Who killed the ‘gentle giant’?

Why would anyone want to kill a doctor—one, moreover, who had heroically volunteered to work in the poorest communities of the country where healthcare resources, as well as financial rewards, are scarce, even nonexistent?

That remains the unanswered question in the case of the slain rural doctor Dreyfuss Perlas, a graduate of Western Visayas State University in Iloilo City who chose to remain in his area of assignment, Sapad in Lanao del Norte, after the end of his contract under the Department of Health’s Doctors to the Barrios (DTTB) program. On March 1 last year, he was shot dead in the town of Kapatagan while en route to Sapad on his motorcycle. The bullet entered the left side of his back and pierced his heart; he died at the Lanao del Norte Provincial Hospital in the nearby town of Baroy soon after. He was only 31.

Perlas’ death was a crushing blow not only to his family and the DOH but also to the hard-up community to which he devoted his life’s work. (It had had no health officer for 12 years before his volunteer stint.) Unlike many of his peers who took off after their two-year DTTB contracts ended, Perlas chose to continue serving Sapad, where by accounts he became a well-loved “people’s doctor,” traveling solo across long distances to reach remote barrios where he would conduct medical checkups. At 6’3, he towered above many of his patients and fellow Filipinos, and was known as a “gentle giant.”

“Superman Doctor is dead,” lamented Sapad resident Princess May Sienes as soon as news spread of Perlas’ murder. His colleagues in the DOH program condemned the “barbaric act of the assailant.” Police would eventually tag four suspects behind the killing—a woman and three men—but only one of them was charged: Nabil Banding, a former security guard said to have been the gunman hired to kill Perlas.

For what earthly purpose? One year later, police are still unable to definitively answer the question of motive—or even arrest any of the suspects. Banding remains at large; a P150,000 cash bounty has been put up for information leading to his, and the three other suspects’, apprehension.

In his years of serving his chosen community since 2012, Perlas appeared to have incurred the murderous ire of unknown individuals. His DTTB colleague, Dr. Anjuli May Jaen, said Perlas had been receiving threats to his safety—a scenario all too familiar to Filipinos who remember the case of Dr. Bobby dela Paz during the Marcos dictatorship. While serving as a doctor to the masses in Samar, Dela Paz was labeled a subversive by the military, and shot by an unknown assailant in 1982. He was 29; his case was never solved.

Inquirer columnist Gideon Lasco has written about the hazardous environment that doctors like Dela Paz and Perlas encounter in the still-feudal countryside: “What overwhelms the DTTBs … is the patronage system in which they soon find themselves: a system where the mayor is king, and local officials mostly cater to his wishes. One DTTB made the mistake of not paying a courtesy call on the mayor: He ultimately had to transfer to a different municipality. Another told of a mayor who holds medicines hostage in his office so that he can get the credit for handing them to patients.

“The DTTBs, while mostly respected, are moreover not immune to intrigue. One of them recounted being accused of absconding from a disaster when in fact she herself was a victim but still managed to treat others despite her personal pain. More worrisome, because of their reformist impulses or simply because they happen to be in conflict-riddled places, there are very real threats to their own life.”

Perlas’ murder testifies to that grim reality. That his case remains unresolved a year later, with not a suspect in detention and no satisfactory investigation of motive and culpability so far, underlines the continuing breakdown of justice and law and order in the land.