Drug killings dominate balitaan drills of graders

By Karol Ilagan
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

MARAGONDON, Cavite – Since school opened last June, the balitaan portion of eighth-grader Micaella Javier’s Araling Panlipunan class has been full of reports on the deaths prompted by President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs.Save for stories about the State of the Nation Address and the controversy over the West Philippine Sea, nearly all the news 13-year-old Micaella can recall from the daily exercise are those about the killings of drug suspects.

Mass media reports on the new administration’s anti-drug campaign have so far given Micaella two images of the results of the police operations: bodies wrapped in packaging tape and left out on the street,and suspects gunned down by police because they fought back or “nanlaban.”

When asked how she and her classmates feel about the daily reports of killings, Micaella says, “Nasasanay na rin po kami (We’re getting used to it).”

The eldest of two children, Micaella lives with her family in Maragondon, Cavite, some 54 kilometers southwest of Manila. While urbanization has crept up in neighboring towns, Maragondon has managed to keep its quiet, bucolic appeal. Garita A, the barangay where Micaella lives, has become even more peaceful at night, on account of a 10-p.m. curfew imposed by local officials.

Maragondon, of course, is most known for being the place where national hero Andres Bonifacio and his brother Procopio were executed in 1897. Contrary to its name, which was derived from the Tagalog word “madagundong” or turbulent, this town has been quite peaceful and has been relatively controversy-free in the last several decades. In 2015, Maragondon had the lowest number of crime incidents in all the towns and cities in Cavite, according to data from the police regional office in Calabarzon. It also posted the second lowest average monthly crime rate – 19 crime incidents for every 100,000 people — in the entire province during the same year. That’s lower than Cavite’s own monthly crime rate of 36, and far lower than Metro Manila’s 97. (The national figure is 56.)

Since Duterte came into power, police anti-drug operations here have so far been limited to arrests. From July 1 to Aug. 7, Maragondon police arrested five suspected “pushers/users” and one alleged user of shabu, Calabarzon police’s Double Barrel Database show.But news about the continuously bloody results of the government’s anti-drug campaign elsewhere have obviously reached Maragondon, and even children here have kept up to speed about the rising pile of bodies. This hasraised concerns about the sustained exposure of children to violence – indirectly or otherwise – and how this may affect their behavior and thinking.

Just another thing?

Dr. Liane Peña Alampay, a developmental psychologist, for one says that the individual response to thedeath of drug suspects could be strong and negative at first. But she says that over time, such killings may be perceived as more “normative” if they continue unabated. By “normative,”Alampay means that taking someone’s life would no longer be shocking, to the point that it becomes a justified means to resolve conflict.

She also says that while adults may be able to appreciate the complexities of a news report about a killing, the younger audience, who are especially drawn to dramatic images and stimulating sounds, will process the piece without necessarily understanding its context. If the killings go on, the Ateneo de Manila University psychology professor says, people — most certainly children — are likely to become desensitized or feel less disturbed when someone is killed. Alampay says that for the young in particular, becoming desensitized to violence can be a problem because it could take away one’s ability to empathize with people’s suffering and experience of injustice.

“Without empathy you cannot protest,” she says. “You don’t become angry, you don’t become upset, you don’t demand for change. After a while people will stop talking about it. It becomes just another thing in our way of life.”

Alampay, who has worked on programs and policies concerning children in conflict with the law, says many people generally view criminals or suspects in a negative way, as if they are scourge to society and that they deserve to die. But while she concedes that the use of drugs and violence or aggression are correlated, the professor says drug addiction is an illness with many factors and risks that make a person vulnerable to drug use. Remarks Alampay: “It’s not something you can decide to stop. It’s not something that makes you a bad person necessarily.”

“The general layperson would see it only as crime, not an illness,” she continues. “They will see the drug user not as a victim, but as a bad person who, in the present context, deserves to be killed.”

Cops as models

Another possible impact of the current anti-drug campaign is that exposure to violence or aggressive models will make it more likely for children to behave in similar fashion, says Alampay. In school, she notes, children are taught that police officers are role models in the community. When the police engage in violent encounters, children may look at these cases as exemptions because they regard police as models, Alampay says. “Their behavior becomes approved,” she says.

For some children whiling their time away together on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the police in this town seem to be still worthy of emulating. Asked to describe the police, the six children – with ages ranging from six to 13 years old – quickly say “matapang (brave),” “matulungin (helpful),” and “nanghuhulingmasama(catch bad people).”

Eleven-year-old EmarEsguerra even says he wants to become a policeman someday, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both former police officials.And while the girlsin the group all say they are afraid of drug addicts, Emar says he has no reason to fear them because Maragondon is “sakopngpulis (controlled by the police)” and the police are doing their job.

Yet Emar is as worried as the girls about the killings, even though, like Micaella Javier, they all say they have gotten used to these. Emar’s cousins Nadia and Sofiel Monares, 11 and nine years old respectively, also wonder whether those killed are really involved in drug activities. If those who wound up dead were innocent, the two girls say, then there’s also chance for other innocent people to be implicated and targeted.

The children nevertheless see President Duterte in a positive light, which is not exactly surprising in a place where many boys and girls still sport Duterte ballers on their tiny wrists. Asked what description comes to mind when they think about Duterte, Emar says the chief executive is “without fear,” while Nadia comes up with “man of action.” But then 13-year-old Joanna Sisraconpipes up to say Duterte promised to “kill all drug addicts,” which doesn’t seem tosit well with the other children.

Role for parents

Nadia says not everyone has to die, but instead should be given the chance to turn over a new leaf. Emar, who also disagrees with the rather gruesome proposal that Joanna says Duterte put forward, comments that the killings would lessen the country’s population.

But Joanna, who like Emar plans to join the police force when she grows up, says drug users and pushers do not do society any good. They even put other people’s lives in danger, she says.

It’s unclear if PO2Dominga Flores, the assistant officer of the women and children’s protection desk at the Maragondon Municipal Police Station, would count such a view as among the negative effects that she says sustained exposure to violence triggered by the recent spate of killings could have on children. What she is clear on is her belief that it is up to parents and teachers to guide their children on the issues involved. She says this is precisely the reason why TV programs have “Parental Guidance” ratings. (See sidebar)

Flores says that the police themselves have conducted at least two drug symposiums each at two high schools in Maragondon since July. This is because, she says, illegal drugs have become a more important issue now in Maragondon after President Duterte took his oath of office.

The drug symposiums are part of the local police’s effort to help inform students of the adverse effects of illegal drugs — shabu and marijuana in particular — on the body, as well as the consequences for people found in violation of Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

Arrested in school

Just this July 1, Maragondon police arrested a 19-year-old student of the Cavite National Science High School for supposedly using and pushing illegal drugs. According to Calabarzon police’s Double Barrel Database, Maragondon police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Region IV-A conducted a buy-bust operation in which a police asset bought drugs from the suspect. Police officers arrested the student at his school, where he is in Grade 11. Official reports say the police recovered from him a green coin purse containing three small, heat-sealed, and transparent plastic sachets that had suspected marijuana. The suspect is currently out on bail; his schoolmates say they have yet to see him back in class.

Flores says children between the age of 12 and 16 in particular need guidance because “at this age range (they) are most prone to outside influence.” She explains that this is the phase when children tend to rebel against their parents and become more influenced by peers.

Parents should check whom their children are spending most of their time with outside the house, Flores says. She adds that they should be checking their grades, and then give the children just enough money for school. Having more money, Flores says, could lead a child to buy things he or she doesn’t need or to go to questionable places.

Role for teachers

Teachers also play a crucial role because they stand as second parents, she says, pointing out,

“Schoolchildren spend more time with teachers.”

The problem is that teachers, among other adults, seem to be as stumped as the children over what to make of the government’s current anti-drug war. For instance, Lorna Monzales, amathematics teacher atMaragondon National High School, admits to having difficulty explaining the administration-led measures to her students, whose reactions to the killings range from indifference to fear. Although Monzales says she is certain of one thing — the police are tasked to do what they are doing — she is unable to ignore the possibility that interested parties couldtake advantage of police directives to cover up their own wrongdoingsby killing drug suspects.

“It’s hard for us teachers to instill among our students the pros and cons of the situation,” says Monzales, herself a mother of three. “Killing is still killing.It cannot be justified no matter what.When does wrong become right and right wrong?”

Unable to fully explainthe issue, Monzalessays she simply offers this to her students: “It is beyond our control.”

Rody right or wrong?

Fourth-grade teacher Eden Rose Mendoza shares Monzales’s dilemma. “It’s hard to explain this to children to tell you honestly,” she says. “Is the president doing the right or wrong thing? I cannot explain why people are killed.”

Though still uncertain of the answers, Mendoza at least finds an opportunity to remind her students to stay away from drugs because “it does nothing good for your body.”

She notes that her mostly eight-year-old students usually get their current-event reports from television. Mendoza then says that children should watch the news with their parents. “A child shouldn’t be watching the news and then have questions but not get answers,” she says.

Mendoza says she watches TV with her own son, a fifth-grader, who also needs to get news for his class’ own balitaan. But she says she and her son do not get to discuss the content in detail because he only watches to get enough information for his assignment and then moves on to other things.

Watch TV with kids

Development psychologist Alampay, for her part, says she and her husband talk about the issue with their three older children, aged between 12 and 15 years old. She says that just recently, her children saw the now-famous photo of a woman cradling her partner’s dead body in an issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The headline was “Church: Thou shall not kill.” Alampay says she told her children that she and her husband did not know whether or not the victim was guilty of anything.

“So we talk about it,” she says. “They know what we think about it and that influences them. So they know that this is not a good thing that is happening to our country, that there are concepts such as human rights and that every person has a right to due process.”

In the meantime, Micaella Javier’s mother Rosalindasays she doesn’t really get to guide her two daughters so much while watching the news because she feels they already know what they are watching. Rosalinda says that Micaella knows more than she does about many things. Known in the barangay for being smart, Micaellagraduated valedictorian in elementary school. She hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to become an architect or an accountant in the future, saying she likes math, drawing, and analytics in equal measure.

Micaella says that because of her homework, she does not get to watch the nightly news regularly. But whenever she does, she says her parents do watch the news with her and offer some explanations about the drug-related killings.

Feeling 50-50

“They also have comments,”Micaella says of her mother and father. “The vigilante killings, they say it’s not the police doing those. It’s the vigilantes who want to destroy the administration. As for suspects killed while in police custody, they say, ‘They’re at fault.’ They wouldn’t be in this situation had they surrendered early on.”

Like her parents and fellow members of the Reformed Christian Life Church, Micaella supports the President.For her, Duterte had inspired the police to do their job even before he was elected. She says officers need to defend themselves if a drug suspect attacks them or resists arrest. Yet, she also says,the police should practice restraint and not kill suspects because of the information the latter could provide to help track drug lords.

Queried whether she has felt fear whenever she hears about the killings, Micaella replies, “Fifty-fifty.” She explains that the fear comes primarily from the possibility of being caught in the crossfire and getting physically hurt, as well as the chances of getting dragged into trouble that is not of one’s own making.

Perhaps it’s not an unusual response from someone who goes to the same school as the youthful suspect caught recently by Maragondon police. A few weeks after, too, two little girls would on separate incidents become collateral damage in the war against illegal drugs, albeit in places far from Maragondon.

Up north in Pangasinan, five-year-old Danica Mae Garcia would be felled by bullets intended for her grandfather, who days earlier had tried to clear his name after landing in a list of suspected drug pushers. Down south in Negros Occidental, meanwhile, policemen targeting suspected “drug personality” Pim Alrick Balbom would also shoot dead his four-year-old daughter Althea Fhem Barbon.

Micaella, however, says that her fear is assuaged by a church teaching that says one should not be afraid of death.

“If you’re a true Christian, your fear of death is lessened bit by bit,” she says. “You’re no longer afraid to die because you realize when you die, you will be with God.” — PCIJ, September 2016