Police in Bulacan massacre go for bankrupt narrative about drugs

My certainty that this crime would be immediately blamed on drug addiction comes from the fact that I studied this phenomenon for my dissertation. I looked into more than 90 rape stories in over 10 tabloids. One of my findings was that in cases where the perpetrators were unidentified, the newspapers and the authorities often described them as addicts. This, without any evidence at all.

Anyone who has the slightest idea about proper investigation knows what kind of havoc these kinds of presuppositions bring to getting at the truth. Anyone who understands due process knows that these presuppositions get in the way of the correct handling of suspects, which then gets in the way of finding the truth.

True to form, Superintendent Fitz Macariola, city police chief of San Jose del Monte, announced on the second day of the investigations and before anyone had been caught that, “In a case where rape may have been committed and children were murdered, only a drug addict or an insane person could have done that.” 

This psychological profiling of those who perpetrate rape and other heinous crimes as being drug-crazed or wildly insane has no real basis in the scientific literature. That our authorities have been fighting a war for which they have no scientific rationale is par for the course. It comes from the top of the chain of command.

The data shows that most violent crimes, including homicides, are not committed under the influence of drugs. As the United States FBI reported in 2007, only 3.9% of the 14,831 homicides were narcotics related.

The reverse is also true. The overwhelming majority of people who use drugs are not violent offenders. In its ground-breaking 2011 report the Global Commission on Drug Policy notes: “The majority of people who use drugs do not fit the stereotype of the ‘amoral and pitiful addict.’ Of the  estimated 250 million drug users worldwide, the United Nations estimates that less than 10 percent can be classified as dependent, or ‘problem drug users.’”

The Global Commission is a group convened by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia, and Zedillo of Mexico – all countries which have fought drug wars, experienced their failures, and suffered the devastating consequences. It includes other former heads of state, former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan, and other eminent personalities.

The report also notes that heavy criminalization of drug traffickers often falls on the low-level pushers who are themselves often victims of the big drug syndicates. This is upheld by what I hear from working in our poor communities. Women who sell drugs often do it to support their children. A number of the poor who take drugs take it for a variety of reasons, but some do so to increase their productivity such as when a laundry woman takes shabu so that she may take on more work.

The report itself (which is reflective of the growing consensus) is clear. Drug wars cannot be won. They result in severe violations of people’s rights; they victimize the victims while syndicates remain untouched. The growing scientific consensus is that drug use is a health problem that is better approached by rights-based health interventions. Such interventions have been proven to be effective not just in decreasing the use of drugs but also in reducing the resultant criminality.

The assault on human rights

But back to our tragic tale. Within 3 days of the crime, the police announced that they had detained a suspect who had promptly confessed. He confessed further that he was under the influence of alcohol and shabu at the time.

This development unleashed on social media a volley of comments that reiterated one of the arguments the President and his supporters have used repeatedly against the critics of the war. The argument is that those of us who insist on the rights of addicts have no compassion for their victims, that we do not care for the human rights of victims. See, said posts on social media, how can you defend the rights of this monster who has deprived women and innocent children of the right to live?

No amount of explanation that the right to due process is not incompatible with the right to justice for the victims and/or their families suffices. No amount of pointing out that due process assures that the right person is caught and convicted seems to convince people. If anything, this drug war is also an assault on years of human rights education. It is tragically an assault on the rights of these very people who are screaming for the victims and for their own safety. These arguments fail to understand that human rights protection must be given to all if these protections will protect all. Those of us in the human rights community, especially those like me who have worked tirelessly for the rights of rape victims, cannot but despair. And my despair is made deeper by the fact that I hear this assault on human rights from some academics and health personnel.


But the tale ends with a twist – a twist that may contribute to the goals those of us who believe in the general application of human rights. As it turns out, the suspect in the killings has tested negative for drugs.

This is not a surprising result for human rights workers who have been through drug wars and other situations of mass killings by the state. Once authorities are convinced of a story, no matter how unscientific and regardless of the evidence, suspects will be found that fit the bill. Confessions can then be manipulated or coerced to confirm the story. This can happen not only where the authorities are deliberately building a lie, but even because the investigator is so convinced that this is what really happened.

Little wonder that accusations of forced confession have begun.

Chief Superintendent Aaron Aquino was at his inarticulate best in trying to explain the negative results: “Chineck ko sa chemist kung ano 'yung mga rason kung bakit nagne-negative after 24 hours use of drugs. Ang sabi niya, most likely mas mabilis ang metabolism ni Ibañes or 'yung quality ng in-intake niya ay masyadong maliit or 'yung quality naman ng shabu ay hindi ganon ka-concentrate nung ginamit niya or nagpapawis siya o madalas siyang umiihi kaya talagang medyo nag-negative siya sa drug test.... Pero the past month eh, once a week na lang daw siya gumagamit, so ito rin 'yung rason kung kaya madaling mawala 'yung droga sa katawan, 'pag occassionally ka na lang nagtete-take ng drugs, mas madaling mawala sa system ang droga.”

(I checked with the chemist about the possible reasons why a user would test negative 24 hours after using drugs. The chemist said Ibañes’ metabolism is likely faster than normal or he only used a small amount of drugs or maybe the quality of the meth he took wasn’t concentrated or he sweats a lot or urinate frequently. So maybe that’s why he tested negative in the drug test. But in the past month,  e also has been using drugs only once a week and this occasional drug use may be the reason for the the drug no longer being in his system. )

We should note that except for the debatable explanation of a fast metabolism, all other reasons suggest that he was not high on drugs during the crime.

And here the idea that the human rights of suspects is complementary to the human rights of the victims becomes clear. Whether he is guilty or not, the neurotic belief in a myth about drug addiction has led to doubts about whether we have got the right man and whether his story is correct. (At the time of this writing he has contradicted himself yet again by saying he did not, after all, commit the crime alone but with others.)

Would this be the kind of justice we should be giving a grieving husband and father? A case where the guilty may walk free. A case where the innocent may be convicted while the real murderer walks free. If the suspect's rights were upheld, if this government were not hell-bent on an old and bankrupt narrative about drugs, perhaps the police could have done a better job.

It is time we stop demonizing addicts, end the war on drugs, begin the healing, and treat addiction as a health problem. – Rappler.com