In Payatas under Tokhang, Community Relations are Weaponized
By: Cleve Arguelles
Two years into the polarizing presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the rising number of dead bodies as a result of his war on illegal drugs has now become a regular news item. Civil society groups estimate a staggering 12,000 deaths associated with the anti-drug campaign. Experts and advocates have also started to uncover the tragic consequences of the drug war to the kin of the victims, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights in the country. Vigilantism, for example, found a conducive space to grow under Oplan Tokhang. In this essay, I join these conversations and reveal that Duterte’s war on drugs have also caused disastrous effects on trust, cooperation and shared values among Tokhang-target communities. This is alarming since poor communities rely on these ordinary virtues to survive the miseries of their everyday poverty, violence and insecurity. As such, even after the drug war, the degradation of social capital in these communities will have adverse long-term consequences. I draw insights from my continuing fieldwork in several poor communities in the country as part of my fellowship with iLEAD on Listening to the Populist Publics1.
Tight-knit communities are the norm within the slums of Metro Manila. In Payatas, urban space is limited, and families are forced to live so tightly together; a corollary of such is a cohesive social network wherein everybody knows everybody. The presence of strong community ties creates a neighborhood of self-help networks where these poor families pool resources, share information, and provide emotional support. In times of need like in cases of unemployment or disasters, urban poor communities rely on this social network to cope. This informal system of mutual assistance and risk-sharing, of course, is based on shared trust and reciprocity. But what has always been a means of survival—a way of negotiating their everyday life of multiple insecurities—for the urban poor folk is now being weaponized against themselves. In Duterte’s drug war, who you know may be the difference of whether you will end up in “the list” of drug users and pushers. Police arrest individuals or worse, kill them based on this list. As such, the extent of your social capital unfortunately determines whether you live or die.
In the government’s anti-drug campaign, citizens are the foot soldiers; individuals living in these slum areas are tapped to become informants and instructed to keep watch on and report their peers. Aling Pasing2, a barangay volunteer in Payatas, detailed how the so-called “drug lists” are created and how suspects to be arrested or killed are identified from this list. The lists are compiled by sub-village leaders who tap people among their constituents to feed them information, as per the orders of barangay officials who were, in turn, ordered by the police. They produce a map of the area assigned to them, mark houses with questionable activities, and submit this to authorities. Aling Pasing insists that the lists were thorough, detailed, and systematic, however, in the very same conversation where Aling Pasing was detailing this, members of her own community cried foul.
Nanay Juana, a local resident, protested the accuracy of the drug list and questioned the inclusion of her name as one of the suspects in their barangay. Her house was raided as a result of being on the list and that, when they found no evidence linking her to any illegal drug activities, she was tapped to become an informant, an ‘opportunity’ that Nanay Juana declined in the name of her safety. Nanay Juana has lost trust for the local government officials and whoever was involved in making the drug lists. She insisted that the deadly list can be abused by sub-village leaders or other residents to intimidate, harass and even endanger one’s enemies in the community. Her neighbors also lament how some village officials tapped by the police often shield relatives and close friends from the deadly list—even if they are known illegal drug users or pushers. Aling Pasing, however, was not convinced and defended the utility of the drug list. She instead insinuated that it might be Nanay Juana’s son who is into illegal drugs since mothers cannot possibly know what their teenage children are doing, a claim rebutted by Nanay Juana as she tells that her children no longer live with her in the first place.
The police are delegating the crucial task of proper and complete investigation of suspects to ordinary citizens. Ill-equipped and prone to personal bias, the lack of genuine oversight in the compilation of these lists is an alarming malversation of the criminal justice system. It creates an atmosphere of mistrust in the community as their daily interactions as neighbors is now governed by fear of being included in the list. Neighbors are being turned against one another, and thus, the war on drugs claims yet another victim: social trust.
The continued weaponization of community relations leads not only to deaths. When community trust takes a hit, it endangers community cooperation, resilience and recovery in times of disaster and crisis. Families who are extremely poor regularly borrow from their neighbors to satisfy everyday immediate needs. Neighborhood sundry stores allow residents to defer payments for groceries in consideration to the usually precarious nature of the occupations of their clients. In post-calamities, the spirit of bayanihan and pakikipagkapwa takes over communities in their attempt to build back better. Elena, one of the most senior leaders in their village, even remembered that the whole barangay used to take care of “rehabilitated” illegal drug users. They pool their resources to give them livelihood training, opportunities for formal education and other activities to re-integrate. All these, of course, are founded on shared interpersonal and community trust. However, Tokhang’s penetration of local communities replaced this with a relationship of fear, mistrust and hatred of each other. As one Payatas’ religious leaders observed, citizens are increasingly turning to close relatives and small circle of friends as their trusted networks. It is not difficult to imagine what adverse consequences this will cause to the community in the longterm. Civil society interventions against the drug war must take this in consideration too.Community relations have moral dimensions. But it has epistemic ones too. If people are afraid to engage each other, the traditional traffic and deliberation of information is impeded. Without shared knowledge, communities are vulnerable to rumor, panic, disinformation, or even manipulation. In the absence of shared information, a community can neither defend its interests nor do politics together. In the particular case of Duterte’s war on drugs, this may even have deadly consequences. More importantly, individuals governed by fear are even more challenged to perform their roles as democratic actors. Lest we forget, democracy only functions well when we trust one another and empathize with others.
 I benefitted and continue to benefit from the research assistance of my former student Joshua John Rafael from the UP College of Law.
 This is not the real name of the respondent. In the rest of this essay, all respondents are referred to using a pseudonym. To ensure the safety of the respondents and in observance of research ethics, anonymity and confidentiality were observed.