On Undas, families of drug war victims cry justice for their dead

MANILA, Philippines – The crucifix hung on the stained gate, Jesus pinned on crimson bars under a blazing sun. He watched over dozens of families barely covered by umbrellas, praying for justice on the eve of Undas.

They fanned out from the makeshift altar, where Father Flavie Villanueva and two other priests concelebrated mass. “Inaalay natin itong misa sa mga taong inosenteng pinaslang at kasama na rin ang ating bayang kaunti-kaunting pinapaslang (We offer this mass to the innocents who were killed, as well as our country which is slowly being killed),” Villanueva said.

The families were gathered under the Mendiola Peace Arch, over a kilometer away from the official home of the man behind the drug war that had unjustly claimed the lives of a parent, sibling, child, grandkid, or a dear friend.

Undas is supposed to be solemn. In the Philippines, the term refers to the observance of All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day the following day. During Undas, families head to cemeteries to honor and remember their dearly departed. 

It was a different observance for the families in Mendiola that day, who all shared something in common:  Their loved ones didn't just die; they were killed.

May dagdag kapag 'di lang basta namatay sa sakit ang mahal sa buhay, pero sinamahan pa ng pagmamalupit (There is an added pain when a loved one did not just die from an illness, but was brutally killed),” said Father Albert Alejo. (READ: A gruesome tale of TokHang: 'Sir, may humihinga pa)

‘All the men were taken’

Gigi Sardido, 39, was among the women who wore white for the mass. She lived in a strip of shanty houses in Delpan, Tondo. Her brother Raffy Sardido was taken from her on September 27, 2016, less than 3 months into the Duterte administration.

It was around 9:30 pm when the cops ordered all families in her community to leave their houses. They rounded up the men and pushed them into to their patrol cars.

Gigi thought that the cops would just check Raffy's identity. It was an Oplan Tokhang operation, she thought, a visitation of cops to give her brother a chance to clean his name.

But the next time she saw him was when he was already cold and dead. According to her, Raffy was dragged up their road, and shot dead.

Nakarinig na lang kami ng mga putok at ‘di ko alam na isa na pala ang kapatid ko sa mga napatay doon (We just heard gunshots. I didn’t know that my brother was one of those killed),” she recalled.

That day, 15 alleged drug suspects were killed across the country, 3 of them from the same house in Delpan, Tondo.

Police reported that Raffy was a drug suspect whom they had planned to capture through a buy-bust operation, but he allegedly “fought back” – the police’s favorite alibi in explaining the death of suspects in police operations. The excuse was still failry  new at the time, so Gigi didn't know how to question the cops' explanation.

PRAYER RALLY. Fathers Albert Alejo (left), Flavie Villanueva (center), and Robert Reyes (right) say mass for the victims of the Duterte administration's anti-drug campaign. Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

PRAYER RALLY. Fathers Albert Alejo (left), Flavie Villanueva (center), and Robert Reyes (right) say mass for the victims of the Duterte administration's anti-drug campaign.

Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

‘We don’t even have candles’

On All Saints' Day, 27-year-old Leslie Lagarde and her family could not even pay a visit to their friend, Kim Lester Ramos, who was killed by a cop after a supposed tussle for a gun.

She was invited to attend the mass, but was too busy taking care of her wounded brother at home.

Her brother Lauro was there when Kim was killed in Marikina City on October 5. Lauro was shot, but after he fell, he played dead. When he opened his eyes for a moment, he saw the cop shoot his best friend Kim in the back of the head.

Cops said Lauro was also part of the tussle, but Lauro denied this and spoke out, triggering investigations by the police’s own men and the Commission on Human Rights into the killing.

The cop who killed Kim – Corporal Herjonner Soller – has since been relieved from his post, but the Lagarde family could not leave their home to visit Kim’s grave at the Cainta Public Cemetery out of fear that other cops might do the same to them.

They could not even leave candles at the grace, Leslie said, and they have yet to debate whether to allow Lauro to leave their house to visit Kim’s grave. They once thought their city was safe, but not anymore.

Mahirap na po kasi eh (We'd rather err on the side of caution),” Leslie told Rappler in a text message.

For the time being, Leslie was bent on getting employed as she lost her factory job after she spent days at a time taking care of her brother. She was also working to gather documents against the police.

Mourning turns to resistance

The killings of Kim Lester Ramos and Raffy Sardido are only part of a growing list of drug suspects, mostly men from poor communities, who have been accused of involvement in the illegal drugs trade, then killed in an anti-drug operation.

Police have admitted to killing over 5,500 drug suspects as of June 2019. Human rights groups have pegged the killings to be as high as 30,000, counting also drug-related killings supposedly been inspired by the administration’s unrelenting campaign against illegal drugs.

Of all the killings where cops have been accused of wrongdoing, only one case has led to the conviction of cops for murder: the case of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, who was killed by anti-drug cops in August 2017 and then falsely framed him as a gun-wielding drug runner.

Three years since her brother was killed, Gigi remained hopeful that she could attain the same justice as the family of Kian delos Santos.

Umaasa pa rin po kami na mabibigyan kami ng katarungan, para po sa mga mahal namin sa buhay. Kung hindi po ngayon, sana po may panahon pa rin po na magkaroon kami ng hustisya para sa pamilya namin,” Gigi said.

(We are still hoping that we could get justice for our loved ones. If not now, hopefullyour family will get justice one day.)

The Lagardes' pain was still fresh. They have managed their expectations in a system that has so far repeatedly failed their friends and family, both living and dead.

Wala silang (police) patawad. Wala naman po kaming kasalanan, bakit 'yung mga kriminal na nasa posisyon free sila? Kaming nananahimik, kami ang pinupuntirya,” Leslie said.

(They're ruthless. We have done nothing wrong, yet why do criminals remain free and find themselves in positions? We who are silently minding our own business are the ones being targeted.)

FIGHTING BACK. A relative of a drug war victim joins the protest after the prayer. Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

FIGHTING BACK. A relative of a drug war victim joins the protest after the prayer.

Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

– Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.