As President Donald Trump is set to meet with President Rodrigo Duterte when he visits the Philippines, watch our full interview with Raffy Lerma, an award-winning photojournalist who has documented Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs.” Since Duterte was elected in 2016, more than 7,000 people have been extrajudicially killed by police or vigilantes. Lerma discusses his work and the situation in the Philippines.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We look now at the deadly “war on drugs” in the Philippines, which has been underway since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June of 2016. Thousands of drug users and dealers have been killed in police operations or by vigilantes. Thousands more have been arrested and crammed into prisons, like the Quezon City jail, which sometimes holds 4,000 people in an area built to hold 800.
For more, we’re joined in New York by an incredibly brave, award-winning photojournalist, Raffy Lerma, who’s usually based in the Philippines, where he has documented President Duterte’s so-called war on drugs.
A warning to our viewers: Many of his images show graphic violence.
A 2016 Huffington Post profile described one of his nights on the job like this: quote, “Photographer Raffy Lerma was only a few minutes into the overnight shift for the Philippine Daily Inquirer when he received word that three bodies had been found on the streets of Manila. Out he went to capture the image. Then there was a drug bust, and a few hours later an extrajudicial killing. It was his first night back on the shift, and he was shocked by the rate the calls were coming in.”
Raffy Lerma joins us now in our New York studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Raffy.
RAFFY LERMA: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what’s happening in the Philippines right now.
RAFFY LERMA: It’s really overwhelming, what’s happening in the Philippines right now. There, close to 14,000 people have been killed in this—the name of the drug war, and 4,000 of which have been claimed by police in police operations. They claim that they have killed 4,000 people. And the rest are unexplained killings, those they say that are deaths under investigation. And some of them are the vigilante killings. And, well, yes, so many people have been killed.
AMY GOODMAN: One of Raffy Lerma’s most famous photographs documents President Duterte’s “war on drugs,” showing a woman, Jennilyn Olayres, grieving as she cradles the lifeless body of her husband, Michael Siaron. Next to him is a sign, left by his killers, that reads, “I am a drug pusher. Do not copy.” Raffy, your photo is known as the “Pieta,” “Pieta” image, because it echoes the Pieta sculpture in the Vatican that shows the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. Talk about the night that you took this photograph.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, I could remember still what happened that night. We came from another crime scene. Actually, he was—Michael Siaron was the third killing that night, out of four. And I could already see that there was a strong picture. It’s rarely you see a family member inside the police cordon and beside the victim. And she was holding onto her partner, Michael Siaron. And when I—later on, I interviewed Jennilyn Olayres, and she told me she wanted to feel if the body of Michael Siaron was still hot or warm, if he was still alive. And also, I could remember still how she was telling us to stop taking pictures and just to help them.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel about that?
RAFFY LERMA: To be honest, like a vulture.
AMY GOODMAN: You felt like a vulture?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes. And we were preying on the—taking the pictures. And we couldn’t do anything. And, well, I have to do my job, but it was really—you know, you felt you wanted to do something more, but you also have to do your job.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does Jennilyn feel now about this picture you took that has become so famous? She has become this image very much showing the pain of what is happening. I mean, you’re talking about what? Like more than 10 people killed on average every night. And we’re talking about by police, by vigilantes, all coordinated in this “war on drugs” that is coordinated by the president of your country, the Philippines, Duterte.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, it’s hard to speak for Jennilyn. I’m still in contact with her and her family. But she would rather not remember it and remember what happened that night. She wants to, of course, forget about it and move on. But still, it’s hard.
AMY GOODMAN: Did she tell you about Michael and who he was?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes, of course. And I remember, too, that—I think it was four days later—I went to the wake of Michael Siaron. And first, the family members were hesitant for letting media into the wake, because, first, of course, what happened that night had been—kind of they were feasted upon, everyone taking their pictures, and film crews.
AMY GOODMAN: And it came about because of your photograph, which Duterte specifically addressed.
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, you got to him.
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Because you captured what is happening on his streets with his own so-called law enforcement forces. He called your photograph overly dramatic and criticized it as fake?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes, he did mention it in the State of the Nation address. He did mention that. He said it was overly dramatic, and you’re being portrayed like a Mother Mary and Jesus Christ. I really felt sorry for Jennilyn Olayres and the family of Michael Siaron, because they were already grieving, and he should have given them that dignity already, for me. But the second part is, I think—I’m not sure, again, with the word, if I was vindicated that the photo was mentioned during the State of the Nation address, but it reached the person who had to be reached. It was the president. And now people began talking about the drug war and the killings.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your night shift, Raffy? What does that mean? When does your day start? And what exactly do you do?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, we start around 9 p.m., the night. And we usually hang out in this press office located at the—beside the police station, the Manila Police District main headquarters in Manila. And in that press office, most journalists, we monitor what’s going in the night with the killings, and we share the information. Sometimes—most of the times, you go as a group, in going to these crime scenes, and stay there until 4 a.m., but sometimes until 5 a.m. Before, especially the first six months, 4 to 5 a.m. is usually the time where the street sweepers will find those being killed with a summary execution, those people packed in—wrapped in packaging tape. And sometimes we extend.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are they wrapped in packaging tape?
RAFFY LERMA: To be honest, I don’t know. It might be meant to—might be a scare tactic, I mean, meant to sow fear among people. And they are made to be faceless, these victims.
AMY GOODMAN: Like mummies.
RAFFY LERMA: Probably. And they place—usually, they have these cardboards saying that they are drug pushers.
AMY GOODMAN: They leave these notes—
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —on cardboard.
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And who are these vigilantes?
RAFFY LERMA: I do not know. Some of the reports will say they are being paid by people with, I don’t know, authority, or they have handlers, basically.
AMY GOODMAN: Do police do this, as well?
RAFFY LERMA: Cannot say that. But there were reports, too, especially in the Amnesty. There was an Amnesty report saying that some police were paid.
AMY GOODMAN: Does Duterte condone the killings?
RAFFY LERMA: No, does not condone the killings. Actually, in his first—in many of his speeches, he was instigating the killing of the—
AMY GOODMAN: Right, he—I don’t mean he condemns. Does he endorse the killings?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Does he promote them? Does he say that it’s the right thing to do?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes. He was saying that in several of his speeches, many of his speeches. But now, I don’t know if he’s been maybe saying less of it now.
AMY GOODMAN: The number of people who are killed and the kinds of neighborhoods they come from, can you describe these neighborhoods?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, these are really impoverished neighborhoods. And these are slums. These are—like in the house of Michael Siaron, he was living in the middle of a creek full of garbage. That was your typical drug pusher, alleged drug pusher.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the enemy that Duterte is trying to rid the Philippines of.
RAFFY LERMA: Yeah, most of them. I can say most of the killings are poor, are the poor. I have also covered people like getting caught with millions of drugs’ worth, but they’re alive. They get due process. They go to court. They’re not dying. And these people, they get killed with 200 pesos’ worth of drugs. That’s around $4. That’s your life in the Philippines. It’s not fair.
AMY GOODMAN: You go out every night. You’re covering bullet-ridden bodies. You’re seeing people who were tortured. How does this affect you personally?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, it’s been—physically and emotionally been—but compared to the victims’ families, I think I cannot compare myself to the grief they’re going through. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Why do—
RAFFY LERMA: —just have to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why? Why do you think it’s important to take the photographs you take?
RAFFY LERMA: At first, yes, we were thinking that when we cover this, there will be changes, that this might stop, this will end the killings. That was, of course, what we intended to do. But it’s not stopping. Now it’s more of documenting this, and hopefully people will realize, maybe 10, 15 years from now, that this documentation is important, and in the hopes that this does not happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on President Trump visiting the Philippines? Trump shocked many when he talked about his admiration for Duterte. I want to go to a clip of Philippines President Duterte, in his own words. Last September, Duterte likened himself to Hitler.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million—what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: Philippines President Duterte. Your thoughts on what he said, talking about Hitler and more?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, if they’re not owning up to these killings, I don’t know what. I mean, he’s the president. And saying this does not help in solving the killings. He’s instigating. He’s promoting it.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have our president, the president of the United States, President Trump, who seemed to endorse the so-called war on drugs of Duterte. Duterte, who spoke with Trump by telephone, said Trump was “quite sensitive” to “our worry about drugs.” “He wishes me well,” said Duterte, “in my campaign … [H]e said … we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way.”
And I want to share with you the words of President Trump: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said in an April 29th phone call, according to a leaked transcript of the conversation with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte published by The Intercept and also obtained by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Trump said, “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” President Trump said.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, sorry to say this, but I hope this—what’s happening in the Philippines does not happen here. If he’s—if they’re solving the drug problem this way and killing people, I hope it does not happen in America.
AMY GOODMAN: And what thoughts do you have on President Trump coming to meet the Philippines president, Duterte?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, I hope that he is more aware of what the human rights situation is happening in the Philippines. And it should be addressed. He’s the leader of the free world. He should set an example. And I hope he says something about it now.
AMY GOODMAN: Raffy Lerma, what do you think needs to happen in the Philippines?
RAFFY LERMA: For me, let’s start with stopping the killings, first. Let’s go there. Let’s find real solutions in solving this drug problem.
AMY GOODMAN: What are those solutions?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, first, let’s build the facilities first. We don’t have proper drug rehabilitation centers, jail facilities. And it’s also education. There’s so much ignorance. Like what I was—it was in what Carl Hart was saying earlier. I heard it. There’s so much ignorance in drug abuse, in drugs, in general. Let’s find those solutions. It’s not killings.
AMY GOODMAN: Raffy Lerma, what gives you the strength to go out every night? And are you afraid for your own life? Has it gotten more difficult to document this? You would come right up to the families, the dead bodies. Has it been more difficult, the more your photographs have an effect? Do you find the police moving in quicker and stopping you?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, what drives me—first, it’s been more than a year. There’s a half—one-and-a-half year of covering this. And what’s the body—killing, the numbers, it’s around 14,000 already. So there’s four-and-a-half years to go. I could imagine what the numbers will be when the president end his term. So, that alone, thinking about it, it’s that drive. You want this to stop.
And talking about the police, well, there was a report by Reuters, and they’ve—we’ve seen that. Police have been taking people who were killed in police operations, and they’ve been bringing to the hospitals, even if they’re dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
RAFFY LERMA: I don’t know. I cannot say what—why do they have to bring to the hospital when they’re already dead?
AMY GOODMAN: What could possibly be the reason?
RAFFY LERMA: For us media not to cover it.
AMY GOODMAN: For you not to show the photographs of the bodies in the streets.
RAFFY LERMA: Maybe, yeah. Maybe. Cannot say, really, what their intentions are, but what’s the use?
AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned for your own life?
RAFFY LERMA: I don’t really want to talk about it, because, to be honest, threats have been only on social media. It hasn’t gone beyond social media. And to be honest, I don’t want to give the idea already to supporters. But, hopefully, it stays that way. Hopefully, it stays that way, that we can still cover. And I don’t want to think of myself as that important. We’re just doing our job, honestly. I don’t—I don’t really think about that that much, safety. Yes, sometimes in covering, you’ll hear the police saying, “You cannot take pictures.” But we now our rights, too. We just have to follow procedures. I mean, we don’t cross the police line. If it’s in public, we have every right to take pictures. We have to document it. If it’s inside the homes, well, let’s wait until the forensics finish their processing of the crime scene, and if we ask the family if we can take photos from inside.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think your photos could stop the killings?
RAFFY LERMA: It’s not me alone. It’s not—it’s not through photos alone. We will be there. We will do our work. But it’s the work of everyone. It’s a collective effort. Everyone should—the way to stop the killings is for—I hope everyone in the Philippines recognizes this is wrong, and they should do something about it. It’s not only through photos.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Raffy Lerma, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Raffy Lerma is a photojournalist based in Manila, in the Philippines. He was a staff photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, now a freelance journalist who continues to document the government’s “war on drugs.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.