war on drugs

Families of Duterte drug war victims forced to lie about kin’s death

Rambo Talabong
Families of Duterte drug war victims forced to lie about kin’s death

NO TRUTH IN DEATH. A relative of a drug war victim regrets allowing funeral parlors to cover up the death of her nephew, who was wrongfully reported to have died of pneumonia when in truth he was shot dead.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

PART 1: Funeral homes in the Philippines get away with attributing the deaths of drug war victims to natural causes. They tell families they will save more money and avoid harassment if they agree to do so.
Research byLorenz Pasion

PART 2: Under Duterte, Philippines allowed forgery of drug war death records

EXPLAINER: For crimes, how are death certificates produced?


Families of Duterte drug war victims forced to lie about kin’s death

MANILA, Philippines – To shield themselves from danger and to stop from further sinking into poverty, families of victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war have been forced to lie about their kin’s death, interviews with at least five families revealed.

Their family members were killed – either shot by a policeman or a vigilante (usually suspected to be police officers too) – but the families declared that their kin died of natural causes, such as sepsis, hypertension, pneumonia, and heart disease.

Rappler spoke with the families following an investigation by Manila-based forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun. She reexamined the exhumed remains of drug war victims who were declared to have died of natural causes. 

Her examination of their bones showed that, contrary to claims about natural causes, deaths were caused by human intervention, the most obvious being bullets.

NEW AUTOPSY. Raquel Fortun in her makeshift examination room in Manila. Photo by Naoki Mengua/Rappler

The families went with the lies so they could claim their relatives’ bodies and save themselves from paying more than what funeral parlors were already demanding from them. One was even told that if they declared their drug-tagged kin to have died from gunshot wounds, no one would come to their aid.

On top of funeral fees that started at P20,000, families were told they would have to pay between P6,000 and P15,000 for an autopsy, even though this was actually free. 

The families were told they would be able to afford a proper wake and burial only after they lied. 

Desperate and penniless, the families agreed. They were told to sign a waiver that they had agreed to leave the cause of death on their kin’s death certificate to the funeral parlor, and that they had no intention of filing criminal complaints against anyone.

Noong ora mismo po noon, P15,000 hinihingi nila para po maayos nila ang bangkay ng aking asawa. Wala po ako sa tamang pag-iisip dahil sa pangyayari, pumirma po ako. Kinabukasan mayroon na agad siyang death certificate na galing city hall,” a wife of a victim told Rappler.

(Right there and then, they asked for P15,000 so they would attend to my husband’s body. I was not in the right frame of mind because of what had happened, so I signed. The next day, his death certificate was already available at city hall.)

Years later, the families regretted such decision. 

The wrongly-filled death certificates would later be detrimental to any complaint they wanted to file against their kin’s killers. 

After all, how could there be a crime committed if a person was supposed to have died from natural causes?

Case Number 6
FAKED. A portion of case number 6’s death certificate. Rappler sourced photo

Case Number 6 used drugs, his live-in partner, Lisa*, admitted as much. Still, he was a good man, she said.

Case Number 6 and Lisa lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Caloocan City. 

Lisa’s was his second home. Case Number 6 stayed with his first wife, who was a five-minute tricycle ride away. Even so, he did not fail to provide for Lisa and their children. He worked in construction sites, building and painting homes to provide for his own.

Case Number 6 started using shabu (methamphetamine) in late 2001, just after he got Lisa pregnant. He was caught at that time, got imprisoned for six months, but still continued his drug habit. Lisa said his drug use started with his friends, then turned into a habit he could not shake off, even when she tried to badger him to quit.

June 2016 came and Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. 

Duterte promised death to drug users and drug sellers. He said the fish of Manila Bay would grow fat from the bodies that would be thrown into the bay and he would stand by the police if they killed anyone. Once more and more desperately, Lisa told Case Number to quit.

“When Duterte assumed office, he lay low. Actually, before Duterte assumed office,” Lisa told Rappler. But it seemed too late. 

“He told me there was a bounty on his head,” Lisa said. 

AT HOME. Lisa returns home after a long day in March 2022. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Case Number 6 told Lisa he was on the drug list with a price tag of P15,000. Lisa told him to hide, to go home in the province until the wave of drug war killings passed. In 2016, Metro Manila was the epicenter of these killings. The surrounding provinces later became the killing fields.

The night before Case Number 6 was to leave, four men aboard two motorcycles swooped into the home of his first wife and shot him dead.

Days later, Lisa saw his death certificate, shocked at what it said: that Case number 6 died of acute myocardial infarction. 

It was a lie forced on the first wife.

After he was killed, Case Number 6 was taken to Three Lights Funeral Homes in Caloocan City. Marie*, another relative of Case Number 6, accompanied the first wife in arranging for the wake and funeral.

The first wife found the fees too expensive and had him transferred to another funeral parlor in the area, Jenne Funeral Homes.

At Jenne Funeral Homes, a certain “Hellen” told the first wife that if she wanted to recover her husband’s body, she would have to lie and say he died of heart disease. 

“It’s what the personnel from Jenne wanted. She said that we needed to make it appear that he died of a heart attack. We were so confused…. My companion (the first wife) was speechless,” Marie told Rappler in Filipino.

Consenting to the condition, the family recovered the body of Case Number 6. A wake was organized and, days later, he was buried. 

The first wife has since left her home, fearing for her life. The police have not solved the case of who killed Case Number 6. Lisa, meanwhile, is still hoping to undo the wrong on her partner’s death certificate with the help of Fortun’s new autopsy.

Fortun’s findings further prove what Lisa and Marie already knew: that he died after being shot repeatedly at the torso.

Case Number 21
HEART ATTACK? A portion of the death certificate of case number 21. Rappler sourced photo

One evening in September 2016, when Baby* was on her way home after buying meatloaf for dinner, a man stopped her in her tracks.

“Are you the wife of Case Number 21?” he asked, a contagious fear visible in his eyes.

“Yes. Why?” Baby replied, confused.

“Your husband was watching television when he was shot.”

It was three months into Duterte’s war on drugs when Case Number 21, a father to eight children and grandfather to four, was shot dead while watching television outside a sari-sari store.

A masked vigilante riding a motorcycle walked up to him and lifted a pistol to his head. Witnesses first thought the shooter was pulling a prank. His eight-year-old grandson was right beside him. Then the gunshot.

The news pushed Baby into a breakdown and left her in a daze. She couldn’t imagine having enough money for her husband’s wake and burial. She smoked meat on the street and sold them for cheap. She had no savings.

RETRACING STEPS. Baby stands in front of the sari-sari store where her husband was shot dead in 2016. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

He was rushed to the hospital in a tricycle and declared dead on arrival. He was then taken to the Three Lights Funeral Homes in northern Caloocan. 

At Three Lights, Baby was told that for a proper death certificate to be issued – a death certificate that truthfully reported her husband died from gunshot wounds – he had to be autopsied. And it came with a fee, she was told.

“I told them I didn’t have money. I didn’t know that was required,” Baby told Rappler.

The funeral home asked for P23,000 without an autopsy. Baby did not bother asking how much an autopsy was.

“They also said it was so we could get the certificate sooner because if we said that he was shot dead, it would take longer. So I consented,” Baby said.

Case Number 21 was given “cardio-respiratory arrest” – a heart attack – as his immediate cause of death, and hypertension as the underlying cause.

It took the family two weeks before they could bury him. Five years later, no suspect has been arrested in relation to his killing. Five years later, Fortun examined the skull of Case Number 21. 

She found a bullet hole.

Case Number 29
REPORTED SICK. A portion of the death certificate of case number 29. Rappler sourced photo

Case Number 29 was shot dead in his sleep in October 2016, right beside his two children, who were then four and five years old. His wife, a few steps away drinking coffee, was also shot dead.

The extended family of Case Number 29 knew this story because they were a big but close-knit group. They lived in adjacent houses in Caloocan City, the sound in each household heard by the next. 

At about 11 pm, around seven gun-toting men on motorcycles arrived, kicked open their wooden gate, and headed toward the home of Case Number 29. Gunshots, screams, then silence.

“After six gunshots, they left. When we arrived, the couple was dead,” said Inday*, an aunt of Case Number 29 who lived next door.

What puzzled Inday was that, even though they lived just beside the slain couple’s home, scene of crime operations (SOCO) agents and the funeral parlor came ahead of them. 

Inday stood as the matriarch of the family and crossed the police lines. The cops tried to stop her, but she shot back: “Do you have evidence to keep me out?”

She went straight to the bodies. She saw her nephew and her in-law both dead, their heads awash with blood. Beside her nephew were her grandchildren, still asleep.

WAITING FOR JUSTICE. Inday prays at home in Caloocan City. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

As the funeral parlor staff proceeded to load the couple onto their cars, Inday stood in their way and demanded that their remains remain in the crime scene until she got another funeral parlor. The funeral parlor that first responded, she said, was notorious for overcharging.

The funeral staff left the body of Case Number 29, but still took his wife’s. Inday was not a blood relative so she could not stop them, they said. 

Case Number 29 was instead taken to Sir John Funeral Services. There, Inday was told that if she wanted to get help to bury Case Number 29, she should not say her nephew died from gunshot wounds.

“We were thinking about how to get help. If we placed ‘tokhang’ as the cause of death, we might not be able to get help. I mean, it’s true, that’s how people think,” Inday said.

Oplan Tokhang, derived from the Visayan words knock (tok) and plead (hangyo), refers to the operation of the police that involved knocking on doors of drug suspects and pleading with them to surrender. In many cases, police reported that the suspects fought back, forcing them to retaliate and kill them. 

Aside from losing loved ones, family members of those killed in the police operations suffered from discrimination in their communities, with many neighbors fearing that if they associated with the survivors, they could be next.

Inday agreed to put pneumonia as her nephew’s cause of death.

“I did not try to understand its effect (faking the cause of death). At that time, what was on my mind was how we could get through this,” Inday said. 

What the bones can do
PROOF OF KILLING. A skull with a bullet hole among the examined remains of drug war victims by forensic expert Raquel Fortun. Photo by Naoki Mengua/Rappler

The new autopsy by Fortun could help the families if they file complaints. The death certificates could be corrected and the families could get new evidence to run not only after the killers of their kin, but also those who faked their records.

“If there were wrong entries, we can file perjury and falsification of official documents,” said human rights lawyer Francis Mangrobang of IDEALS in an interview with Rappler.

For Fortun, the goal was documentation of what could be lost. The more the remains decomposed, the more difficult it was to re-examine them.

“I don’t know how far this will go, what good it will be to anybody down the line, but somehow it gives comfort to the families,” she said in an interview with Rappler.

The families of cases 6, 21, and 29 had differing views.

“I just want the people who should be jailed to be jailed. I am not asking for them to be killed like what they did to my husband,” Baby said.

“If there really is justice, maybe I will fight for it,”  said Lisa, hoping for help.

In Duterte’s war on drugs – after at least 7,000 killed by police records, and up to 30,000 by the estimates of human rights organizations – there has only been one case where cops were tried and imprisoned: the killing of Caloocan teenager Kian delos Santos in August 2017. His case gripped the nation because it had CCTV footage showing policemen dragging Kian late at night in their neighborhood before he was shot kneeling at a dead end.

Inday had a less hopeful outlook for the future: “The thing is, for me, if justice will be given, I say thank you. If it is not, there is nothing I can do.” – Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.