war on drugs

Drug war reinvestigation ‘deceptive’ for victims?

Lian Buan

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Drug war reinvestigation ‘deceptive’ for victims?

DUTERTE'S MEN: Former PDEA chief Wilkins Villanueva, former PNP chief Oscar Albayalde, and former DOJ chief Menardo Guevarra testify at the House committee on human rights hearing on May 21, 2024.

Photo from House of Representatives

EXCLUSIVE: (1st UPDATE) Months of tracking reveal that as of June 3, four out of the government's showcase 52 cases have been closed due to 'lack of leads.' By June 5, the NBI says there are 30 already closed.

The drug war reinvestigation of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s government has shown dismal results since its launch four years ago, with four homicide investigations now closed, putting six police officials back on active duty, Rappler has learned.

But during the House committee on human rights hearing on Wednesday, June 5, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Deputy Director for Operations Jose Justo Yap said there are actually a total of 30 cases already closed.

The number has discouraged families who felt they were misled by the promise of a review. Rappler spoke to Mila, not her real name, the mother of a young man killed by police officials and whose case landed in the reinvestigation of 52 cases.

Mila agreed for Rappler to cite her story and sentiments on one condition: that we do not name her, or her son, because she fears that going public would disrupt the peace that her family has finally found since the killing. “And for what, for this to not go anywhere?” she said, exasperated.

Mila has participated in the drug war reinvestigation – an initiative launched in 2020 during Duterte’s time – by former justice secretary Menardo Guevarra that intended to review a speck of 52 cases of killings by police. The 52 cases were chosen because cops involved had already been meted sanctions, mostly suspensions, by the police force’s own internal affairs service or IAS. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) promised to review them in pursuit of criminal cases. It was a showcase to the international community back then, to prove that the Philippines was willing to solve its own crisis.

On a smartphone screen, Mila watched Guevarra be accused by Act Teachers Partylist Representative France Castro of being behind a “coverup.” It is now June 2024, and Guevarra is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s solicitor general.

A spat between the Marcoses and the Dutertes coincides with strategic moves to close in on the former president, one of them being a House of Representatives hearing on drug war accountability, determined to summon Duterte’s men, Guevarra being one of them.

Mila watched with a blank face as Guevarra explained that the difficulty in reinvestigating was lack of participation. “I participated,” Mila said, “I gave them everything I had.”

“But it’s like they weren’t interested,” she said. Mila said that in the few times that investigators reached out to her, they asked her if she had obtained more evidence. “I wanted to tell them: was that not your job?”

4 homicide probes closed

At least four cases in Laguna and Cavite of the showcased 52 are now closed without criminal action, according to the NBI, the DOJ’s reinvestigation partner, that responded to Rappler’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

In the four homicide investigations involving nine police officials in Laguna and Cavite, three were “provisionally closed” in August 2022 due to a lack of investigative leads, and one is now closed and terminated because the family is “no longer interested,” according to the NBI.

The case of Lordan Apolonio, whom police were able to corner in the room of his house but who allegedly attempted to jump out the window, was the case that is now closed and terminated. Rappler looked for his family in Bacoor, but we were told they had moved towns since Apolonio’s killing on September 3, 2016.

Six of the nine police officials in Laguna and Cavite, including the patrolman that shot Apolonio, are back on active duty.

“The DOJ endorsed only four case folders that were assigned to the Death Investigation Division currently named the homicide division, while the other 48 case folders were assigned/distributed to the regional offices service to the other divisions/district offices,” the NBI told Rappler on April 4, through a letter signed by Assistant Director for Investigative Services Vicente A. De Guzman III, on behalf of Director Medardo de Lemos.

Rappler asked clarificatory questions, but our request was only acknowledged by De Lemos’ office on April 16. Further follow-ups were no longer responded to, including those coursed through several officials of the DOJ. Rappler reached out to Guevarra on May 28, but the solicitor general said to “go directly to the NBI.” Rappler also asked the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) if they had any information on the four closed cases, but we were told they could not divulge anything due to data privacy.

Act Teachers Partylist Representative France Castro, citing this report, asked the NBI for a status update. Although Yap said that a total of 30 cases have been closed, he could not immediately provide more details. He said the NBI will provide the House committee more details.

“Despite commitments made before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the government has been remiss in following up and acting on the commitments made by the former secretary of justice. How can the victims have the confidence in cooperating with government when you have such dismal results in the status of cases?” said Karen Gomez Dumpit, a former human rights commissioner who, during her term, already complained about the “superfluous” reinvestigation.

Rappler requested an interview with the Calabarzon police, because half of the 52 cases are in the region. There are 7 in Cavite, 15 in Laguna, 4 in Rizal and 1 in Quezon province.

The acting director of their regional IAS, Alberto Villapando, however, told us on May 7 that any interview or disclosure of information needs the clearance of the police chief. We sent a letter to police chief General Rommel Francisco Marbil on May 21, which his office acknowledged, but we have yet to receive a response.

An FOI request for the status of the 52 cases was filed with the PNP way back December 4, 2023, which has gone through several endorsements to the IAS and the records office, but to no avail. A similar FOI request was filed with the DOJ on the same day in 2023, which has also gone through the same back and forth to this day.

‘It’s a deception’

There are 155 police officials involved in the 52 cases, Rappler has found through cross-checking of docket numbers on open-source materials.

Two cases have resulted in criminal indictments, and five cases resulted in criminal trials across different courts, according to Guevarra’s submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in September 2022. This disclosure was part of their failed attempt to convince the judges there to close the Philippine investigation.

Seven police officials in the killing of Richard Santillan, aide of former Biliran representative Glenn Chong, had been granted bail by the Cainta, Rizal Regional Trial Court in 2023. The three police officials involved in the killing of Spanish national Diego Lafuente are currently applying for bail at the Manila Regional Trial Court.

Of the 52, only one, the case of Carl Angelo Arnaiz, which was a sensational case that merited headlines in 2017, resulted in the criminal conviction for murder of one policeman.

Mapanlinlang ang reinvestigation na ito para sa mga biktima (This reinvestigation is deceptive for the victims),” Kristina Conti, lawyer for victims and an ICC-accredited assistant counsel, told Rappler on Saturday, June 1.

Conti pointed out that the “cherry-picking” of the 52 cases was suspect from the beginning because the DOJ relied on records that were forwarded to them by the police. “The reinvestigation was a desk review, and this desk review is ineffective, and ultimately has no impact on the search for accountability in the Philippines,” said Conti.

Families’ efforts

Rubilyn Litao, the coordinator for Rise Up or the organized network of families of victims that Conti works with, said there’s been a little bit more willingness on the part of other families to share their experiences now that Duterte is no longer in power.

“‘Yung ibang pamilya na hindi pa nado-document ng kahit sino…positibo naman, willing, pero kailangan lang ihanda kasi siyempre panibago na naman. For how many years, sabi nga nila hindi naririnig, ito ngayon nasa proseso kami ng paghahanda,” Litao told Rappler.

(It’s positive so far with families who have never been documented by anyone, they are willing, but we need to prepare them because this is another battle. For how many years they’ve been saying they’re not being heard, so now we are in the process of preparation.)

The hearing at the lower house was the result of pushing from progressive lawmakers like Castro from the Makabayan bloc. It is being conducted by the committee on human rights headed by Manila 6th District Representative Benny Abante who, once upon a time, helped Duterte revive the death penalty measure. Abante had previously said that Duterte and his drug war architect, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, would not be summoned to the hearings.

But the progressive lawmakers said Abante has not restrained them in any way so far. “This is really a positive development, usually our resolutions are unheard. So the mere fact that [Chair] Abante is letting a no-holds-barred hearing, that’s a positive development,” Gabriela Partylist Representative Arlene Brosas told Rappler.

Dumpit said a family she’s in contact with expresses some hope from time to time whenever they see another case progress. “The successful prosecution of other cases even if not their kin’s case can regain some of the crumbled trust with the police and in the justice system in the country,” said Dumpit, “but clearly, with what you have gathered, there has been a dearth of investigations, very few indictments and more so with successful prosecutions.”

The Makabayan bloc sees promise in the committee hearing. Castro told Rappler she will try to have the individual police officials be called to the hearing to answer for their deadly operations. Brosas said “it’s also [the families’] time to be heard.”

In the six years of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, as many as 30,000 people were killed under the mantle of the drug war, 7,000 of whom were killed by police officials, prompting an investigation by the ICC,  the Hague-based court focused on the world’s worst criminals.

“When will [the ICC] come?” Mila asked. – with reports from Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

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