Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra hailed new Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar’s decision to open police records on the drug war killings as a “very significant milestone in the government’s efforts to exact accountability’’.
“What is significant right now is that the DOJ has been given free access, something that did not happen in previous years, thereby making our review rather difficult,’’ Guevarra said last week after meeting with the new head of the 220,000-strong PNP.
Eleazar has allowed access to 61 cases involving hundreds of police personnel nationwide that the PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) already found to have administrative or criminal liability for deaths resulting from police antidrug operations. As the cases remain at the IAS and have not been submitted for criminal prosecution, the DOJ will examine them and determine which of the cases would be “ripe for possible criminal investigation.’’
But why only 61? This small number gave human rights groups cause to regard Eleazar’s openness with guarded optimism at best, deeming it a “token” move to avoid a full investigation of the Duterte administration’s bloody drug war by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the International Criminal Court.
As pointed out by National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) chair Edre Olalia, the 61 cases do not even comprise 1 percent of over 7,000 drug deaths acknowledged by the PNP. Guevarra also said the 61 cases were not among the 5,655 deaths in police operations that the DOJ secretary committed to investigate in his address at the 44th session of the UNHRC in June last year.
Both Guevarra and Eleazar deserve encouragement for committing to transparency and setting the process of accountability in the violent drug war that has killed mostly poor victims since 2016. In particular, Eleazar must be commended for departing from the tack of previous police chiefs to stonewall access to the PNP records even when the Supreme Court had ordered their release. His decision to provide records to the DOJ is a step in the right direction and demonstrates his resolve to repair the tarnished image of his institution.
But Eleazar must do more to set the template for the upright, honest leadership so sorely wanted in the PNP—by granting access not just to 61 cases but to all cases that have to do with questionable police operations. He has given assurances that he would do so, and that the PNP and the DOJ will sign an agreement stating the PNP’s commitment for full cooperation in the investigation. “I assure our good justice secretary that the PNP has no tolerance for rogues, including those who may have committed unjustified killings in the course of anti-illegal drug operations, and that we are serious in cleansing our ranks,” said Eleazar.
The fulfillment of that vow will now have to be seen in the next months, as Eleazar is set to retire in November.
A report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the drug war and human rights situation in the Philippines in June 2020 found that in many cases where suspected drug users were killed for allegedly having fought back (“nanlaban’’) during police operations, police planted guns and evidence on them. Because of this damning report, Guevarra appeared in a high-level UNHRC meeting in February to assure the international body that the Philippine government was undertaking an investigation of the police killings.
In that meeting, he also admitted that in more than half of cases reviewed from 5,655 “nanlaban’’ deaths, the police did not follow standard protocols on the processing of crime scenes and coordination with other agencies. “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,’’ said Guevarra.
However, of the 5,655 cases Guevarra promised the UNHRC, only 328 cases were “made available for the review’’ because of the previous PNP leadership’s refusal to open the records.
Now that the PNP has a chief who, despite an all-too-brief six-month tenure, has publicly committed the organization to submitting its files to DOJ scrutiny, Guevarra’s department should work double time to deliver on its end, by looking promptly and thoroughly into the drug war killings.
This is an important step in fighting impunity, and an undertaking that deserves staunch public support. The 7,884 deaths are not mere statistics; even for a country that has gone through the dark years of martial law, the “war on drugs” represents a particularly bloody chapter of state-sanctioned violence against Filipino citizens. Somewhere in those records, the victims’ families, and the nation’s collective conscience, might find justice, recompense, and the plain truth.