#UndoingDuterte| Five years of bloody drug war, kin of victims fight for justice

Jane Lee (middle) with other relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings join a protest in front of Camp Aguinaldo July 21, 2019 demanding accountability to the death of their loved ones. (Photo by Kodao Productions)

“We will not just cry, sit down and do nothing. We are victims who have learned to fight for justice not only for ourselves but for the other families as well.”


MANILA— During the presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte promised to end drugs in three to six months.

“Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you,” Duterte said in his final campaign rally.

True enough, shortly after winning the elections, he said he would give state forces “shoot to kill” orders against those who resist arrest or refuse to be brought to a police station in a nationally televised speech he gave in Davao City in May 2016.

“If you are involved in drugs, I will kill you. You son of a whore, I will really kill you,” he added.

Over the last five years, the Philippines saw an unprecedented number of drug suspects killed in police operations. According to #RealNumbersPH by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, 6,117 persons died during anti-drug operations. But cause-oriented groups believe that the number of deaths may have reached over 30,000 including those who died in vigilante-style killings.

Jane Lee’s husband was one of those killed vigilante-style. The mother of three was widowed in 2017 when her husband was shot by an unidentified riding in tandem at the corner of Langit Road at Barangay Silang, Caloocan.

“When Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, I would often hear news about the killings. I would pity those who were killed as though they no longer have dignity,” Jane told Bulatlat in an online interview. “I never expected my husband would be killed the same way.”

Being the most populous barangay in the country, deaths caused by riding in tandems and tokhang was not a foreign concept to the residents of Silang.

“That corner is called Langit Road. Since 2016, many have been killed there by motorcycle-riding men. They are never identified, and the gunmen would always manage to escape,” said Jane. Langit is the Filipino word for heaven.

Losing her husband meant losing the love of her life, the father of their three children, and losing the family’s breadwinner.

Jane struggled to explain to their children who, at that time were only 14 years old, 11 years old and eight years old, what happened to their father.

Aside from dealing with their own grief, they also had to deal with the discrimination and shaming being related to a victim of the drug war entailed.

Her children were even bullied about their “natokhang” father in school.

Jane said the word ‘tokhang’ was equated to something evil. “You already lost a loved one and still people look at you as though you did something wrong,” said Jane.

Tokhang is part of the supposed campaign to end illegal drugs. Duterte had a two-pronged approach: Project Tokhang which entailed policemen to knock on the doors of drug suspects to“persuade” them to stop their illegal drug activities, and Project High Value Target which targeted illegal drug personalities.

However, ‘tokhang’ easily became a death sentence for alleged drug users especially in impoverished areas.

An Ateneo School of Government working paper read, “Tokhang is conducted by police officers without the need of a search or arrest warrant or to complete a case-build up — a stark deviation from what is routinely required under the PNP Manual before anti-illegal drugs operations can be executed.”

According to the paper, during tokhang operations, suspects are “assumed not suspected” of participating in illegal drug activities.

The paper stated that singled out suspected illegal drug personalities or suspected drug users and pushers should have been entitled to the protections afforded by Art. III, Sec. 12 of the Constitution which states that “Any person under investigation for the commission of an offense shall have the right to be informed of his right to remain silent and to have competent and independent counsel preferably of his own choice. If the person cannot afford the services of counsel, he must be provided with one. These rights cannot be waived except in writing and in the presence of counsel.”

“Tokhang is arguably beyond investigatory. It is inherently accusatory even if the subject is not
criminally charged or formally placed under custodial investigation,” it added.

Additionally, with the Oplan Tokhang came many other activities that intentionally or unintentionally instigated the copious surrender of suspected drug personalities. Labeling and shaming were the primary objects of these complementary initiatives seen both at the national and local levels.

“One variety of the parallel persuasion efforts done at the onset of the government’s war on drugs is the public naming, and consequently shaming, of suspected drug personalities through diagrams, photographs, narcolists, and straightforward verbal pronouncements from national government officials including those from the President himself,” it read.

Many of these public naming and shaming methods violate the presumption of innocence as per the constitution.

“The State must establish that the named drug lords, syndicates, or coddlers indeed violated the dangerous drugs law beyond reasonable doubt,” the academic institution said. “Unfortunately, the State is far behind its duty to overthrow this presumption with formal criminal charges not even filed against many of those labeled and shamed.”

Picking up the pieces

For Jane, who became a widow at 39, there was no other choice but to get up.

“I encountered a lot of hardships but there is nothing more difficult than losing a loved one. I need to fight for the one who died. I also need to rise up for the ones left behind,” said Jane.

Before the pandemic, Jane would cook food at the school canteen. Nowadays, she does not have any regular income.

In her search for justice, Jane met members of Rise Up for Life and Rights, a support group for the families of victims of drug-related killings in 2018. She has become one of its community leaders.

Together with other families, they filed a complaint against Duterte for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Rise Up maintained that legal remedies are not working, citing the “token investigation” of the Department of Justice into 52 cases, and the dismissal of charges filed by the families with the Office of the Ombudsman.

“We will not just cry, sit down and do nothing. We are victims who have learned to fight for justice not only for ourselves but for the other families as well,” Jane said.

On July 17, Duterte said he would run for the vice presidency so he would be immune from suits.

Asked for her reaction, Jane said, “I’m disgusted! It’s maddening because he is still not satisfied that he became president and even wants to be the next vice president. He was not even able to fulfill his promise to suppress drugs, the sale of illegal drugs continues and we know that during his term, he achieved nothing but committing murder and intimidating people or groups who oppose him.”(RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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