Years Later, Philippines Reckons With Duterte’s Brutal Drug War

When Rodrigo Duterte was running for president eight years ago, he vowed to order the police and the military to find drug users and traffickers to kill them, promising immunity for such killings. In the months after, police officers and vigilantes mercilessly gunned down tens of thousands of people in summary executions.

Even now, two years after Mr. Duterte left office, there has been little legal reckoning with the wave of killings: Only eight police officers have been given prison sentences, in connection with just four cases, with one verdict that came this month. And though rights groups say that there have been fewer such killings since Mr. Duterte left, and far fewer involving agents of the government, a culture of violence and impunity has maintained a troubling hold in the Philippines.

In recent months, the legacy of Mr. Duterte’s so-called war on drugs has slowly begun to get more official attention. Lawmakers are holding several public hearings into the violence. Senior police officers spoke at the congressional hearing, as did victims’ relatives, who relived their horrors and again pleaded for justice.

When Mr. Duterte left office, his administration said 6,252 people had been killed by security forces — all described by officials as “drug suspects.” Rights groups say the overall death toll stands at roughly 30,000.

Mr. Duterte is unlikely to face any consequences from the congressional hearings; this week he was asked to testify before the panel but through a spokesman declined to do so, invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination. That has left many looking overseas, to the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the drug war and is expected to be nearing some action against Mr. Duterte.

Reymie Bayunon’s 7-year-old son, Jefferson, was fatally shot in the city of Caloocan in April 2019 after, Ms. Bayunon said, he witnessed a killing in their neighborhood. She sued the police but said she skipped the court hearings after being threatened by a group of officers.

Ms. Bayunon has a simple message for the Philippine authorities: “I call on you to cooperate with the I.C.C. because this is the only chance we have to attain justice,” she said.

While Mr. Duterte has taken full responsibility for the drug war, he has maintained that he would never be tried in an international court. He has said that there are three million drug addicts in the Philippines, adding: “I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Six years ago, he ordered the withdrawal of the Philippines from the I.C.C., which declined to comment on its inquiry into Mr. Duterte. It is unclear whether the Philippines government would force Mr. Duterte to surrender if he faced an I.C.C. warrant. The court cannot try defendants in absentia.

Mr. Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., has seemed at times to backtrack from an earlier pledge of shielding him from an international inquiry. In December, Mr. Marcos’s government allowed I.C.C. officials investigating Mr. Duterte to enter the Philippines to pursue their work, according to an official familiar with the proceedings.

Among the cases the I.C.C. is expected to be following is another complaint against the police in Caloocan, north of Manila. Less than three months after Mr. Duterte was inaugurated in 2016, a group of policemen barged into Mary Ann Domingo’s tiny apartment and ushered most of the family out.

The last time she saw her partner, Luis Bonifacio, alive, he was kneeling on the floor with his arms raised. Her son Gabriel, 19, stayed inside to plead for his father’s life and was also shot dead. Later, Ms. Domingo saw their bodies at the hospital.

Since 2017, she has pursued a complaint against the officers with the national ombudsman.

On June 18, a judge ruled that the four police officers who participated in the operation were guilty of homicide.

The court noted the findings of a forensic pathologist, Dr. Raquel Fortun, who had examined the remains of the Bonifacios and told the court that she had found multiple gunshot wounds.

When the verdict was read, Ms. Domingo wept on the shoulder of one of her sons. Standing beside her were the four officers, who looked down at the floor.

“I am thankful to the judge because finally I feel there can be justice,” Ms. Domingo said after the ruling. But she added: “The I.C.C. is still needed because we need justice for every victim of the drug war.”

In the backdrop are tensions between Mr. Duterte and Mr. Marcos. The current president rose to power after making an alliance with Mr. Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte. But in the months since, things have changed. This month, Ms. Duterte resigned from her post as education secretary in Mr. Marcos’s cabinet. Mr. Marcos and his allies, the Dutertes contend without evidence, want the president to extend his grip on power by amending the Constitution. The two men have traded barbs about the other using drugs.

Mr. Duterte burnished his law-and-order credentials as the mayor of Davao, a city in the south where hundreds are thought to have been killed by gunmen linked to the authorities, acts that the I.C.C. is also investigating.

Within days of Mr. Duterte’s becoming president, people like Vincent Go, a freelance news photographer, detected a change. Mr. Go, who worked nights in the Manila region, was getting notified of 10 to 20 crime scenes a night, an astronomical increase in violence. Mr. Go kept seeing the same kind of settings: dead-end alleys, often with no security cameras or witnesses. Rusty guns were frequently left next to the bodies.

The government’s narrative for such cases was almost always the same: Facing arrest, suspected drug users fought back, and officers had to shoot in self-defense.

Mr. Go ended up documenting more than 900 crime scenes during Mr. Duterte’s presidency. He shared photographs of corpses with handcuff marks and others with multiple gunshot wounds. Pointing to one, he said, “He was shot five times in the head.”

“How does somebody who fights back get shot five times in the head?” Mr. Go said.

Dr. Fortun has examined 109 bodies exhumed at the behest of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Flaviano Villanueva, and victims’ families. She said she had repeatedly seen multiple shots in the head and the torso.

“In other words, they were shot to be killed,” said Dr. Fortun, the only pathologist in the Philippines who has examined the remains of those killed during the drug war.

Tens of thousands were arrested on drug charges during Mr. Duterte’s campaign. He had promised to go after kingpins and other high-level dealers. But among the dead, rights group say, were many poor and working-class men and boys.

The Duterte camp has reiterated that the I.C.C. lacks jurisdiction in the Philippines because the prosecutor conducted its investigation only after Mr. Duterte, in 2019, withdrew his country from the treaty that established the court. Mr. Marcos’s views are unclear: In November, he said that he was considering rejoining the court, but in March, he reiterated that the I.C.C. had no jurisdiction over his country.

“The remedy for alleged victims is to file their complaints before Philippine courts,” said Mr. Duterte’s former spokesman, Harry Roque.

On a recent Thursday, Dr. Fortun was trying to piece together what could have happened to Jay-Ar Jumola, a 21-year-old construction worker killed by unidentified men in an alleyway in the city of Navotas in June 2019.

Pointing to a hole in Mr. Jumola’s skull, she said: “That is suspicious of an entrance wound. Another thing that catches my eye is this staining, the green stain of the inner surface of the skull. It suggests oxidation from something metallic.”

Mr. Go, the photographer, covered Mr. Jumola’s death and tracked down a witness, who told him that Mr. Jumola was on his knees when he was shot.

“He saw the blood gushing out, and how Jay-Ar was begging for his life,” Mr. Go said. “And the police didn’t care and just shot him.”

Two of Mr. Jumola’s half brothers met a similar fate. In February 2017, Anthony Ocdin, 23, was also killed by unidentified men in Navotas. He was found with masking tape around his head and a sign on his body that said, “Don’t imitate me, I’m a drug pusher.” Nearly five years later, Angelo Ocdin, 28, was shot in the back by four men in Manila’s Tondo district.

Ms. Jumola said she now fears for her surviving children.

Referring to Mr. Duterte, she said, “We want him to be jailed because he ordered the killings of innocent people.”

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.

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