Seven-year-old San Niño Batucan was watching television in his home in Barangay Cansaga in the northern Cebu town of Consolacion on December 3, 2016, when he suddenly clutched his stomach in pain.
The boy was hit by a stray bullet fired by a group of bonnet-wearing men who were chasing a teenage boy accused of selling drugs.
Niño never made it — killed by a bullet that tore through his belly.
His father, Wilson, cried for justice, claiming his son’s killers were policemen conducting an anti-drug operation.
Marilou Batucan suspected her husband knew the suspects since he was a barangay tanod (village watchman) active in the anti-drug operation in Cansaga.
Three months later, Wilson was himself killed — shot in the head and chest by still-unidentified gunmen while he was about to park his motorcycle a few feet outside his house.
He was killed on March 8, 2017, shortly after he confided to his wife that he turned down the offer of a man on board a motorcycle to settle his son’s case in exchange for money.
Even though she wanted to seek justice for Wilson and Niño, Marilou, 45, decided to keep quiet out of fear that her other children and relatives might be harmed.
Marilou was not the only one who had opted to take the path of least resistance.
Many families of those killed by unknown assailants or even by police officers in the ongoing war on drugs have chosen to no longer file any complaint for similar reasons, according to the Commission on Human Rights in Central Visayas (CHR-7).
“They have in their mind that it is really hard to identify the perpetrators whose faces are hidden. To them, it is useless to file a complaint. They believe nothing is going to happen with any complaint against those faceless assailants,” said CHR-7 chief investigator Leo Villarino.
Since July 1, 2016, the first day of office of President Rodrigo Duterte, until June 27 this year, the police in Central Visayas have recorded 396 drug-related deaths, most of whom were suspected victims of extrajudicial killings (EJK).
Of this number, however, or from June 2016 to May 2017, CHR-7 only get to investigate 59 cases of alleged EJKs in Cebu, Bohol and Siquijor.
Of the number, 16 were filed by walk-in complainants. The rest were investigated by the commission motu proprio.
Starting with a single complaint in June 2016, the number of complaints remained sporadic all throughout 2016, except in October that year when CHR-7 received four requests for investigation.
By 2017, the number of walk-in complainants dwindled, with just two lodged last February. That was the last time a family of a victim of an alleged extrajudicial killing came forward to file a complaint at CHR-7.
From March to May this year, the commission had not received any walk-in complainants of alleged EJKs.
The dwindling number of complainants could be an indication that the families of victims were discouraged by the lack of progress in pending cases.
Of the 59 cases investigated by CHR-7, six cases involving either policemen or operatives of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency were elevated to the Office of the Ombudsman.
All these cases remain pending at the anti-graft office.
One of these involved the killing of 22-year-old Jerald Inesola who was picked up from his house in Barangay Tisa, Cebu City, and was later killed in what the police claimed as a shootout on July 23, 2016.
Jerald suffered from gunshot wounds on his chest and left shoulder. He also lost a tooth.
The CHR-7 found basis to file a complaint at the Ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Offices (Moleo) against SPO2 Renante Nioda, team leader of the Cebu City police’s Special Weapons and Tactics, and PO2 Arnold Cabildo.
It was the first case of alleged EJK under the Duterte administration that was elevated by CHR-7 for prosecution.
But nothing happened since then.
Nicolasa Inesola, 72, and a puto (rice cake) vendor, said the family was dismayed by the snail-paced investigation.
Nicolasa said her daughter had to travel to Manila to follow up the case at the Moleo, which has jurisdiction over erring policemen.
“We spent for it, but we just could not travel to Manila regularly because the fare is expensive,” she said.
She said she just hoped that she would see the day that justice would finally be given to her grandson.
“I want those two policemen to rot in jail. How could they kill my grandson? They don’t have any right to do so even granting that he committed a mistake,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes.
But if it was difficult to investigate cases with identified suspects, it would be twice as hard when the suspects are unknown.
“Many witnesses fear for their lives,” said Villarino.
The records of the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas (PRO-7) listed 396 drug-related killings from July 1, 2016 to June 27, 2017. Of this number, 183 drug suspects were killed in alleged shootouts with policemen, while 213 others were gunned down by still-unknown assailants.
At least 9,177 drug suspects were arrested in Central Visayas over the same period, while some 108,621 drug users and pushers surrendered to the authorities at the onset of Oplan Tokhang or “toktok hangyo,” a police door-to-door anti-drug campaign where suspects were asked to surrender and sign documents renouncing their involvement in illegal drugs, either as a peddler or drug user.
Since the war on drugs started last year, the PRO-7 has seized a total of 34,734.33 grams of shabu (methamphetamine) worth P409.8 million.
Chief Supt. Noli Taliño, director of PRO-7, said the accomplishments of the war on drugs throughout the country was “unprecedented.”
“We have a very successful campaign against illegal drugs. Had it not because of President Duterte’s commitment and political will to eradicate drugs, our country will be in peril from drug lords and slowly turning the country into a narco state,” he said.
“With the support of all stakeholders in the President’s program, we will be able to free the country from illegal drugs,” he added.
Taliño has repeatedly maintained that drug suspects who were killed in legitimate police operations placed the lives of the operatives in danger.
He said concerned policemen need not worry about lawsuits from people claiming to be victims of police brutality and abuse since PRO-7 has a legal team composed of retired justices, judges, government prosecutors and private law practitioners who recently bonded together to defend policemen slapped with charges while in the performance of their duties.
Villarino said that even as the drug-related killings had died down in recent months, policemen and private citizens are still best enjoined not to take the law into their own hands, stressing that every suspect deserves a day in court.
“Even if they are criminals, they should be given the opportunity to defend themselves in court. Who knows they will be cleared of the accusations. That’s better than seeing them dead without even having the opportunity to prove their innocence,” he explained.
Forgotten human dimension
Villarino said he understood the public sentiments on the slow pace of justice in the country.
“Yes, I admit. The wheels of justice grind slowly. But (does) killing suspected criminals speed up the pace of justice in our country? In fact, when we kill a criminal, are we not committing another crime? How can you be better off than a criminal?” he asked.
“People have been impatient, and the product of this impatience is the spate of killings. But will these killings solve the case of illegal drugs? We have yet to see whether killing suspected criminals will be the solution to the drug problem,” he added.
Arvin Odron, CHR-7 director, described President Duterte’s first year in office as “controversial” due to his repeated pronouncements that encouraged law enforcers to go after drug suspects by all means.
“The Philippine Constitution has mandated the government to respect human rights and value everyone’s dignity. As the highest official of the land, we expected him to be an advocate of human rights,” he said.
“The human dimension on the war on drugs is not good as it affected innocent civilians,” he added.