Philippine drug war victims

Drug war victims’ families to House panel: Probe Duterte

Jodesz Gavilan

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Drug war victims’ families to House panel: Probe Duterte

JUSTICE. Families of victims of extrajudicial killings light candles beside the portraits of their deceased loved ones on July 18, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Families say it's ridiculous that legislators are unaware of the violence under Duterte's drug war. 'Dati pa po kaming nagsasalita, baka sila lang iyong hindi nakikinig,' says a member of one of these families.

Sheerah Escudero recently found herself in a situation she never imagined to be nor wanted to be in if only circumstances were different. But it was necessary, if only to remind the public of the violence that former president Rodrigo Duterte unleashed during his presidency. 

The 28-year-old faced the House of Representatives on May 21 as part of its human rights panel’s probe into extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s drug war. It aimed to “seek and uncover the truth” behind what transpired during the previous administration, as if Duterte’s kill orders and the dead bodies that surfaced were not convincing enough.

Sheerah was the first relative of a drug war victim to speak during the House hearing. Her brother, Ephraim, was killed in September 2017, leaving behind two children barely in their toddler years. His lifeless body – bearing bullet wounds and head wrapped in packaging tape – was found in Angeles City, Pampanga, more than a hundred kilometers from his hometown of San Pedro, Laguna. 

In front of legislators – some of whom either turned a blind eye or supported the slaughter – and government officials who carried out Duterte’s drug war, Sheerah said: “I am here because two boys are asking what happened to their father. Paano ko sila sasagutin (How will I answer them)?” 

Her voice was breaking as she recounted what happened to Ephraim and her futile attempts to navigate the judicial process to get a semblance of justice in the years that followed. In an interview with Rappler, Sheerah said she did not feel any fear, but felt like she was going to explode any moment due to the emotions she could not identify. 

Ito na kasi iyong pinakahihintay namin na moment na marinig nila kami (this was the moment we’ve been waiting for so long for them to hear us), we’re able to tell them what they did to us, that their policies did this to my brother and to the other victims,” she said. 

Iyong pag-upo namin sa Congress at pag-testify ng karanasan namin, paraan iyon para maipakita sa kanila na totoong tao kami, na totoong nangyari iyong mga patayan,” Sheerah added. 

(Our testifying in front of Congress is our way of showing them that we’re real people, that killings really happened.)

Kristina Conti of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers-NCR told Rappler that the hearing is important because it allows them to “present the point of view of victims in the public sphere,” especially as they “have oftentimes been shamed and scapegoated.” 

“Ultimately, and to be frank, we do not expect the House committee hearings to end impunity or even end the killings, but at the least, we can get them talking and admitting that the government as a whole made mistakes,” she said. 

Adult, Female, Person
BRAVE. Sheerah Escudero speaks at the House of Representatives about what happened to her brother Ephraim. Screenshot from House livestream
Reaching Congress

Sheerah was only 22 years old when her brother Ephraim became one of the thousands killed under Duterte’s drug war. Government data estimates the number to reach almost 30,000 – with at least 6,252 killed in police operations while the rest were slain vigilante-style. 

She was used to mostly working behind the scenes as a campus journalist at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Muntinlupa. She even remembered initiating activities condemning the death of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in the hands of police in September 2017, a month before her brother Ephraim suffered the same fate. 

One of the first times Sheerah spoke publicly was in February 2018, five months after her brother was slain, during a protest organized by students from universities in Metro Manila. She was motivated by the desire to seek justice for her brother’s death, even if it meant being thrust into the spotlight she never imagined. 

May halong kaba (I was nervous) but at the same time, I found it liberating to finally stand in front and let people hear what’s happening, what we went through, and what my brother experienced.” she said.

Through speaking, paulit-ulit na nabubuhay iyong kapatid ko at bitbit ko rin iyong mga nangyari sa iba pang victims at sa kanilang mga pamilya,” Sheerah added. (My brother’s memory is kept alive and I’m able to carry not just his story, but also the stories of other victims and their families.)

Since then, Sheerah and other families have had to navigate complex and often taxing processes to have their stories heard in the absence of justice. They’ve spoken up in public protests, given interviews to both local and international media organizations, and even submitted communications to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is now investigating the killings for possible crimes against humanity.

They do this amid incidents of continued harassment and intimidation from police who still live in their communities, or the gaslighting by the same government that denied them opportunities to be heard. 

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Fear, harassment push drug war victims’ families to pin their hopes on ICC

But for Sheerah, “they have nothing to lose.” She carried this thought as she shed her anonymity and faced legislators and Duterte-era officials at the House of Representatives, together with other families from Rise Up for Life and for Rights. 

Kapag nagtagumpay po lahat ng ginawa naming pagsasalita, posibleng makamit namin ang justice, pero kapag nananahimik kami, wala, mababaon lamang sa limot iyong mga pangalan ng mga mahal namin sa buhay.” she said. 

(If we achieve anything by speaking, then it’s possible we get justice. But if we just keep quiet, the memory of our loved ones killed will just be forgotten.) 

All things point to Duterte

Clarita* watched from her home as Sheerah and other drug war families testified for the first time in Congress. It was the fifth house they had moved into after her husband Samuel* was killed in September 2016. He was shot 28 times – four bullets to the head and the rest to the torso – during a police operation in Bulacan, one of the killing hot spots under Duterte. 

If she had a choice, Clarita would stand alongside Sheerah and the families who went public. She would put her name and her face out in the open. But whenever the thought crossed her mind, Clarita would be reminded of what her family went through in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. 

Hindi nga namin naiburol sa lugar namin ang asawa ko kaya kailangan pa namin maghanap ng lugar para umiwas sa mga nagmamanman sa amin,” she told Rappler. 

(We weren’t able to hold a wake in our community for my husband because we needed to find a place to evade unidentified people who were watching us.) 

They weren’t able to file a case, not even get official records from police because there was news that a widow who did the exact same thing ended up dead. She did not want her three children – the youngest then was seven – to also lose a mother. 

That is why since 2016, Clarita and her small family have had to move houses five times. They do not tell their new neighbors their circumstances, nor where they came from. 

Kapag may nakakakilala sa amin, mag-aalsa-balutan na lang kami ulit,” she said. “Ganyan na buhay namin ilang taon na rin, pero hindi kami nasasanay.” 

(When people somehow recognize us, we just pack up our things and move again. That has been our life for so many years now, but it’s not something we have gotten used to.) 

But keeping to themselves does not mean that Clarita has completely given up on her quest for justice. The most that she has done in recent years was to get involved in the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights) that has brought together other widows and mothers who lost children to the drug war. 

Witnessing the House of Representatives investigate the killings gives hope to Clarita, but she admitted having a sinking feeling that everything might not be genuine and just be a by-product of the apparent split between the Duterte and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. factions.

Kung nandoon ang concern, eh di sana noon pa lang umpisa, kumampi na sila sa amin, pinaglaban na nila kami, eh ngayon wala na eh, ang dami nang nahirapan, ang dami nang naulila,” she said.  

(If the concern was there, then they should’ve stood with us right at the very beginning and fought for us. But now, it’s too late. There have been a lot of people who have suffered. There have been a lot of orphans.) 

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Clarita’s view is not unfounded. The ongoing House hearing into the extrajudicial killings have so far yielded not so significant results and instead displayed the jarring disconnect between legislators and the reality on the ground. 

Much of the information revealed is already widely known, but legislators often fixated on these details. There is also the issue of how the hearings seem to evade pointing fingers at Duterte. House human rights committee chairperson Bienvenido “Benny” Abante Jr. said Duterte and his drug war architect, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, would just be “informed” and not invited to the hearing.

Ang dami na patunay na siya naman ang nag-order sa mga pulis na pumatay ng mga tao, bakit hirap pa sila na sabihin iyon? Bakit kailangan ang dami pa paikot-ikot?” Clarita said. “Kitang-kita naman na si Duterte ang may pakana ng lahat, pero bakit malaya pa rin siya?” 

(There is a lot of proof that shows it was Duterte who ordered his police to kill, but why are legislators having a hard time coming to that conclusion? It’s obvious that Duterte engineered everything, but why is he still free?)

Duterte remains untouchable. The only exception has been proceedings at the ICC. But Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, who has consistently condemned the killings even under the previous administration, hopes that the House probe could find out “the extent…of the instigation, tolerance, and condonation” by Duterte and which “[resulted] in the inordinate onslaught.” 

“The congressional investigation is an exercise of the legislative oversight power,” Lagman told Rappler in an email. To prove that the committee has adequately done its part, the eventual report must include recommendations on prosecutions, appropriation for financial assistance to families, and a clear submission of the findings to the ICC. 

Abante, however, earlier said that they are not interested in the ICC and will not cooperate with them. 

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JUSTICE. Families of drug war victims continue to seek justice for their loved ones.
‘We’ve been here for so long’

If there are moments that could lead the public to question the sincerity of the proceedings, these were mostly instigated by Abante himself. 

On June 5, the second day of the House probe, Abante berated human rights lawyer Kristina Conti for bringing only three families to testify. He said that “being afraid” is a “preposterous reason” to still hide, emphasizing that he is laying his life on the line for the hearing. 

Clarita recalled to Rappler how she fumed as she watched from her home how the scene unfolded. She wanted to ask Abante: Will you be able to secure my family? Will you grant us protection? 

Inalagaan namin ang seguridad namin sa mga nakalipas na taon, eh paano kung namatay na kami? Sino lalaban para sa amin?” she said. (We took care of ourselves all these years. What if we get killed? Who will fight for us?)

There was no offer of temporary accommodations for those scheduled to speak during the first two hearings, Conti told Rappler on June 5. She hopes that the House can provide protection from the police and even prosecution.

Abante, however, could only give assurances that the families are “well-protected” while inside the House premises. He said that he would consult other officials on how to expand this. 

We’re very willing to speak there, to cooperate with them, ibibigay namin lahat na hinihingi nilang paper, pero siguro speed up the process,” Sheerah said. “Mahirap maniwala at ibigay ang buong tiwala hangga’t wala pa pong nagiging resulta.”

(We can give all the papers they need but they need to speed up the process. It’s hard to believe and give them trust until we see any good result.)

For Sheerah, who has spent almost seven years spreading the story of her brother’s death, maybe the problem isn’t really the families. 

Dati pa po kaming nagsasalita, baka sila lang iyong hindi nakikinig o hindi nagbibigay ng atensyon sa amin,” Sheerah said. (We have been speaking for far too long already. Maybe they are the ones who were not listening or paying attention to us victims.) – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.