Protesters light candles and shout slogans as they march Sept. 8 in Quezon City. Killings related to the government's campaign against drugs continue. (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

BEIJING — In the first year of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, there were moments, brief moments, when it felt like the killing might stop. 

A Korean businessman murdered inside police headquarters. Anti-drug cops caught holding people in a secret cell. Then, last month, Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old boy, was shot dead by police.

All three cases were so explosive that the Philippine president was forced to interrupt his calls for slaughter — and his promises to pardon police — to order investigations. All three were seen as turning points. And yet, the killing does not stop.

Delos Santos, a high school student, was killed the night of Aug. 16. Police said the teen fled an anti-drug operation, fired at them and they fired back. But widely circulated surveillance footage seems to show him being dragged away. And witnesses said he was handed a gun, told to run, then shot.

As investigators studied whether and how he was murdered, the brutalized bodies of two other teenagers turned up. First, it was Carl Angelo Arnaiz, 19. Police said he died in a shootout in August. But investigators from the Public Attorney’s Office said he was cuffed, dragged and beaten before being shot multiple times at close range.

Last week, the body of another boy was pulled from a river. He had been stabbed dozens of times, examiners said, and his face was covered in packing tape — a macabre act of mutilation that’s a drug war signature. The boy was identified by family members as Reynaldo de Guzman, 14, who was last seen with Arnaiz. On Monday, police claimed DNA testing suggests it was someone else.

These were not the first or only young people lost to the state-backed violence sweeping the Philippines. Human rights groups put the total number of deaths at over 10,000 with dozens of children and youth shot dead.

The alleged murder of so many minors has prompted Human Rights Watch to renew their call for a United Nations investigation.“The apparent willingness of Philippine police to deliberately target children for execution marks an appalling new level of depravity in this so-called drug war,” said Phelim Kine, the group's deputy Asia director.

“These killings demonstrate that Duterte’s rejection of the rule of law has made all Filipinos potential ‘drug-war’ victims, no matter how young.”

Though Duterte is unlikely welcome U.N. investigators, he must answer, to some extent, to domestic critics. Delos Santos's death brought Filipinos to the street and saw some of Duterte’s closest political allies call for a Senate investigation. Under pressure, the president promised justice.

Duterte and his top aides have been forced to say they condemn shooting minors. “You do not kill defenseless persons,” Duterte said. A presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, told the press that it may be time for a “reexamination” of “the manner in which these things are being carried out.”

But talk of a turning point seems premature. With thousands dead and ample evidence of systemic abuse by police, only six murder cases linked to these extrajudicial killings have been brought to court, according to the Department of Justice. Not a single officer has been convicted.

Now, after weeks of promising justice, the government seems to be doubling down on denial, suggesting, contrary to evidence, that the teenagers were killed by unnamed anti-Duterte forces, not the police or their agents.

“It should not come as a surprise that these malignant elements would conspire to sabotage the president’s campaign to rid the Philippines of illegal drugs and criminality,” said Abella, the presidential spokesman. This, he said, “may include creating scenarios stoking public anger against the government.”

He did not provide evidence to substantiate the claim.