‘Buy-bust’ or execution? How this man survived when a ‘death squad’ came after him in the Philippines
MANILA — Francisco Santiago is a rare and dangerous thing in a state-led killing rampage: a witness.
In the early hours of Sept. 13, on a dark street in the heart of the city, Santiago was shot through the chest and arms in what Philippine police called a drug bust gone wrong, but that he insists was a setup.
When the bullets hit, he played dead, lying still until he felt the bright lights of the media upon him. With cameras rolling, he raised his blood-slick arms in surrender – alive, for now.
President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power in July promising war; he has delivered.
Just over three months into his tenure, at least 3,300 people are dead, with 1,239 gunned down in police raids and 2,150 shot by unknown assailants, according to the Philippine national police.
The victims include suspected drug dealers and users, as well as people misidentified as such. They also include at least two children, 4 and 5, felled by bullets meant for somebody else.
Bodies are hastily pulled from crime scenes or dumped in ditches, often alongside cardboard signs that say “pusher” — as if a word, and a word alone, were proof enough.
The European Union, the United Nations and the United States have called for an end to the violence – to no avail. When President Barack Obama raised the issue, Duterte lectured him on colonialism and used a slang term that translates, approximately, as “son of a whore.”
We can only rely on the media to expose this
Local critics fare worse. Leila de Lima, the Philippine senator who this summer launched an investigation into extrajudicial killings, was ousted as chair of the senate’s human rights committee in what Human Rights Watch called a “craven attempt to derail accountability.”
She has since been publicly accused of sleeping with her driver and taking bribes from drug lords, and her phone number and address were leaked.
Eyewitnesses to killings stay silent, terrified they could be targeted next.
Duterte denies these are state-backed crimes, saying Philippine police act in self-defense and for the good of society.
But the testimony of survivors like Santiago and a body of evidence that stretches back two decades point to a pattern of violence that starts with a call to kill and ends with the promise that there will be no consequences.
Santiago relayed his story from his hospital bed, where he was being guarded by police, because he thought he would be “eliminated” and saw safety, not danger, in daring to speak out.
“The police will just cover up,” said his mother, Ligaya Santigao. “We can only rely on the media to expose this.”
When the president tells law enforcement officers to kill suspects, and they do, facts get hard to check. With few living witnesses, the only account is the police report.
With thousands dead, these reports reveal patterns. Every night, Philippine police set out to conduct drug raids. Every morning, they report gun battles in which “drug suspects” are shot dead.
Often, they say, they find .38-caliber weapons and sachets of methamphetamine, known locally as “shabu.” Usually, despite the ferocious shootouts they describe, police emerge untouched.
And so it was with Santiago – except he survived.
The police report tells the plausible if familiar tale of a “buy-bust” turned deadly. After selling a packet of shabu to an undercover cop, Santiago and a second suspect — identified as George Huggins y Javellana, a member of the “dreaded Sputnik gang”- got suspicious and fired at police, the report said.
The police shot back, killing Javellana and injuring Santiago. They later reported finding .38- and .22-caliber weapons and three packets of shabu at the scene. Santiago was “rushed” to the hospital.
Santiago offered a different account. About noon on Sept. 12, a plainclothes officer posing as a customer led him to the second floor of the local precinct, where he was forced to confess to drug crimes, he said. That night, in 86-degree heat, he was told to don a black jacket.
After midnight, he said, he and Javellana were driven to a dark street and shot. As he played dead, police placed a gun beside him. They did not check his pulse, he said.
Security footage reviewed by The Washington Post shows Santiago heading in the direction of the police station just after noon, dressed in a white tank top. Photographs from the scene of the shooting show him in an unseasonable black jacket
Once the president endorsed this, it was an open invitation for everyone to just kill
Manila District Police Chief Joel Coronel told the Philippine Inquirer that Santiago was a “main target on the drug watch list,” but the police report does not mention that. An official tasked with identifying suspects in Santiago’s neighbourhood, Celia Nepomuceno, said he was never on a list.
These discrepancies were not enough to keep him from being transferred from the hospital to the custody of the police force whose officer shot him, he said.
Carolyn Mercado, a senior legal adviser at the Asia Foundation’s Manila office, said the odds of police reviewing cases like his are negligible. “Duterte says to police, ‘If you kill, I’m going to protect you,’ ” she said.
“Once the president endorsed this, it was an open invitation for everyone to just kill.”
In one recent case, Manila police said they killed 21-year-old Eric Sison in a shootout that followed a dramatic chase.
“He chose to fight it out,” the police report said. But cellphone footage shot by a neighbor suggests that the injured Sison was cornered in a room and trying to surrender when he was shot more than a dozen times.
The report suggests the officer fired because he was under threat. Yet in the video, as he points his weapon at the off-camera suspect, he does not take cover, recoil or flinch.
In a another case, a handwritten police report said officers in Quezon City were sent by a tipster to the site of a “pot session” in progress when four men saw them, opened fire and were killed.
Senior Supt. Guillermo Eleazar told local reporters that four suspects “high on drugs” and full of “bravado” fired on officers who were merely “about to introduce themselves.”
What’s happening in the Philippines is exactly what the president promised – and echoes closely what he has said and done before.
Duterte was known as the “Death Squad Mayor” when he ran the southern city of Davao, because of a band of hit men who killed criminals and critics alike.
When he ran for president, Duterte boasted about it. Asked on the campaign trail about a report that he had killed 700 people, he replied, “No, it is not 700, but 1,700.”
This may play well with a populace tired of crime and exhausted by corruption, but, said Arpee Santiago, executive director of Ateneo de Manila University’s Human Rights Center, lawless killing in the name of law and order is not the answer.
For people to feel safe in the long run, the police must respect due process, he said. He is calling for an “honest-to-goodness” investigation into the killing.
That’s a call the president seems unlikely to heed. As Duterte said in August: “There is no due process in my mouth.”
With files from Kimberly dela Cruz and Michael Joe Delizo