This grim image has become all too familiar in the Philippines’s poorer neighbourhoods: the body of a barefoot, shirtless man, slumped against a wall with blood dripping from bullet wounds, the latest victim of President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting anti-illegal drugs campaign that has killed thousands.
On the morning of Sunday, March 23, police and anti-narcotics enforcers from the central island of Cebu carried out an operation against a “high-value individual”.
The “buy-bust” mission resulted in an “armed confrontation” and the killing of the suspect, Buen Chiong, according to a Cebu provincial police report obtained by Al Jazeera. Police added that Chiong was on their “provincial-level watchlist”.
The Cebu radio station, DYSS, quoted authorities as saying that the suspect was linked to “drug trading and burglary” in his community. Al Jazeera also learned that a calibre .45 pistol was recovered from the scene of the shooting – a detail missing in the police report, which initially misspelt the dead man’s name as Buena.
Chiong’s death was filed under Control Number 20002-032020-0502.
Amid a national health emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is no stopping Duterte’s so-called deadly “war on drugs” and human rights advocates are warning that the outbreak and the lockdown that followed would “exacerbate social inequality” in the country, leading to further human rights abuses.
Right groups are urging Duterte to immediately stop the “drug war” and ensure that the coronavirus containment measures being implemented adhere to the standards set by the United Nations and World Health Organization.
Since Duterte declared a partial lockdown starting on March 15, Al Jazeera has learned that at least eight other people, including two police officers, have been killed by unknown gunmen under suspicious circumstances in Cebu Province alone. One of the fatalities was previously in jail due to a drug-related case.
‘Killing without consequence’
“Reports of drug-related killings continuing amid the lockdown order are deeply concerning, but not surprising,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“The climate of impunity in the Philippines is so entrenched that police and others remain free to kill without consequence.”
According to the latest report published in mid-December 2019, at least 5,552 people have been killed during police operations since Duterte came to office on June 30, 2016. However, an earlier report published in June 2019 already showed a death toll of 6,600. Meanwhile, rights advocates say at least 27,000 people were killed as of mid-2019 – including the victims killed by unknown gunmen.
The president himself has repeatedly promised that his “drug war” will last until the final day of his presidency. As recent as early March, he was quoted on separate occasions saying, “Don’t be president, if you can’t kill” and that it was his job “to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.”
Since then, the attention of the country has shifted to the battle against the coronavirus, which has already killed 88 Filipinos as of March 31, forcing the lockdown of the entire northern island of Luzon, with 57 million people. Provincial and town executives also imposed similar measures in their own communities, putting virtually the entire country of 104 million people under quarantine.
Marit Stinus Cabugon, a Cebu-based columnist for a national newspaper, said the anti-drug police operations, as well as the extrajudicial killings have been going on in her province for a while. What was surprising was the brazenness of the recent attacks given the lockdown and the heightened security across the country, she said.
“The killers were not afraid that they would get caught, or stopped at checkpoints,” said Stinus Cabugon, who has compiled an online list of killings in Cebu since 2018. She said most of the killings were drug-related.