Under-reported and continuing: A pattern of police violence against quarantine violators

IN OCTOBER 2021 alone, media reported several cases of extortion and rape involving the police when dealing with persons supposedly in violation of curfew and other quarantine restrictions. But the pervasive and persistent violence of the state against citizens remains underreported in the media.

The cases of policemen Jonel Nuezca and Hensie Zinampan are still fresh in the public mind. Nuezca killed a neighbor in Tarlac last December while Zinampan did the same in Valenzuela City last May. In both incidents, bystanders recorded the attacks in their mobile cameras and the videos went viral on social media, then gaining the attention of mainstream news outfits. But other similar atrocities on record in 2021 received only scant attention. 

CMFR previously noted 20 killings by state agents from January to June 2021. The record in the months that followed has remained just as grim: extortion, sexual abuse, and murder. 

CMFR’s latest ‘In Context’ provided background on the killing of activists, farmers, and urban poor. Unfortunately, these have continued. Hours before President Duterte’s last State of the Nation Address on July 26, two activists were shot dead by the police in Albay province for spray painting a message calling for Duterte’s ouster and for allegedly resisting arrest (“nanlaban,” as police claim in Filipino). Months after, September 16, another policeman shot dead a delivery driver with his service firearm in Tondo, Manila.

CMFR reviewed the reports in media and also found an alarming pattern of police violence that has taken advantage of pandemic restrictions to target alleged quarantine violators including women.

The Record from August to October: No longer isolated cases

CMFR found five cases of police abuses within a three-month period, all against violators of quarantine restrictions. The cases were reported by media as isolated incidents rather than parts of a pattern. 

  • August 7: Barangay tanod (civilian village patrol) Cesar Panlaqui shot dead a 59-year-old curfew violator with a mental illness in Tondo, Manila. 
  • August 27: Patrolman Elmer Tuazon Jr. and civilian Armando Dimaculangan molested a 19-year-old female quarantine violator in Bataan.  
  • September 22: Barangay tanod “Dexter” along with six other barangay tanod made four minors walk naked as “punishment” for violating restrictions and bathing in a river in Cavite.
  • October 8: Police Staff Sergeant Robin Mangaga sexually abused a female motorbike rider before allowing her to go beyond a checkpoint. 
  • October 14: A patrolman, a police staff sergeant, and police corporal, demanded PHP 50,000 from three curfew violators for their release. They were Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Mejia, Cpl. Jigie Azores, Cpl. Johndee Toledo, Cpl. Kevin John Villanueva, Pat. Danny Rangaig, and Pat. Kenneth Cordova.

Duterte’s order

Unfortunately, the record includes many more that date back to the first months of the pandemic in 2020. Media reported local officials’ locking up youngsters inside a dog cage, officials forcing curfew violators to sit in the intense midday sun after their arrest, cops abusing prostituted women in exchange of passes, and one violator dying after being forced to do 300 rounds of exercise as punishment this year. 

As of August, this year, Philippine National Police Chief Guillermo Eleazar said that an average of 13,000 violators were being apprehended daily. Citing violators without discussion of the difficulties imposed by lockdown tends to justify police abuse. Earlier in April, however, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he had recommended that those caught violating quarantine restrictions be subjected to community service only and not to arrest and detention. Officially, this is supposed to be the policy since last year. But the police rank and file do not seem to be aware of it. 

That leniency has not been adopted as policy is not surprising. President Duterte as Chief Executive has not rescinded his ‘kill, kill, kill’ strategy. “My orders are sa pulis pati military, pati mga barangay, na pagka ginulo at nagkaroon ng okasyon na lumaban at ang buhay ninyo ay nalagay sa alanganin, shoot them dead! Tingnan natin. Patay. Eh kaysa manggulo kayo diyan, eh libing ko na kayo,” President Duterte said in an impromptu TV address. 

(My orders to the police and military, and to local officials, if they cause a ruckus and if they fight back and your lives are at stake, shoot them dead! Let’s see. Dead. Instead of causing disturbance, I will bury you.)

Justice denied

Media reported on October 14 that the Philippines under Duterte is now ranked at 102 out of 139 countries in terms of failure to observe the rule of law, according to the 2021 World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index. The country’s rankings have fallen 51 places in six years since the strongman took over.

Erring cops have also been allowed to roam free. The Quezon City Regional Trial Court (QC RTC) has acquitted 19 police officers of homicide charges over the death of Albuera town mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. and a fellow inmate. This acquittal encourages more abuses by police as the courts often decide in favor of the policemen accused. 

In the face of all this, the Palace has insisted that the Philippines does not need the International Criminal Court (ICC). “We have a justice system which is robust, functional and very effective,” Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said in a Palace briefing.

Drops in a blood bucket

The mindless imposition of lockdowns has bled the entire nation dry. Those with the means were able to make the necessary adjustments. Most of the poor were left without assistance. There was little planning with no funds to support those who rely on day jobs. Instead, curfews and militaristic rule have been the go-to strategy of the Palace. 

The inadequacy of the government’s response is now a matter of record, established with evidence by various international agencies. The Duterte government employed the longest lockdown globally without consideration for the poor who could not be expected to stay in their already crowded shanties indefinitely. 

Having so gravely failed the people the government is sworn to serve, government remains focused on restrictions. These restrictions should be reviewed, with the end in view of adopting more humane treatment of violators. Media’s duty is to report on these cases so as to remind everyone what cruelties abound when government rules without a heart. 

Duterte’s disregard for basic human rights is the policy that has emboldened the police and military to distort the law and get away with their own offenses. Overwhelmed by the pandemic conditions and the government’s efforts to limit their access to information, media have not been able to follow up on cases or to investigate as many to discern the overall pattern. The effect is to push these cases of abuse of police power out of the public mind. 

The cases cited during this period have not been as widely reported as the cases of Zinampan and Nuezca. But these represent the continuing severity of human rights violations under this regime. 

The media need to keep these abuses in the news agenda. The attention generated by journalists’ verified accounts will help check the excesses of uniformed agents and police institutions which are assigned to protect citizens. A more humane approach can cure the impulse to punish those who are already suffering from government negligence.