Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 8) — The Duterte administration's bloody war on drugs has shifted to Central Luzon, where over 500 alleged drug suspects were killed by the police during the third year of the anti-drug campaign, an international human rights group reported.
Amnesty International on Monday said the police carried out unlawful and deliberate killing of alleged suspects in the pretense of a buy-bust operation in Bulacan, located over an hour north of the country's capital Manila. The group said 542 were killed in legitimate anti-drug operations in Central Luzon — most incidents occurring in Bulacan — in 2018. However, Amnesty cannot validate the data reported by media because the government, it said, is "obfuscating the data" to misinform the public.
"Bulacan is now the epicenter of extrajudicial killings, which is now called the country's bloodiest killing field," Amnesty International Philippines Section Director Butch Olano said in a media briefing.
Amnesty International released its 2019 report on the Philippines' war on drugs on Monday, looking into 27 incidents of drug-related killings.
It said the numbers climbed when several police commanders who orchestrated the drug war in Metro Manila cities were transferred to Bulacan in the past 18 months. Amnesty International named PCol. Chito Bersaluna as one of the reasons for the spike. Bersaluna was named Batangas provincial police director in June 2018 after he was sacked as Caloocan City top cop when 17-year-old Kian delos Santos was killed in an anti-illegal drugs operation.
"It also so happens that the police officials — the police chief of Caloocan and 13 officials in Manila — were even promoted when they were transferred to Bulacan. For which there was a spike in the number of EJKs,” Olano said.
Bersaluna, in a message to reporters, defended the actions of his policemen.
"Nagtratrabaho lang po ang mga pulis natin at itinataya din namin ang aming buhay at career para sa lahat ng ating mga kababayan. Base sa aming talaan mas higit na madami po tayo nahuli na matiwasay na sumuko tuwing meron arestuhin at sa mga operation," he said.
[Translation: Our policemen are just working and we are risking our lives and careers for our fellowmen. Based on our records, there are more suspects who surrendered or were arrested in operations.]
The Bulacan top cop also asserted the police respected the rights of the suspects they apprehend in anti-illegal drug operations.
"Kung meron man din na kalabisan na ginawa o pagkakamaling nagawa ang ating kapulisan ay hindi po natin kukonsintihin iyun, dapat sila ay imbestigahan at kung mapatunayan ay maparusahan," he said.
[Translation: If there are excesses or mistakes committed by policemen, we won't tolerate it. They should be investigated into and if proven guilty, punished.]
In the Amnesty International report, the group found that in 20 out of 27 drug-related incidents in Bulacan, police justified the killing by claiming the suspect fought back or “nanlaban.”
“This so-called ‘buy-bust’ narrative doesn’t meet the feeblest standards of credibility. As a forensic expert put it to Amnesty International, this justification ‘is so consistent, it’s a script,’” the report read.
Olano added that aside from the controversial cops’ transfer to Bulacan, the location of the province could also be a factor why the drug war deaths continue to climb in the area.
“In Bulacan, there are places where you can kill people without being seen as compared to Manila. Then they are probably more free to operate without being caught. Bodies are being thrown in the rice fields or highways, something that’s more difficult to do here,” Olano said.
The Amnesty International official said that the poor are still the target of the police in their unrelenting war against illegal drugs. Olano said that the main difference between now as compared to when they first released a report on the country’s drug war in 2017 is that the crimes are “largely undocumented now.”
“The result of which is it has normalized EJKs. It has normalized the abuse of police and rule of law. It has normalized the situation where it is the poor are always the victims of the war on drugs,” he said.
The extrajudicial killings have been part of the President’s war against illegal drugs, which local and international rights groups believe to have killed more than 20,000 people — contrary to government data which reports the death toll to be around 6,600. The data is continuously being contested upon, but Amnesty International said one drug war death is more than enough.
“The numbers really don't matter anymore. What is important is enough have been killed. Not one more should be killed. Not one more Myca should be killed,” he said.
Three-year-old Myca Ulpina is one of the recent casualties in Duterte’s drug war. The toddler was killed in June in Rizal Province. The police maintained she was used by her father as a human shield during what police claimed a buy-bust operation, something Myca’s mother disputed.
“You can see how extravagant the explanation is. This is not a Hollywood movie. There is no precedent for that scenario,” AI Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia Nicholas Bequelin.
The human rights group listed down 20 recommendations, the main one calling on Duterte to put an end to the drug war. But they said they are not banking on the President’s action, based on his pronouncements and inaction. They are, instead, calling on the international community to step in. They urged the International Criminal Court to expedite the probe into the anti-illegal narcotics campaign. Amnesty International also called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to immediately initiate an independent, impartial and effective investigation into human rights violations in the context of the “war on drugs,” including into the commission of crimes under international law.
The Palace, meanwhile, dismissed Amnesty International’s report, calling it “biased” and “prejudiced.”