A late-night raid in the southern Philippines resulted in the deaths of 15 people, including the mayor of Ozamiz City. This mayor is the latest high-profile casualty of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
Duterte declared open season on drug users and drug dealers after his election last year. There have been over 7,000 deaths as a result at last count. Duterte even went as far as to publish a list of more than 150 government officials he accused of having ties to the drug trade. Ozamis Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog Sr., and his daughter, Vice Mayor Nova Echaves, were on that list.
The police raided the mayor’s house overnight to search for unlicensed guns, which resulted in a firefight between officers and bodyguards. Parojinog, his wife and two of his siblings are now dead, and Echaves is under arrest. Ozamiz police chief Jovie Espenido described the mayor as a “high-value target on illegal drugs” and said that the police seized assault rifles, cash and suspected drugs during the raid.
“We enforce the law to protect the people who want peace in this country,” he said. “How can we enforce the law if we’re scared of the drug lords? That cannot be, they should be afraid of people who do good for all.”
But there is some controversy over whether the police were indeed “doing good for all.” According to local authorities, officers were attempting to serve an arrest warrant when they were “met with a volley of fire” from security guards at Parojinog’s compound. However, Echaves, who was flown to Manila under police escort, denies these allegations and accuses the police of planting drugs at the scene. Philippines Senator Francis Pangilinan echoed the sentiment, calling the police’s version of events “unrealistic,” questioning why they would be serving an arrest warrant at 2:30 AM and why the CCTV cameras in and around the residence were disabled.
Parojinog is the third such official in less than a year to die in a shootout with police after Duterte’s accusations. Samsudin Dimaukom, mayor of the southern town of Saudi Ampatuan, was gunned down alongside his nine bodyguards at a police checkpoint. According to police, they had received information that Dimaukom’s group was planning to transport a huge amount of methamphetamine from Davao city and set up their checkpoint. They claim Dimaukom and his security personnel opened fire when they were stopped.
Another, Rolando Espinosa Sr, was killed in his jail cell, when police said they had entered on suspicion that he was continuing to direct drug operations from jail. The police claim Espinosa had pulled a gun on the officers. 19 policemen were arrested and charged in connection with Espinosa’s death, alongside several others involved in Dimaukom’s killing, but only charged with homicide by the Justice Department instead of the recommended murder charge. Critics have noted that the Justice Department is led by a fraternity brother of Duterte. Homicide is a lesser, bailable offense, and in early July the officers were released and allowed to return to duty at the request of Duterte himself. This was despite the country’s National Bureau of Investigation declaring the killing a “rubout” that could be part of a much larger conspiracy. Espinosa had been mayor of the town of Albuera in Leyte province, whose police commander was Jovie Espenido. A month after Espinosa’s death, Espenido was reassigned from Albuera to Ozamiz City.
It’s disconcerting that someone can so blatantly be linked to two separate high-profile deaths. Sure, coincidences happen every day, but I find this one hard to write off as just the stars aligning. Human Rights Watch has already debunked government claims of the lawful nature of those 7,000+ deaths. Multiple interviews with witnesses and victims’ relatives, and the analysis of police records, show a pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint legality over extrajudicial executions. European Union lawmakers have even expressed their concerns following a visit to the region last week.
“The delegation in frank and constructive discussions expressed its concern about the high number of extrajudicial killings in the context of the war against drugs and the possible extension of martial law,” an EU statement read. Duterte declared 60-day martial law in the Mindanao region to combat pro-Islamic State militants who are occupying and controlling the city of Marawi. He has since called on Congress to allow him to extend martial law there till the end of the year.
With Duterte repeatedly assuring police officers engaged in his drug war that they will not face accountability for their actions, one can only presume the worst at this point. Duterte has gone so far as to promise pardons for officers if they face prosecution for killing people, meaning police will continue to kill with impunity for the foreseeable future.
Despite this, NPR reports that “Duterte is actually more popular now than when he was elected.”
“I don’t even consider them extrajudicial killings,” one student in the Philippines said. “For me, if you’re a drug user, a drug seller, you’re a sickness in society. You need to disappear.” But on the other hand, there is no accountability. One woman told NPR reporters that her son was shot by police because he was a witness to a street execution.
“It’s useless to protest to police because they invent stories,” she said. “So we did not try to complain.”
And it’s not just the accountability of the police that’s in question. Duterte has become ruthless in his singular focus. Senator Leila de Lima, former head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights and an outspoken critic of extrajudicial killings, is currently in jail. Duterte accused her of taking money from a jailed drug lord. De Lima denies the charges, describing them as retaliation from Duterte after she launched an investigation into police tactics in his war on drugs.
Even more disturbing, the alleged list of ‘narco politicians’ Duterte shared has unknown sources. Officials in his government say that the president has his own sources. General Ronald dela Rosa, the chief of the Philippines National Police, said that if officials were put on the list in error, they had nothing to fear, but that if they were confirmed to be involved in drugs, “then they can prepare themselves.”
As someone who believes in the right to a fair trial, all this news coming from the Philippines horrifies me. And isn’t it just so bloody convenient that those opposed to Duterte’s violent and hasty methods are being jailed and now dying? If that doesn’t raise a red flag, I don’t know what to tell you.
“I have resolved that no matter how long it takes, the fight against illegal drugs will continue because it is the root of suffering,” Duterte said in an address to Congress. He claimed that those involved in drug trafficking would face “either jail or hell.”
Unfortunately, it sounds like trying to survive Duterte’s drug war is already hell.