There was nothing more humiliating for Dahlia Silvestre (not her real name) than to be offered money by a barangay captain to withdraw the case she filed against policemen who killed her son at the peak of the Duterte administration’s drug war in 2016.
Silvestre, 64, and two other mothers said they were instructed to go to the barangay hall only to be told that they should “be practical” because “it’s been years” since the deaths of their sons.
“The money’s ready," the village chief told them bluntly.
The trio rejected the offer outright without waiting for the chieftain to mention the exact amount.
Appalled by the overtures, Anne Rodriguez, the second of the three mothers, retorted: “Please do not treat us as if we are children that can be bribed.”
Rodriguez, 64, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ): “They already stole our sons’ lives. Now, they also want to steal our shot at the truth.”
Although they were struggling financially, the complainants said they have no plans to sell out. The attempt to buy them off was a mockery of their struggle, they said.
“It was degrading,” Silvestre said.
Reports of policemen visiting the families of victims of extra-judicial killings (EJKs) have also reached the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“We’ve also heard of… other human rights groups working with victims that there are efforts by the policemen to circumvent the redress process like asking the families to sign a waiver. So that’s a big issue,’’ HRW’s Asia researcher Carlos Conde told PCIJ.
When President Rodrigo Duterte stepped down in June 2022, the police reported 6,000 deaths from his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs in mostly poor communities, but rights groups claimed the toll could go as high as 40,000.
Most of these operations followed a similar narrative. The police claimed the suspects were shot because they were armed and fought back. Eyewitnesses and forensic evidence would show that this was impossible in many cases.
Very few killers have been convicted, and among those who were found guilty were lowly police officers. High ranking officials who oversaw the killings such as colonels or generals were rarely included in the charge sheets.
The death toll keeps rising. Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., it’s business as usual for policemen, the chief enforcers of the drug war, perpetuating the climate of fear created by the Duterte administration.
Conde observed: “There’s this overriding fear among many of the families of the victims of the drug war that prevents them from seeking redress on top of the difficulty of the act of seeking redress itself… And the reason for that is that the violence is still happening.”
As of May 31, 309 have been killed in connection with illegal drugs, according to the Dahas Project of the UP Third World Studies Center, which is keeping tabs on the drug war on Marcos’ watch.
Ever since the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague began asking questions, pressure has been mounting for the government to prove its case that the country’s system of investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators was working.
The move on the ground to coax EJK victims’ kin into withdrawing their complaints from courts could be an attempt to ease that pressure.
In June, “someone from the Commission on Human Rights” went to the house of Beatriz Dizon (not her real name) in Navotas, a suburb north of Manila, and asked if her family was still inclined to pursue the case against policemen who were tagged in her father's killing in July 2016.
Out of fear, her mother said the family has lost interest in the case. Then, the “CHR representative” purportedly asked her to sign a document as proof of this decision. The phrase, she said, was similar to the words used by the barangay chieftain in Quezon City.
Now, the 30-year-old daughter is racing against time to reverse it.
As the main complainant, Dizon believes she should have the final say on the case. After all, her mother is not even a party to the case. Unfortunately, Dizon was not home when the visit took place.
“I know she was coached. She didn’t even get my father’s name right [in the document],” Dizon said.
Dizon has relentlessly endured the hardships that came with her father’s death in 2016, including taking over the role of the breadwinner. She was only 24 when she was forced to take on different jobs to feed her siblings.
“I have never felt so exhausted in my life until [the ‘CHR incident’],” she said. PCIJ reached out to the CHR but the commission has yet to respond.
‘Cleaning up the mess’
Fr. Danny Pilario, who set up a project for orphans and widows who lost their menfolk to the drug war in Payatas, a sprawling barangay in Quezon City, could only draw one conclusion from these.
“These cases are a sign there is an active government… activity to clean up the mess before ICC comes in,’’ he told PCIJ.
Last Tuesday, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC voted to reject the Philippine government’s appeal to stop the court prosecutor’s investigation into the drug war, setting in motion a possible trial if not arrests of Philippine officials tagged in the alleged crimes against humanity in the course of the drug war.
The Pre-Trial Chamber ruled in January to authorize an inquiry due to the government’s lack of willingness to investigate or prosecute crimes relating to the drug war. The government appealed this, arguing that the court has no jurisdiction over it since the country withdrew from the Rome Statute – the treaty establishing the court – in 2018.
The Appeals Chamber indicated that Philippine authorities failed to show they were investigating or prosecuting the same set of suspects being investigated by the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor.
On Friday, Mr. Marcos affirmed the country’s disengagement from ICC. “That’s it. We have no appeals pending. We have no more actions being taken. So, I suppose that puts an end to our dealings with the ICC,’’ he said.
Like the rest of the families of EJK victims, Pilario is pinning his hopes on the ICC to bring the mastermind and perpetrators of the drug war to justice.
“Our only hope is the ICC. If the ICC is prevented from coming, then I don’t know how many generations we need to wait in order for the stories to come out,” Pilario told PCIJ ahead of the ICC announcement. END
TOP IMAGE: File Photo by Raffy Lerma.
This report was first published on July 23, 2023. It was updated on August 8, 2023.