Forensic investigators and police officers leave the scene of an extrajudicial killing in Manila, June 2018. Photograph by Lynzy Billing

Meet the Female Nightcrawlers of Manila

Racing between murder scenes with the journalists covering Duterte’s bloody drug war.
Forensic investigators and police officers leave the scene of an extrajudicial killing in Manila, June 2018. Photograph by Lynzy Billing

Jing Perez, 48, lives and works in the slums in the northern part of metropolitan Manila, the capital of the Philippines. She works the night shift as a researcher and fixer, mostly for foreign news outlets, collecting information and arranging interviews inside the hard-to-reach, impoverished neighborhoods where most drug-related crime takes place. But her work comes at a cost: tired and traumatized, she works seven nights a week, mostly because she cannot afford not to. “Every night I go out I feel like I am in danger, but I am living paycheck-to-paycheck,” says Perez. “This is the only way to earn money for myself and my family.”

A forensic team examines the body of the girl found floating in the bay near Navotas, Manila. She was shot three times in the chest. Photograph by Lynzy Billing
Onlookers watch in horror as a police unit called Scene of the Crime Operatives investigate a crime scene in the Manila district of Tondo, September 2016. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

It’s dusk, and Perez and I are sitting on the piles of garbage that make up the banks of Manila Bay. We came because we got a call from someone in the neighborhood saying that a body had been found floating in the water; we rushed here to cover the story. It turns out to be a teenage girl, bound around the ankles with rope and clad only in a bra. A fishing net is stretched around her bloated body. Most of the color is already gone from her skin. We’re already there when, five hours after the authorities were first alerted, a forensic team appears at the scene.

The parents of a seven-year-old girl cry in pain after their daughter’s naked body is found in Tugatog Cemetery, Malabon, October 2016. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

When the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, was elected in 2016, he promised to eliminate crime in the country by relentlessly pursuing, and killing, anyone involved with drugs. As the hours pass, Perez and I watch the girl’s body bob facedown in the water and discuss Perez’s experience working as a journalist during this administration. Fixers like Perez are often in danger, facing death threats and more for exposing what an oppressive regime wants to hide. Her connection to her job is more than financial; like many journalists in Manila, she has been a victim of the same brutal policies she helps to cover. “I cry for the families, because I know what it is like to lose someone like this,” says Perez. She uses the local shorthand “EJK”—extrajudicial killings—for the thousands of murders committed as part of Duterte’s quest to rid his country of drug dealers and users: “I have lost close friends to EJKs, and my adopted son, Kulot, is an EJK victim.”

Perez informally adopted Kulot in 1997 when he was about 12 years old, and he quickly became a part of her family. Kulot was involved in drugs as an adult, dealing because he had no other way to make money. Perez says she told him he must stop, or he would die. “I remember the day I found his body,” she says. “I saw the forensic van driving to our neighborhood, and I wondered who it was this time. And it was Kulot.” Because Perez didn’t have her son’s birth certificate, she could not legally bury him. He now rests in a mass grave in north Manila, with other victims of state-sanctioned killings.

Alleged drug peddler Jesus Jonas—aka “Judas”—lies motionless on the pavement, where he was killed after resisting arrest. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

Duterte’s war on drugs has just entered its third year. As of this past August, according to the government, the Philippine National Police had killed more than 4,500 people suspected of being involved in drugs. Human-rights organizations, however, estimate that there have actually been more than 20,000 drug-related murders in the country since the drug war began, both from police operations and EJKs perpetrated by vigilantes. (The National Police take responsibility for many killings, but there are other murders by individuals who, according to international groups such as Human Rights Watch, work in concert with police.) The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, an internal governmental body, has said that it is struggling to keep up with investigations.

Alleged drug dealers and users are not the only ones under the gun. The country’s media workers are also under siege, with journalists subjected to online attacks and insults from both politicians and the public, brought on by presidential propaganda. (At a press conference before taking office, Duterte explained to the assembled press, “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination.”) This past January, the International Federation of Journalists deemed the Philippines the most dangerous country in Southeast Asia for journalists; the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index ranks it fifth worldwide after Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. Local Filipino journalists covering politics and crime are most likely to be targeted for murder; around 42 journalists have been killed with “complete impunity” in the past decade.

Female journalists are particularly at risk. Sixty percent of women in the Philippines report having experienced sexual harassment in their day-to-day lives, and female reporters are often the targets of rape and death threats and misogynistic comments online. Maria Ressa—the CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news start-up—says that, despite the danger, women are still doing most of the news coverage in this island nation.

Reporter Aie Balagtas See at the press office located inside the headquarters of the Manila Police District. Photograph by Lynzy Billing
Journalists start their nights at the press office located inside the Police District, before racing off to cover crimes. Photograph by Lynzy Billing
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“The senior leadership at Rappler is overwhelmingly female,” says Ressa, whose media organization is known for its unflinching coverage of Duterte’s many controversial policies and actions. “But this is not by design. In the Philippines, most heads of major news groups are women, as well as reporters and editors; that’s the norm.” Out of Rappler’s entire team, 63 percent are women.

That means many of the fixers, reporters, and photographers who take the graveyard shift—the nightcrawlers of Manila—are also women, and they have the hardest reporting jobs of all. Between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., they’re out racing the police to crime scenes, often in impoverished neighborhoods and slum areas in the north of the capital. They are the ones who keep count of the bodies, talk to witnesses and the families of the victims, attend the funerals and wakes, and interview the police. Their goal is to bear witness, the first job of the Fourth Estate.

Crowds gather to watch a forensics team inspect the body of a young girl pulled from the water in Navotas, north of Manila, at 6 p.m. Photograph by Lynzy Billing

Twenty-two-year-old Eloisa Lopez is a freelance photographer and journalist, and one of the youngest female journalists covering the drug war. Lopez started working the graveyard shift three to four times a week in 2016, during the first months of Duterte’s administration. The job has taken its toll on her.

“I remember my very first crime scene like it was yesterday,” says Lopez. “Five people were killed in a cemetery. It was the first time I saw dead bodies.”

Elizabeth Navarro, 29, with her daughters during the wake for her 5-year-old son Francis and her husband Domingo Mañosca, who were shot and killed by a masked vigilante in their home in Pasay City in December 2016. The gunman, who aimed through the window, missed Mañosca with his first bullet, hitting Francis. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

Lopez learned that the victims were innocent garbage collectors, and she had seen them in the last moments of their lives. “I felt guilty,” she says. “Was I supposed to just go on with my life?”

Thanks to that and other incidents, Lopez did not return to the night shift for three weeks. But she says she felt a moral responsibility to document such atrocities, so she eventually returned. “I remember being given lifestyle assignments in the morning, and I felt so bad—[those assignments] felt so shallow, from [photographing] bodies to covering perfume,” says Lopez. “So I stopped the morning assignments and focused on the drug war, and I started fixing for foreign correspondents.”

Gang members killed in what the police claimed was a drug bust under Manila’s Jones Bridge, December 2016. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez
Cops at a scene where alleged gang members were killed during a drug bust in Manila. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

Lopez says women play a key role in covering the drug war, gaining access to people and information that their male counterparts cannot. Many victims of the war are male, she says, meaning that those left behind are often widows, mothers, and children—relatives who are more comfortable opening up to female journalists. “It’s important that their voice is shared accurately, and it’s so easy for that to get lost in translation if they are interviewed by male journalists,” Lopez says. “Often, when I speak to families, they treat me like a daughter. They call me anak”—Tagalog for “child.”

Caskets fill every room in the Eusebio funeral home in the municipality of Malabon, Manila. Photograph by Lynzy Billing

Like Perez and Lopez, Aie Balagtas See, 31, has been profoundly affected by her time as a reporter covering the night shift, which she did full-time for a year.

“The first year felt like there was a killing machine that churned out dead bodies,” says Balagtas See, who once covered 26 murders in a 24-hour period. “There were so many deaths, and journalists had to chase crime scenes and get there before authorities could remove the bodies, or else we’d miss the story. Imagine speeding cars tailing each other in the middle of the night. It’s like that.”

The violence seems to be escalating. EJKs have gone from taking place under the cover of night to happening in public places in the middle of the day; during the first week of October, Alexander “Alan” Buquing, the mayor of the town of Sudipen in La Union province, became the 12th mayor killed since 2016, shot dead on his way home from a nearby town. No official reason has been given yet for the murder.

Some journalists tell me they have sought counseling to help them process the violence. But, according to Lopez, no media company provides mandatory treatment. Some women will only agree to take all-night assignments occasionally; their number now includes Balagtas See, who covers the drug war as a police beat reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Police tape around a crime scene where an alleged drug pusher was found dead. Photograph by Eloisa Lopez

As we wait together by Manila Bay, Perez learns from the forensics team that tonight’s victim was 16 years old. She was in the water for four days, and though her hair and much of her skin are gone, her red pedicured toes remain unscathed. She suffered three gunshots to the chest.

We follow the corpse to a funeral parlor in Malabon, in north Manila, where the mortician strips the girl of her bra and the rope binding her ankles, preparing her body for the arrival of family members. But no one arrives to identify her. The fishing net is peeled off her skin, and the materials are stuffed into a plastic bag and left out on the street for disposal.

In the room next to the dead girl sleep the children of the funeral director. It’s 3:00 a.m., and the TV hums in the background. The screen shows Duterte’s face beaming from behind his podium. As we leave the funeral parlor to head home, I notice Perez glancing uneasily around the dark streets. Her shift may be over, but there is little comfort or safety for a nightcrawler. My phone buzzes; a text comes through telling me that another body has been found.

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