The Philippines is in the midst of a brutal war on drugs sanctioned by the controversial President Rodrigo Duterte, which has seen almost 2,000 killings in a matter of weeks. The BBC’s Jonathan Head explores the country’s dark underbelly of dealers and assassins through the story of one woman trapped in a chilling predicament.
When you meet an assassin who has killed six people, you don’t expect to encounter a diminutive, nervous young woman carrying a baby.
“My first job was two years ago in this province nearby. I felt really scared and nervous because it was my first time.”
Maria, not her real name, now carries out contract killings as part of the government-sanctioned war on drugs.
She is part of a hit team that includes three women, who are valued because they can get close to their victims without arousing the same suspicion a man would.
Since President Duterte was elected, and urged citizens and police to kill drug dealers who resisted arrest, Maria has killed five more people, shooting them all in the head.
I asked her who gave the orders for these assassinations: “Our boss, the police officer,” she said.
On the very afternoon we met, she and her husband had been told their safe house had been exposed. They were moving in a hurry.
This controversial drug war has brought her more work, but more risk too. She described how it began when her husband was commissioned to kill a debtor by a policeman – one who was also a drug pusher.
“My husband was ordered to kill people who had not paid what they owed.”
This turned into a regular commission for her husband until a more challenging situation cropped up.
“One time, they needed a woman… my husband tapped me to do the job. When I saw the man I was supposed to kill, I got near him and I shot him. ”
Maria and her husband come from an impoverished neighbourhood of Manila and had no regular income before agreeing to become contract killers. They earn up to 20,000 Philippines pesos ($430; £327) per hit, which is shared between three or four of them. That is a fortune for low-income Filipinos, but now it looks as if Maria has no way out.
Contract killing is nothing new in the Philippines. But the hit squads have never been as busy as they are now. President Duterte has sent out an unambiguous message.
Ahead of his election, he promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office.
And he has warned drug dealers in particular: “Do not destroy my country, because I will kill you.”
Last weekend he reiterated that blunt view, as he defended the extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.
“Do the lives of 10 of these criminals really matter? If I am the one facing all this grief, would 100 lives of these idiots mean anything to me?”
What has provoked the rough-tongued president to unleash this merciless campaign is the proliferation of the drug crystal meth or “shabu” as it is known in the Philippines. Cheap, easily made, and intensely addictive, it offers an instant high, an escape from the filth and drudgery of life in the slums, a hit to get labourers in gruelling jobs like truck-driving through their day.
What is Shabu?
Often called “ice” or “crystal meth” in the West, Shabu is the term used for a pure and potent form of amphetamine in the Philippines and other parts of Asia.
Shabu costs about 1,000 Philippines peso per gram ($22; £16)
It can be smoked, injected, snorted or dissolved in water
The Philippines is home to industrial-scale labs producing tonnes of the drug – which is then distributed throughout Asia.
Mr Duterte describes it as a pandemic, afflicting millions of his fellow citizens. It is also very profitable. He has listed 150 senior officials, officers and judges linked to the trade. Five police generals, he says, are kingpins of the business. But it is those at the lowest levels of the trade who are targeted by the death squads.
According to the police more than 1,900 people have been killed in drug-related incidents since he took office on 30 June. Of those, they say, 756 were killed by the police, all, they say, while resisting arrest. The remaining deaths are, officially, under investigation.
In practice most will remain unexplained. Nearly all those whose bloodied bodies are discovered every night in the slums of Manila and other cities are the poor – pedicab drivers, casual labourers, the unemployed. Often, found next to them are cardboard signs warning others not to get involved in drugs. This is a war being fought almost exclusively in the poorest parts of the country. People like Maria are used as its agents.