By Sheila Coronel, Mariel Padilla, David Mora, and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, for The Atlantic
MANILA—All Jefferson Soriano wanted was to go to bed. But the power was out, his tiny room felt like a furnace, and his friend Manuel Borbe had come by. The pair walked outside to chat and get some air, eventually stopping for a late-night coffee along a busy road.
Soriano and Borbe had lived nearly their entire lives in the area, a shantytown in a Manila community called Holy Spirit, and had met as teens on a neighborhood basketball court. They had been friends ever since, growing up together, and now both were new fathers in their 30s struggling to make ends meet—Soriano by working odd jobs in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants, Borbe as a construction worker.
At the time, Rodrigo Duterte’s first year as president of the Philippines was coming to a close, a violent period during which the government prosecuted a war on drugs, in which police swept down, arrested suspected drug sellers, and conducted sting operations against them. Officers were given wide latitude to shoot, and kill, suspected drug dealers—ostensibly in self defense—and Holy Spirit was one of the offensive’s epicenters.
Soriano and Borbe had themselves been caught up in police raids: The former had been reported for his contact with drug dealers, the latter had previously surrendered to police and admitted that he was a user of crystal meth, or shabu. In fact, just a month before, policemen had barged into Soriano’s home while he was in the bathroom naked and dragged him outside as he begged for his life. They took him to the police station and, he says, beat him as they questioned him about his association with drug dealers.
So that night—June 15, 2017—Borbe was anxious, worried for his wife and infant son were he to be arrested, or worse, killed. “My time,” he told Soriano as they sipped coffee, “will soon be up.”
While they sat and chatted, a car drove past, its headlights casting a glow on a tall, well-built man standing on the corner on the opposite side of the street. He was soon joined by another man, who arrived on a motorcycle. Each was clad in the same attire—a dark jacket, shorts, and a balaclava.
“Bro, cops,” Soriano told Borbe, believing that the men, despite their face coverings, were police officers. Their stocky build, their posture—hands on their sides, as though they were about to draw their guns—reminded him of the many policemen he’d had run-ins with over the years. Before either friend could do anything, one of the men raised his arm and fired a pistol. Borbe slumped to the ground, taking a fatal shot to the head. Soriano tried to run, but other shooters were waiting at nearby street corners, and fired at him from different directions, hitting him in the neck and leg. As he lay bleeding on the pavement, pretending to be dead, Soriano recalls, he heard the gunmen mount their motorcycles to flee, only for one of the bikes not to start, forcing two of the men to push it downhill to get away.
“The only thought I had in my mind then,” he said in an interview this year in Manila, where he is in hiding, fearing for his life, “was that I had to live for the sake of my son.”
Borbe’s death was posted on the police blotter and investigators were sent to the scene. Journalists arrived shortly after and reported the incident in the news. Photographs were taken, showing Borbe’s corpse splayed on the street corner, the blood from his head wound flowing into the storm drain.
Yet this well-publicized killing is not included in any official count of drug casualties. It has not been fully investigated. It is unclear who the shooters were. As we have found, that is far from unusual: Borbe is only one among a huge number of uncounted victims of Duterte’s drug war.