Up to 30,000 are believed to have died since the president urged police to start killing drug users – now their families want justice
On 11 May 2017, Crisanto Lozano set off early in the morning from his home in Manila. He was going to renew his security guard licence, a requirement for his profession. By afternoon, he still hadn’t returned, nor was he picking up his phone. Then the family realised that Crisanto’s younger brother, Juan Carlos, was also missing.
The next day, they heard news that two bodies had been discovered nearby. The brothers had been shot dead during a police operation.
“If they died with sickness, maybe I can accept with a free feeling in my heart,” says their mother, Llore Pasco. Instead, she says, they were killed by police officers who were operating with brazen impunity under the instruction of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.
After declaring a so-called “war on drugs”, he had repeatedly called for drug addicts, and anyone involved in the drug trade, to be killed. “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself, as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” Duterte said a speech after taking office in 2016.
“Of course the policemen shoot and shoot and shoot,” Pasco says. “Because he ordered kill, kill, kill.”
The ICC prosecutor estimates as many as 30,000 people were killed between July 2016 and March 2019.
For more than four years, Pasco, a massage therapist and now an activist with the alliance Rise Up for Life and for Rights, has fought for accountability, and to bring an end to the killings. Along with six other mothers, she was among the first to publicly submit a petition to the international criminal court (ICC) calling for Duterte’s indictment.
Last month, the ICC confirmed that it would proceed with an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed during Duterte’s war on drugs, stating that it appeared to be a “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population”. The announcement was “probably the best news on the human rights front since the fall of Marcos”, says Carlos Conde, a senior Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch.
For Pasco and other mothers, the ICC statement offered a glimmer of hope. “It is really like half of the sun is shining upon us,” she says.
It was in August 2018 that the mothers, who organise through Rise Up for Life and Rights, which has documented hundreds of drugs-war cases, first submitted their testimonies to the ICC. The group was apprehensive, says Kristina Conti, a lawyer from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), who represents the families. “At that time this was the height of the killings,” she adds. Many other mothers had been unwilling to speak out, fearing that more of their relatives could be targeted.
Lawyers working on drug war cases have also faced severe security risks. Under Duterte’s presidency, 61 lawyers have been killed, including some of Conti’s colleagues. Earlier this year, Angelo Karlo Guillen, also a NUPL lawyer, was stabbed in the head. Fortunately, he survived the attack.
The large number of cases that lawyers work on means it is hard to determine exactly why they have been targeted, Conti says, but many of those killed have been involved in drugs cases. “There is a general fear – it is unsaid really – but to take on the defence of drugs cases is asking for the death sentence. You’re putting a target to your own head.”
Despite the risks, the families resolved to publicly petition the ICC, believing this was the only way to bring an end to the killings. “I think this kind of bravery or tenacity on the part of just a few of the mothers carried over,” Conti says. “Hope is contagious.”
‘Why should we be afraid?’
When the ICC announced an initial inquiry in 2018, Duterte responded by withdrawing from the court, and threatening to arrest the then-prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, if she stepped foot in the country. The withdrawal, however, did not take effect until March 2019, and so the ICC still retains jurisdiction from the start of the Philippines’ membership in 2011 until this point.
Since then, Duterte, who is nearing the end of his six-year term limit, has continued to dismiss the ICC, refusing to cooperate with it and even stating that he wants to slap the judges.
However, he recently abandoned a controversial plan to run as vice-president, which critics said would be a violation of the constitution, and said he would prepare his defence. Many suspect he will be succeeded as president by his daughter Sara Duterte, who could shield him from prosecution. She has denied plans to run and did not file a candidacy last week ahead of Friday’s deadline. Substitutions are allowed until 15 November.
It is believed that only one of the deaths linked to anti-drug operations – the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos – has led to a conviction. Three police were found guilty of murder.
The president is very lucky, Pasco points out, because he has been given a chance to defend himself. Her own children were denied the right to do so.
Pasco was told her sons had been involved in a robbery, and that they were shot because they had tried to fight back against the police. The narrative is grimly familiar to activists and human rights lawyers; the same justification – that victims fought back – is routinely given by Philippine police to defend extra-judicial killings carried out during their operations. According to the ICC, this claim “is consistently undermined by other information” relating to drugs-war killings.
Both Pasco’s sons had, in the past, used drugs, but had since stopped doing so, she said. Crisanto, 34, who was married with four children, was working in another province as a security guard. He would return home once a month, when he received his salary, to see the family. Juan Carlos, 31, was working as a janitor and labourer. He was a sweet son, she says. Whenever he was paid he would try to give some of his wages to her, and, when she refused, he would treat his nieces and nephew instead. He didn’t need to marry, he would tell them, because they were already his family.
When Duterte came to power, both sons responded to official calls for drug users to surrender to their local authorities for rehabilitation. Many other victims of the drugs operations had done the same, believing they would be spared from the police crackdowns. The opposite was true. “They were not being helped, they were being killed,” says deaconess Rubylin Litao, a coordinator for Rise Up for Life and Rights.
Pasco is aware, she adds, that it will be a long fight for justice. “Our opponent, our enemy is not just an ordinary person, it is the head of the state of the Philippines, and also his cronies.”
With Duterte – and potentially his successor, if they are sympathetic to him – refusing members of the ICC access to the Philippines, the work of activists, human rights lawyers and families on the ground, who will need to gather evidence, will become even more important.
Pasco hopes that other mothers will come forwards. “Why should we be afraid? They should be afraid, because we are telling the truth. This is what is really happening here in the Philippines,” Pasco says. Even now, she adds, the killings continue, but less attention is paid to such deaths because of the pandemic.
“We have to show courage, go out and show our testimony so that we can win soon in this struggle.”