Hundreds of protesters braved a heavy downpour on August 21 as they gathered in the historic EDSA thoroughfare in Metro Manila. Across the city others visited the wake of a 17-year-old high school student whose death triggered the spontaneous rallies.
That student, Kian Lloyd delos Santos, was shot dead on August 16 by policemen during a drug sweep in a neighborhood of Caloocan City. The cops claimed that Delos Santos fired gunshots while fleeing from them, prompting them to retaliate in supposed self-defense.
A CCTV video installed near the crime scene told a different story, however. The video clip showed two policemen in plainclothes dragging a young man, later identified as Delos Santos, to a corner of the slum area where he was later found dead from gunshot wounds.
Two women witnesses came forward claiming that the young man was begging the cops to spare him. However, the policemen handed him a pistol, telling him to pull the trigger. Delos Santos refused. He was then told to run away.
Shortly after, the witnesses heard gunfire. Delos Santos’ body was found clutching a .45 caliber pistol in his left hand, although his father later claimed that the teenager was right-handed. Two sachets of “shabu” or amphetamine crystals were found on his body but his father and the witnesses said Delos Santos was framed and murdered by the police.
An autopsy done on August 20 revealed that the victim died from being shot three times in the back of the head and behind his left ear while he was slumped on the ground—a position that belies the police claim that he shot first at the cops.
Delos Santos was among the record-breaking 90-plus so-called drug suspects killed in just two nights last week in separate drug sweeps in Metro Manila, with the police justifying all the killings for the reason suspects allegedly fought back.
But Delos Santos’ case struck a raw nerve among many Filipinos, either due to his young age, seeming innocence or blatant disregard for due process on the part of police shown in the CCTV video of the incident.
Interviews with Delos Santos’ parents added pathos to the outrage. The teenager helped his family run their small grocery store while squeezing in time for his studies. (Ironically, he dreamed of becoming a cop someday).
His mother, who works as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia, forced herself to kneel before her employer to ask him to allow her to go home and bury her son. Metro Manila’s police chief later admitted that Delos Santos was not even on their so-called ‘narco list.’
The uproar grew in intensity in subsequent days and provoked angry reactions from netizens on social media. Pro-Duterte posts were overwhelmed by comments indignant over the killing as the outrage spread to various sectors of Philippine society. The hashtag #kianismyson trended virally on social media.
Even the until now quiescent Philippine Catholic Church spoke out on the case. Caloocan City Bishop Pablo David condemned the slaying, describing it as a “clear abuse [of authority].”
He later held a mass at the slain teenager’s wake. David noted in a Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) report that “You might be surprised to find your name in the [narco] list one of these days. Anyone can be listed as a ‘drug suspect.’”
Meanwhile, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Pangasinan said churches in his district will toll their bells for 15 minutes every night for the next three months “as a call to stop the killings.” In a statement, he asked, “Why are we no longer horrified by the sound of the gun and blood flowing on the sidewalks?”
Vice President Leni Robredo visited the wake of Delos Santos and condoled his parents, offering them legal assistance through the Free Legal Assistance Group. Meanwhile, the Commission on Human Rights announced on August 20 that it will conduct its own probe into the incident.
The protests began on August 21, which coincidentally was also the anniversary of the assassination of opposition leader Beningno Aquino Sr. His son, the previous president who has cautiously refrained from commenting on Duterte’s rule, also spoke up about the killing of Delos Santos.
Protest rallies were also held in Legazpi City in Albay province and in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental province on August 21. An “indignation rally” at the University of the Philippines was held on August 22, while a ‘noise barrage’ is slated the following day in front of the national police headquarters in Quezon City.
More ominously, a shadowy group claiming to be officers of the armed forces and the police called Patriotic and Democratic Movement (PADEM) issued a statement on August 21 calling for the ouster of Duterte “for betrayal of public trust.”
They accused the president of corrupting the armed forces and police with monetary rewards for extra-judicial killings of drug suspects, inciting police officers to skip due process and commit said extra-judicial killings, and condoning and protecting top-level drug lords.
Though the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) issued a statement the following day pledging support for Duterte, PADEM’s accusations revealed dissension in the ranks.
PADEM mentioned Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, the president’s son, in its statement, in reference to accusations made by a custom broker during a House of Representative Committee on Dangerous Drugs hearing that the younger Duterte allegedly facilitated the entry of P6.4 billion worth of methamphetamine, known locally as ‘shabu’, into the country in connivance with Bureau of Customs officials.
In response, Duterte dared accusers to produce evidence linking his son to the smuggling case. “Just give me an affidavit and I will step down as President,” he said.
His response prompted protesters to point out what they branded as a double standard in his drug war, with placards bearing messages saying, “Small-time users get killed, big fish get due process.”
Malacanang seemed initially unaware of or indifferent to the brewing storm. Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella even dismissed the killing of a minor like Delos Santos as an “isolated event.” Media reports, however, show that more than 30 minors have been killed in the government’s drug operations over the past year.
It was only on August 18, two days after Delos Santos’ slaying, that the President’s allies started to shake off their seeming lethargy in responding to the growing crisis. On that day, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), which is a DOJ agency and not under the purview of the police, to conduct its own investigation.
In the Senate, 17 of Duterte’s allies signed a resolution on August 20 condemning the killing of the teenager and calling for an investigation into drug war-related killings to be conducted by the Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs starting on August 24. Jaded critics of the administration, however, said that this is only meant to mollify the public and sweep the issue under the rug.
Meanwhile, the national police under General Ronaldo dela Rosa dug in their heels in response to accusations of extra-judicial killings. Dela Rosa over the weekend accused the teenage victim of being a drug courier for his father and uncle who were allegedly known drug pushers in their neighborhood, an accusation denied by Delos Santos’ father, Zaldy.
“He should come to our neighborhood himself and investigate,” he told media, adding that he is willing to undergo a drug test to prove his innocence.
Duterte, who must have been appraised of the magnitude of the brewing crisis, took action on Monday. First, he announced that Nicanor Faeldon has been replaced as Bureau of Customs chief in connection with the P6.4 billion shabu smuggling case.
It was an abrupt turnaround for Duterte, who reportedly turned down thrice Faeldon’s resignation earlier this month. Observes noted that the move is meant to respond to calls for Duterte to act on the huge shabu smuggling case.
Duterte announced on Monday night that he will not spare the policemen involved in the killing from punishment should they be found guilty. “I saw the tapes on TV and I agree that there should be an investigation,” he said. “If it’s a rub out, they have to go to jail.”
That marks a reversal from Duterte, who vowed to police that he will back them in the drug war and called for expediency in going after drug suspects. In an earlier speech, he told police that “if a suspect does not have a gun, then give him a gun.”
The indignation expressed by the public, both online and in the streets, indicates a growing dissatisfaction with the government’s bloody drug war, especially its sidestepping of due process and the suspicious death of suspects consistently accused of “fighting back.”
Despite Faeldon’s resignation, Duterte’s promise of a deeper investigation into the case and the threat of severe punishment of the policemen involved in Delos Santos’ killing, many see the vows as yet another bid to defuse a potentially explosive situation that will do little to bring the drug war to an end.