A Cultural Taboo, Alicia Flores

When I decided to go to the Philippines, my family told me that they didn’t want me traveling alone, that I should be careful, and that what I was researching was dangerous. I imagine this is the attitude that has perpetuated the regime of impunity in the Philippines. So many people have decided to be “careful” that the common belief is that nothing can be done, so no one tries.

I went to the Philippines to conduct research and interviews to gain an understanding of the culture and systemic context of Duterte’s drug war. Along the way I gleaned understanding of the undercurrents of taboo and corruption and ignorance that perpetuate the effects of this regime.

I went to the Philippines for me, but I came back with the humbling knowledge that this isn’t about my writing. Here is what I learned about the Filipino experience from a couple of my interviews:

  1. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know any more. They feel it like a sickness. And it’s a different ailment for everyone.

“I’m familiar with the drug problem in the sense that I know it’s been there for years. Even when I was in the times in the 50’s it was already there. What worries me about the drug problem is that it has also brought around this sense of anarchy now and so many killings and I’m sure that many of those who are killed are innocent. I’m positive, you know. Because our policemen are not ordered or careful, they don’t go by the book, and they say, ‘Oh we need ten people killed tonight, so we shoot, you know.” – author F. Sionil Jose


  1. Some people have convictions, and some are scared for a fight.

“Because the victims now, their  families are not really aware of their human rights. And it’s really frustrating sometimes when you get to talk to the families. They will say, ‘My son is innocent. He’s very kind. It’s better if he was a drug addict or a drug pusher.’ But when you think about it, it’s still not right. Even if he’s a pusher or user, you shouldn’t be killed. But for the family, they themselves believe that if he’s a pusher or an addict, then it’s better. So, there really is a lot of things to still do in terms of human rights awareness.” – human rights

worker Sunshine Serrano


  1. They need support. If they felt like they would have support, they would do something.

“We can’t blame the families of the victims if sometimes they don’t want to tell the stories of what happened to their relative. Because sometimes, they’re scared, because after their interview, we will go out of the place, but they will remain there.” – human rights worker Richie Supan


  1. Their world works against them. Their poverty makes them good, but makes them forget. America’s world also works against them. It makes us free and makes us ignorant.

“If people are aware that this shouldn’t be happening, and this is not the solution, then I think it would be a complete turn-around of events. If they believe that the drug problem is not the main problem of this country, it’s poverty, and if there are indeed drug users, drug dependents, sometimes they, they need help. It’s a health issue, actually.” – Supan


  1. I need to see these deaths brought to justice.

Supan talked about how working in human rights with such a small staff and limited resources and support has impacted her mental health.

“It’s really stressful, really. Especially when you get to talk with the relatives, you go to the area, and you see the situation that they’re in. Because you will really see that those who are the victims are those that are really poor and they’re marginalized, and you will see that – where is justice? It’s not really fair, what’s happening to this country. And of course you can’t show that when you’re talking with the families of the victims. You have to say, ‘Okay, okay…’ and then you get out, and that’s when you feel it’s really very heavy.”

When asked the story she has documented that has impacted her the most, she said, “I cannot pick one. Because everything is like, when you hear the stories, you will just say, how can people do such things, and it’s so inhuman, and it’s not like… really it’s for animals, so I can’t just pick one. It’s very difficult.”

I originally titled my project “Writing About Life Amidst Organized Crime” because I thought that the only thing I could get out of it was stories to write about. But I found that, when I wrote, I could write about my experience clearly enough, but it wasn’t interesting. When I tried to write about what I was witnessing, the words became incoherent. Because I knew that what needed to be said was blown way out of proportion if I were to write a single post or story or book. I needed to hear people’s stories more than I needed to write them. I realized that here in America, we need the Philippines. And the Filipinos, they desire America, but we are totally ignoring them.

The contrast between what I knew to be true as the result of human rights research and the common perception of the drug war as something that is good, unfortunately necessary, or inevitable and irreversible from each new person that I talked to one day made me break down and cry uncontrollably, praying to God that people – Filipinos and Americans – could see this human suffering as a local emergency. As something that requires action, not – dare I say it – cowardice. Oplan Tokhang victims are talked about both in America and the Philippines as if they were caught in a particularly ugly tropical storm.

The attitude is that nothing can be done, and a tone of resignation is normalized, as if this were a real war and not the killing game of a corrupt politician. I have decided that my contributing action must be in the form of an innovation of communication. Human rights work cannot continue to be pushed into a corner of public attention. I will continue to visit and learn more because I know that knowledge and experience changes a person’s motivation and ability to act.

My Reading: A Duterte Reader, Illustrado, America Is Not the Heart, In the Country, Myths, Noli Me Tangere/Rizal, Dusk/Sionil Jose, Gun Dealer’s Daughter, Tagalog for Beginners

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