By Aie Balagtas
Reporter, Philippine Daily Inquirer
MY COVERAGE of the war on drugs began on July 3, 2016. It was President Rodrigo Duterte’s third day in office. What a bloody Sunday it was!
That day particularly struck me because of the sheer number of dead bodies that piled up in a matter of hours. Eight men were killed in the city of Manila alone.
An Inquirer headline the next day called it “Bloody Sunday”.
For supporters of the drug war, it was a good day.
Seven years ago, a report I wrote was also headlined “Bloody Sunday.” It was about two men who were killed separately in fights that broke out in their families in two cities in Metro Manila.
A day that saw two killings in two cities was already considered a “bloody” day then.
Since my drug war coverage began, I had reported eight dead in one 24-hour period, 14 in another, and a high of 26. Other journalists had reported 32 killed in a “one time, big time” Police operation.?
And where did we find the dead? In the slums, of course.
This story and other “Voices from the Frontlines” dispatches form part of the state of press freedom report, “Speak Truth to Power, Keep Power in Check”, produced by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Philippine Press Institute, to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2018.
July 3, 2016 began for me interviewing Farida Bonifacio, a teenaged widow whose husband Bonabelle was one of the men killed in a police operation that morning. Bonabelle was unarmed.
The police said Bonabelle was the target of a “follow-up” anti-drug operation. That should have meant that the anti-drug operatives were supposed to know who he was. But long after the smoke had cleared, Manila cops still listed him as “unidentified.”
This pattern of “unidentified” fatalities in police anti-drug operations would eventually emerge. Some of the targets of undercover operations were identified only after they had been killed.
Other patterns could be seen in the police spot reports, which were practically all the same as if written in accordance with one script.
A spot report about a “buy-bust” operation always starts with undercover cops buying “shabu” (crystal meth) from alleged drug dealers, who eventually realize that it is a sting operation. It ends with a shootout that leaves the bad guys dead.
While talking to Farida at the headquarters, a smiling officer passed us by. Minutes later, this cop, PO1 Vincent Paul Solares, shattered picture frames hanging from the walls. Then, he fired at cops who responded to the commotion. A gunfight ensued.
Elite cops tried but failed to “neutralize” Solares. But in the end, policemen were only able to arrest Solares after he surrendered.
It is worth keeping this incident in mind as relatives of suspected drug offenders have accused the Philippine police of killing their quarries who were asleep or were begging for their lives. The police have defended themselves, saying they just acted in self-defense because their targets fought back — “nanlaban.”
Under custody, Solares appeared agitated, restless, and anxious. Accusations that he went berserk because he had used drugs were quickly hurled at him without any evidence.
Some officers yelled at him: “You’re a drug addict, right? Your eyes are so red!” they said.
Others said Solares was “lucky” his life was spared because, the police said, “he’s one of us.”
As it turned out, Solares never used drugs. Instead, he snapped from the bullying of fellow policemen from his precinct.
That day was the first clear picture of how someone could easily brand another a drug user just from that person’s physical appearance, and how police officers could decide, just like that, to spare or take the life of another human being. — PCIJ, May 2018
[Disclaimer: A longer version of this story was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s December 9, 2017 issue]