“They are executioners”: Justice is elusive in the fog of the Philippines’ drug war

Irenea Fernando, mother of Orlando Bernardo, looks over her son’s casket.
Irenea Fernando, mother of Orlando Bernardo, looks over her son’s casket.
Image: Eloisa Lopez
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The circumstances surrounding Orlando Bernardo’s death are murky. According to relatives, he went missing on Jan. 26 and was found dead by the side of a road in a slum north of Manila the next day. His killers had wrapped barbed wire around his neck and shot him in the head.

A week later, sitting in a wooden shack next to Bernardo’s casket at his wake in Navotas City, north of Manila, his wife Maria (not her real name) did not have any clues or leads.

“There are no raids here,” she said. “People just start going missing. Most of the time, it’s like that. They don’t know if it’s the police or what, because they are in civilian [clothes]. But what they know for sure is they are executioners.”

She started sobbing when she thought about the horrific way he died. “It’s brutal what they did to my husband. They strangled him. Wasn’t it enough that they killed him, why did they have to strangle him? They made him suffer,” she said.

Some 2,500 people have been killed in official police operations since president Rodrigo Duterte launched an anti-drug crackdown here about seven months ago. But Bernardo, 30, was one of more than 4,000 additional deaths attributed, but not officially linked, to the war on drugs—deaths often shrouded in mystery and lacking a clear connection to the police.

Call it the fog of the Philippine drug war. The dearth of information has left families with more questions than answers and made seeking justice all the more difficult. The financial situation and lack of resources of most victims discourage them from pursuing a case. Another factor: fear that assailants will punish them for speaking out.

“Many of them are poor, and many of them are afraid,” said Nardy Sabino, who works for Rise Up for Life and Rights, a group assisting those interested in pursuing legal action. For the few who have dared to consider the option, they have a long road ahead.

In official operations, or “encounters” as they are called here, police have cited self-defense as a reason to open fire, even though the claims are often disputed. In vigilante killings or disappearances, there is no one to point the finger at. “Legally, that would be problematic, because to file a case you need a clear suspect,” said Kristina Conti, the secretary general for the capital region of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL). “Because you just can’t file a case against John Does and expect them to proceed.”

Though links between police and vigilante hit squads are widely suspected, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they exist as part of a systematic, murderous campaign requires thorough investigation. A damning Amnesty International report published last month attempted to do just that. It claimed police paid vigilantes per kill and created an “economy of murder,” in the words of Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s Crisis Response director. The findings were, unsurprisingly, rejected by local and national law enforcement.

“There is no truth to that incident,” said Dante Novicio, the police chief in Navotas, though he said authorities do have money for informants and other assets. The presidential palace, however, said the allegations would be “looked into” as part of an overall internal purge following the death of a South Korean businessman in October, allegedly at the hands of police.

Novicio said that over the past seven months, 50 people were killed in his jurisdiction as part of legitimate police operations. Of those, he has only dealt with one official investigation into police action, which is still pending. Over the same time period, he said, 52 separate murders occurred. Though outside of legitimate operations, the majority of those victims were found with drugs or drug paraphernalia, complicating the picture. Some of them were even left with placards labeling them drug pushers, or had their hands tied behind their back, suggesting an execution-style murder. Novicio said he suspects some deaths could be no more than business rivalries or other drug-related disputes.

“We have a suspicion that the drug personalities are also the ones killing their cohorts for them not to be reported by their comrade,” he said. “Incidents such as those where the suspects are seen in facemasks, of course it has been hard for us to identify suspects,” he added. Novicio said that vigilante murders attributed to police are the result of a “bias.”

“There is a mindset for the local people that it is the police that killed the people,” he said.

To date, legal cases pushed by victims have been virtually nonexistent, but that is starting to change. In collaboration with Rise Up, Conti’s organization, the NUPL, is looking into cases that have clear connections to the police. “This is to bring some sort of accountability to law enforcement agencies,” she said. The groups gathered over a recent weekend with the families of victims to share experiences and workshop ideas on how to move forward.

Bernardo’s death may take longer to solve. According to Maria, he was found with a few sachets of “shabu,” a cheap form of methamphetamine, one lighter, and drug paraphernalia. His family believes the death was connected to the anti-drug crackdown because he had been a user and had surrendered to police last year. He was released but starting using again. They have three kids but had been estranged for months because of his habit. She had been living somewhere else.

“The first time we were together, he had already stopped using. But when we had a child, he used again. And everything else followed, until he was asked by friends to buy for them,” she said, adding that she asked him to stop. “He said he would, but he did it again. That’s why we lived separately. I asked him to change first so he doesn’t get into trouble like this.”

She held out hope.

“He just kept saying that he would change, that’s why I didn’t entertain [thoughts of] anyone else, because I was waiting for him,” she said.

Before Bernardo was killed, a fellow user was murdered, Maria said. Other addicts in the neighborhood fled.

Asked what she knew about the perpetrators, she said, “I really don’t know.”