war on drugs

Forensic expert Raquel Fortun probes into Duterte drug war, spots irregularities

Rambo Talabong

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Forensic expert Raquel Fortun probes into Duterte drug war, spots irregularities

PROBE UPDATES. Forensic expert Raquel Fortun presents on her probe in Manila.

Rambo Talabong/Rappler

With the help of activist priest Flavie Villanueva, forensic expert Raquel Fortun re-autopsies remains of drug war victims exhumed for cremation

MANILA, Philippines – Raquel Fortun, one of only two forensic pathologists in the Philippines, has started her own probe into the landmark project of President Rodrigo Duterte, the war on drugs.

This was announced during a briefing held on Tuesday, April 12, and organized by Fortun and her partner in the probe, activist priest Flavie Villanueva.

Forensic expert Raquel Fortun probes into Duterte drug war, spots irregularities

Fortun’s probe so far involves the examination of 46 remains of drug war victims – those killed by policemen and by vigilantes.

The highlight of Fortun’s examination was drug war victims who were declared in their death certificates to have died of natural causes, but who were found by Fortun to have been victims of homicide.

Fortun counted seven cases where the cause of death was stated to be natural – such as sepsis and pneumonia. All seven, however, were found to have died from gunshot wounds.

The profile of the victims whom Fortun examined was consistent with the demographic of drug war victims: they were mostly male and mostly poor. About 17 had no jobs when they were alive. Four were construction workers and two were identified as scavengers.

Why does this matter?
Forensic expert Raquel Fortun probes into Duterte drug war, spots irregularities

Fortun’s probe opens the door to an independent investigation into the killings of drug war victims in a country where such probes have either been resisted by government or have resulted in a backlash.

After Duterte ordered all law enforcement agencies not to cooperate with international probes, independent investigations had become restricted. He ordered the same for the constitutionally established Commission on Human Rights. For journalists, obtaining data had also become much more difficult.

When asked ahead of the press conference what the goal of her probe was, Fortun said it was “documentation.”

Fortun feared that if the bodies were not re-autopsied, possible cover-ups would never be brought to light. One of the cases that Fortun examined, for example, had cause of death listed as pneumonia, but she found gunshot marks in the bones.

Fortun as an expert can offer testimony and expert opinion to back up drug war complaints that have languished. Since 2016, only the case of Kian delos Santos – the teen shot dead in Caloocan City – led to cops being put to trial and jailed.

Duterte’s drug war is under investigation by the International Criminal Court. It is looking at possibilities of human rights abuses and the Philippine justice system failing to prosecute criminals linked to the killings.

The flow of the probe

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Fortun’s probe is dependent on the exhumations led by activist priest Flavie Villanueva, who, since 2021, has been assisting families of drug war victims in taking out the remains of their loved ones who were in danger of eviction from cemeteries. Villanueva called the effort Project Arise.

The lease in public cemeteries usually lasts for only five years. If a family fails to renew their lease, the remains of their relative are thrown into a mass grave. Because the families are too poor to renew their lease, their relatives are evicted.

Villanueva stepped in to exhume and then cremate the remains. However, Villanueva and Fortun decided they would first re-examine them prior to cremation.

As of April 2022, Villanueva has counted 47 exhumations, a small number compared to the hundreds of killings recorded during the first year of Duterte.

Villanueva, however, remains optimistic.

“I am sure that this will help. This is a humanitarian act for the survivors…so that we can fight for justice, both in local and international investigations,” Villanueva said. – Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.