Home Coffee shop Filipino Baristas Tell Heartbreaking Drug War Stories Alongside Java

Filipino Baristas Tell Heartbreaking Drug War Stories Alongside Java

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The words painted on the staircase of Cafe Silingan make it clear that this place isn’t just about serving lattes and fruit smoothies.

“This is not a war on illegal drugs. This is an illegal war on drugs,” the sign reads.

Silingan means neighbor. Most of the workers at this cafe near the capital, Manila, are mothers, daughters, sisters or wives of those killed in former President Rodrigo Duterte’s horrific war on drugs.

The staircase of the Silingan cafe near Manila sends a clear message about the war on drugs. (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

‘They didn’t need to be killed like animals,’ head barista Sharon Angeles said in tears while recounting how her brother Christian, 20, was killed in 2016 during Duterte’s freshman year as president. “They killed him like he was an evil person. It’s so hard.”

Sharon Angeles, head barista at Cafe Silingan near Manila, lost her 20-year-old brother Christian in 2016. Angeles says Christian was not involved in drugs but was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Sharon Angeles, head barista at Cafe Silingan near Manila, lost her 20-year-old brother Christian in 2016. Angeles says Christian was not involved in drugs but was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Government data indicates that around 6,200 people were killed in drug war-related police operations during Duterte’s six-year tenure, which ended last month. Human rights groups, however, say the true death toll could be as high as 30,000, including executions by vigilantes who activists say often work closely with police.

Duterte repeatedly championed his campaign as a necessary part of the fight against the national drug onslaught, especially in poor communities where police killed in self-defense.

But human rights groups are exposing Duterte for inciting vigilante violence against drug addicts and accusing police of murdering unarmed suspects, as well as tampering with evidence. The high death toll, along with graphic images in the media of corpses on the streets, has led to strong criticism abroad and accusations of potential crimes against humanity.

While there were also protests in the Philippines against the war on drugs, Duterte retained his popularity in his country, leaving office with a 75% approval rating, according to a Publicus Asia survey.

Silingan customer Patricia Tierra, a student at the local university, says listening to the stories of cafe workers puts a human face on the aftermath of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.  (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Silingan customer Patricia Tierra, a student at the local university, says listening to the stories of cafe workers puts a human face on the aftermath of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Silingan customer, Patricia Tierra, 21, a student at the local university, said there is a typical perception in the Philippines of people killed in the war on drugs.

“It’s common to hear them say they deserve to die because they have negative effects on society,” she said, adding that the personal stories of Silingan baristas put a human face on the consequences of the war on drugs. “Their stories are real and the effects of the war on drugs [are] real, and these are not just numbers. They are people.”

By sharing personal experiences, Angeles hopes guests will get a sense of the impact the war on drugs has had on the families of those who have died.

“We hope we can change the negative connotations that are circulating about people killed in the war on drugs,” she said. “Some sympathize with us, but some judge us.”

Ryan Martinez, 25, who visits Silingan every two weeks, sipped a dulce latte one recent night.

“The story they’re trying to tell is personal. It tells a different side of the war on drugs than a lot of people in this country hear and read about,” Martinez said. “In this cafe, you hear it from people who have been directly affected by it. So that makes a difference.”

In addition to earning an income, baristas bond over their shared grief and provide a support network for each other.

“We are all family and friends of [extra-judicial killings]”, said Joy Solayao, whose partner, Albert Cubeta, was killed in 2017. “When I tell them my story, they can identify with me because they had the same experience.

Joy Solayao grinds beans at Silingan Cafe near Manila.  Solayao, like most of the store's employees, lost a loved one during former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.  (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Joy Solayao grinds beans at Silingan Cafe near Manila. Solayao, like most of the store’s employees, lost a loved one during former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. (Dave Grunebaum/VOA)

Solayao and Angeles say their relatives were not involved in drugs and were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But both also defend the right to life of drug addicts and small dealers.

“People should know that not everyone with a drug connection deserves to be killed,” Angeles said.

Both women want Duterte to be held responsible for the violence, but acknowledged that seems unlikely. His daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is now vice president to recently elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s namesake.

Solayao and Angeles expect the new administration to try to block any real efforts to investigate and hold Duterte accountable, including plans by International Criminal Court prosecutors to reopen an investigation into the killings and other alleged human rights violations. human rights during the war on drugs.

“I want Duterte to go to jail and regret what he did to so many families,” Solayao said. “But his daughter and Marcos will protect him.”

Either way, Silingan baristas will continue to share their stories in hopes that they can at least gain traction with public opinion.