Killers Still At Large: The Myth of Law and Order
DEVELOPMENTS IN President Duterte’s war on drugs have raised issues which have been largely ignored by the administration and consequently, hardly touched in the news.
The scandal which exposed the involvement of ranking police officers of the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group (AIDG) in the kidnap-slay case of Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo shook up the PNP, as President Duterte quickly abolished the AIDG on January 30, assigning the implementation of his war on drugs to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). PNP Chief Dir. Gen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa announced the suspension of all anti-illegal drug operations carried out by the police, adding that he would focus on an “internal cleansing” of the PNP. (See Monitor)
In a press release last December 20, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) cited a PNP report saying that index crime rate had dropped by 31.67 percent during the months of July to November 2016, as compared to the same period in 2015. According to Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, “The Philippines is now safer from theft, carnapping, robbery, physical injury, and rape.” But the statement was silent on the surge in the incidence of murders since Duterte became president.
Citizen Safety: Rising Murder Rate
Media organizations such as the Inquirer, ABS-CBN and GMA pointed out that with the decrease of 31.67 percent in the overall crime rate, the number of murders had soared by 51.14 percent. The police admitted that this rise was caused by the government’s crackdown on drugs.
The suspension of police anti-drug operations saw a zero-casualty count during a 24 hour period. Given the high death toll reported on a daily basis, the media described the night of January 30 as “quiet.” Former PNP chief and now Senator Panfilo Lacson called this a “commendable coincidence,” noting that even vigilantes seemed to follow the order. Dela Rosa said this proved that people outside of law enforcement are taking advantage of the government’s anti-drug campaign to do their killings.
But the quiet period was short-lived. Based on online reports and tallies of The Inquirer and ABS-CBN Online, the 15 days which followed the suspension order recorded 63 drug-related deaths, 61 of which were attributed to unidentified perpetrators, and two to PDEA, which had taken over from the PNP-AIDG. The number is only 4 counts short of the 65 vigilante killings that were recorded from January 15 to 29 before the suspension order.
Control over Criminal Syndicates or Vigilantes
With very little difference in the two figures, it appears that the murder committed by unknown assailants continued at the same pace as before the suspension. It strongly suggests that the Duterte administration is unable to control the activities of so-called vigilantes or syndicates, all presumed to be involved in the drug trade and the same groups blamed by the PNP for the greater number of killings.
The PNP should be held accountable for its incapacity to stop the murderous activities of the so-called vigilantes et al or it should be investigated for being linked to the same groups. The president himself had said that his drug policy will provoke the criminal syndicates to fight amongst themselves.
Unlike the killings in police operations, vigilantes or syndicates do not bother with the excuse used by the police, “nanlaban” or resisting arrest – a justification to counter the charge against the police for extrajudicial killings or EJKs of suspects.
On either level, the war on drugs has created a state of lawlessness, within and outside of the government’s own law enforcement agencies, rendering all claims of greater law and order a dubious and farcical claim, an observation that media was not inclined to make.
In Cahoots with Criminals
Media resorted to quotes and statements made by other public figures who discerned the strong possibility of links between unidentified killers and the PNP. Albay Representative Edcel Lagman and Senator Leila de Lima reportedly said that the overnight hiatus on Oplan Tokhang only substantiated the claim that the “vigilante” killings were orchestrated by men in uniform, or assassins at the behest of the police.
This echoes the findings of Amnesty International’s (AI) report “If You are Poor, You are Killed,” which documented testimonies of, among others, witnesses to extrajudicial killings, relatives of the drug war victims, police and hired killers. Victims were either killed by the police in cold blood, or gunned down despite their intent to surrender.
AI also found “strong evidence of links between state authorities and armed persons who carry out drug-related killings.” According to AI, “The Duterte administration’s relentless pressure on the police to deliver results in anti-drug operations has helped encourage abusive practices.” Some police officers claimed that they received financial incentives for each kill.They also said that some members of the force sometimes disguise themselves as unknown armed persons.
While AI has established a global reputation for the independence and validity of its research, the government has tended to dismiss its report along with the findings of other groups such as the Human Rights Watch.
Truth Beyond Dismissal
The rising casualty count which the government has attributed to non-PNP entities points to the urgency of an independent investigation of these cases. Credible international groups have asserted the existence of links between police and “vigilantes.” The police cannot dismiss the case evidence of police officers’ outsourcing the execution of drug personalities identified through their Tokhang operations. If it persists in denying the assertion, or in claiming it is investigating the charge through the PNP Internal Affairs, then it must provide the public with its findings soon enough.
Reports so far have not followed up on the progress of the police in getting leads to the DUIs or “deaths under investigation.” As media reports go, few news organizations have undertaken their own investigations into these cases, allowing the police to dismiss the issue of accountability of the agency or its officers.
Since the beginning of the drug war, the only police suspects who have been identified and arrested were those accused in the kidnap-murder of Jee Ick Joo and the killing of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa.
On February 9, with the suspension of Tokhang in full effect, Dela Rosa held a press conference to present to the media three members of the civilian volunteer organization Confederate Sentinel Group (CSG ) — which the police claim has turned vigilante. Interestingly enough, this peacekeeping group which was not authorized to bear firearms had been accredited in the past by the community relations arm of the Manila Police District.
For Dela Rosa, this was sufficient proof of the innocence of the police on the charge of “extrajudicial killings,” — because these suspects confessed their crimes. He said this without media pointing out his failure of logic.
Dela Rosa said that the CSG has more than 200 members, but the media did not ask whether there were other suspects and what the police planned to do about those still at large. And what about the huge number of killings, which the police said were done by unidentified assailants?
The government has made much of the police purge and the “cleansing” of the ranks. But even these efforts have not been completely free of confusion (See Monitor). At this point, police efforts have not assured an increasingly critical public of “clean” or competent hands in addressing through investigation the activities of other criminal groups.
The PNP has to account for the killings in line with Tokhang operations to show that the victims were slain because the person had posed a threat to the police. To this day, the PNP complains about the number of police victims, which so far has been a small number compared to casualties.
The attribution of the far larger number of drug-related killings to unidentified assailants begs to be investigated. Given these developments, one wonders whether the PNP Internal Affairs Service could undertake a credible review.
Meanwhile the press in the Philippines needs to step up its efforts to get at the truth themselves, explore other case leads or check out the findings of the international groups. Clearly, Filipino journalists who have reported at length on the “night shift” can attest to the veracity of these reports.
Uncritical reports only enable the administration to make false claims, perpetuating propaganda. To simply repeat what officials say, to air their speeches and record their statements without question or resistance would be a travesty of the freedom the Philippine press still holds.
NOTE: As of March 6, the PNP has relaunched its war on drugs campaign and dubbed it “Oplan Double Barrel Alpha Reloaded.”