war on drugs

The desaparecidos of Duterte’s drug war

Aie Balagtas See, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
The desaparecidos of Duterte’s drug war
Victims – whether they were drug suspects or mere passersby – are abducted and kept in a holding area to be killed later for staged 'one-time-big-time' drug operations
Photos byRaffy Lerma

MANILA, Philippines – Marina Cerbito gasped for air as she talked about her son Reymond, 27, who was abducted in April 2018 and never found again. In between clenching fists and wiping tears that streamed down her cheeks, the 60-year-old mother mouthed barely understandable words to express desperation and a sense of uncertainty.

The ordeal lasted for 10 minutes, and her daughter Marife, who sat beside her in the family living room, was afraid that the asthmatic Marina would pass out. But Marina held on to tell the story of her son, Reymond.

Reymond was a police asset, she said. He “disappeared like a bubble” in the second year of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs.

ANGUISH OF A MOTHER. Marina Cerbito is still waiting for her son, 27-year-old Reymond, to go home. He went missing on April 27, 2018. Photo by Raffy Lerma

Reymond was last seen on April 27, 2018. He left their house in Sta. Maria, Bulacan, at 5 pm that day to buy a bottle of soda. Four years later, Marina was still waiting for him to come home.

The fortune tellers that Marina Cerbito spoke to insisted that her son was alive and well. But Reymond’s friend Alberto Dimaala (not his real name) knew that he was dead. Dimaala said he was responsible for getting Reymond killed.

Dimaala said he was part of the group that abducted Reymond on orders of the local police intelligence unit. The same cops instructed him to strangle his bosom buddy with a vehicle fan belt. He recalled Reymond struggling to breathe and calling him a “traitor” before a cop shot his friend dead.

Dimaala said the cops later sold the corpse for P10,000 to a funeral parlor in need of a show body for a gambling scheme called sakla.

Marina had heard Dimaala’s story before. Several times, in fact. Once, during a drinking session, she said a guest who wasn’t Dimaala admitted to the crime.

Ayaw po maniwala ni Mama doon sa kinukwento,” said Marife. (My mother didn’t believe those stories.)

Dimaala’s story was supported by Dahlia Romero (not her real name), also part of the group that allegedly performed tasks for the police. She was interviewed separately and with Dimaala for this report.

Romero said Reymond Cerbito had been a headache – “sakit ng ulo” – to the police and local government unit because of his theft cases. He was also known for creating a commotion each time he was drunk.

Kaya winala parang bula,” Romero said. (That’s why they made him disappear like a bubble.)

The two former police agents, Dimaala and Romero, have since gone into hiding, afraid the cops would go after them next. Haunted by guilt, they agreed to talk about the role they had played in the government’s “drug war.” 

Their credibility as sources was based on the extent of their knowledge and the consistency of the details they provided about police operations known to journalists who followed the violent anti-drug campaign.

They both requested anonymity, fearing for their lives.

NOT FORGOTTEN. Reymond Cerbito’s son holds a photograph of his missing father while Marina shows how she keeps her son’s clothes and belongings underneath the family altar. Photo by Raffy Lerma
‘12 will be killed’

Other victims Dimaala and Romero helped disappear included friends Allen Rey Napoles and Erlino Pable, who were found dead on May 30, 2018, in a province north of Manila.

The police said they were thieves who resisted arrest – a narrative that was repeated in news reports filed by a media pack that had embedded themselves in police operations.

However, a few hours before the cops called the reporters to see the bodies, as had been their practice after they conducted operations, an odd text sent to at least two journalists by a source privy to the communication of cops in the area cast doubts on what had happened.

“12 papatayin sa Bulacan (12 will be killed in Bulacan),” the source said in the message. It didn’t escape the journalists’ eyes that the message was written in the future tense. 

At that time, the police operation was ongoing. 

PREDETERMINED DEATHS? A source privy to the communication of local cops sent a message to at least two reporters about an ongoing police operation. Photo by Raffy Lerma

Was it a simple typographical error? The suspicious message was forgotten, with nary a mention in the news reports. However, a review of the incident based on the former police agents’ information showed that Napoles and Pable had been missing for two days before their bodies were presented by the police.

Dimaano said the two friends were biking home when he grabbed them from the road. He said he usually kidnapped illegal drug users, but he had been waiting for hours and had yet to see one. The two boys came from an area where illegal drug users lived and where drugs were often sold; Dimaano thought that was a good enough excuse.

Mag ‘One Time, Big Time’ noon, kailangan namin may ma-present,” Dimaano said, referring to a province-wide police operation where they needed to show results. Romero said there appeared to be a “contest” among police operatives then for who would produce dead bodies first.

Napoles and Pable were supposedly blindfolded and then taken to a makeshift police holding area known as “compac.” Romero and Dimaano said the place was known to cops and their assets as a “freezer” or “stockan ng mga taong papatayin para sa One Time, Big Time (a storage area for people to be killed for One Time, Big Time).”

At the “freezer,” Romero remembered Napoles saying: “‘Ate, makakalaya ba kami dito? Kasi hinahanap na ako ng magulang ko. Hindi pa nila alam na nandito ako.’ ’Yun ang sabi ng batang ’yon,” Romero said. (“Are you going to free us? Because my parents are looking for me. They don’t know I’m here.” That’s what that kid said.)

Romero said she did not know what to say, so she lied and acted clueless the way she always did when cops told her to watch over those they had abducted. 

Balak ko no’ng time na ’yan iwanan sila ng cellphone kasi naawa ako. Ang problema lang, natakot ako kasi siyempre baka kami naman ang pagbalingan. Noong time na ‘yon, wala kami talagang pupuntahan,” Romero said. (I was planning at that time to give them a cellphone because I pitied them. The problem was, I was scared because the police might turn against us. At that time, we had nowhere to go.)

Before the boys were killed, Dimaano gave them food, prompting Napoles to ask: “Kuya, baka pinakakain mo kami ng masasarap, ikaw din naman ang pumatay sa amin?” (You’re feeding us good food, but you might be the one killing us later?)

MYLYN NAPOLES recounts the last time she saw her son Allen Rey alive. He left their house on May 27, 2018, to go to a friend’s party. He was found dead three days later. Photo by Raffy Lerma

Mylyn Napoles, who had been waiting for her son Allen Rey to come home, saw the news report on the morning of May 30. It said her son was killed in an “encounter” with policemen in a nearby town, which was notorious for “nanlaban” cases. Nanlaban, which means someone who fought back or resisted, had been the term used by police operatives to describe drug suspects killed during raids.

Mylyn remembered all the details of the humid Monday afternoon, on May 28, when she last saw her son. Allen Rey had just arrived home from work when Pable invited him to his birthday party. Mylyn gave him the green light, but reminded her son to come home before the skies turned pitch black.

They knew the streets were not safe. Bodies had been turning up dead since the government’s drug war started. 

What happened to Napoles and Pable was reminiscent of the case of six passersby who were abducted by policemen in the nearby city of San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, and later killed in what was called a “fabricated” drug war operation. Eleven cops from the intelligence unit faced multiple criminal cases, including kidnapping and illegal detention.

THIS dimly lit street is where Allen Rey Napoles and Erlino Pable were allegedly abducted on May 27, 2018, in a province north of Manila. Photo by Raffy Lerma
Enforced disappearances

Filipinos are not new to enforced disappearances. Reymond’s death and Marina’s anguish echo the agony of families who lost their loved ones during the Martial Law of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, said Nilda Sevilla, co-chairperson of Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) when she was interviewed in 2021. 

Sevilla’s own brother was abducted and disappeared without a trace. The families left behind rarely found closure, she said. They oscillated between hope that their loved ones were still alive and fear that they’re really gone. It’s mental torture that punishes families whenever they remembered the missing.

“The pain and anguish come from uncertainty,” Sevilla said. “The human imagination is boundless.”

Human rights group Amnesty International recorded at least 77 cases of disappearances during Marcos’ Martial Law. Under the Duterte administration, FIND recorded 24 cases related to Duterte’s war on drugs out of a total of 50 cases of disappearances the group had verified. The group was still investigating 19 other cases, but there were many more families that did not know how to seek help.

Sevilla said a lot of the cases of missing individuals under the Duterte administration could be considered enforced disappearances, which meant that the state or its agents were involved in the abduction, arrest, and concealment of the victim’s body or whereabouts.

URBAN poor communities in Metro Manila were heavily affected by the drug war. Photo by Raffy Lerma

Sevilla was alarmed the country had entered a “new dimension” when it came to enforced disappearances. It appeared that the victims were persecuted not for their political ideology but for their socioeconomic class, she said.

Most of the missing were poor and many had been accused of either selling or using illegal drugs.

The disappearances were usually reported in the media as crime stories. But testimonies from witnesses and the families pointed to a disturbing pattern in which many of the victims were forcibly taken from their homes, or abducted on the streets by either policemen or a group of armed men equipped with high-powered guns and getaway vehicles.

Amnesty International said disappearing people is a tool of oppression “frequently used as a strategy to spread terror within society.” It is commonly employed by autocratic administrations, such as Duterte’s, because the “insecurity and fear it generates is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects communities and society as a whole.”

The reasons for disappearances varied, Sevilla said. Some saw it as the administration’s way of instilling fear. For some, it was a way for the perpetrators to evade persecution.

What’s clear from the pattern of disappearances under Duterte’s regime, said Carlos Conde of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, was that the perpetrators were organized and well-greased.

“These disappearances of people suspected of drug use or who are targets of the drug war…it indicates that…this is much more systematic than it looks,” Conde said.

“It tells you that this is a very, very organized and very, very systematic way of conducting the drug war,” Conde said. “It takes resources. It takes money, at least two people, sometimes we see in videos that three or four people are doing the kidnapping. So it’s a much more coordinated action. It suggests to you that this is the government, these are state agents doing it.”

Photo by Raffy Lerma
Many documented cases

Documentation of cases of involuntary disappearances was “very difficult,” said FIND researcher Sonny Resuena, because relatives of drug war victims were hesitant to speak over fears of retribution from the state.

The government also has no uniform procedure for government agencies to investigate an enforced disappearance, said Resuena. Relatives searching for their loved ones were made to go back and forth between government offices, until they got tired of searching.

He said the cops who used to help them in their advocacy also turned hostile against human rights defenders.

In June 2016, the Philippine National Police issued Memorandum Circular 2016-033, providing guidelines on the recording, monitoring, and investigation of missing and found persons. It requires the local police unit where the case was reported to include the name of the missing individual on the list of missing persons, and on the PNP database.

It also requires PNP custodial facilities or centers to issue “a certification in writing to the inquiring person on the presence or absence and/or information on the whereabouts of such disappeared person” in case of an inquiry from the missing person’s family member, or a member of a human rights organization, or the media.

However, families of missing victims of the drug war interviewed for this report said none of the cops they approached for help mentioned or followed the guidelines.

Lorna Reyes still does not know what happened to her sons. Manuel, 39, and Ryan, 28, have been missing since February 12, 2019, when they left home for a construction job that promised a P700 day rate (about $14). They never came back. Lorna searched and retraced her sons’ last steps around Manila and filed a missing person report to the police. Three years later, there has been no investigation. She drew a butterfly – ‘a symbol of our togetherness,’ she said – during a counseling session for families of drug war victims. ‘It would be easier if I knew they were dead so I can move on. Not knowing if they are still alive hurts even more,’ she added. Photos by Raffy Lerma

Guillermo Eleazar, a former national police chief who is now running for senator, said a thorough investigation is required before someone is confirmed to be a victim of enforced disappearance. He said the government had investigated reports on missing people but he refused to provide details, saying the official statistics “might be misconstrued unless properly explained.”

“The cops will investigate, but if there is no lead or if they are facing a blank wall, how can they proceed?” Eleazar said, dismissively.

“Some of the reported missing ran away from their homes,” he added, saying it was up to the families to update the cops if their “missing” relatives came home.

Forensic pathologist Racquel Fortun said the justice system had been rendered useless under the Duterte administration. To begin with, the Philippines never had strong institutions that would help families identify their missing loved ones and seek justice for them, she said. 

The Commission of Human Rights (CHR), an independent constitutional body, also has no office dedicated to this task.

As a result, the missing remain invisible and eventually forgotten. No one is looking for them, except for family members, who, because of minimal resources, eventually give up.

FAMILY and friends of 18-year old Ephraim Escudero carry his coffin to the cemetery in San Pedro, Laguna, on September 30, 2017. Ephraim went missing along with his 52-year-old neighbor Ronnie Pionilla in San Pedro, Laguna, on September 19, 2017. Two days later, Ephraim’s body was found dumped in a village in Angeles City, Pampanga. His face was wrapped in packaging tape and his head had bullet wounds. Ronnie Pionilla’s lifeless body was found 10 kilometers away in Porac, Pampanga. Photo by Raffy Lerma
A .38-caliber revolver lies beside a lifeless drug suspect killed in an alleged shootout with police in Manila. It’s the usual narrative of ‘nanlaban‘ in the government’s campaign against illegal drugs. Photo by Raffy Lerma
Endless search

The situation has forced families to devise their own ways to look for their loved ones, often incurring costs that they could not afford to cover.

Families usually went to five places in their search for answers. They started at police stations or barangay (village) halls to check if their loved ones were detained. Cops were not always helpful during these searches. Once, Marina blew her top, exchanging cuss words with a duty officer who made fun of Reymond’s whereabouts.

Families proceeded to funeral parlors if the search went nowhere. This was where they began to entertain the possibility of worst-case scenarios.

In their endless search, they also found themselves inside churches. Even the non-religious sat on the pews to seek answers from a higher being. Others turned to fortune tellers.

The search was made more challenging by the stigma attached to drug war victims, which wasn’t the case for the desaparecidos of the Marcos years. Sevilla said they had been discriminated against even by families of other disappeared activists.

Sevilla said it took her two years to convince other members of her group to embrace the families of drug war victims. “The anguish and pain are all the same…. They also do not have tombs where they could mourn,” she said.

THE site where the bodies of Allen Rey Napoles and Erlino Pable were found on May 30, 2018, in a province north of Manila. 

Marife Cebito said her mother, Marina, would never accept that her son was dead unless she found his body.

In 2021, three years after her son’s death, Marina asked the police station in Sta. Maria town for a copy of the flash alarm filed after her son went missing. She was given the document, but not after the cops grilled her as to why she needed the document.

Madami nga daw pong tanong sabi ni Mama,” Marife said. (They had so many questions, according to Mama.)

They also returned to the fortune tellers and continued to distribute posters with Reymond’s photo, hoping that someone had seen him alive.

On some days, Marina would still wait by the camachile tree where Reymond liked to find shade, imagining her son running to her arms. – with additional reporting from Ciriaco Santiago III and Vincent Go, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism/Rappler.com

This investigative collaboration project was supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Resilience Fund Fellowship. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism provided additional editorial guidance. 

This piece is republished with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.