Day of reckoning?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Until his final days in office, there was one appeal that Rodrigo Duterte kept airing openly to his successor: sustain the campaign against illegal drugs.

At one point, Duterte said he was willing to act as the new administration’s consultant on the drug menace. But it looks like no such offer was ever formally made by his successor. Perhaps Duterte’s snide remarks about an unnamed cocaine user rankled.

There was no mention of the drug problem in the inaugural speech of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. There is speculation that the new President might even be open to the legalization of recreational marijuana, which is a growing trend worldwide.

We don’t know if Duterte’s loyal minions miss his warning hurled at drug personalities over the past six years: “If you destroy my country, I will kill you!”

Instead of any reference from Bongbong Marcos about a sustained campaign against illegal drugs, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) disclosed, almost as soon as Duterte stepped down as president, that it had filed eight counts of murder against 22 members of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO).

The cases are remarkable because those allegedly murdered were inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa who were reported to be running from within the NBP drug trafficking operations in Metro Manila and other parts of the country.

The 22 cops were assigned to the Bureau of Corrections at the time of the inmates’ deaths. At the height of the lockdowns from May to July 2020, as COVID spread rapidly with no vaccine in sight, BuCor officials had reported at least nine NBP inmates dying purportedly of COVID.

Those who died were mostly high-value prisoners linked to the drug trade operated from the NBP, led by kidnapping / carjacking convict Jaybee Sebastian and Pasig shabu flea market operator Amin Imam Boratong.

BuCor officials said that in keeping with COVID health safety protocols, the dead were wrapped in body bags and sent to the crematorium within 12 hours after death.

*    *    *

To this day, the public doesn’t know the identities of all the nine, since BuCor chief Gerald Bantag invoked the Data Privacy Act in refusing to name the deceased. Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro said at the time that the law could not be invoked to withhold the identities of the dead in a case infused with public interest.

A news report said 45 inmates succumbed to COVID in April 2020 and 29 more in May.

Senators had sought a probe on the deaths of 21 inmates from the NBP and the Correctional Institution for Women. Bantag said three of the 21 deaths were from the CIW.

The senators sought “proof of death” of the inmates – photos and video footage apart from autopsy reports or death certificates – arguing that if the arrival of inmates at the penitentiaries were duly recorded, so should their final exit (since prison premises are supposed to teem with surveillance cameras).

Then Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said that allowing BuCor to keep the list of deceased inmates private was like giving the bureau a license to declare who’s dead or alive in the NBP.

“I am afraid it can be used to make prisoners disappear, cover up extrajudicial killings and even to fake death,” Drilon said.

BuCor officials said no autopsies were conducted because of COVID safety protocols. But the officials took the trouble of releasing a photo of Sebastian in a partly open body bag, looking genuinely dead. This was to dispel senators’ suspicions of “body-switching,” or that the inmates might have simply paid off their jailers to allow them to escape, with the COVID story merely a convenient cover. Drug money, after all, is big money.

*    *    *

In May last year, BuCor officials also reported that convicted Taiwanese drug trafficker Yu Yuk Lai died of a heart attack while battling critical COVID at the East Avenue Medical Center, where she was confined for a week. Yu was notorious for her months-long health leaves from CIW incarceration, spent mostly in a private hospital in Manila’s Chinatown. It’s unclear if her death supposedly from COVID is also being investigated by the NBI.

Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, at the time the Department of Justice secretary, had ordered the NBI to conduct the probe of the deaths of nine NBP inmates – four Filipinos and five Chinese nationals. Both the NBI and BuCor are under the DOJ.

Guevarra reportedly gave the NBI 10 days to submit its findings. But the cases were finally filed with the DOJ only after the change in administration.

NBI officials cited testimonies of several witnesses as well as inconsistent records of the BuCor, NCRPO and the NBP hospital.

There seemed to be “criminal intent” to make the deaths appear to be due to COVID and cover up the murder of eight high-value inmates, NBI spokesperson Ferdinand Lavin said last week.

Citing the probe, Lavin said some of the inmates displayed no COVID symptoms and in fact tested negative for the coronavirus when swabbed upon their death.

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An inevitable question arising from the probe is how high up accountability would go. Surely those 22 cops accused of murder didn’t kill (if true) on their own just to have fun, or simply because they could. An order must have come from higher-ups.

Until recently, the filing of the cases and the disclosure of the probe would have seemed remote. Jaybee Sebastian in particular is remembered for being one of those who implicated former senator Leila de Lima in supposed drug payoffs from NBP inmates as part of her fund-raising for her Senate run when she was DOJ chief.

Can we expect more such stories to come out in the days ahead? Few people in this country that adores Dirty Harry-types will shed tears for the demise of the likes of Boratong, Sebastian and Yu Yuk Lai. But so many others deaths in Duterte’s war on drugs are questionable.

For the past six years, people wondered if there would ever be a day of reckoning for the brutal war on drugs.

The case of the dead inmates is raising some hope that the day might be approaching.


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