Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

In a Cafe in the Philippines, Families of Drug War Victims Call for Justice

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Tristan James Biglete introduces us to Silingan Cafe, a space for healing, artistic expression, and resistance to Duterte's brutal war against drugs.


Tristan James Biglete


21 May, 2024

The staircase in the corner of Silingan Cafe greets patrons with a stark message: "It's not a war on illegal drugs, it's an illegal war on drugs. And it's not even really a war on drugs, it's an illegal war on the poor." 

Since opening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the coffee shop has been steered by a staff with family members who were victims of the war on drugs. Once an individual is added to the list of possible drug offenders, assailants arrive, opening fire on their targets: brothers, husbands, and fathers of the coffee shop’s staff.

“I hope I can raise the conversation regarding human rights through the staff. In the Philippines, human rights are rarely talked about. The coffee shop could be a place where human rights can be discussed,” said Brother Jun Santiago, a redemptorist church worker and founder of Silingan Cafe.

After riding a popular anti-crime campaign in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to dismantle the illegal drug trade. State forces began to round up suspected offenders, as Duterte promised, to eradicate illegal drugs within 6 months. But to this day, dead bodies pile up in the morgue and around the streets. 

Human Rights Watch has described the president’s drug war as “a campaign of extrajudicial execution in impoverished areas of Manila and other urban areas.” Police data place the death toll of the war on drugs closer to 6,000. Meanwhile, human rights advocates estimate that the killings, comprising official police operations and vigilante murders, have claimed the lives of at least 30,000 people, mostly residents of poorer districts. 

Courts rarely hand convictions. Without a paper trail to follow, authorities struggle to prosecute suspects and cases often turn cold. Until now, those responsible for the death of their family members elude the employees of Silingan.

Following the electoral victory of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the new administration repeatedly remarked that a probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into anti-illegal drug operations would be blocked unless investigators conform to domestic protocols. 

Employees of Silingan support an international investigation into the deaths of their family members as local authorities struggle to root out the suspects. 

The story is our nation’s story. Six years under Duterte is so long. What we do here is counter-revisionism."

Santiago encountered many of the staff as a photojournalist covering drug-related operations by the police. He saw firsthand how Duterte’s rise to power tore apart communities. At one point, Santiago witnessed 18 deaths in a single night, an increase in fatalities compared to the previous drug raids he covered before Duterte became president. 

Employees of Silingan Cafe believe that Duterte should face the fallout of his drug war. Besides grinding coffee beans and creating latte art, the coffee shop staff now hope to fight back against potential distortions and preserve their stories in public memory. 

“The story is our nation’s story. Six years under Duterte is so long. What we do here is counter-revisionism. The people might forget or change [the story of the drug war] and at the same time, make the stories worse,” Brother Santiago said.

To lay the groundwork for the cafe, he partnered with a local artist collective to rent a stall at the Cubao Expo in Quezon City. While the ground floor houses the brewing station, the space upstairs functions as a gallery for activists. Santiago decided to build a coffee shop after his background of operating a similar venture. He had previously assisted in building coffee farms in communities ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013. 

For the name, Santiago settled with Silingan, the Visayan word for "neighbor," which fits the atmosphere of the coffee shop. Students and workers rest at the cafe. Usually, newcomers pause at the wall to glance at the posters of previous art exhibits and newspaper clippings. A small bookshelf near the front door was also recently packed with political books and poetry zines. At night, drunk patrons from nearby pubs drink coffee to ease their hangovers. 

Photojournalists like Santiago also use the coffee shop to unveil their photos of the drug war. Women’s rights activists also partnered with the cafe to display comics and paintings supporting rural women and their call for land reform. Such a partnership between Silingan and local activists attracted a younger crowd from schools and universities to visit the coffee shop. 

“Some students are curious about the truth. The rest have no clue. I’ve conversed with students writing their thesis who were curious about us. They were unaware of what happened to us,” said Sharon Angeles, head barista of Silingan. 

In the pandemic, Angeles said that the cafe barely attracted customers. It was only when media outlets began to peer into their operations that customers flocked to the coffee shop. 

In January, she arrived at the cafe to deliver plastic cups. She grabbed a mug of iced coffee before sitting down to reveal the phone call that delivered the news of her brother’s death.

In 2016, Ian, her brother, worked part-time as a cellphone technician. One night, around 9 pm, two of his friends with previous criminal records invited him to drink alcohol. Then, warning shots ring in the neighborhood. 

Ian’s lifeless body lay on the ground. Sharon said her brother refused to run from his attackers knowing he was not involved in illegal drugs. She also remarked that it was a case of mistaken identity. The perpetrators were looking at one of his friends who bore a striking similarity with Ian. 

Rumors circulated that the police were involved. But without any evidence and potential witnesses refusing to testify out of fear, Angeles was unable to press charges. 

“It’s not easy to forget. Even if you kill all drug users and sellers, if the main root is alive, it’s useless. It’s not humane. The poor, unlike the rich, are mainly affected,” Sharon said, finding herself in tears, still distraught over the loss of her brother. 

By lunch, a group of high school students huddled over the tables at Silingan. Glenn, Keziah, Em, Jiann, and Angel are from a nearby private school studying for their college entrance exams. 

Glenn disliked many of the policies of the previous Duterte administration. He was also fond of watching the news and scenes of extrajudicial killings from the drug war are common reports on television. For him, the new government is protecting Duterte by impeding the ICC investigations on the drug war. 

“It’s not a good thing for me. Our justice system doesn’t fully function. Our justice system is only for the rich and powerful. Many of the people killed in the drug war are poor,” Glenn remarked.

All of his friends share the same sentiment. To Keziah, who learned about Silingan from a social media influencer, the drug war upended the lives of different communities.

“It’s not just traumatizing to the family but also the whole neighborhood,” she said. 

Although the students visited Silingan for the first time, the ambiance of the cafe quickly offered them an avenue for political expression. 

For Em, it was the cafe's books that hooked her attention. Meanwhile, Jiann and Angel were discussing a poster of the film Liway, a drama set in a prison camp controlled by the Marcos dictatorship.

“For me, it’s not just a cafe. It also has calls that reflect the realities of the past and present, especially now that the Marcoses returned to power,” Em said. 

Ronielyn Reyes, another staff of Silingan, described customers as being friendly and understanding. She enjoyed talking about the cafe’s background. Working at Silingan has also given her a support system after her father died. 

“I’m happy here. I enjoy the work. I learned that I’m not alone in my story. Before, I thought I was the one with the worst problem, that’s not the case here. We understand each other’s feelings. We experienced the same thing and all of us need justice,” Reyes said.  

Reyes lives in Caloocan, an epicenter of the war on drugs in the capital region. Her father, a tricycle driver named Richard, was included in a “drug watchlist.” To evade the drug war, he sought refuge in Bulacan province for a few weeks. 

When he returned to Manila, his friends invited him to eat porridge in a nearby canteen. Then, police barged into the shop looking for a man named “Ricci.” Despite having a different name, Richard surrendered, but police still shot him. 

An account of the murder depicted Richard as “nanlaban,” a phrase the police use to describe drug suspects who allegedly resisted arrests. But Reyes disputes the report. She said his father was shot  in the head and chest. 

Still reeling from the death of a family member, Reyes believes that Duterte and his confidants should be held accountable. She and her colleagues anticipate the time when the architects of the drug war will be punished.

“It’s not right for you to take a life. You’re not a god, you’re just a president. Not everyone was a bad person. Some of those killed were innocent. If he committed a crime, he should pay for what he did,” she said.

Tristan James Biglete is a journalist in the Philippines reporting on politics, labor, and the state. Their writing appears in the Southeast Asia Globe, The News Lens, and Bulatlat, among others.