CALAMBA CITY — When Ace delos Santos was killed in an alleged buy-bust operation, his family was aghast. “Hindi namin alam na yung napapanood namin sa TV mangyayari sa amin,” says Gemma, Ace’s cousin. “Akala ko pag pulis ka, sumusunod ka lang sa batas.”
Media reports said Ace was a member of a notorious robbery gang operating in this city, but the police report only said Ace was in the drug watchlist. Ace, 21, was a jeepney barker. He only finished high school but the family is middle class; some of his relatives manage a security agency.
He was living with his mother but had moved out a few weeks ago before the killing, and would shuttle between houses. When they learned of the killings, the family did not know one of the victims was Ace, until Ace’s friends informed them.
The police narrative was the same one that had been repeatedly used in thousands of cases in the “drug war” across the Philippines: the police was conducting a buy-bust operation when Ace, sensing that he was dealing with the police, took out a gun and shot at the police officers, prompting them to fire back. Ace and another man, Bernie Orcine, were killed.
The police report appeared to be pro-forma: while it named two suspects, Bernie Orcine and Ace delos Santos, both of whom died during the police operation, the narrative consistently used the singular pronoun.
“Personnel of PIB/PDEU LAG PPO with Calamba CPS conducted BUY BUST operation for violation of RA 9165 which resulted to an armed encounter between the above named suspect and Policemen at Brgy. 1 Calamba, Laguna. The suspect sensed that he was transacting with the police causing him to drew his handgun then fired toward the police poseur buyer prompting the police officer to return fire hitting the suspect resulting to his instantaneous, and seen at the crime scene from their possession were… (enumeration of evidence found follows).”
The family says, however, that a possible witness had gotten in touch them during the wake, telling a different story.
There was a commotion, the person said, and then the lights went out. They heard five shots. Then uniformed policemen arrived, asking where the shootout was. “Nung una kagulo lang, yun sigawan sila tapos biglang dumilim. Tapos maya-maya, sunod-sunod na putok, yung huli mahina na.”
Ace and Bernie, Gemma says, had five bullet wounds, corresponding to the number of shots the neighbors heard. If there really had been a firefight, she asks, shouldn’t more shots have been heard?
Ace, she says, was heard pleading for his life. “May anak po ako, huwag ninyo po akong patayin,” he was heard saying. Friends said Ace had been saving for a pair of shoes for his son’s Christmas gift, but when the family went to his house the money was missing.
The family wants Ace’s death investigated, and has sent a message to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) asking them to look into the killing. Gemma says, however, that they don’t even have a copy of the police report. They are being given the runaround, she adds; every time they go to the police they are told that the one in charge is either on leave or simply not around, and that they should come back, again.
In contrast, the family of Bernie Orcine, who was killed with Ace, was given a copy of the police report a few days after the killing. To get a discount from the funeral parlor, they signed a waiver saying they did not want the body autopsied and would not press charges.
Bernie’s family lived beside the railroad tracks, one of the many ramshackle houses that line the Philippine National Railway’s tracks passing through Calamba City. When a group of photojournalists visited the wake, one of the first things Bernie’s brother said was that they were not going to ask for an investigation. They were poor, he said, and they knew Bernie was a drug user. In his tone was a bitter acceptance that drug users are often killed, easily and without due process.
THE Commission on Human Rights has recorded 344 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings (EJK) in the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas and Rizal (Calabarzon) since 2016, when the Duterte administration launched its bloody “war on drugs,” until December 2018.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, citing a report from CHR Calabarzon director Rexford Guevarra, said Laguna had the most number of EJK cases: 122, compared to Cavite, which had 75; Batangas, 56; Quezon, 46, and Rizal, 45. The killings jumped dramatically in 2018, Guevarra said: 251 were recorded from January to December 15 this year, compared to only 61 in 2017, and 32 in 2016.
There is no definitive tally of the killings, however. The Philippine National Police, by its own count, had recorded 304 killed in anti-illegal drug operations from July 2016 to January 2017 alone.
The Drug Archive Philippines, a joint research project between some of the Philippines’ leading universities, has counted 347 drug-related killings from May 10, 2016, to September 29, 2017, in the provinces of Laguna (119), Rizal (115), and Batangas (113).
The CHR is currently investigating 1,500 killings, CHR chairman Chito Gascon said in an interview last December on DZMM. The actual death toll, he said, could reach as high as 27,000.
Before Ace delos Santos was killed, Gemma says she believed media reports that those killed in police operations against illegal drugs really did fight back. When Ace was killed, she realized that maybe not all the allegations of “nanlaban” were true.
Gemma, who agreed to be interviewed by Laguna Now on condition of anonymity, used to feel safe in Laguna but not anymore. Now she knows she could be killed anytime, for no reason at all. “Baka biglang barilin, mapag-tripan lang.” (Laguna Now)