war on drugs

Could 4th drug war conviction be the ‘last tokhang case’ in court?

Jairo Bolledo

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Could 4th drug war conviction be the ‘last tokhang case’ in court?

JUSTICE. Families affected by the killings Duterte’s war on drugs and human rights defenders show their support to Mary Ann Domingo as the Caloocan City Regional Trial Court Branch 121 handed a guilty verdict to four police officers involved in the 2016 killing of Domingo's partner Luis and son Gabriel Bonifacio, on June 18, 2024.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Of the thousands of drug war deaths, there are only four convictions so far

Inside a small court room in Caloocan City, Mary Ann Domingo reunited with four cops on June 18. She was not close to them, but she knew them very well. They were the police who killed her common law-husband, Luis, and their son, Gabriel, in the name of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war in 2016.

Mary Ann sat in silence as she awaited the verdict of Caloocan City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 121. Her second to the youngest son held her hand as they both glanced at each other, at the people inside the court room, and at the parish priest who accompanied them inside. Before the judge arrived, Mary Ann let go of the tears she was holding back and cried in her son’s shoulder.

They had to wait before the court finished other matters in other cases. And then it was their turn. “The court hereby finds P/MSgt. Virgilio Q. Cervantes, P/Cpl. Arnel de Guzman, P/Cpl. Johnston M. Alacre and P/Cpl. Artemio Saguros Jr. guilty of the crime of homicide and are sentenced to suffer the penalty of an indeterminate sentence of 6 years, 8 months and 21 days of prision correccional to 8 years, one day to 10 years of prision mayor medium as maximum.”

FOR JUSTICE. Mary Ann Domingo and her son as they both await the verdict against cops who killed Mary Ann’s husband and son, Luis and Gabriel. Rappler

Before the clerk could finish reading, Mary Ann and her son already cried and cheered as they heard the guilty verdict. Members of rights group Rise Up, who helped Mary Ann in her fight, cried along with her.

“I am happy because this signified the start of our continued fight. I am very thankful that the cops were found guilty. This was the fight I never expected to win because I fought for seven years. I am very thankful and happy,” Mary Ann said in Filipino during a Rappler Talk interview.

In her decision, Caloocan City RTC Branch 121 Presiding Judge Ma. Rowena Violago Alejandria said the court was not convinced by the cops’ insistence that they fired one shot each to defend themselves, because the victims sustained multiple gunshot wounds. 

The cops are expected to appeal their conviction. They are temporarily free and have yet to be arrested because their bail bond is still in effect. Unlike murder, homicide is bailable.

‘Partial victory’

Although Mary Ann is happy about the decision, it was only a partial victory for them.

“We are happy about the judge’s decision and we are thankful for her appreciation of the evidence. But we consider the decision finding the four cops guilty of killing the Bonifacios as partial victory. In reality, we originally filed for murder, and not homicide,” National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) National Capital Region president Julian Oliva Jr., among Mary Ann’s counsels, said.

It took four years in preliminary investigation before the case reached court, with the Office of the Ombudsman downgrading the charge from murder to homicide.

The Ombudsman rejected the self-defense argument of the cops, but the prosecutors said they did not find basis to file murder charges against them. The Ombudsman only indicted Cervantes, De Guzman, Alacre, and Saguros, and suspended them for a year without pay after being found guilty of grave misconduct. However, the prosecutors dismissed the murder complaint against the following 17 police officials and men:

  • Police Lieutenant Colonel Ali Jose Duterte
  • Police Major (PMaj) Jonathan Victor Olveña
  • PMaj Timothy Aniway Jr.
  • PMaj Avelino Andaya*
  • Police Staff Sergeant (PSSg.) Reymel Villanueva*
  • PSSg John Cezar Mendoza
  • PSSg Harold Jake dela Rosa*
  • PSSg Richard Ramos
  • PSSg Edgar Manapat*
  • Police Senior Master Sergeant (PSMS) Joel Saludes
  • PSMS Alberto Sucgang
  • Police Corporal (PCpl) Orland Lucky Boy de Leon
  • Patrolman (Pat) Carlo Miguel Daniel
  • Pat Randy Chua
  • Pat Ruby Dumaguing
  • Pat Aldrin Matthew Matining*
  • Harlem Ramos

* guilty of simple neglect of duty, suspended for one month

For years, Mary Ann said she went to the Ombudsman’s office at least once a month to ask for updates. “They knew me so well because of that,” Mary Ann said.

Could 4th drug war conviction be the ‘last tokhang case’ in court?

“Even if the conviction is just homicide, it was our way to tell the government that killings are true. Although it’s not murder, we can say that there were killings, that officials killed poor, defenseless people with impunity. It’s a big relief for the family, but I will continue fighting,” Mary Ann told Rappler.

Mary Ann and her counsels went to the Supreme Court (SC) to challenge the Ombudsman’s resolution and try to again upgrade the charge to murder against all the cops involved in the operation. The High Court denied their petition in October 2023 and upheld the Ombudsman’s resolution.

The SC said the petitioners failed to show sufficient and convincing reason to deviate from the Ombudsman’s ruling or proof that the operation “was conceived to kill the unsuspecting deceased.”

Their appeal on this denial is still pending, so Mary Ann holds on to hope that they could go after more cops. “If they [Supreme Court] reverse, following a series of actions, eventually we could end up with the opening of another trial against 16 additional policemen. Including and up to the team leader of the operation, Ali Jose Duterte,” NUPL NCR Secretary General Kristina Conti, who also served as Mary Ann’s counsel, told Rappler.

A hard-fought battle

Past midnight on September 15, 2016, cops stormed the Bonifacios’ house in Caloocan. Mary Ann said around 15 to 20 armed cops entered their abode. Luis was the cops’ target and when they saw him, they pointed their guns at him.

Mary Ann and the children hurried upstairs while Luis was left pleading to the cops “on his knees with guns pointed at his head.” Gabriel refused to leave his father’s side.

Later, Mary Ann said she and their three other children “were eventually dragged down the stairs and outside” their home and into the street. Afterwards, Mary Ann said they heard gunshots. She was told her husband was dead while Gabriel was taken to the hospital. Gabriel later died of gunshot wounds.

Duterte Drug War Luis Gabriel Bonifacio Extrajudicial Killing
FOR JUSTICE. Mary Ann Domingo brings photos of her husband, Luis, and their son, Gabriel, inside the court room on June 18, 2024. Jire Carreon/ Rappler

Mary Ann said she knew courage the moment she saw her husband and son covered in their own blood. “That time when they were full of blood and my son’s eyes were still open, I closed his eyes. I told him, ‘I will take charge, I will fight for you.'”

Mary Ann said she had a hard time starting the complaint. She did not know what to do or where to go. All she knew was she needed to compile all the documents that she could collect – from death certificates to hospital records.

Mary Ann told Rappler that every time she passed by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines’ (NCCP) building along Quezon City, she would stop and look at a big tarpaulin, which says “Hustisya” (justice). That was the start.

Mary Ann was later advised to ask assistance from Rise Up, an organization of victims’ families that holds office at the NCCP building.

“I’ve known many organizations, like Rise Up, and they became the voice that told me that I’m not alone. I’ve learned that there are people, that even though they were not victims of a tragedy, they will strengthen our resolve and will serve as our voice in attaining justice,” Mary Ann shared.

Only the 4th conviction

Human rights groups estimated that around 30,000 were killed under Duterte’s drug war, if vigilante killings were to be included. Of these thousands and thousands of deaths, the Bonifacio case was only the fourth conviction.

The first conviction was in 2018, when cops were convicted for killing Kian delos Santos.

In 2022, Patrolman Jeffrey Perez was convicted of torture and planting of evidence in relation to the killing of teens Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman.

In March 2023, a Navotas court convicted the same cop in the Arnaiz and De Guzman case.

There are only eight policemen convicted in Duterte’s drug war: Three for Delos Santos, one for Arnaiz, De Guzman (the other cop died during the trial), and four for the Bonifacios.

Although it had the most number of convicted cops, the Bonifacio case had the lightest penalty among the three cases. The judge found some justifying circumstance. Article 11 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) removes criminal liability if there is justifying circumstance, like performance of duty.

But since the cops cannot invoke self defense, the court applied a lower-tiered rule, or Article 69 of the RPC, which imposes penalty lower by one or two degrees for acts “not wholly excusable” by justifying circumstance but where “the majority of such conditions [is] present.”

For Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde, it is “unconscionable” that the Philippines only has four drug war convictions so far. “This indicates the serious problems our criminal justice system and our judiciary face: these systems have always been broken but the drug war made the situation even worse. So in a way this is not surprising.”

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There’s also a possibility that it will take time before another conviction will be added to the list of successful cases against cops. In Rise Up and NUPL’s case, they don’t have any pending cases before the courts. Out of the 200 drug cases they looked into, 20 resulted in case build-ups, but only six pushed through with complaints. Of the complaints, only two led to indictments: one was dismissed at the RTC level, and the other was the conviction in the Bonifacio case.

Last ‘tokhang’ case?

“For NUPL-NCR, this is the last ‘tokhang‘ case we could bring to court. We had earlier brought to the Supreme Court a challenge to the nanlaban (fought back) narrative but lost our bid to upgrade these charges from homicide to murder and to implead all those who participated in the operation,” the group said.

Aside from challenges in probes, only a few drug war families file complaints because of fear. Pursuing legal actions exposes families to harassment or even death, especially in drug war operations where the suspect cops are part of their own communities.

This is where the International Criminal Court (ICC) enters. The drug war families pin their hopes on the court, which is currently probing into the drug war killings. Even Mary Ann believes the ICC’s intervention is needed to give them full closure.

“Frankly speaking, we should really attain true justice. Not just homicide conviction, but the real justice we deserve. A true justice,” she said. – Rappler.com

Mary Ann’s quotes were translated to English for brevity.

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.