PH police ‘falsifying’ evidence in drugs war – Human Rights Watch

Bea Cupin
A report by an international human rights group points to collusion between police and so-called vigilante groups in the execution of drug suspects

FAKE OPS? Police crime scene investigators under Jones Bridge in Binondo, Manila after police shot dead suspected drug dealers Cyril Raymundo, Eduardo Aquino and Edgar Cumbis in a supposed buy-bust operation. File photo by Carlo Gabuco for Human Rights Watch

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine police have turned to planting evidence and faking police reports in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, according to a report released by international organization Human Rights Watch on Thursday, March 1.

In a study conducted from October 2016 to January 2017, the human rights group found instances where police either planted evidence on suspected drug users and dealers or came up with reports that differed vastly from accounts by relatives who witnessed the supposed operation. 

A bulk of the cases happened in the National Capital Region, the most populated region in the country and the leader in terms of number of killings linked to the drug war.

The PNP was ordered to withdraw from the drug war, the result of the kidnap and murder of a South Korean businessman by anti-narcotics police. But after a 4-week hiatus, the PNP is back in business

National police chief Ronald dela Rosa, speaking to reporters on March 1, insisted it was impossible to have a bloodless campaign against illegal drugs.

“How I wish we could achieve a drug-free society without bloodshet but it’s very impossible since it’s going to be a war,” he said. 

“These drug lords, as they said, will not just surrender, they will not just leave the drug trafficking business just like that. This is a billion peso industry,” he added. 

From July 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017 or when Duterte temporarily stopped all police anti-illegal drug operations, police have tallied at least 7,080 deaths linked to the bloody war on drugs. 

A third – 2,555 persons – are suspected drug personalities killed in police operations. But a bulk of the figure are 3,603 “deaths under investigation (DUI)” or vigilante-style killings with suspected ties to illegal drugs. 

Differing accounts 

In Tondo, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas in the region, 34-year-old Edward Sentorias was killed on July 8, 2016 when 5 uniformed policemen knocked on his door, dragged his family outside and shot him. 

Sentorias and his live-in partner were drug users, according to his relatives. He refused to surrender to officials through “Oplan Tokhang,” a literal knock-and-plead operation that had netted more than a million “surrendered” drug users and pushers. He noted that “local officials were shabu addicts long before he was,” according to the HRW report. 

And while Sentorias was admittedly a drug user, relatives believe he had been mistakenly identified as the heir to a drug dealing business once operated by his partner’s parents. 

The official account is that Sentorias “fought back” against the cops, pulling out a .38 caliber revolver because he felt his life was in danger. The cop shot and killed Sentorias. Accounts of his relatives, as narrated to Human Rights Watch, however, differ. 

“Relatives of Sentorias dispute the police account that he was armed, and said that they witnessed the police placing the incriminating evidence,” reads the report. 

“I saw one of the police go inside with an aluminum briefcase. Out of curiosity I went to look through the window. I saw the officer open the briefcase and he took out the gun and some sachets, and placed them there. I went back to where I was, and was totally shocked,” a relative of Sentorias told Human Rights Watch immediately after the incident.

The relative did not lodge a complaint.

He said: “I couldn’t even complain. If we go complain, what is our chance against the authorities? The government declared the evidence was found inside his house, so it is their word against ours. I have no reason to lie about this. That is when I realized not everyone being killed is guilty of fighting back. If they don’t find evidence inside the house, they need to fabricate it, so they don’t get busted.”

1st day of July

In the case of 43-year-old Oliver dela Cruz, who was killed mere hours after Duterte took his oath of office, the police’s narrative again differs from that of the family’s. Police – crime scene investigators were in the vicinity even before the murder had taken place, HRW said. 

Cruz, a rice and vegetable farmer from Bulacan who had turned to dealing drugs after a lung disease made farming impossible, was gunned down by five masked armed men on July 1, at 1 in the morning. 

“The men grabbed him and slammed him into a concrete wall several times, and then they threw him out of the door, to the outside. We saw the shooting, we were just there. Oliver’s face was bleeding from being hit, and he was begging them for mercy when he was shot, he was just lying on the ground at that time. He did not have a gun or try to grab a gun – he was already badly beaten and couldn’t have fought back even if he had wanted to,” said a relative, dismissing any possibility that Dela Cruz even attempted to retaliate. 

“The men grabbed him and slammed him into a concrete wall several times, and then they threw him out of the door, to the outside. We saw the shooting, we were just there. Oliver’s face was bleeding from being hit, and he was begging them for mercy when he was shot, he was just lying on the ground at that time. He did not have a gun or try to grab a gun—he was already badly beaten and couldn’t have fought back even if he had wanted to,” added the relative. 

A report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer says Dela Cruz was killed as a result of a buy bust operation. The official police report says he was killed during “an armed encounter,” relegating his death as one done by vigilante groups.  

Uniformed police officers and crime scene investigators were already alleged just waiting outside his neighborhood as he was executed by unknown assailants. 

The cases of Sentorias and Dela Cruz are two lesser known cases of police apparently killing suspects in the guise of a legitimate police operation. Late last year, the Senate investigated the killing of alleged drug personality Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr inside his own jail cell. 

While Region 8 police claim Espinosa “fought back” during the service of a search warrant, legislators insisted this was unlikely. The National Bureau of Investigation eventually concluded that the incident was a rubout

Violent ‘tokhang’ 

The HRW report also put a spotlight on “Oplan Tokhang,” an infamous operation in the PNP’s war on drugs. Tokhang features policemen who knock on the doors of suspected drug users and pushers, encouraging them to “surrender.” The “surrendered” then signs a document declaring himself a drug user or dealer and he/she becomes subject to monitoring by local officials. 

HRW cited a “more violent element” of the supposedly peaceful operation: the death of those listed “surrendered” during buy-bust operations or in executions by vigilante killings. 

“In the days before a killing, a targeted individual might receive a visit from an official from the local barangay (or neighborhood), informing them that they are on a drug “watch list” drawn up by barangay officials and the police, putting them at grave risk. This might cause the individual to lay low, avoid all outside activities or turn themselves in to the police—all to no avail. Or there might be no warning at all,” said the report. 

For Human Rights Watch Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert, there is  “no denying” the collusion between policemen and hit squads in the murder of drug suspects. “Let’s stop this fiction about police shootouts and drug dealers killing each other,” Bouckaert told Rappler in an interview. 

Bouckaert, who wrote the report, added: “I ask any Filipino: in these very heavily policed neighborhoods in the night, do you really think a group of 10 men masked can drive around on motorcycles to carry out a killing and drive away without being caught by the police? It’s impossible.” 

Bouckaert is a veteran member of fact-finding missions to Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone, among others. 

Duterte’s drug war has been criticized for failing to address the problem of drug addiction and its high death toll. Recently, former Colombia president Cesar Gaviria called on Duterte to stop relying on force in a battle against illegal drugs, citing his own experience.

Gaviria led Colombia when it waged war against its infamous cartels. Columbia is now “at the forefront of attempts to overhaul global narcotics policies.”

Duterte responded by calling Gaviria an “idiot” for “lecturing” him on the drugs war. 

And while the PNP insists its bloody war on drugs has reduced the spread of illegal drugs in the country, Bouckaert sees it differently.

“What impact has it had on drug use? Almost nothing. You’re not going to get rid of the drug problem in the Philippines by killing people on the streets. This is a war much more on the poor than it is on drugs because the actual drug dealers are protected,” he told Rappler. 

The report called on the PNP to “end their campaign of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers and users” and urged other government agencies to investigate and prosecute those guilty of the killings. – 

Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.