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By Aya Lowe
Posted 03 Mar 2017 09:02
Updated 03 Mar 2017 13:17
MANILA: Erwina (not her real name) was worried about her transgender son. Ron-Ron sold crystal methamphetamine to friends and neighbours to earn some extra money on top of his beauty salon job. According to his mother, each drug deal earned him between 150 pesos (US$3) and 500 pesos.
But when a war on drugs erupted against drug dealers and runners, Erwina repeatedly told her child to stop.
When he was first arrested on drug charges, Erwina was asked to go to the police station and pay 50,000 pesos to bail him out. She did not have enough so she took out a small loan and gave them around 10,000 pesos. They accepted, but that was not the end of it.
A few days later, masked gunmen, which Erwina alleged to be police, stormed their house and dragged Ron-Ron out. His crumpled body was found hours later in a nearby parking lot with three bullet wounds on his face.
“I felt really weak. I didn't know what to do,” Erwina explained with tears in her eyes. “I saw Ron-Ron lying on the ground. He was dead.”
After Ron-Ron was killed, she went to the police station to report the murder and discovered that the money she gave for bail was actually a bribe given to the attending policeman. The money was returned to her by the chief policeman at the station, who reprimanded the younger cops for taking the bribe.
Then came the death threats.
Erwina said she was followed after she left the police station. The same day, she began receiving warnings telling her to enjoy the money now because she would be killed next after her child.
“After Ron-Ron was buried, we did not know where to go,” Erwina said. She explained that during his wake, she would see unfamiliar policemen patrolling her neighbourhood.
Since then, she has been in hiding and is afraid to return to where she used to live.
POLICE OR GANGS?
Erwina's story has been documented by the Philippine human rights commission and her case is not unique. Many have reportedly received death threats after logging complaints against erring cops.
A Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday (Mar 3) stated that the police and gangs or vigilantes are often one and the same.
The report said: “In several cases we investigated, the police dismissed allegations of involvement and instead classified such killings as ‘found bodies’ or ‘deaths under investigation’ when only hours before the suspects had been in police custody.
A Police Intelligence Officer (right) holds a confiscated pistol during a raid looking for firearms and illegal drugs in a slum area. (Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)
“Such cases call into question government assertions that the majority of killings have been committed by vigilantes fed up with the current justice system or rival drug gangs.”
Around 190,000 officers from the Philippines National Police have been President Rodrigo Duterte’s foot soldiers in his war against drugs. They have been tasked with carrying out nationwide drug raids, arrests and to kill in the name of the drug war.
According to police records, since Duterte became president in June, officers have killed 2,555 drug suspects alleged to have resisted arrest.
Another 3,603 people have been killed by masked gunmen and vigilantes. These victims are often abducted, bound and tortured and found dead in public places such as on the sides of roads.
Rogue police is not a new problem for the Philippines.
Duterte swept into office on the back of a promise to clean up the force and both him and police chief General Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa have admitted on several occasions that there is corruption within the police force.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, General Bato acknowledged there was a need to clean up the ranks.
“We are investigating them. Some of them are being persecuted right now. We cannot say that we are already a scallywag-free organisation. There are still others that are trying to do their illegal activities but at least they are aware that we are watching them and we are after them,” he said.
A policeman stands guard near the body of a suspected drug pusher, whom police investigators said was shot and killed by unidentified men. (Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)
In July last year, Duterte publicly accused five police generals - two of whom are retired and three still in active service - of being part of the country's illegal drugs trade. All five denied involvement, but the three active-duty officers were removed from key posts.
None of them have been charged in court.
Duterte has repeatedly promised to support, and even pardon, any police officers accused of unlawful killings.
The Human Rights Watch report laid the blame on Duterte for thousands of drug-related killings.
"Even if not directly involved in any specific operations to summarily execute any specific individual, President Duterte appears to have instigated unlawful acts by the police, incited citizens to commit serious violence, and made himself criminal liable under international law for the unlawful killings as a matter of command responsibility," the report said.
THE LAST STRAW
The tipping point for Duterte came when rogue drugs squad officers kidnapped and killed a South Korean businessman at the police headquarters in October last year and tried to extort a ransom from the businessman's wife.
“This incident shows that this campaign is fraught with flaws and it may be susceptible to abuse … there may be some policemen who take advantage of the campaign and use it for their selfish agendas,” said Jackie de Guia, spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights.
In response to the murder, a furious Duterte sent 287 errant cops to Basilan, one of the most conflict-riddled areas of the Philippines.
“For the erring cops, you have to go hard on them. So that they can feel that you are really serious and they really will be dealt with accordingly,” said PNP Chief dela Rosa.
Although only 53 of the policemen showed up for the deployment to Basilan, experts said that short-term reforms are happening behind the scenes.
Political scientist Professor Ranjit Singh Rye from the University of the Philippines said: “There’s concerted effort to upgrade equipment and accelerate the filing of administration and criminal cases against errant policemen.”
After the death of the South Korean businessman, Duterte gave the police time to purge and clean up their ranks.
Police examine a sachet of illegal drugs found during a drug buy-bust operation in Manila. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)
"We will cleanse our ranks ... then maybe after that, we can resume our war on drugs. The president told us to clean the organisation first," said General dela Rosa.
Duterte appointed the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to lead the war, which he has said will continue until his term ends in 2022.
Duterte’s proposal to involve the military has met with concern and criticism.
“I don’t think it would be a wise idea for the military to be brought into the picture because the military mandate is to protect the sovereignty of the country against external enemies and protect the national security of the country,” said Dr Francisco Magno, director of the Jesse Robredo Institute of Governance.
Duterte has announced he is now allowing a small group of policemen he can trust to continue their work.
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