duterte’s luster dulls as rice prices soar in philippines

The New York Times

MANILA — Through controversy after controversy, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has always been able to count on his appeal among the nation’s poor. But soaring prices for staples like rice are starting to alienate that vital base of support.

During his presidency, Mr. Duterte has clashed with cherished institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, made jokes about rape and led a brutal war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

But he now faces deepening discontent in an area that particularly affects the urban poor: the price of food.

The country’s inflation rate has hit a nine-year record — 6.7 percent — after climbing for nine consecutive months, the Philippine Statistics Authority said last week. That situation is bad enough that on Tuesday Mr. Duterte ordered restrictions dropped on the importing of rice, ending a decades-old protectionist policy administered by the country’s National Food Authority.

Read story

crowded cell.jpg

in duterte's philippines, having a beer can now land you in jail

The New York Times

MANILA — When six plainclothes policemen, hands gripping their holstered guns, charged down the winding alleys of the slum where Edwin Panis lives, he didn’t imagine they could be coming for him.

Mr. Panis, 45, was drinking beer with friends near his shack on an embankment overlooking Manila Bay. A stevedore and neighborhood security officer, he hardly fit the profile of the drug addicts and dealers who have been targeted by the police since President Rodrigo Duterte took office — a bloody crackdown that Mr. Panis, like many Filipinos, supported.

But in moments, he and his three friends were under arrest, hands cuffed behind their backs. Their offense: drinking beer in public.

“The war on drugs has become a war on drunks,” Mr. Panis said bitterly, days after his release from an overcrowded cell.

Read story

dynamite fishermen.jpg

in the philippines, dynamite decimates entire food chains

The New York Times

BOHOL, Philippines — Nothing beats dynamite fishing for sheer efficiency.

A fisherman in this scattering of islands in the central Philippines balanced on a narrow outrigger boat and launched a bottle bomb into the sea with the ease of a quarterback. It exploded in a violent burst, rocking the bottom of our boat and filling the air with an acrid smell. Fish bobbed onto the surface, dead or gasping their last breaths.

Under the water, coral shattered into rubble.

The blast ruptured the internal organs of reef fish, fractured their spines or tore at their flesh with coral shrapnel. From microscopic plankton to sea horses, anemones and sharks, little survives inside the 30- to 100-foot radius of an explosion.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 8.09.47 AM.png

a transgender paradox, and platform, in the philippines

The New York Times

MARIA RESPONDO, Philippines — Angel Cabaluna dusted makeup onto her thighs, styled her hair in loose curls and applied smoky eye shadow that glittered on her lids.

As this hamlet of cornfields and concrete houses prepared for festivities honoring its patron saint, and as some people gathered in prayer, Ms. Cabaluna, 20, was primping to compete in an annual transgender beauty pageant.

“This is our passion,” she later said.

Dominated by conservative morals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Philippines is also one of Southeast Asia’s most tolerant countries toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And lawmakers are taking steps to ensure national legal protections that would penalize discrimination against them.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 13.54.53.png


The New York Times

MANILA — Every morning before dawn, Rosario Perez checks to make sure her sons are still alive. The three brothers, all in their 20s, sleep at the houses of friends and relatives, moving regularly, hoping that whoever may have been assigned to kill them won’t catch up with them.

They are not witnesses on a mob hit list, or gang members hiding from rivals. They are simply young men living in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“How could I not send them to hide?” said Ms. Perez, 47, after peeking in on two of her sons and phoning the third. “We can barely sleep out of fear.”

Nearly a year into Mr. Duterte’s violent antidrug campaign, in which more than 4,000 people accused of using or selling illegal drugs have been killed and thousands of other killings are classified as “under investigation,” fear and mistrust have gripped many neighborhoods of Manila and other cities.

Residents are cobbling together strategies to hide and survive. Many young men are staying indoors, out of sight. Others have fled the urban slums, where most of the killings occur, and are camping out on farms or lying low in villages in the countryside.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.45.27.png

Rodrigo Duterte, Scorned Abroad, Remains Popular in the Philippines

The New York Times

MANILA — Virgilio Mabag figures there is a good chance that his meth addict brother will become a casualty of President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly campaign against drugs in the Philippines.

“I told him to prepare himself to die,” Mr. Mabag said.

But Mr. Mabag, 54, who runs a neighborhood volunteer association in a sprawling Manila slum, still enthusiastically supports Mr. Duterte, saying that his policies will make the country safer and more orderly.

“I’m delighted,” said Mr. Mabag, who was wearing a Duterte T-shirt. “This is the only time I’ve seen a president like this, who says exactly what he wants to say.”

The rest of the world may have trouble understanding this, but Mr. Duterte still commands ardent support in the Philippines.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.01.10.png


National Geographic Magazine

AS SOON AS Rick Medina saw the body slumped onto the curb on the evening news last November, he knew it was his 24-year-old son, Ericardo. The corpse — dumped on a quiet avenue in the Philippine capital of Manila, with his back to the TV cameras — could have been anyone. But a father knows.

The next morning his daughter Jhoy, 26, went to the morgue. Eight bodies were lined up on the floor, covered in sheets or in body bags. They all died the same way: their heads bound in packing tape, then stabbed multiple times with an ice pick to pierce their lungs. She refused to believe one of them was her brother until she unzipped the final body bag. Jhoy wanted to scream. Instead, she froze.

Ericardo’s body was dumped with a cardboard sign labeling him a drug user. According to his father, Ericardo never touched drugs; Jhoy says he’s dabbled in it. Either way, his killers meted out a final punishment without due process.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.33.52.png

On Patrol With Police as Philippines Battles Drugs

The New York Times

MANILA — Officer Kathlyn Domingo walked through a maze of narrow alleys, ducking under jumbles of electrical wires and hanging laundry to the open doorway of a flimsy two-story house made of found wood and rusty nails.

Tough, earnest and carrying a .45-caliber pistol with a pink grip, Officer Domingo, 30, patrols one of Manila’s most destitute slums, Santa Ana. Last month, I spent a night on patrol with her and some colleagues, to see, from their perspective, the Philippines’s deadly crackdown on drug dealers and users.

Read story



The New York Times

Gen. Ronald dela Rosa, chief of the Philippine National Police, knows the value of a public display of remorse. He has been forced to apologize more than once.

He was wrong, he acknowledged before the Philippine Senate as TV cameras rolled, to have trusted undisciplined policemen who killed a small-town mayor suspected of dealing drugs, as the mayor lay defenseless on a jail-cell floor.

“I cannot blame the public if they’re losing their trust and confidence in their police,” he told the Senate panel, accepting a tissue from the mayor’s son to wipe away his tears.

He also admitted error in not having ousted all corrupt officers, after some used the guise of an antidrug operation to kidnap a Korean businessman for ransom, and then killed the man inside Camp Crame, the police headquarters where General dela Rosa lives and works.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 13.58.48.png


The New York Times

MANILA — Jhay-ar Tumala remembers sitting in a pew in Manila’s Quiapo Church, holding a sealed envelope with his H.I.V. test results, and praying. He was 19 and had been having sex since he was 15.

“I didn’t know anything about H.I.V. or AIDS,” Mr. Tumala, 23, said last week. He does not remember reading about it in the papers or learning about it in school. And he had used condoms only intermittently.

The envelope contained bad news.

His story is not unusual, and that may also mean bad news for the Philippines.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.00.45.png


The New York Times

MANILA — When Lizel Torreras, 35, became pregnant with her third child, she mixed a tincture of bitter herbs and mahogany bark, a home remedy said to induce abortion. Her husband, who worked as a garbage scavenger, did not make enough money to buy a regular supply of birth control pills, much less raise another child.

“With just two kids, we were already struggling,” she said. “The children were going to have a hard time. We might not have been able to send them to school.”

But after three attempts, Ms. Torreras, a churchgoing Catholic, could not bring herself to drink the potion.

Like millions of other women in the Philippines who have no access to contraception, Ms. Torreras had the baby. Then another one.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.26.20.png

A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization

The New York Times

MANILA — Lennie Visbal last saw her husband, Joel, 13 years ago. Even then, she said, “it was like looking at a stranger.” But since divorce is not possible in the Philippines, Ms. Visbal can’t escape him.

“I’m in limbo, I cannot move,” Ms. Visbal said. “Every time, there is a reminder that I’m legally attached to him.”

The Philippines is the only country in the world, aside from Vatican City, where divorce remains illegal.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 13.56.06.png


The New York Times

MANILA — In Alvin Ocampo’s 18-year-old jeepney, the dashboard is held together with yards of peeling electrical tape. The only concession to Manila’s stifling heat is a fan screwed to the ceiling. And unless you count the padlocked metal grate in place of the driver’s-side door that Mr. Ocampo installed after a gang of glue-sniffing teenagers robbed him of a fistful of pesos, the vehicle has no safety features to speak of.

Nevertheless, on a recent Friday afternoon in December, scores of passengers climbed aboard Mr. Ocampo’s jeepney, one of thousands of locally produced passenger trucks that are icons of Manila’s traffic-clogged and pollution-choked streets.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 13.57.33.png


The New York Times

BUSCALAN, Philippines — She wakes up every morning at dawn and mixes an ink out of pine soot and water. She threads a thorn from a bitter citrus tree into a reed, crouches on a three-inch-high stool and, folded up like a cricket, hand-taps tattoos onto the backs, wrists and chests of people who come to see her from as far away as Mexico and Slovenia.

The woman, Maria Fang-od Oggay, will finish 14 tattoos before lunch — not a bad day’s work for someone said to be 100 years old. Moreover, she has single-handedly kept an ancient tradition alive, and in the process transformed this remote mountaintop village into a mecca for tourists seeking adventure and a piece of history under their skin.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 13.57.58.png


The New York Times

CLAVER, Philippines — The Philippine mining town of Claver is busy with bakeries, fruit stands, pool halls and karaoke bars. In the mountains nearby, bulldozers cling to treeless slopes, scooping out red soil and leaving gaping pits. On the horizon, cargo ships wait to bring nickel ore to China.

Many here are afraid that none of this will last.

“If the mines go, then the jobs are gone too,” said Jayson Reambonanza, 31, who drives a dump truck for one of the area’s many nickel mines.

The Philippines, which exports more nickel ore than any country in the world, is in the midst of a wide crackdown on mines accused of violating environmental protection laws.

Read story


The New York Times

PALANAN, Philippines — There is no road to Palanan.

The town, 190 miles northeast of Manila on a stretch of rugged Pacific coastline, is separated from the crowds and chaos of the rest of the Philippines by a three-day trek through tropical jungle, a seven-hour ride on a wooden pump boat or a 25-minute flight on a three-seater Cessna.

Cloistered in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, Palanan’s farmers cross fields on the backs of loping water buffaloes. Children in plaid uniforms walk to school along beaches of white sand. A few motorcycles with sidecars, brought in on boats, rumble through the carless streets of the dusty town center. Carved canoes slide down broad rivers, and narrow outrigger boats bob along the shore.

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 14.57.28.png


Vice News

Duterte is a controversial figure who has risen in popularity by billing himself as an anti-establishment outsider who would upend traditional Philippine politics — an everyman who offends polite sensitivities, but is attuned to the frustrations of people deeply disaffected with politicians they view as more interested in enriching themselves than addressing the needs of Filipinos. That's helped propel him to 33 percent in polling released last week, ahead of Mar Roxas, supported by the current administration, with 22 percent.

It would be easy to compare him with another presidential candidate who has risen to the top of the polls by saying outrageous things, Donald Trump. But not even the American tycoon can match Duterte for the shock value of his statements. Trump, for example, never threatened to personally kill anybody. Duterte had no problem doing that.

During a rally on May 1, 2016, the mayor of Davao rambled affably into a microphone, dropping lines like, "They must stop fucking the Filipino."

Read story

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 9.01.32 AM.png

Rediscovering heritage

Monocle Magazine

Once a colonial city of art deco and beaux arts buildings, Manila was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Few buildings survived and much of what remained was torn down in favour of large scale developments as the city's population swelled to an estimated 12 million. Manila went from being the 'Pearl of the Orient' to a traffic-clogged, infrastructure-poor city saddled with a protracted housing crisis.

Yet the Philippine economy is growing at at a fast rate and Manila is in the midst of the property boom that goes along with it. More than 480,000 sq m of office space was built last year, including seven new commercial projects in the CBD in the fourth quarter alone. Residential properties are also on the rise. While most developments in the city tend to be towering skyscrapers a few developers have parked the bulldozers and are instead finding value in Manila's heritage buildings.

Read more

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 9.42.13 AM.png

the mastermind

The Atavist

I contributed reporting in the Philippines for this 7-part series and upcoming book by writer Evan Ratliff about a vicious international crime boss whose dealings spanned the globe from his base in a leafy compound in Manila. Many of the most dramatic murders, heists and characters happened in the Philippines. With persistent and tenacious reporting, I tracked down witnesses, prisoners, murder case files, crime scenes and government agents, uncovering previously unknown characters and events.

Read more


sleeping with the enemy: a martial law love story

Esquire Philippines

When the Philippine dictator Marcos fell, my stepfather, heir to the military dynasty that protected Ferdinand and Imelda's power, escaped into exile with them. My mother — a journalist who saw her brother and husband jailed for political dissidence, her nephew shot through the chest at a protest rally, people she knew killed and tortured — cheered in the streets. Today, they're the sweetest couple you'll ever meet. It's a story about politics during a dramatic chapter in Philippine history, and finding love in the time of exile.

Read more


i visited tacloban soon after typhoon yolanda hit


[...] The next day we drove into Tacloban just as the sun was going down, in an ambulance with the curtains drawn. Everyone was peeking out of the windows, not talking as the scenes of destruction got worse and worse. Before we got to Leyte, the island where Tacloban is the capital, we already felt bad. We’d seen the footage and heard the reports. But actually being in the presence of the destruction is much different. It never ends. It’s not a minute-long video clip before the newscaster switches to a different story. There were piles of rubble covered in mud on either side of the road. There wasn’t a single house that wasn’t damaged or completely destroyed. Coconut trees and cement lampposts were snapped in two. This coast was in the direct path of Typhoon Yolanda, and the few people left were living in the rubble of their old homes, starting fires for light, and waiting for someone to show up with food or water.

Shev was the only one who hadn’t heard from her family. The last time she heard from them was at 6 AM on the day of the typhoon, when her mom texted to say they were fine. That was four days ago, before media started reporting death tolls at 10,000 and she caught a glimpse of her house on some aerial footage. Nothing was left except the cement floor. Shev didn’t look out the window. She pulled a blanket over her head and put her face in her hands.

Read more