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How one reporter tells the story of Philippines President Duterte's drug war

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in 2016, Patricia Evangelista was a field correspondent for Rappler, an independent news agency based in Manila. Hours after Duterte's inauguration, the body of a man was found, with a sign declaring him a drug lord. So began years of reporting on the thousands of people who died as a result of Duterte's war on drugs and the thousands more who were left behind. Those years of reporting are the subject of Evangelista's new book. It's called "Some People Need Killing: A Memoir Of Murder In My Country." And as the title of the book suggests, there will be frank discussion of extrajudicial killings that some may find disturbing.

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PATRICIA EVANGELISTA: The story that Rodrigo Duterte told when he ran for the presidency was that the reason for the shambles the country was in was a drug scourge. And then he said that addicts were terrible people. Kill them all, he said. So he didn't believe in rehabilitation. He believed in retribution. And people who voted for Rodrigo Duterte believed the same thing.

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EVANGELISTA: He came at an important point where many people across decades had been living with failed expectations. Many people were poor. Many people were frustrated. Duterte came in and said, I know what's the problem, and I will fix it for you. People elected a violent autocrat on an excess of hope. They hoped for something better. I expected there to be deaths on the street. The velocity of it was stunning in the aftermath.

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EVANGELISTA: I really understood it one evening when we were told there was a death at a 7-Eleven. And we got into the cars, and we raced to the crime scene. And we were outside a 7-Eleven, and there was no body. Then we understood it was a different 7-Eleven, so we went down, covered the body, counted the bullets - that sort of thing. And then we got another alert. There was a body in front of a 7-Eleven. And then we said, we're here. They said, no, it's a different one. It was the same 7-Eleven that we had just been to - within something like 30 minutes.

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EVANGELISTA: The reason for me that I understood how enormous this was - the sudden change in conscience and morality and perspective in my country - is that, according to the witnesses, the man who was killed - he was standing in front of the store. His killer walked up to him, shot him and then walked away. He was unmasked. There was no getaway van. There was no motorcycle to pick him up. He didn't even run. He walked away like it was normal.

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EVANGELISTA: You have to listen to the language to understand how normalized it is for everyone else on the ground. So words like salvage - to the rest of the world, that's a hopeful word. Salvage means to save, to rescue. To us, salvage meant to kill in a very particular sort of way, where they are left as scarecrows in the aftermath - that they are warnings to other people.

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EVANGELISTA: Let me show you how a man is salvaged. I was standing at the high point of a bridge, and a dead man was lying in the shadow of a parapet wall. He was a big man with big, bare feet. There was a sign beside him. It said he was a drug dealer. His head had been wrapped in packing tape. And that's when I heard the screaming. It came from the bottom of the bridge - a woman's voice, high and shrill. I saw her face first, and then her feet come running. She fell to her knees beside me, just outside the yellow crime scene tape. She said her name was Ivy (ph). She said the dead man was her husband. She said she knew him by his feet. Rene de Cieto (ph) had been salvaged.

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EVANGELISTA: In the aftermath, I saw Ivy many times. And I told Ivy that there would be a book, and she said, tell them our love story. So that's what I'm telling you now. She loved him. He loved her, and she loves him all the way to now.

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EVANGELISTA: For me, I want to keep a good record. I want to honor the people who told me their stories. So if I can put it on paper in as clear a way as I can, maybe it matters someday for whoever is looking for a reckoning. And at the same time, I mostly thought, with so many names and so many bodies, that the job was to reconstruct the man who was lost. When there was a challenge of likely crimes against humanity, the president said, I'd like to be frank with you. Are they human? What is your definition of a human being? So perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, across the book, I was trying to define the human being in whatever fashion other people see ordinary, regular, everyday people. Here is the color of their shoe. Here is the tenor of their scream. Here is what he last said to his mother.

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EVANGELISTA: What I learned writing the book is that language matters and that language builds realities. All over the world, charismatic men and women will tell stories. And sometimes we laugh because it's funny. And sometimes they'll say some things that are dangerous but not dangerous enough. And then maybe we'll applaud. And then they'll say something a little more dangerous, like maybe kill a drug dealer, and then later maybe kill a journalist, maybe kill an activist. And then maybe, because of what they say and what they do, a vigilante with a gun will also say, maybe some people need killing.

The language matters. And the reason the book is called what it is is because it is the bluntest way to say it - that some people do believe some people need killing. With violence all over the world, with many situations where some lives are considered less grieveable than others, maybe it is proper to ask the question as bluntly as possible - do we think some people need killing? My job is to stand over the body on the ground and then ask, did this have to happen? And always, the answer is it's because someone stood behind the barrel of a gun and said yes. I hope someone, somewhere, might read the book and answer no to it.

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SUMMERS: That was writer Patricia Evangelista talking about her book, "Some People Need Killing: A Memoir Of Murder In My Country." It's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tinbete Ermyas
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.