Philippines: Duterte Orders Probe of Drug Operation that Left 4 Dead

Marielle Lucenio and Jojo Rinoza
Manila and Dagupan, Philippines
Philippines: Duterte Orders Probe of Drug Operation that Left 4 Dead A police officer and a soldier walk past bodies of two of 12 alleged members of a drug syndicate killed in Sultan Kudarat, Philippines, Jan. 23, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday ordered the justice department to carry out an investigation into an encounter between police and the country’s anti-narcotics agency earlier this week that left two dead from each side.

Initial reports by police called it a bungled drug buy-bust operation involving operatives of the two units. The heads of both agencies have not fully explained what led to the incident, and Duterte’s order also suspended their separate investigations into what went wrong.

Duterte “has directed the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a probe on the shootout,” which occurred at rush hour Wednesday in front of a mall in suburban Quezon City north of Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Friday. 

“The president likewise ordered the joint panel formed by the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to discontinue their ongoing investigation,” Roque said. “This is to ensure impartiality in the Quezon City shootout incident.”

The gun-battle was recorded and widely shared on social media. National police chief Gen. Debold Sinas called it the “saddest day in the history of law enforcement.”

He declined to elaborate on what led to the shootout, but stressed that the police operation was legitimate. 

Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) chief Wilkins Villanueva blamed “Murphy’s Law” for what transpired. “If it will go bad, it will happen,” he said. 

‘Astounding disclosure’

Undercover police officers were carrying out an operation coordinated with the PDEA to buy drugs, then bust the sellers, but were not aware that others involved in the transaction were anti-narcotics agents, according to an initial report of the incident released Thursday.

It was not clear why anti-narcotics agents were there, but the police, in the report, said they retaliated only after narcotics agents fired first.

The incident turned a spotlight once again on Duterte’s war on drugs, which has left thousands dead.  

The government has reported that nearly 8,000 suspected drug addicts and dealers have been killed since Duterte came to power in 2016, but rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International say the figure could be thousands more. 

Wednesday’s incident played out on the same day Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra admitted before the United Nations Human Rights Council to irregularities in many drug-related killings attributed to police. 

“In many of these cases, law enforcement agents asserted that the subject of anti-drug operations resisted arrest or attempted to draw a weapon and fight back,” Guevarra said in a video message before the council’s 46th regular session. 

“Yet, no full examination of the weapon recovered was conducted. No verification of its ownership was undertaken. No request for ballistic examination or paraffin test was pursued until its completion,” he said. 

He added that in more than half of the records reviewed, the law enforcement agents involved failed to follow “standard protocols pertaining to coordination with other agencies and the processing of the crime scene.”

Still, Guevarra said the Philippines would continue its “constructive engagement” with the U.N. and member states that have demanded reforms in the nation’s drug war.

“We have referred these initial findings to our national police authorities and we have been informed that the appropriate internal investigations of thousands of these incidents have been conducted,” he said. “And scores of police officers have been recommended for administrative and criminal action.” 

John Fisher, HRW’s Geneva director, said Guevarra’s statement had effectively undermined the government’s usual reasoning that drug suspects were killed because they fought back.

“The justice secretary’s astounding disclosure is the first time the Duterte administration has admitted many police are to blame for ‘drug war’ deaths,” Fisher said in a statement. 

“The U.N. Human Rights Council should recognize this admission as reason enough to create an independent, international commission of inquiry,” he said.


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