war on drugs

In Diego Bello’s Siargao paradise, his parents want to believe in justice

Lian Buan

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

In Diego Bello’s Siargao paradise, his parents want to believe in justice

PARADISE. Diego Lafuente Bello is a Spanish surfer who came to Siargao in 2017. He was killed by local police in 2020. Photo courtesy of the Bello family

Police wanted custody of the island cops who killed Spaniard Diego Lafuente Bello in 2020 in the name of Duterte's war on drugs

Diego Lafuente Bello was 18 years old when he left his parents’ home in A Coruña in the northern part of Spain. He wanted to travel the world. He went to Australia, Thailand, Mexico, Germany, and England. But the Philippines was his paradise.

He arrived in December 2017 in General Luna, the beach town in the idyllic island of Siargao, where many foreigners like him come to surf, party, and relax. But Diego wanted to stay there, for good.

“Diego loved the Philippines. He said it was a paradise,” said his father Alberto. “He wanted to raise a family here,” said his mother Pilar.

Pilar and Alberto are in Manila supposedly to attend a bail hearing for the three local Siargao cops who killed Diego on January 8, 2020. The cops claim it was a drug buy-bust and a case of “nanlaban” (suspects fighting back). Prosecutors did not believe them and charged the three with murder, and planting of evidence.

It’s been four years since Diego was killed in the name of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

“We lost our son, but I think the Philippines also lost its adopted son,” Alberto said in a press conference in Makati on Wednesday, June 19. They spoke through a Filipino translator.

Electrical Device, Microphone, People
JUSTICE FOR DIEGO. Pilar and Alberto Bello, parents of the slain Diego Lafuente Bello, speak to the media on June 19, 2024. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler
Police wanted custody

Captain Wise Vicente Panuelos, the chief of the General Luna municipal station, and his men, Staff Sergeants Ronel Pazo and Nido Boy Cortez, have been ordered detained with no bail. The cops filed a petition for bail, which is now being heard by the Manila court. The case was moved from Siargao to Manila, as is done in some cases when there’s reason to believe that interference and influence peddling might occur, or where security issues are grave.

They were ordered detained at the Manila City Jail (MCJ).

But in October 2023, the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) requested the court to retain custody of the three local police officials.

“We do not intend to disobey or defy said commitment orders,” wrote Major General Romeo Caramat, head of the CIDG at the time, “[but] we believe, based on information gathered, the reach of drug syndicates, and personalities involved in illegal drug trade, is pervasive as it poses serious threats to the lives and limbs of those who go against them.”

“May we respectfully express our intention to retain custody over the persons of accused for their safety, just to ensure that justice be afforded to all the parties, whatever be the outcome of these criminal cases,” Caramat wrote. Caramat was moved as Area Police Commander (APC) of Northern Luzon in May as part of a reorganization by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s new police chief, General Rommel Francisco Marbil.

Manila Judge Tita Bughao Alisuag denied the request, but it still triggered a sense of uncertainty on the part of Diego’s parents. They have written the MCJ to determine if there had been any transfers but have yet to hear back from them.

MCJ Spokesperson Elmar Jacobe told Rappler on June 6 they were in custody of the three cops.

“I don’t think the Philippine police is corrupt. The three accused I find corrupt, because they lied,” said Pilar.

The PNP, even under Marcos who promised a more humane drug war, remains stingy when it comes to details of abuses by the police force in the campaign against drugs. Diego’s case is one of the 52 cases in the review hyped by both the Duterte and Marcos governments to convince the International Criminal Court (ICC) that local justice is working.

Of the 52, only Diego’s and five others have been brought to court. The 52 in the drug war reinvestigation is a speck out of the more than 7,000 killed by Duterte’s police officials in his six years as president.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) concluded that Diego’s case “was a staged armed encounter,” where the 32-year-old Spaniard sustained six gunshot wounds. It would also appear, based on ballistics examination, that the shooters surrounded Diego. “Instead of running away, Diego was essentially moving around them – an action that is contrary to the natural reaction of a person who flees to escape,” said the NBI in its complaint sent to prosecutors, which was affirmed.

Pilar said she never worried for Diego, even though he arrived on the island at a time that Duterte’s war on drugs was already raging, meriting many international headlines.

“We were not worried because he was never involved in drugs. Diego was very conscious and he knew very well that anyone who’s involved in drugs would have problems,” said Pilar.

Person, Adult, Male
SLAIN. Diego Lafuente Bello was 32 years old and running a surf shop in Siargao when he was killed by local cops in January 2020. Photo courtesy of the Bello family
‘I’d like to believe in your justice system’

Diego liked to have a good time. “He organized parties every week,” said Alberto. In fact he had just come from a bar in the evening of January 7, before he was killed early morning of January 8.

He was also very cheeky. He put up a business that sells island merchandise and named it “Mamon.” He knew it meant bread in the Philippines, but in his language it meant “idiot.”

Mamon allowed him to “sponsor and give financial support to local surfers,” said the shop’s website. He employed 25 in his business.

His parents continued the business because it was the only way they can pay lawyers, and keep flying to the Philippines to see the case through.

“The biggest challenge is financial. We are regular workers, and we have to continue working to continue living,” said Pilar. She and her husband sell souvenir items to the Camino pilgrims in northern Spain.

The three cops claimed that an asset had reported buying cocaine from Diego, and that he was set up for a buy-bust operation when he violently resisted arrest. The PNP Crime Lab said the urine specimen taken from Diego’s cadaver tested negative for drugs. Diego was also not on the barangay drug list. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) likewise denied the cops’ claim that their personnel was there to participate in the buy-bust.

Diego’s case is one of the fastest moving in the search for accountability in the drug war. Now that it’s on trial, Diego’s parents have to experience the slow pace part of the process – the hearing they were supposed to attend for this trip was canceled, a usual occurrence for any Filipino litigant.

“I would like to believe in the Philippine justice system. We’ve reached this point because of the justice system,” said Pilar.

Abdiel Fajardo, the Bellos’ Filipino lawyer and a former president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, said there’s also been some challenge in convincing witnesses to fully participate. At least four of Diego’s friends were able to rush to the scene to find him bloodied and without a pulse.

“We have yet to assess their willingness. The practical difficulty there is that somehow the people may have, while initially they might have been enthusiastic, of course as we know human nature. That’s why [the parents] are here, to freshen their memories so that the witnesses can also be reminded of the fact that they are here,” said Fajardo.

However, Pilar and Alberto cannot bear to go to Siargao. It’s no longer paradise.

“It would be painful for us to go back,” said Alberto. – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Happy, Head


Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.