Impunity: Welcome to the end of the war

It was in October when the cops took him: Jee Ick Joo, South Korean businessman, dragged out of his Angeles City home by police officers on a pretend drug bust waving a fake arrest warrant. They took him to the national police headquarters. They watched him strangled by an anti-drug unit cop armed with a roll of packing tape and surgical gloves. They demanded a P5-million ransom, and then P3 million more, all after the corpse was cremated and flushed down a toilet in exchange for P30,000 and a set of the victim's own golf clubs.

The news broke. The Senate held a hearing. The President, who called the murder an “embarrassment”, said “something has to be corrected severely.”

On January 30, 2017, just as the death count ticked up to 7,080, the President dismantled the entire police apparatus he had empowered to enforce his war against drugs, calling them “corrupt to the core.” 

The war, or what was understood to be the war, ended with a toilet lever.

Within hours, the chief of the Philippine National Police stood before the media and said the police would “focus on internal cleansing.” There would be no more anti-drug operations, because "crime is happening within our ranks." For the first time in 7 months – with the exception of the Christmas weekend – no new names were added to the death count, not from organized police operations, and not in the hands of vigilante killers. 

For Arriane de Chavez, sister to a dead drug dealer, the order came too little too late. The case of Heart de Chavez, killed on January 10, 2017, was categorized by the Navotas police as a death under investigation by unknown assailants. 

Her family denies it. They insist on a now familiar story – a threat, a false arrest, police extortion, and a brutal execution. This time, the family is implicating the police force.

Heart de Chavez met her end with a bullet in her cheek and another in the back of her head. They were fired, says Heart’s sister Arriane, by officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP). 

'I went weak'

The police report, filed on the 11th of January, identifies the victim as one Alvin Ronald de Chavez, alias Ron-Ron, single, jobless, and a resident of San Jose Village, Navotas City. The alias, as far as details go, may have been the first inaccuracy embedded in the short spot report filed at the Navotas City Police Station.

Alvin Ronald de Chavez became Heart de Chavez more than a decade before she was dragged screaming down Quintos Street.

Heart left the family home in the early morning of January 7, four days before she was killed. Hours later, her 31-year-old sister Arriane received a call. Heart had been arrested, she was told, and was asking for someone, anyone, to come to the precinct. 

The Pritil Police Community Precinct in Manila is a tricycle ride away from Quintos Street in Navotas. Heart was picked up past midnight on Tuesday. No drugs were found in her possession.

Pritil PCP Commander Police Senior Inspector Edwin Fuggan initially claimed no de Chavez had been picked up, arrested, or questioned on January 7. 

Yet an officer on duty from Manila Police District’s Station 1 (PS-1), under whose jurisdiction the Pritil PCP falls, recalled a phone call from the morning of January 7. The caller, an officer from the Pritil PCP, said that an Alvin Ronald de Chavez, alias Heart, was in custody. Pritil PCP requested a check on pending cases or warrants on record. 

The search “turned up negative,” says SPO4 Adonis Sugie. The recommendation was to release Heart. 

In the story that Heart’s mother Elena de Chavez tells, policemen of the Pritil PCP demanded P50,000 in bail for Heart’s release. 

“I went weak,” she says. “I told them, ‘Sir, I don’t have that money.’ My daughter was crying, she was saying, ‘Ma, don’t leave me, they might take me out of here and kill me.’”

Elena says she left the precinct immediately. She pawned her pension for P7,000, then returned later at 11 am. She said the police were unsatisfied with the money she raised, and claimed they opened her wallet to check. 

Heart was released into her custody. 

'Cops don't do that'

On January 26, almost 3 weeks after Heart’s release, Elena and Heart’s sister Arriane met PCP Commander Fuggan at the office of Fuggan’s station commander, Police Superintendent Robert Domingo. Fuggan had suddenly remembered Heart, remembered her so well that he recalled chunks of conversation between himself and Heart’s mother.  

“That’s him –” said Elena, when she walked in and saw Fuggan, who rose quickly to hug Elena.

In the story Fuggan tells, he had seen Elena – whom he calls mother – waiting for Heart at the Pritil PCP. 

“I remember consoling her,” he says, “and telling her that Heart would be released.” 

Heart, says Fuggan, was picked up for “verification” for her presence in the Pritil area. He says it was not an arrest. Neither was it a detention. He calls it “a hold”, and says his officers habitually pick up for questioning individuals whose presence appears “suspicious.” 

“That’s our first move,” he says. “We doubt you if you’re not from here, because all our cops know if you’re from here or not. It was really just for verification.” 

He does not dispute the claim that Heart de Chavez remained at the Pritil Precinct for over 8 hours, although he says she was released as soon as possible. 

Told about the allegations of extortion, Fuggan says he “doesn’t know anything about anyone asking for money.” 

Heart, he says, had confessed she was involved in drugs. He remembers telling her to quit dealing, and telling her mother to send Heart to rehab. 

He says he does not see a reason why any cop would be involved in extortion.

“Cops don’t do that,” he says, “because it would be wrong.” 

Fuggan has been chief of the Pritil PCP for nearly two years, and has acquired, among other accolades, a medal of excellence for his exceptional service. He had promised Elena at their meeting at PS-1 that he hoped to assist the family “in any way within his power.” That assistance proved literal, when he sent Elena P7,000 through another police officer – the same amount she claims was extorted on January 7. 

Asked later, Fuggan said it was no more than an act of generosity. The funds came from his own savings, shared “out of the goodness of my heart.” 

Elena de Chavez pointed to 4 faces among a stack of index cards holding the records of every police officer currently assigned to the Pritil PCP. All 4 are now under investigation for extortion, with charges filed by PS-1 chief Roberto Domingo. 

It was only after Elena was well away from the police station that she admitted there were 5 alleged extortionists she recognized from the Pritil precinct, not 4. She was unwilling to say the name while standing in front of police officers. 

“I gave my money to a policeman, who walked away and handed it to another officer. It was Fuggan,” she recalled. “Fuggan put the money in his pocket.”

It is a claim Fuggan categorically denies.

(1) The De Chavez family – Annalyn, Elena, and Arriane. (2) A closet inside the Quintos Street home. (3) Heart's clothing laid out on her bed. 

Small-time

Heart de Chavez began sashaying down Quintos street dressed in her sister's clothes at the age of 11. The family knew then – knew enough that Heart’s father Teodoro began regularly beating the woman out of his only son. It was Elena who calmed her husband. Let the boy be happy, she would say. It took years for the former seaman and one-time convict to accept that he had 3 daughters. 

At 14, Alvin Ronald had changed her name to Heart, a tribute to soap opera celebrity Heart Evangelista. She grew her hair long, took hormone pills, found work washing towels at a beauty parlor, and moonlighted as a maid for a recently arrived overseas worker. Her father’s death when Heart was in her early 20s left the responsibility for feeding and raising the family squarely on her shoulders. 

The gang that Heart ran with introduced her to drugs, says her sister Arriane. She tried to warn her youngest sister. It was only in July 2016, when Heart was 26, that she began dealing. The family needed money. Her sisters were both single mothers, with 4 children between them. Heart too had run into debt. 

Her mother Elena knew and was afraid. Duterte had been elected president. Dealers and users were being killed outright. Elena was afraid Heart would be next. 

Heart brushed off the warning. She was too small-time to be a police target, she said. They would never take notice of a P500 deal.  

It appears the authorities did take notice. Arriane blames San Jose’s village captain – “that sonafabitch” – because without him, the police would have never known Heart was involved in drugs.  

Amos Echanova, who says his job as village chief involves “giving input” and reporting “who the addicts are in the area”, says he was unaware Heart was a dealer until she was seen in Bagong Silang, an area “notorious for drug deals.”

She was put on a watch list of more than a hundred. A letter was sent to Heart, inviting her to the city hall in November 2016 for a 3-day, all-expense paid seminar for drug users and dealers. He says Heart never attended.

Sometime between October and early November of 2016, Heart appeared at the Navotas city hall and admitted her drug use, one among 8,409 drug personalities who personally appeared to surrender to Navotas authorities.

'Don't hurt her'

Heart stayed inside the family’s Quintos street shanty after her January 7 detention at the Pritil PCP. The family admits she left the house once to score drugs for one of her buyers. In the evening of January 10, she went out again, this time with her 10-year-old nephew, and brought home take-out packages of Jollibee Chicken Joy. 

The family was in bed by 11.

It was the knock that started it, rapping hard against the thin plywood front door, the man's voice on the other side pitched high and thin, incomprehensible to the terrified old woman braced against the doorknob. The door flew open. Elena fell. Arriane grabbed for her 5-month baby. At least 7 men barged into the house. Big men, says Elena, masked, who stepped over the children sleeping in the narrow hallway. The children woke, wailing, and ran to hide behind Arriane. 

It was Heart they were after. One man held her by the hair and pounded her head into the table.

Elena begged them to stop. Arriane screamed. Don’t hurt her, she said, she’ll go quietly. 

“Follow us to Langaray,” one of the men answered.

Someone else grabbed Heart by the front of her skinny black sweater, dragged her out, Heart screaming.

Ma, she said. Help me.

Langaray Street, according to a map of Metro Manila, is the street address of the Northern Police District, covering Caloocan, Malabon, and Navotas City. 

Men in hoods

One of the men stayed behind, aiming a gun at the women. When he left, Arriane and Elena scrambled to their feet and ran out the front door. They were pleading to neighbors for help when two of the masked men came striding back. 

"Sir, please, where is my daughter?"

"At the corner, we put her in the mobile."

Mother and daughter staggered forward, and then there were two more men in hoods. 

"Sir, please, where is my daughter?"

"She ran."

They rounded the bend, Arriane barefoot clutching her baby, Elena limping along, in the dark, until a neighbor came running to meet Arriane, screaming Heart was sprawled inside a house down the corner. 

They found Heart inside an empty house with a bullet in her cheek, her legs curled under her. Elena dropped to the ground and clutched her daughter, the blood spreading across the front of her shirt and over her hands. Then the cops swarmed in, officials in uniform blue, told them to step away, to back off, to wait for the investigators.

Within minutes, the scene of the crime operatives marched into the shanty, where they would take pictures of the body and circle the bullet casings and pick up the packet of suspected shabu, as the morgue men waited outside, ready to pack away what was left of Heart de Chavez. 

'Let me go'

Residents say that they saw masked men enter from both sides of Quintos Street, a narrow alley bound by General Pascual to the west and M. Naval to the east. 

An 18-year-old named Adrian de la Cruz was drinking with a number of friends at a corner store just past General Pascual. He confirms that the masked men were armed and marched into Quintos at forty minutes past 11. The man in the lead held a gun with both hands, he says, and ordered residents to return to their homes. Doors were locked, windows shuttered.

Heart's screams to be released could be heard up and down the street. 

De la Cruz says they heard Heart "being kicked into the house while begging for help." 

Neighbors heard 3 gunshots in quick succession, and a fourth 10 seconds later. It was only after the masked men left that neighbors streamed out of homes to gather around Heart.

The spot report filed hours after Heart’s murder does not detail exactly how Heart de Chavez died. According to the police, a village watchman was informed by a resident named Antonio Sigue that a “dead male body was found inside a house located at Quintos Street” in San Jose, Navotas. 

A progress report filed the next day puts the date of death as January 11 instead of 10. The report was sent to the Northern Police District by the Navatos Police Station. 

Sigue, the witness, who claimed in the second report he was “a distant relative of the victim,” said he was in the area and “happened to pass by on foot.” He added that he had seen Heart standing in front of the house where she was later killed “as if waiting for someone” – a claim that contradicts other eyewitness reports. 

“Moments later,” read the report, Sigue “heard gunshots coming from said house and saw De Chavez lifeless.”

The De Chavez family denies Sigue is a family relation. They say he worked for village authorities. San Jose chief Amos Echanova confirmed village officials once employed Sigue as a traffic enforcer. 

Both reports, signed by Police Senior Superintendent Dante Pesa Novicio, have the same glaring omission. Neither includes testimony referring to assailants, masked or otherwise.

'It happens'

Arriane de Chavez is certain the killers are policemen. 

She says it in spite of the fact each suspect wore a partial mask. She remembers their voices, she remembers their eyes, she insists she remembers their height and weight and build. One of them looked her in the eye and understood she knew him.

She recognized an assailant as a member of the Navotas Special Anti-Illegal Drugs unit who once lived in the area – although she is uncertain if his assignment remains the same. She has no doubt she can identify more if she sees them again. 

The family attempted to access CCTV footage from January 10 held by hardware retailer Lordfel Marketing, whose storefront faces the exit from Quintos Street to General Pascual.

The management refused, and said the footage was "confidential" even after prompting by the Commission on Human Rights. Instead they demanded a court order, and explained that to allow a viewing of the footage would mean the killers "might get back at us."  

Lordfel's security, Edwin Hinampas, who spoke for the store's owners, says police investigators have not requested to see the footage.

It is not the first time accusations of collusion and murder have been made against the police. A recent Amnesty International report says that officers, “acting on instructions from the very top of government,” have “killed and paid others to kill thousands of alleged drug offenders in a wave of extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity.” 

Navotas Chief of Police Dante Novicio says blame against the police has become part of the “local mindset.”

“We don’t go into homes and kill people," Novicio says. 

Ever since policemen began conducting drug operations that proved fatal for suspects fighting back – Navotas counts 43 dead as of January 2 – Novicio says the general public has assumed the police are responsible.  

"So when a killing happens, even if nobody saw anything, or recognized any of the killers, it's as if people believe that nobody else kills, except cops."   

Heart, Novicio says, is a confessed dealer. Her death is suspected to be drug related. He says a sachet of what looked to be shabu was found by her side. He had met Heart when she surrendered, and believes it is possible that Heart was killed by fellow users or dealers. There is no evidence linking the police to the killing. 

He believes it is a difficult case, because the assailants were masked and on motorcycles. "So this will remain unsolved.” 

 

 

The funeral

Heart was supposed to be buried in Arriane's dress, the floral purple confection Arriane brought all the way home from Dubai, the same dress that Heart kept slipping from its hanger to model in front of the warped wall mirror. 

The funeral director disagreed. He said Heart had been born a man, and however she had lived, she could only be buried a man. He said he had no personal opinion either way – he was a Seventh Day Adventist himself – but claimed the Catholic Church would throw a fit if he allowed Heart buried as the family wanted. 

Arriane fought back. She wanted false eyelashes and red lipstick, she wanted the big round curls that Heart loved. Since when, Arriane asked, were there rules on what a person could wear on the inside of a coffin? Screw St Peter, she said. What did he care what her sister wore to the gates of heaven? 

In the end, the family gave in. Heart, the prettiest of the De Chavez daughters – an honor both older sisters concede – was settled into her coffin in a long sleeved shirt and black trousers, her dark hair clipped to the back of her head. 

Heart's mother Elena takes comfort in one fact. Every item of clothing Heart wears is cut for a woman, from the stylish slacks all the way to Arriane’s blouse, whose shiny black buttons fastened up to Heart’s chin. 

 

The perfect crime

On February 1, the secretary of justice defended the drug war from accusations of crimes against humanity.

“I already said that is not true,” said Vitaliano Aguirre II. “The criminals, drug lords, drug pushers, they are not the humanity.”

Suppose, for a moment, that Jee Ick Joo were Filipino instead of South Korean. Suppose his ransom had been P7,000 instead of P5 million. Suppose, for example, he was poor and uneducated, had sold drugs, piecemeal, packet by plastic packet. Supposing all this – would his death still be considered “an embarrassment” by the President?

“When you’re rich,” Arriane de Chavez says, “they treat you like a VIP. When you’re poor, it’s RIP.” 

Still she promises to fight for justice. She says Heart would have done the same. “I don’t care if it means one foot in the grave.”

Elena de Chavez hopes for justice, but she does not believe in pursuing it.

“Even if we file a case,” Elena says, “who will we file a case against? Duterte? That he kills people?”

The war, or what was understood to be the war, ended with a toilet lever. It is difficult to judge which side won. – Rappler.com

(Editor's note: All quotations have been translated to English).