lawyer killings in the Philippines

[OPINION] The elephant in the room: How do we stop the killings?

Joel Pablo Salud

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[OPINION] The elephant in the room: How do we stop the killings?
'For as long as the presidency is seen as beholden to the support of military and police agencies to remain in power, impunity and violence will remain'

The CCTV footage posted by Rappler ran for 1 minute and 13 seconds. It took the assassin only 6.83 seconds to walk from behind a white sedan and shoot Edilberto Mendoza from behind, killing him instantly.

It was quick, methodical, deliberate. The assistant city prosecutor from Trece Martires, Cavite, was in the middle of his exercise when shots rang out along a dead-end street right in front of his home. The day was December 31, 2021, hours before the New Year.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has ordered the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI) to stay on top of the matter. Mendoza was the 66th lawyer to be killed under President Rodrigo Duterte. He was 48.

The motive for the killing, as well as the identity of the gunman, have yet to be established as of this writing.

This is nothing new. Members of the bar had been killed in the past. From President Ferdinand Marcos to President Benigno Aquino III, 49 lawyers have faced the cold end of the barrel of a gun. None of them saw it coming.

The gall by which assassinations are carried out brings us to the question of the impunity that follows in their wake.

If little is being done to catch the culprits, it is safe to assume that those behind the acts are at the beck and call of a power structure that wishes to impose their hold on life and death by any means necessary.

Voltaire said it best in his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770–1774): “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. Nothing can be truer than in Duterte’s drug war. A 2019 quarterly poll by the Social Weather Stations said that 82% of Filipinos were satisfied with the first three years of Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign.

This came about even after 6,000 killings had been logged during police raids and an estimated 30,000 dead based on human rights groups. The numbers alone can fill the seating capacity of the Araneta Coliseum twice over.

The arrival of COVID-19 and the issuance of lockdown protocols did little to sate the thirst for human life.

In its 761-page World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch said that drug-war killings in 2020 “increased by more than 50% during the early months of the pandemic.”

This hardly includes the little over 260 farmers who’ve been murdered since Duterte assumed power, let alone an estimated 129 children killed since the police raids began.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, roughly 22 newsmen have been gunned down since Duterte’s win in 2016.

How can anyone put a stop to this “economy of murder” when early on in 2017, Amnesty International had already noted the participation of the police in the killings? Rappler’s Patricia Evangelista wrote volumes on this same subject in her first accounts of the drug war.

Another question is: will this ever change given the chance that another president sits in power come 2022? Or to rephrase the question: will the change of guards stand as an assurance that the murders involving cops will never happen again?

For as long as authorities are involved in the widespread killings of lawyers, clerics, journalists, farmers, and activists, any chance at closure would be nil.

Allow me to add that for as long as the presidency is seen as beholden to the support of military and police agencies to remain in power, impunity and violence will remain.

The momentum by which wanton and gratuitous murder has been carried out over the last six years is enough reason to chill the air around us. There’s a good chance this might cross over regardless of a new president. Our own mistaken idea of the whys and wherefores of the presidency may be to blame.

It’s rather sad that the current list of candidates has yet to lay down their specific plans as to the matter of illegal drugs.

Controversies come and go, issues hounding the elections no less. In the next five to 10 years, two must remain: the pandemic and the killings. We may well go shoulder to shoulder against a pandemic that refuses to let up. We barely have a choice.

But what about state-sanctioned murder? What system must we put in place to strengthen the claims of the Bill of Rights?

If we are pinning our hopes on a new president for necessary reforms, then addressing the killings should be of primary consideration. A priority legislation, perhaps, to once and for all assure us that state-sanctioned killings would be a thing of the past? Why not?

But if the authorities are involved, then there’s the question of implementation. Who’s going to enforce it? Will “good cops” break the chain of silence and speak out? Will they sit as witnesses against their fellow officers? Against government bigwigs?

As the 2022 elections draw near, we are faced with the complexity of finding a solution to this bloody mess we are in. With the exception of the murder of Kian de los Santos, neither raising our grievances and exposing the truth seem to be working.

Anyone who could spare the time to search for news on the matter would know that the killings haven’t stopped. The number of those gunned down grow each day, well-nigh in a race against the death toll of the pandemic.

We are in a fight for our lives. It’s one problem not even the International Criminal Court, I’m afraid to say, could stop at the soonest possible time.

This brings me to what novelist Arundhati Roy wrote in her essay, “The End of Imagination,” that indeed “fascism is as much about people as about government.”

Popular support for extrajudicial killings emboldens extrajudicial killings. There are no two ways of looking at it.

Either we deem supporters of the drug war as part of the puzzle or we will not see the end of it. Those who supported — and profited — from state-sanctioned murder must somehow be held accountable.

While putting up a veritable list is easier said than done, candidates for the presidency cannot turn a blind eye on this. Either candidates face this head on or we refuse them our votes.

The 2022 election is our one chance to secure an overwhelming victory for human rights. Another six years of looking over our shoulders is not an option. –

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