines and its pervasive corruption.

Second, Duterte’s discourse involved a clever application of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the strategy of condescension. His coarse declarations, delivered conversationally and with frequent shifts from Tagalog to Bisaya to English, made people identify with him, eliciting laughter with his portrayal of himself as someone who bumbled along like the rest of the crowd or had the same illicit desires, at the same time that it also reminded the audience that he was someone different from and above them, as someone with power. This was especially evident when he paused and uttered his signature, “Papatayin kita,” or “I will kill you,” as in “If you destroy the youth of my country by giving them drugs, I will kill you.”

Third, Duterte’s speechmaking did not follow a conceptual or rhetorical logic, and this was another reason he could connect with the masses. The formal conceptual message written by speechwriters was deliberately overridden by a series of long digressions where he told tales in which he was invariably at the center of things that he knew would hold the audience’s attention, even when they had heard it several times before.

Let me confess here that when I listened to Duterte’s digressions, peppered as they were with outrageous comments, like telling an audience he would pardon policemen convicted of extra-judicial executions so they could go after the people who brought them to court, my mind had to restrain my body from joining the chorus of laughter at the sheer comic effrontery of his words. The impact was not unlike that felt by Evangelista while she was at a massive rally listening to Duterte’s final speech before the 2016 presidential elections, an explosive rant pockmarked by a thousand and one digressions that would be his signature style over the next six years: “You elitists, I write. Us versus them, I write. Kill you, I write. The lights burn hot. The woman behind me screams the mayor’s name, and in spite of my Latin honors, I feel a compulsion to cheer too.”


The author informs us later in her narrative that Duterte supporters Jason Quizon, Dondon Chan, Joy Tan, and Ann Valdez ended up expressing their regret at having voted a mass murderer to office. But how representative are they of the millions who cast their ballots for him? I doubt if many others recanted. Faced with the unpleasant consequences of their deeds, the likely reaction of most people is to dig in their heels or simply shrug off their responsibility like water off a duck’s back.

Like any good book, Some People Need Killing poses more questions than answers, and perhaps the biggest ones are: Why did the people of what is often referred to as Asia’s oldest democracy allow a mass murderer to get away with murder for six years? Why, despite his record of genocide, did they give him a 75 percent approval rating when he left office? As in Hitler’s coming to power on the heels of an electoral victory in 1933, was not democracy an accomplice in Duterte’s ascent to the presidency in 2016?

As I said at the beginning of this review, Some People Need Killing will probably not be a bestseller in my country (though I desperately wish to be proven wrong). But it will be a testament to the harsh reality that once upon a time, blood flowed profusely in the streets and alleyways of our cities while many Filipinos applauded, that, unless we learn and act on the hard truth that our society needs fundamental reforms to bring about a better dispensation than the rotten one we now have, there can be no guarantee that a murderous fascist like Rodrigo Duterte will not again emerge from the sewers, from the depths of people’s despair.

Patricia Evangelista describes herself in the book as a “trauma journalist.” The term is apt, but equally fitting is the description “tenacious journalist”—one who sought without let-up the killers in uniform to extract the truth that was hidden in their minds and the evil that was lurking in their hearts. If ever Duterte is extradited to the Hague to stand trial, her book will undoubtedly serve as one of the decisive pieces of evidence that will merit him the multiple life sentences he will have to serve at the detention center of the International Criminal Court in the prison complex of Scheveningen on the outskirts of the Hague…If.

Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).