The Drug War: Execution at Cessna

Every family, says 26-year-old Ricardo, has a Jhay Lord. He was the impish one, the rascal, the one who filched money and laughed when he was caught. Jhay Lord was high sometimes, sulky other times. He cadged meals and cigarettes. He had children with two different women and left both infants with his mother when they were born. At 33, his income was unsteady, unlike the siblings who were married and employed. Once, in a fit of anger, he slammed a bench down his brother Jerome’s knee when he refused to lend Jhay Lord a light bulb. It took 3 months for the knee to heal.

They all made allowances for him – better, they say, that Jhay Lord bother them than anyone else.

A report from the Pasay City Police District 6 says that Jhay Lord Caindoy Clemente was jobless, and that he and his lover were “engaged in illegal drug activities.” Neighbors say he survived by scavenging trash at fast food joints for resale. His mother visited him often, worried about the ribs that showed through his skin.

He was high when the police arrested him in 2010. He had woken up in the night, walked out of the house, and was shooting up on the street when the police came to throw him into detention. That he was released 4 years later had less to do with his innocence than it did with the fact the police rarely appeared at his court hearings.

In spite – or because – of it all, it was Jhay Lord, the eldest, who was his mother Imelda's favorite. She sometimes called him her only son, even if there were 3 more boys in the family – Ricardo, Carmelo and Jerome. Ricardo is rueful when he calls Jhay Lord the family's prince.

Imelda says it was because Jhay Lord was affectionate. He would sling his arm around her, and remind her, often, to sleep early and eat well. She knew Jhay Lord was on drugs, as his father once was, before he died of a heart attack six years before. She would tell Jhay Lord, again and again, to return to the house in Parañaque City, where she promised to watch out for him and care for him and make sure he never went hungry again.

Jhay Lord understood that the streets had gone hot. He knew he was at risk. On the day before he was killed, he promised to come home.

Jhay Lord Clemente was not the best of fathers. He was not the best of sons, even if his mother loved him best. He was not a particularly useful citizen, and was often a burden on his family. He was a drug user, a criminal element, the creature whom the President of the Republic believes may or may not be human.

Asked if the killings could constitute crimes against humanity, the hero from the south waxed philosophical. He said many drug users were beyond rehabilitation. He said a war cannot be waged without killing.

“In the first place,” said Rodrigo Duterte, “I’d like to be frank with you: are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?”

According to the narrative now held acceptable under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, Jhay Lord Clemente, 33, deserved to die.

AFTERMATH. Ricardo Clemente, 26, borrows funds from friends and co-workers to extract the body of his brother Jhay Lord from the Pasay morgue. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The killings

The term is extrajudicial killing. It is a phrase that has leapt the double-spaced confines of human rights reports and left-wing press releases. It means murder at its core, but the term is often applied to a pattern of deaths among a particular group of people. Activists were targeted during the Marcos years, journalists and communists during the Arroyo administration.

An extrajudicial killing is specific. It requires planning and intent. It is outside the bounds of self-defense and the terms of engagement required of any declared war.

There are other words for this. Summary executions. Targeted killings. Congress chose to drop the term “to put things in proper perspective and correctly define the issue," further citing a Wikipedia definition defining extrajudicials as politically-motivated. The police now call them DUIs – Deaths Under Investigation.

In the weeks since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Republic of the Philippines, the usage of the phrase has become so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that it has become regular street parlance for drug-related murders. It has earned for itself an acronym and its own hashtag following. Since the first of July until the 18th of September, according to numbers released by the Philippine National Police, there have been 2,128 people murdered in vigilante killings in 1,960 incidents across the country. The police report 196 suspects arrested, and 113 more at large. 

The facts are often the same, although the specifics vary. A corpse is found along a curbside, sometime between 10 in the evening and 5 in the morning. The police come, sirens blaring, with the media nipping at their heels. Sometimes the wrists are trussed, sometimes the feet, often both. The bindings range from cable ties, steel wiring, packing tape, rope, or the pre-cut plastic cables used to snap grocery bags closed. A scrawled sign – addict, pusher, user – is sometimes left propped by the body or somewhere close by. 

Those who were killed on scene are often found face down, the backs of their heads a mess of blood and brain. Others are already dead when they are left at street corners, their eyes and mouths wrapped in black tape in a grotesque parody of masked superheroes.

In the worst instances, corpses are found with heads swathed in packing tape. Scene of the crime operatives use plastic cutters with a light hand, tracing the jawline from ear to ear with the thin blades. The tape is pulled away, millimeter by millimeter, the effort stretching the mouths into macabre grins. The eyes are almost always open. Details from further investigation will include, among others, a rag stuffed down the dead man’s throat. The verdict is suffocation. 

Although no official data has been released, the dead listed in media spot reports range in age from 20 to 50. They are mostly men, although an occasional woman has been found. Pasay City is a particularly popular dumping ground, with 5 men found dead one night near the end of July. 

In the case of Jhay Lord Clemente, 33, killed with his lover Marlyn across No. 6 Cessna Street, Pasay, local watchmen reported two men on a motorcycle racing out of Bac 1 Street, going north away from Cessna. No plate number was noted down, or descriptions released. 

The perpetrators, they said, were going too fast.

TAMBO. The wake of 33-year-old Jhay Lord Clemente lasts a little less than two weeks, the body laid out along Sunset Drive until the family could pay for his burial. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The woman

Jhay Lord met Marlyn for the first time at a canteen. It was early in the morning. She was looking for a spoon. Jhay Lord obliged.  

Those who know her will say Marlyn Cortez was not beautiful. She was animated and cheerful, the long face often laughing as she washed laundry by the creek side. She was a skinny woman, no more than 5 feet tall, her hair short and dyed blonde whenever she could afford it. Her friends in Cessna called her Miley when she swaggered down the street, for pop star Miley Cyrus. 

There are people who will say she was a bit of a tomboy because of the swagger – although they will also say a swagger is necessary to survive in Cessna Street. She had a 12-year-old child who lived with her at No. 6 Cessna, the result of a liaison with a petty thief named Matti Arsilla, whose career in crime involved constant visits to the local jail. The police say Marlyn and Matti were known drug personalities. They say the end of Maryln's relationship with Matti gave village officials hope that she would change.

Matti was in jail when she met Jhay Lord. When he moved in, neighbors called Marlyn Jhay Lord's wife. 

The words husband and wife are used loosely here. Jhay Lord was Marlyn’s husband. Marlyn was Matti’s wife. Matti would come out of jail hunting for Marlyn, and Marlyn would run and Matti would chase and there would be yelling and weeping and then they would go home together, while Jhay Lord found his way back to his mother. Then Matti would steal, and Matti would get caught, and Matti would go to jail. Jhay Lord would return to Matti’s wife Marlyn. 

No marriages ever occurred among any of the 3, but it was understood that relationships were serious as long as they lasted. At the time they were killed, it was understood that Marlyn was Jhay Lord's woman, cooking for him and cleaning for him and sitting with him on the pink couch across No. 6 Cessna Street.

Jhay Lord loved Marlyn, say his brothers. They say she loved him back.

CESSNA. The pink couch where Marlyn Cortez was found sits by the creek bed across No. 6 Cessna Street. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The execution 

Cessna Street marks the border of Pasay and Parañaque. A creek follows along its edges, a shifting spill of slop so packed with garbage it is almost possible to stand at the center without sinking. Both creek and street run deep inside Village 190, an embarrassment inside a neighborhood of middle-class houses and two-way roads. Village officials have told police they were pleased when the teetering shanties were demolished in 2015. They say it was a drug nest, with dens scattered down its length. Only a few of the relocated residents have returned. Among them was Marlyn Cortez. 

At its widest, Cessna spans 3 feet across, so narrow that a gunman, were he so inclined, would have to jump off a motorcycle at the mouth of the main road, turn a corner down a narrow block, and travel by foot down a hundred feet of rubble and rot just to get in range of No. 6 Cessna Street. 

That a gunman had done exactly that was perhaps the reason why every light but one had gone dark along Cessna in the early hours of September 7. 

The village watchmen found two bodies. Marlyn was sitting on the pink couch when they found her, bleeding but still alive. The watchmen lifted her and rushed her into a tricycle for the drive to Pasay General Hospital. Within minutes, Marlyn, lover to both Jhay Lord and Matti, she of the swagger and the laughter and the dyed blonde hair, was dead inside the blanket they had wrapped her body in. Police found shells from two guns, a 9 millimeter, and a .45 caliber.

Jhay Lord sustained at least 7 gunshot wounds – two shots to the gut, one on his chest, one to the side of his neck, one on his wrist, another on his forearm, and a last to the corner of his right eye. 

EXECUTION. Jhay Lord Clemente is found sprawled on his back across No.6 Cessna street, just beneath the couch where his lover Marlyn was found shot. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The aftermath

It was a neighbor who brought the Clemente family the news. Imelda woke up first. She was told her son had been shot down Cessna way. 

Don’t joke, she said, and woke up Jerome. 

The drive in Jerome’s tricycle took half an hour. Imelda says she went blank. At Cessna, Ricardo and Jerome ran past her to the crime scene. Three brothers were at Cessna Street in the early hours of Wednesday, September 7. One of them lay on the ground, legs akimbo, arms flung to the side, dead eyes open to the sky. The two who lived clutched at each other just behind the yellow police line and howled. 

Son of a bitch, son of a bitch, those fucking sons of bitches.

Imelda lurched after them. Reed thin, all sharp elbows and bony knees, she might have been any age between 40 and 60, so distorted was her face that it was impossible to tell how old she was. She dragged herself by her arms as if her legs were broken, scrawny fingers scrabbling for purchase in the hollows between cinderblocks.  

Her words were unintelligible, if they were words at all. She might have been saying her son’s name. She might have been saying no. 

The gaggle of cameras and microphones made way for her, opening a path through the narrow passageway, only to enclose her again in a circle of harsh led light. Shutters clicked. Questions were shouted out. Do you know him? Who was he to you? What was his name, when did you see him last, how old was he, did he have enemies – was he involved in drugs?

She answered, a word at a time. The thin shriek was caught between a wail and a plea. She said her son’s name was Jhay Lord. She said he was 34, or maybe 33. She said he was a good boy.

She never saw his body, only the barefoot leg stretched limp past the pink couch. She said later she couldn't have borne seeing him dead, that if she saw him she might die too. So she screamed and wept, swayed and fainted. Her new husband dragged her up by the armpits and carried her to a bench by the side of the creek. She was gone a full minute, eyes closed, head lolling on skinny shoulders. When her eyes cleared, the screaming began again, along with the questions. 

Tell us if he was an addict. Tell us if he did drugs. Tell us, tell us, tell us what you know. 

He was a good boy, she said. He was a good boy. 

Jhay Lord’s 15-year-old daughter Shaemie saw his body after the cops strung up the yellow line. She came dressed for school, in a pink checked uniform, her hair still wet. She did not howl as her uncles did. She didn’t weep, as her grandmother did. She stepped up to the crime scene to see, leaned past her uncles, then walked away without a word.

She said the man she saw did not look like her father. 

LOST. Imelda Clemente weeps at Cessna Street an hour after the killing. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The wake 

No official report has been written. Even the autopsy report is yet to be filed – investigators say there is a bottleneck at the morgue given the rise in killings. The police are pursuing multiple theories. Drugs could be a reason, or the woman he lived with. One theory goes that it was Matti Arcilla, Marlyn's lover, who ordered Jhay Lord's death from jail. 

The police have sent word through village officials asking Marlyn's family to come in for interview. The family is yet to appear. The police themselves are unable to visit. There are too few of them, they say, with too many deaths and far too many spot reports to write. Besides, if her family had nothing to hide, says SPO1 Melvin Garcia, they would have appeared at the precinct to demand justice. 

The killers have not been identified, and remain at large. 

The Clementes held the wake along a highway in Tambo, Parañaque. It was Ricardo who borrowed cash to pay the morgue for the release of his brother’s body. It was also Ricardo who kept food coming while the family sat in plastic benches around the thin white coffin. It was Ricardo, finally, who worried about the burial, and who went to city hall in the hope there was money to be had. 

A photographer who covered the story made a public call for funds. Jhay Lord, she wrote, was an “easygoing, fun-loving man.” She wrote that he liked hopia and basketball jerseys and dogs. She wrote that he had two children and a dog named Puppy. 

The donations poured in. Jhay Lord was buried in his baseball cap on Sunday, September 18. His sister Jenny Anne called via Skype from Dubai, where she was three months into a domestic contract. His 3 brothers stood around his coffin. White balloons were released. Eighty, maybe a hundred people attended. 

Jhay Lord's family will raise the daughters he left behind. They will send the girls to school and pay for whatever they need, just as they did while Jhay Lord lived. It is not very different from before, except this time, Shaemie cannot slip into Cessna to visit her absentee father. She knows her father used drugs. She understands the reason why he may have been killed. It was wrong, she said. He was still her father. 

Shaemie is afraid. She doesn’t want to lose anyone else. She is afraid someone will kill her uncles too. 

WAKE. Jhay Lord's coffin is surrounded by family along Tambo, Parañaque City. Photo by Carlo Gabuco/Rappler

The dead

A man was executed at half past two in the morning of Wednesday, September 7. 

It remains uncertain why he died. It could have been because he was a drug user. It might have been because he was a criminal. It may have been any number of reasons, but whatever those reasons were, Jhay Lord Clemente was murdered on a street named Cessna in a village whose roads include Constellation, Comet and at least three of the Apollo missions. He was left lying on his back, arms spread, dead eyes staring up at an empty sky.

His family mourns him, as many families have mourned in the 10 weeks since a corpse was found at the bottom of the MacArthur bridge early in July. Yellow tape now loops over cities in ribbons, down Roxas Boulevard, past Parola, through Arzadon Compound in Dagupan, around a bloodied jeep parked on Ilaya Street, to stream over corpses scattered the length and breadth of Pasay City.  

Every family, says Ricardo, has a Jhay Lord. 

Jhay Lord Clemente was not the best of fathers. He was not the best of sons. He was not a particularly useful citizen, and was often a burden to his family. He was a drug user, the sort of man the President of the Republic believes may or may not be human. 

According to the narrative now held acceptable under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, Jhay Lord Clemente deserved to die. 

“In the first place,” said Duterte, “I’d like to be frank with you: are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?” – Rappler.com

(Editor's note: All quotations have been translated to English). 

More stories from this series: THE DRUG WAR LEGENDARY Ask the police chief of Santa Ana what he thinks of his new president.He will give you one answer. THE DRUG WAR MONDAYS At least 12 people were killed between dusk and dawn one Monday in October. THE DRUG WAR DANICA, MY DANICA She was a sweet girl, funny and kind. Her mother found her with a gunshot wound to her nape. She will always be five years old. THE DRUG WAR SAFE FOR THE GOOD Ask them if they are afraid, and they will hesitate, and then they will say no. It is not dangerous, said a young tricycle driver who knew Jerome. You will be safe, for as long as you behave.