In 51 shootings by police in drug busts, 100 suspects were killed and just 3 wounded. The 97-percent kill ratio, eyewitness testimony and other evidence amassed by Reuters suggest officers are summarily gunning down suspects in President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown.
Norberto Maderal and George Avanceña made a fatal choice on the afternoon of October 19, the Philippine National Police say. The two pedicab drivers drew their guns in a slum in northern Manila and “tried to open fire” at plainclothes officers posing as drug buyers, according to the police report into their killings.
The officers defended themselves, resulting in what the report called “the instantaneous death of the suspects.” Dante Novicio, the police chief of Navotas City, told Reuters his men shot the pair “almost simultaneously.”
Maderal, 42, and Avanceña, 33, are casualties in President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Police say that 2,004 people have been shot and killed by officers in self-defense during anti-drug operations since the president took office on July 1.
When the police open fire in Duterte’s war, the suspects almost always die.
Reuters reviewed 42 drug-related shooting incidents involving the police in the Manila region covered by its journalists, as well as another 9 cases investigated in the same area by the government-funded Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR). In these combined 51 cases, police officers killed a total of 100 suspects and wounded just three. Of the three people who were shot but survived in these cases, two played dead and the third was arrested as he tried to flee the scene.
The kill ratio is much higher than in countries with comparable drug-related violence.
The Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, where police have been accused of extrajudicial killings in a bloody crime crackdown, pales next to the Philippines under Duterte. For every five people the Rio police killed between 2013 and 2015, they injured one person, according to a Human Rights Watch report in July.
In the Philippine cases examined by Reuters and CHR, the police killed 97 percent of those they shot—33 dead for every person wounded. A Philippine police spokesman said that no national statistics are available for injured drug suspects.
The figures pose a powerful challenge to the official narrative that the Philippines police are only killing drug suspects in self-defense. These statistics and other evidence amassed by Reuters point in the other direction: that police are pro-actively gunning down suspects.
Eyewitnesses interviewed for this article often contradicted the police version of events. Norberto Maderal’s nephew told Reuters that his uncle was unarmed—and that he heard Maderal begging for his life before the police began shooting.
Efren Morillo, one of the rare survivors of a police raid, said he too was unarmed when an officer, standing a few feet away, shot him through the chest. As Morillo lay bleeding, feigning death, officers began shooting his companions. “I prayed to God to let me live,” he said.
Asked why almost every police drug encounter ended with the suspect being killed, Derrick Carreon, spokesman for the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, chuckled: “I guess some cops are just good at shooting. They’re probably good shots.”
Further stretching the plausibility of official statements, a review of police reports shows that officers often give remarkably similar accounts each time a suspect is shot dead.
In their reports, officers describe the typical victim as an alleged user or small-time dealer in a poor neighborhood. The attempt by undercover police to catch the suspect dealing drugs—a so-called “buy-bust” operation—quickly goes wrong. The suspect panics, draws a weapon and starts shooting. The police return deadly fire.
Found on the victim’s corpse is a .38 caliber revolver, often without a serial number, and plastic sachets of what police reports call “a white crystalline substance suspected to be shabu.” Shabu is the street name for crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that Duterte’s government has blamed for most of the serious crime in the Philippines.
Police crime-scene investigations and autopsies, meanwhile, are opaque and perfunctory. CHR investigators say that under Duterte they have had to subpoena police forensics units to get access to full autopsies and forensic reports. The secretiveness has fueled suspicion among bereaved families and human rights monitors that guns and drugs are planted on suspects at crime scenes.
To Jun Nalangan, a special investigator at CHR, the pattern of evidence points to murder. “The police report says there is a gun battle or a firefight,” he said. “In our investigations, there is no such thing. Instead of drug bust operations, they are conducting extrajudicial killings.”
In the poor neighborhoods targeted by Duterte, many people interpret the police force’s apparent freedom to kill without consequence as proof of a nationwide shoot-to-kill policy. While more than 1,500 anti-drug operations have come under investigation by the police force’s Internal Affairs Service (IAS) since the start of Duterte’s drug war, no officers have been dismissed from the force for misconduct, an IAS official said.
Senior police officials say that IAS investigates all killings by officers. Chief Superintendent Leo Angelo Leuterio, the policeman who ran IAS until recently, told Reuters he was reluctant to prosecute officers while his country needed “warm bodies in the field” to fight the drug war.
For the police, the shootouts are far less deadly. Police say 17 officers have died in anti-drug operations across the country since July 1. That means one officer has died for every 118 suspects killed. In Rio, for every officer who died in 2015, 24.8 people were killed by police, a rate more than double that of South Africa and triple that of the United States, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
President Duterte has denied that the police are conducting extrajudicial killings. At the same time, he has welcomed the mounting death toll. In September, he said he’d be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.
Duterte also has signaled to the police that they can act with impunity. In the run-up to the May presidential election, he said he would pardon members of the security forces—and himself—if they committed human rights abuses while fighting crime. “Pardon given to Rodrigo Duterte for the crime of multiple murder, signed Rodrigo Duterte,” he told a group of business people in Manila in April.
In a statement to Reuters, the Presidential Communications Office said Duterte hasn’t given the police license to kill drug dealers, but officers have a right to defend themselves when their lives are in danger. “The drug war is not child’s play,” the statement said.
In one key area, the police do depart from Duterte’s stated game plan. The president and his senior officials routinely warn that “drug lords” will be taken down. So far, almost all the victims have been poor, like Maderal and Avanceña, the two pedicab drivers who were shot dead by police in Navotas City in October.
Maderal’s nephew, Joemari Rodriguez, and other family members shared a house in North Bay Boulevard South, a district of teeming slums and trash-choked waterways in Navotas City. Reuters interviewed Rodriguez at the scene, less than two hours after the killings.
Rodriguez said he believes police executed his uncle but is too scared to lodge a complaint. “They might come back for me,” he told Reuters outside the house.
Still quivering with shock, he said three plainclothes men barged into their home and dragged his uncle into the living room. “They didn’t say who they were,” said Rodriguez, 24, a medical technician.
Rodriguez said a man pushed him into his room and the door was held shut from the outside. Rodriguez couldn’t see what happened next but said he could clearly hear his uncle pleading for his life. “He was begging them, ‘Sir, please!’” he said. Then came two shots.
Minutes later, Rodriguez emerged from his room to find the men gone and his uncle slumped in a puddle of blood. “There was a gun in his hand,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t know where he got this.” He said his uncle was a drug user, but didn’t own a gun and hadn’t fought back.
Within five minutes of the shooting, said Rodriguez, uniformed police arrived to seal off the scene. Then, five to 10 minutes later, Rodriguez heard two more shots. He said this was when George Avanceña, a friend of Maderal who was hiding in a back room, was shot.
Two neighbors—Ruby Miradora, 49, a street sweeper, and Norminda Barbo, 38, a housewife—echoed Rodriguez’s account. They said they had heard two gunshots and then, 10 to 15 minutes later—after uniformed police had arrived—two more shots.
The killings of Maderal and Avanceña followed a familiar pattern described by eyewitnesses. Gunmen in civilian clothes burst into a home without identifying themselves. Suspects are moved away from relatives and other potential witnesses to a secluded spot or a different room, then shot dead by police. Many families also say the victims couldn’t have fought back because they didn’t own guns.
Dante Novicio, the Navotas City police chief, told Reuters he stood by his officers’ claim that Maderal and Avanceña were armed and were shot moments apart. Contradictory accounts were “allegations to confuse the result of the investigation” and discredit his men, he said.
Maderal and Avanceña are two of 18 people police say they have killed in anti-drug operations in North Bay Boulevard South. An additional 14 bodies have been found in the district, most of them near C-3 bridge, a local dumping ground for victims.
The killings are part of a vast anti-drug campaign whose impact has been felt nationwide. Police say they have arrested more than 38,000 people. And over 800,000 drug users and pushers have registered with the authorities, a process known as “surrendering.”
In addition to the 2,004 drug suspects killed by officers, police are investigating another 3,060 deaths, though it isn’t clear how many of those are drug-related. Human rights monitors believe many of these people were killed by vigilantes operating with the backing of police – a charge the police and the government deny.
The police version of the August 21 shooting of Efren Morillo and four others in another poor Manila neighborhood closely follows the pattern of other killings. The police report says that the suspects opened fire, and that four guns and shabu were found at the scene.
But there was one difference: Morillo survived. The 28-year-old fruit vendor played dead until the police left.
Morillo said in an interview that he was standing only three paces from the police officer who shot him in the chest. He collapsed. A friend fell dead beside him, blood spewing from his mouth and head. Nearby, he said, police killed three other companions.
That night, said Morillo, only the police had guns. The officers appeared relaxed when they arrived. Two were carrying fighting cocks in baskets. “This is the police!” one of the officers joked. “No one run! Our fighting cocks might get squished.”
Morillo said he has no criminal record or involvement with drugs. Even as he was being led around the back of his friend’s shack by the police, Morillo thought the worst that could happen was that he would be photographed and arrested.
Then the police started shooting. Morillo was hit first and collapsed into a chair. Pretending to be dead, he said, he heard three of his companions outside crying before they were shot.
The police left. Holding his shirt to his wounds, Morillo slid down a nearby hill, waded across a creek and then struggled up the other bank, where he chanced upon a friend who drove him to a clinic. In an interview at CHR headquarters in Manila in early November, he lifted his shirt to reveal his scarred chest. The bullet that passed through him missed his heart and lungs.
He said his family had sold their home to pay his medical bills and other expenses. When the police discovered he was still alive, they pressed charges against him for assaulting a police officer. He turned to the Commission on Human Rights, which is helping defend him.
Fearing for his life, he rarely goes outside and has stopped working. A daily CHR stipend of 150 pesos, about three dollars, isn’t enough to feed his two sons, aged 8 and 9, he said. Morillo must also face his alleged attackers in court; one of them, he said, had shot him “dagger looks” during his first court hearing.
The most outspoken opponent of Duterte’s crackdown, Senator Leila de Lima, says the drug busts are designed to be lethal. “These operations are not meant to just apprehend or arrest the drug suspects but really to liquidate them,” she said in an interview.
At an August Senate inquiry, De Lima, a former justice secretary, quizzed national police chief Ronald Dela Rosa about the killings. At that time, police had killed 756 suspects.
“All resisted arrest?” asked an incredulous De Lima. “Yes, they resisted,” replied Dela Rosa. “Otherwise, they are alive today,” he added. His response provoked disbelieving laughter.
In November, the National Bureau of Investigation charged de Lima with involvement in the illegal drug trade at a national jail. De Lima called the charges “trumped up,” part of a harassment campaign by Duterte and his allies.
The mounting death toll is putting pressure on the police force’s forensics unit, the Scene of Crime Operatives (SOCO). Officers routinely work 24-hour or even 48-hour shifts, its chief, Reynaldo Calaoa, told Reuters. From the moment a suspect is shot to the time the funeral parlor gives his or her body to the family for the wake, SOCO controls almost every process by which forensic evidence is gathered.
Forensic evidence can be vital in determining whether cops or witnesses are telling the truth. But in the Philippines, police forensic scientists are underfunded and overwhelmed, and the evidence they produce is hard for CHR investigators to access. The crime laboratory at the police headquarters at Camp Crame in Manila has only two dissection tables and no cold storage for bodies, SOCO said. It also lacks an X-ray machine to scan corpses for bullet fragments.
Instead, SOCO performs most of its autopsies at police-accredited but privately owned funeral parlors, which act as both official morgues and crime labs. The funeral parlor then embalms the body before it is given to the family for the wake.
SOCO autopsies are mandatory and usually take place at the funeral parlor within hours of the body’s arrival. The full autopsy reports are not released to the families. CHR investigators told Reuters they had to subpoena SOCO to get full autopsies, even though CHR is a government agency.
Those autopsies are potentially damning, as a killing in the first week of Duterte’s campaign suggests. Police said they shot dead Conrado Berona, 36, who was wanted for robbery and drug dealing, in a gunfight on July 6, and that shabu was found on his body. But a CHR investigation into his death, reviewed by Reuters, noted that the bullet wound in Berona’s chest showed “tattooing.” This distinctive skin abrasion is caused by partially burned or unburned gunpowder and indicates the victim was shot at close range.
In its report, based in part on sworn witness testimony, CHR found that “the alleged shootout never happened,” and that Berona was unarmed and surrendering when plainclothes and uniformed police shot him. CHR said it recommended filing criminal and administrative cases against the police who killed Berona.
SOCO medical-legal officer Jane Monzon told Reuters she had seen evidence of tattooing in four victims of police buy-bust operations in Manila. She declined to say more. SOCO’s chief, Reynaldo Calaoa, said his agency is not tracking close-range shootings.
SOCO came under scrutiny in November in the shooting of one of the few high-profile people targeted in the anti-drug crackdown. On November 5, Rolando Espinosa, a mayor from central Leyte Province, was shot and killed in his prison cell. A fellow prisoner, Raul Yap, was also killed in what police said was a shootout.
Earlier, Duterte had put Espinosa’s name on a list of top drug suspects. The mayor, who denied involvement in narcotics, was arrested on October 5 on drugs and firearms charges. Police said Espinosa and Yap fired at a police team that had come to search their cells for guns and drugs. Police returned fire and killed them.
A Senate hearing on November 10 into the mayor’s death found that the police team had summoned SOCO crime-scene investigators about 40 minutes before entering the prison, according to an affidavit from an officer at a police operations center.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief who co-led the hearing, likened this to phoning a funeral parlor before a shoot-out. He said the call suggested Espinosa’s killing was “premeditated.”
A police spokesman said a preliminary investigation showed operational procedures had not been followed, and a number of officers have been confined to police headquarters while the investigation continues.
The shooting followed the familiar pattern. Police said they recovered two guns from Yap’s and Espinosa’s cells. Drug paraphernalia and a small sachet of suspected shabu were also found inside Espinosa’s cell, police said.
Angela Lafuente has been trying to get hold of SOCO’s autopsy report for her brother Angelo, who was murdered in August after witnesses said he was detained by police. She believes it could prove that police were involved in his gruesome death.
During his election campaign, Duterte vowed to dump the corpses of criminals into Manila Bay and “fatten all the fish there.” Angelo Lafuente didn’t make it as far as the water.
According to Navotas City police records, Lafuente’s body was found on August 19 at about 3.20 a.m. next to a filthy river that feeds into the bay under C-3 bridge. His corpse was riddled with bullets and covered with what his family said were signs of torture—deep cuts and cigarette burns.
The deaths of Lafuente and two companions cast doubt on police claims that they have nothing to do with these killings.
Two eyewitnesses said Lafuente, 22, was last seen alive in police custody on August 18, about 12 hours before his body was found. Police, including a SWAT team, had swept through his squatter settlement, a dense jumble of shacks near Navotas fishmarket. The operation, according to police records, turned deadly when police shot and killed three other men who opened fire or tried to open fire on them.
When police arrived that afternoon, Lafuente ran, said his sister Angela. Running with him was a cousin, Renato Forio, 26, and another local known only as Benjie, also in his early to mid-twenties.
Angela and other residents say the three young men were caught by police near the main road that runs past the settlement. Standing in a crowd on the other side of the road, Angela said she saw men in plainclothes bundle her brother, Forio and Benjie into a marked police van.
Elisa Martinez, 59, a local resident, was standing closer to the police van. She saw three young men emerge from the van, their hands tied behind their backs. She told Reuters they were put onto motorbikes ridden by masked men in civilian clothes, and driven away.
Angela went to the station to look for Lafuente, Forio and Benjie. She didn’t find them. She returned home. Around 2:00 a.m., a neighbor told her that three bodies had been discovered. “We knew then that Angelo was dead,” she said.
His body was found with Benjie’s by C-3 bridge. According to Angelo Lafuente’s death certificate, the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds to the “head, trunk (and) right lower extremity.”
Forio’s body was found outside a nearby school, also around 3.20 a.m., according to police records. Cause of death: “Gunshot wounds, head and trunk.”
Angela went to the funeral home to see the bodies. She said her brother had short, deep cuts on his chest, arms and face, and what looked like cigarette burns on his chest and hands. Benjie’s neck looked broken and his left eye had popped out, she said.
Forio’s father, also named Renato, told Reuters his son’s face had been beaten so badly it was “unrecognisable.”
Police said the bodies of Lafuente and Forio were found with their hands bound with plastic straps, and they had sachets of “a white crystalline substance suspected to be shabu” on them.
There was no record of Lafuente, Forio and Benjie having been detained during the August 18 police operation, Navotas City police chief Novicio told Reuters. “Maybe they scampered away because of their illegal activities,” he said.
Novicio said their deaths were under investigation, but “we are expecting nothing.” Local residents weren’t cooperating with police, he said, mainly due to their “fear of these criminal elements.”
On November 14, police gave Angela a two-page summary of the autopsy they had performed on her brother nearly three months earlier. It recorded the cause of death as gunshot wounds. The full autopsy, police told her, was “confidential.”
National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa and other top officers have said that all operational deaths are investigated by the Internal Affairs Service (IAS), the police watchdog, and that their men were blameless unless proven otherwise.
But the sheer volume of shootings is overwhelming IAS. Chief Superintendent Leo Angelo Leuterio, who was acting head of IAS until recently, said the office investigates all cases in which there has been a discharge of weapons, the death of an officer or a civilian, or allegations of human rights violations or evidence tampering.
Of the 1,548 cases IAS scrutinized from July 1 to November 24, about a quarter were dropped for lack of evidence or witnesses – IAS doesn’t have a witness protection program. More than a third were still pending investigation.
Only 29 cases had reached a stage that could result in disciplinary action. IAS lawyer Maria Constantinopla estimated that perhaps 21 of these cases would be dismissed on grounds of self-defense due to evidence of a shootout between the police and suspects.
Leuterio, who remains a senior official at IAS, acknowledges that witnesses and families fear the police and either don’t file a complaint or refuse to testify in IAS cases, which are dropped as a result. And he suspects investigators are failing to uncover some police wrongdoing. “I think that there are a greater number of abuses committed in the course of these operations than the numbers reflect,” he said.
But Leuterio makes his sympathies clear.
“We have to settle the debate of whom do we protect more,” he said. “The drug pushers, the drug suspects, the drug addicts? Or the government agent whose only intention is to preserve order in society?”
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