Photo by Lucky Dela Rosa/Philippine Collegian
August marks a deadly month of killings in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. Four years ago, on August 16, 2017, a team of cops conducting an anti-drug operation in a poor neighborhood in Caloocan City shot dead 17-year-old senior high school student Kian Delos Santos in a murky and trash-filled alleyway along the Tullahan River.
On August 18, 2017, 19-year-old Carl Angelo Arnaiz went missing along with 14-year-old elementary student Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman. They were last seen in Cainta, Rizal. Arnaiz’s remains were found in a morgue in Caloocan City 10 days later. A police autopsy revealed that Carl was shot five times in the torso and was killed while lying down; two bullets pierced through the right part of the chest, one in the middle, one in the left, and one in the stomach.
De Guzman’s body was found floating in a creek in Nueva Ecija on September 6, 2017—70 kilometers away from his residence in Cainta, Rizal, where he was last seen with Carl. His head was wrapped in packaging tape, and his body bore 31 stab wounds.
The police claimed that Kian was a drug runner and fought back—“nanlaban”—when they approached him, and that they allegedly recovered from the boy a .45-caliber pistol, four cartridges, and two sachets of suspected methamphetamine shabu.
They told a similar story for Carl, whom they claimed staged a robbery and hold-up in a taxi in Caloocan City and fired shots towards police who responded to the taxi driver’s call; they claim to have killed Carl on the spot.
A police report said that they recovered from Carl a .38 caliber pistol, two sachets of marijuana leaves, three sachets of shabu, and a backpack with “assorted personal belongings.”
This “nanlaban” narrative is a story that the police have peddled in hundreds of other anti-drug operations to justify the killings of alleged drug suspects — but these stories are riddled with glaring loopholes and questionable accounts from the police. A clear pattern of recycling and planting of evidence such as guns and illegal drugs to fabricate armed encounters in various anti-drug operations has been established.
Witnesses reported that armed men in plainclothes grabbed Kian from his family’s store and slapped and punched him until he cried and pleaded for his life; security camera footage in the neighborhood showed Kian being dragged to the alleyway where his body was found. The autopsy findings of Carl’s remains contradicted the claims that he engaged in a shootout. It is clear: they were murdered in cold blood.
The killings and abductions of Kian, Carl, and Kulot—which occurred in a span of a few days—and the massive public outrage that followed led to the conviction of three cops for murdering Kian as well as arrest warrants against two policemen for the torture, planting of drug and firearms evidence, and the merciless killings of Carl and Kulot.
However, the killings in this brutal war have only intensified with brazen impunity, where even under the COVID-19 pandemic the onslaught continues. According to data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the death toll in anti-drug operations has reached 6,165 as of June 2021, and thousands more have been summarily executed by unidentified gunmen in vigilante-style killings.
Families of the victims of this war continue to seek justice, even as domestic mechanisms of accountability have proven to be slow, ineffective and essentially unavailable for prosecuting the perpetrators of these killings. As such, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has requested for an investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity committed in the drug war.
President Duterte, however, seems undaunted and even remorseless. In his sixth and most recent State of the Nation Address, President Duterte taunted the ICC and shamelessly reiterated this State policy of mass murder, not only in the drug war but also in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign where he gave marching orders to the police and the military against alleged communist rebels: “shoot them dead.”
Last year, on August 10, 2020, peace advocate and land and environmental defender Randall Echanis was murdered in his residence in Quezon City. An independent autopsy of his remains showed that he was tortured before he was stabbed to death.
Echanis was a long-time consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in the peace negotiations with the Philippine government and a member of the NDFP Reciprocal Working Committee on Socio-Economic Reforms. He was the chairperson of Anakpawis Partylist and the deputy secretary general of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.
On August 17, 2020, as Ka Randy was laid to rest, still-unidentified assailants gunned down human rights worker Zara Alvarez in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. Zara was a paralegal of Karapatan – Negros Island, a single mother, and a health worker. Both Ka Randy and Zara were among the at least 600 names listed in the Department of Justice’s petition to proscribe the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army as “terrorists” in 2018. This was under the now-repealed Human Security Act, while their killings came mere months after an even more insidious Anti-Terrorism Act was enacted into law.
While Ka Randy’s and Zara’s names were eventually removed from the 2018 proscription petition, this blatant act of red-tagging had already placed targets on their backs, a manifestation of the perilous and often deadly consequences of red-tagging. Mary Lawlor, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, noted red-tagging as a context-specific death threat against human rights defenders in her 2020 report, such that, “in the Philippines, being ‘tagged’ as ‘red’, or communist, is a serious threat to defenders, and that some defenders who have been so tagged have been murdered.”
More than 400 have been extrajudicially killed in line with the government’s counterinsurgency campaign from July 2016 to June 2021. Many of them are activists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, peace advocates, peasant and indigenous leaders, environmentalists, church workers, lawyers, journalists—most of them were red-tagged and publicly vilified as “communist terrorists” before they were murdered in cold blood, either by unidentified assailants or in police and military operations, where they also supposedly “fought back,” echoing the “nanlaban” narrative in the drug war.
As August has come to be marked as a month of killings in the Philippines, under the Duterte administration — an administration whose legacy is widespread killings, suffering families left behind, and state terror, we choose to mark August as a month of remembering and reckoning: a month of taking action and demanding justice. This State policy of mass murder must end.
In remembering Kian, Carl, Kulot, Ka Randy, and Zara, we remember the thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings. We stand in solidarity with their families and seek accountability. In demanding justice, we ring our call to stop the killings in the Philippines and to end all the bloody campaigns and policies that have facilitated these murders.
We call on international bodies, such as the ICC and the UN Human Rights Council, to conduct impartial and independent investigations into the human rights crisis in the country and to prosecute President Duterte and his allies for their cruel crimes against the Filipino people.
We must not lose another Kian, Carl, Kulot, Ka Randy, or Zara to the Duterte administration’s murderous campaigns. We must oppose the rampant violations of people’s rights and civil liberties. We must act now. ###
View the list of signatories here: