A bare-chested Rolando Campo looks over his shoulder and directly into the camera. Within minutes he is dead. As many as 15 police officers dressed in plainclothes are shown clearly, their guns visible; one turns a camera away from the scene, others drag away a body by the arms and legs.
The scene is an alley in Barangay 19 in Tondo, Manila, shortly after noon on Oct. 11. A police report described it as a buy-bust operation in which members of an antidrug unit of Moriones Police Station shot and injured Campo and two other men and later “rushed” them to a hospital where they were pronounced dead on arrival. The police report said the 60-year-old Campo had sold drugs to an undercover officer who then summoned backup, whereupon Campo told Sherwin Bitas, 34, and Ronnie Cerbito, 18, to open fire. The three men “first drew firearms and shot the operatives,” who then fired back in self-defense, the police report said. According to the results of an investigation conducted by the station, the police officers followed correct operational procedures.
But an altogether different narrative has emerged from footage filmed simultaneously by four security cameras which was obtained by Reuters. In its account, the international news agency said the footage showed Campo chatting with people in the neighborhood, not dealing drugs to the undercover officer. The operation did not appear to be undercover either, Reuters said, with the police officers entering the alley in full view of the residents.
An eyewitness told Reuters that the three men were executed. Bitas’ wife said they were unarmed.
Here is a portion of the Reuters account: “The footage doesn’t show the police shooting the three men, but it does show an officer appearing to open fire on an unseen target.
“Campo then falls backward into the frame, his body hitting the ground. His arms move for a while before resting motionless.
“Less than a minute later, the camera that captured the scene of the shooting is effectively put out of action: someone turns it to face the wall.
“A second camera shows a police officer reaching up and turning it away.”
Supt. Santiago Pascual, the commander of Moriones Police Station, said in a statement to Reuters that “the operation was legitimate” and that the cameras were turned away for a “valid security reason.”
It’s a chilling occurrence even for observers presumably grown weary of accounts, photographs and footage of killings conducted in the past year and a half in the course of the government’s war on drugs, each as startling as the next, as though the rule of law had truly become extinct in the dark and dank warrens of impoverished neighborhoods. (Reuters reported: “‘Don’t do that to my husband!’ [Bitas’ wife Arlene Gibaga] screamed, as the police shot Bitas. ‘I will report you! There are CCTV cameras here!’ One of the officers then aimed his gun at Gibaga and ordered her inside, she said.”) But equally startling is the suggestion of Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa that Reuters had a shady agenda in issuing its report, “timing this kind of damaging reports about the PNP,” he said, “when [the drug war] may be reverted back to us.” It was a reference to speculation, since denied, that President Duterte would soon return supervision of the antidrug campaign to the PNP from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Dela Rosa admitted to reporters that he had yet to see the news agency’s report, yet accused it of being on deliberate smear mode: “What I can tell Reuters is that if you want the PNP to look bad, you can do it. You can really do it.” Now is this any way for the chief of the police force to comport himself? To be sure, the man is not the circumspect type, is hardly stone-faced despite the fierce nickname that he goes by, and generally lets emotion get the better of him. But his standard reactions—tears, remonstrations—are precisely what are not expected of him. What we want to hear, whether from him or Malacañang, are assurances that an independent inquiry into what occurred in Barangay 19 in Tondo, Manila, shortly after noon of Oct. 11 is in progress, and that the 15 police officers clearly shown in the footage have been rounded up, disarmed, and are undergoing vigorous questioning. And that’s just for starters.