How a Manila gang finds the license to kill
STORY BY PATRICIA EVANGELISTA
PHOTOS BY CARLO GABUCO
After more than two years and an estimated 23,518 deaths under investigation, Rappler tells the story of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war from the eyes of the killers.
In early 2017, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested members of a vigilante gang suspected of preying on drug suspects and criminals in Tondo, Manila. The group was a local chapter of the Confederate Sentinels Group (CSG). More than a year after the arrests, most of the men implicated remain free.
Rappler’s 6-month investigation shows strong indications that the police were outsourcing extrajudicial killings to the same vigilante gang they accused of murder.
According to individuals with knowledge of CSG Tondo Chapter 2’s activities, officials of the PNP coordinated with vigilantes, selected targets, took credit for murders, and on occasion paid for assassinations in the name of the war against drugs.
The story, to be published in 7 daily installments, includes on-the-record testimony from CSG officials, police officers, affected community members, as well as two of CSG Tondo Chapter 2’s self-confessed vigilantes. At their request, Rappler has changed or withheld their names for their own safety. Angel and Simon are not their real names.
“They killed him,” police director general Ronald dela Rosa, then Philippine National Police chief, told the media on the afternoon of February 9, 2017. “They snatched him and killed him and put him in a sack.”
The victim was a 16-year-old named Charlie Saladaga. Between his abduction on New Year of 2017 and the discovery of his body a day later, Charlie had been shot in the face, stuffed into a sack, and tossed into the breakwater of Isla Puting Bato in Tondo, Manila. His 14-year-old sister had identified his kidnappers as members of a local gang called the Confederate Sentinels Group (CSG).
According to the police, the CSG had threatened the Saladaga family – at least once at gunpoint – so badly that Charlie’s mother Cristina finally walked up to the Manila Police District to file a complaint. Within hours, police raided the CSG’s outpost along Road 10 in Village 105. Law enforcement operatives confiscated a number of items, including mobile phones, a .38 caliber revolver, two homemade shotguns, and a variety of scattered ammunition. CSG members Manuel Murillo, Alfredo Alejan, and Marco Morallos were arrested.
“This is their uniform,” Dela Rosa told reporters, holding up a black shirt, with the words CSG, Tondo 2, Barangay 105 printed on the back. “Confederate Sentinel Group. A civilian volunteer organization that apparently became a vigilante group killing robbery suspects. That’s why they targeted the kid. They killed him. They said he was a thief.” (Dela Rosa told Rappler he stood by all his statements during the press conference.)
CNN Philippines carried the press conference live. The national media was in attendance. The gold stars of the PNP’s top brass were on full display: on the shoulders of then national chief of police Dela Rosa, regional director Oscar Albayalde, and district director Joel Coronel. All of them were surrounded by assorted investigators and enforcers, some of whom forced back the bent heads of the three suspects ranged behind General Dela Rosa.
“They are here now,” said the general. “We’ve confiscated their guns, all their guns, and they have admitted to what they’ve done.”
The man who called himself a killer sat on the edge of the hotel room bed. The recorder blinked red.
“I was scared of killing at first, but not anymore,” he said. “It’s like drugs. You get addicted. Then you’re okay.”
The man on the bed was called Simon. It was not his real name. Where he came from, weasels were shot with no questions asked, and Simon did not want to die.
Simon was baptized Roman Catholic, and considered himself a religious man. He was 25 years old the first time he committed murder. He looked over his shoulder for weeks, terrified someone had seen him drag the body into an alley. For years he lived in Aroma, a chunk of Tondo’s Village 105, where grimy two-story tenement buildings open into dirt roads layered with garbage and last year’s rotten Happy Meal. “If you’re not from here,” said a local, “you won’t come out alive. Even the cops stay away.”
“Every kind of dangerous person lives in Aroma,” said Simon. “Hitmen. Addicts. The men on the Most Wanted lists. They come to Aroma to hide.”
Simon was a member of CSG Tondo Chapter 2. “It’s what you’d call a vigilante group,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
He said he was recruited by a civilian named named Ricardo Villamonte.
Villamonte, known to his men as Commander Maning, outfitted his marshals in royal blue and black CSG shirts. It was Commander Maning who gave the orders, said Simon. This man, that man, get it done, do the job – you, you, and you. The names of targets were announced at the CSG outpost. The photos were posted on the walls.
“After Duterte, the killing was automatic, one after another,” said Simon. The recruits went on patrols – “just parades” – but the killing happened outside of official rounds.
Commander Maning denied this in an interview with Rappler on October 3, saying that allegations of summary killings were “all hearsay.”
Simon said he didn’t know about the murders until he was a CSG member, but he wasn't troubled by the killings. He voted for Rodrigo Duterte because he believed in the war against drugs. Simon wanted the addicts out. He wanted the dealers stopped. He had killed two men for the CSG in the last two years, possibly more in the three months since his interview.
“I’m really not a bad guy,” said Simon. “I’m not all bad. Some people need killing.”
It was a single death that put an end to CSG Tondo Chapter 2. Seven months after the declaration of the drug war, the police went on national television to announce a vigilante group had been arrested for the murder of a young boy.
Simon shook his head. He called the murder of Charlie Saladaga a mistake.
“They really shouldn’t have killed him.”
At the press conference on February 9, a police official held up an enlarged photo of a gangly young man splayed on the ground. Part of his body was still inside what appeared to be a torn sack. Then-police chief Dela Rosa, who was reading the arrest report into the microphone, interrupted himself to identify the corpse. “This is the picture of the kid who was salvaged, then stuffed into a sack.”
Dela Rosa claimed the suspects had confessed. He called one of the 3 men to the microphone. Manuel Murillo, alias Joel, 33 years old, listed jobless in his booking sheet, had earlier told a Philippine Star reporter the CSG participated in “vigilante-style killings.” Dela Rosa ordered Murillo to repeat “what you told me earlier.”
“It was our Commander Maning who – ,” Murillo began.
“Properly, speak properly,” interrupted Dela Rosa.
“It was Commander Maning,” said Murillo.
“Commander Maning, sir.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s the one who gave us orders.”
In an interview with Rappler, Ricardo Villamonte, alias Commander Maning, said Murillo “was crazy.”
Asked why Murillo became a member of CSG Tondo Chapter 2 given his alleged mental state, Commander Maning told Rappler “we thought he wasn't crazy then.”
Manila Police District Chief Joel Coronel, who took over the podium for Dela Rosa, admitted that the CSG had been accredited as peacekeepers by the PNP. He said they had never been authorized to carry arms. He said they had been operating in Tondo for at least 5 months. He said the police had “monitored through several complaints that this group has been engaged in summary killings” and that there were “about 10 persons engaged in these extrajudicial or vigilante killings,” although Dela Rosa also said the group may have had up to 200 members.
Coronel said the CSG killed to protect the drug trade and other criminal activities. They targeted suspects from enemy gangs, and murdered “to instill fear and panic in people.”
“The commander is a certain Ricardo Villamonte, the alleged leader of the Confederate Sentinel Group, the CSG,” Coronel said. “Initially the victims thought they were members of the police, or PNP personnel. They’re just civilians, or not in the uniformed service.”
The PNP said they had investigated the confiscated mobile phones. They had discovered, from messages and further tactical interrogation, that the CSG was responsible for at least 3 more homicides before Charlie Saladaga was killed. The PNP named the dead: Rene Desierto, Oliver Pableo, and Daniel Mendoza Peñalosa. (Coronel did not respond to Rappler's request for an interview.)
Those cases, announced Dela Rosa, were “considered solved.” The suspects had been identified. Dela Rosa said cases would be filed to formalize the complaint.
The PNP definition for a solved case requires that “an offender has been identified, there is sufficient evidence to charge him/her, the offender has been taken into custody, and offender has been charged before the prosecutors office or court of appropriate jurisdiction.” (Rappler filed a Freedom of Information request for all solved cases since 2016 at the Manila Police District. There has been no response.)
“Commander Maning told us we were forming a group in Tondo,” a second CSG vigilante, Angel, told Rappler. “He told us our job was to clean out the thieves and drug dealers. He said we’d try to clean up Tondo.”
Angel sat on a blue couch, as close to the door as he could get in a small hotel room with the windows shuttered. Angel was not his real name. He rode a motorcycle hours to make it to the interview in a city of his choosing, and nearly ran away just before he made contact. “I thought it might have been a setup,” he said.
Angel had wandered into CSG mostly by chance. His friends had been recruited. They told Angel to bring his guns. There was a meet, they said. Come along, we have a job.
“I found out later that every time they said we had a job they meant we were going to kill,” said Angel.
That first night, the men sent in Angel first. He went down the side of a road and found himself a corner. The target came strolling by.
“I wasn't ready when they shot him,” Angel said. “I went, ‘Oh.’”
Oh, he said, and then everyone ran. Angel did not remember how many gunshots there were, only that there were two shooters in the wind the moment the corpse hit the ground.
Angel became one of CSG’s veteran vigilantes. At its height, sometime between July 2016 and early 2017, Rappler's sources said, CSG Chapter 2 in Tondo had an estimated 25 to 40 members. They were garbage truck operators, jeepney drivers, scavengers, security guards, construction workers – a small army of true believers who, at least in the beginning, considered themselves soldiers in Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs.
Angel cannot remember the name of every man he killed. He remembered instead where each of them were shot. Sometimes the targets were waylaid where they worked, outside of Tondo, because “you need to lie low when the area gets hot.” There were the two men in Payatas. There was the one in Caloocan. There was the last in Blumentritt, and Angel was sure he was never given a name.
He said it was Commander Maning who set the bounty for each dead target. It ranged from P30,000 ($554)* to P40,000 ($739), although it once went as high as P100,000 ($1,848). The money was split among members of the kill team: driver, shooter, lookouts, backup, finisher. Angel said the lowest he had been paid was P8,000 ($148). (Rappler was unable to confirm this allegation with Commander Maning, who refused to answer further questions. He left after a 7-minute interview).
“We only got paid if we killed,” Angel said. Simon said he was never paid, in spite of the promise of P20,000 ($370) for every execution.
By their reckoning, Angel and Simon said Chapter 2 of CSG Tondo executed more than 20 people within the first 7 months of Duterte’s war against drugs.
“The police knew,” said Angel. “They can’t not know. We couldn’t have operated in that area if they didn’t know.” – Rappler.com
Editor's note: All quotations have been translated into English. Rappler sought an interview with former National Capital Region Police Office head and now PNP chief Oscar Albayalde, but he was unavailable. Manila Police District Director Joel Coronel, at the time of this publication, had not replied.
*$1 = P54
To be continued: PART 2 | 'The Cops Were Showing Off'