It felt good to say peace out to the U.S. for about a week, as I flew across and past the southern border of the country.
México was the closest thing to home for a Filipina who grew up in the tropics, transplanted in the foggy coast of the Bay Area. I yearned to be away from the toxic rhetoric that Trump spewed 24/7, and I wanted to put as much distance as I could between white supremacists and my queer, brown body.
As the plane made its way to the Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the irony. Just a few days before I left the Bay was when I first found out about Kian Loyd Delos Santos. The 17-year old from Caloocan City in the Philippines was murdered by the police, on accounts of being a drug pusher/courier/runner. President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “War on Drugs” has claimed 12,000 lives, with the number of extrajudicial killings rising every day.
So there I was, heading to a country whose people Trump and his supporters have vowed to build a wall against, a country which has also been fighting its own drug war.
What’s a Filipino living in America to do?
The sun was high up as I stepped out of the airport. The heat and humidity felt familiar. On a ferry to Isla Mujeres, I sought to shake Trump off my mind as my senses drank in the beauty of the ocean, a glistening blue that lulled you. Surprisingly, that sentiment was affirmed by souvenirs and wares sold on sidewalk stalls: trucker hats with the words “F*ck Trump” on them, the ultimate anti-MAGA dad hats.
While Trump was fading in my mind, Kian was becoming more and more prominent. I was physically away from the States but my social media feeds and timelines weren’t. There were many stories and articles about Kian’s death, whose mother was an overseas Filipino worker forced to come home to his son’s funeral. There were many speculations, as many as the number of Duterte’s opposition who kept showing up at Kian’s wake.
I found it interesting that just about a year ago, I read a story online that featured two books Duterte was reading: a nonfiction title about Southeast Asia and what do you know — El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ioan Grillo. I don’t know much about the book, but I hope he realizes that the drug war he’s created and the level of impunity he’s unleashed is not the solution.
Whenever I think of the Mexican drug war, I remember what former President Vicente Fox said when I met him back in 2010: aren’t the customers from up north, the Americans? While the situations aren’t entirely similar, the viewpoint of crushing drug peddlers — usually poor people and worse, minors, women and children — does little to end the toxic industry.
In the Philippines, socio-economic factors have continued to worsen creating harsh conditions for the country’s poorest. There is something incredibly disturbing with Duterte’s philosophy that drug users are beyond redemption (read: rehabilitation is unnecessary) and sees it as a purely individual choice as opposed to a cycle embedded and propagated within one’s physical, social and economic environments.
In a focused ethnographic research on young underclass male youths working at a Philippine port, the use of shabu or methamphetamine showed that the drug was used for several functions.
The findings showed that the use of shabu “increased strength and confidence, disinhibition, insomnia, and an overall improvement of mood that facilitates performance at work and social bonding in their peer group,” which has allowed many of them to perform in informal economies where opportunities are limited. The study concluded that:
Drug policies and programs in the Philippines must acknowledge the economic and social role of methamphetamine in the daily lives of young men. This group need skills training and opportunities to move out of an informal economy that generates the demand for drugs to enhance performance – necessary in an arena where performance means survival.
Reading this made my heart sink. As someone who has relative privilege, is able-bodied, born to a middle-class family and has a college education, it is easy for me to point these things out and tout what should be done. I don’t know how it feels like to be Kian, to be an “underclass male youth” nor do I know what it feels to hold the responsibility of being the president of a country.
What I do know is that Duterte’s mechanisms don’t work. His war on drugs is not addressing the root problems of why drug use currently ravages 3% of the population.
As I seek to understand the intricate web of drug wars, in México and now in the Philippines, I turn to books. I came across Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism (Amazon | Indiebound) which traces the role of finance and economics in drug wars. At the same time that it breaks down “global capitalist expansion,” it also offers optimism with the discussion of resistance around the world through activism and people’s movements (watch: BAYAN-USA’s video #JusticeForKian).
As I floated on my back in the Caribbean Sea, wanting not to give a fuck about the world, I knew that that was impossible. I may have escapist tendencies, and periods of wanting space and isolation when the world becomes too heavy. But at the end of the day, I will resurface back to building movements with people, no matter how hard, challenging and dispiriting at times, as I am emboldened by the outpouring of anti-racist protests in San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend, and because simply — it is the only way.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.