Burials, exhumations, outrage: A day in the endless Philippine drug war

The Rev. Flaviano Villanueva walks with Janelle “Gemma” Angeles Gallon, widow of Patricio Baran, at Tala Cemetery in Caloocan City, north of Manila. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)
The Rev. Flaviano Villanueva walks with Janelle “Gemma” Angeles Gallon, widow of Patricio Baran, at Tala Cemetery in Caloocan City, north of Manila. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)

MANILA — The priest led the widow along the winding cemetery path, past children playing among the tombs and food vendors with radios blaring the morning news, to the place where Manila’s poorest are buried. The “apartments,” as Filipinos call them, are concrete boxes just big enough for a body and nothing more, stacked six levels high like condos in a city of the dead.

The Rev. Flaviano Villanueva guided the woman over uneven ground and broken glass to a grave half-obscured by undergrowth. Patricio Baran had been buried as he lived: on the bottom rung.

Villanueva made the sign of the cross and said a prayer. Then he sprinkled the grave with holy water and nodded at a young man holding a metal pole.

It was time.

The young man began pounding on the grave next to a plaque that said “RIP.” On the 43rd attempt, the pole punched through.

As Villanueva crouched over a black body bag and his bright purple stole brushed the ground, a man in a soccer jersey reached into the grave and pulled out Baran’s skull.

“Pass me the flashlight, Gemma,” Villanueva said to Baran’s widow as he carefully handled her husband’s bones.

The dead are rising in the Philippines. Six years into a drug war that has claimed an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people, Villanueva is leading an unlikely quest for accountability. Baran’s exhumation was the 47th the priest had performed in the past year, with four more scheduled later that day.

Each one was an opportunity for the family to get the autopsy — and answers — they never received when their loved one was slain about five years ago. In many cases, police claimed that those killed had opened fire on officers. In others, the victims were slain by masked assailants who relatives suspected were police, or simply dumped on the side of the road. Some families have said they were pressured to forgo an autopsy and sign a bogus death certificate.

“Healing cannot take place when the person is fed with lies,” Villanueva said after the 47-year-old’s remains were loaded into the back of a truck and taken to a hospital for examination.

As Baran’s body was being disinterred, a family a few miles away was preparing to bury two of its own. Shot dead by police, the Montoya brothers would be among the last killed during President Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure — but not the last killed in his drug war.

When Duterte steps down June 30, the suspicious slayings are likely to carry on. His successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator, has promised to continue the bloody but popular policy.

His election also makes it unlikely Duterte will be held accountable. Marcos’s vice president is Duterte’s daughter.

With the drug war set to continue, The Washington Post chronicled a day in the lives of its victims. From a wake to five exhumations to a funeral, it was 24 hours full of pain and anger but few answers.

‘They kill people like rats’

The coffins sat on the side of the busy street, their open lids just inches from the jeepneys and motorcycle taxis sputtering past in the afternoon heat. Few people seemed to notice. A woman chopped chicken feet next to the coffins as children played nearby and stray dogs dozed underneath. In Tondo, one of Manila’s largest slums, Duterte’s drug war long ago became part of daily life.

But for the Montoya family, the grief was still searing. Less than two weeks earlier, brothers Ronnie and Jay-Ar had gone to change a car battery and never come home. After 48 hours, police claimed that the siblings had been slain during an anti-drug operation.

“What happened to them was so scripted,” said Joyce Carreon, Jay-Ar’s partner, as she attended the roadside wake. “What they did to them is total nonsense.”

Since the beginning of Duterte’s administration, human rights organizations have raised questions about suspicious police killings: drug users shot in the back or the head, as if executed; narcotics seemingly planted at crime scenes; the same guns supposedly found on different victims; police reports apparently copied and pasted, including the stock phrase “nanlaban,” or “they fought back.”

The government admits that authorities have killed more than 6,000 people in drug-related cases in the past six years. But human rights groups put the number between 20,000 and 30,000 when including attacks by masked gunmen. What is clear is that almost no one has been held accountable.

“Duterte made no secret about saying the police should kill, the military should kill, and that he had their backs,” said Wilnor Montilla Papa, a campaigner for Amnesty International. When his organization interviewed some of the gunmen, they admitted to receiving orders and payment from local police.

The International Criminal Court launched an investigation, only to suspend it after Duterte’s administration said it was conducting its own probe. But there are few signs the government is taking the inquiry seriously, Papa said, and Marcos’s election makes prosecutions even less likely.

That leaves families like the Montoyas with little chance of learning the truth.

Ronnie Montoya was the de facto head of the impoverished household. The 39-year-old had scrounged materials to add two stories to the family shed so his father and six siblings could each have a room. Money was tight but the mechanic and handyman often accepted cigarettes or soft drinks in lieu of payment, a practice that made him so popular his siblings joked he should run for office.

Jay-Ar was a handsome 32-year-old who sometimes fell in with the wrong crowd. He was arrested a few years ago for allegedly possessing “shabu,” or methamphetamine, and spent about a year in jail before being released without a conviction, his family said. Police did not respond to requests for records on the brothers.

Jay-Ar seemed to have put his problems behind him, according to Carreon, whom he’d been dating for nine months. When a buddy said his girlfriend needed her car battery replaced, he asked Jay-Ar if Ronnie could do the job.

The girlfriend’s driver picked the brothers up on the afternoon of May 28. Ronnie’s partner, Gloria Sarmiento, said she had a bad feeling about the job, but her husband insisted, saying it paid about $65, enough to feed the entire family for a week.

When Jay-Ar video-called Carreon a few hours later, he appeared pale and nervous but wouldn’t say what was wrong, she recalled. Then the call ended abruptly.

“Why aren’t you coming home yet?” Carreon angrily texted him, but he never answered.

On the afternoon of May 30, roughly 48 hours after the brothers had last spoken to their family, police announced that two men had been killed during a “buy-bust” in Quezon City, about an hour from Tondo.

According to the police, Ronnie and Jay-Ar had tried to sell undercover officers bricks of shabu worth 68 million pesos, or about $1.25 million. When the brothers realized it was a setup, they “immediately drew their firearms and fired,” according to a police statement. “Left with no other option, operatives fired back.”

The head of the Philippine National Police even held a news conference at the scene, with the drugs on display and a handgun — allegedly discarded by the Montoyas — conspicuously visible on the ground behind him.

The story didn’t make sense to the family, who struggled to see how a generous handyman and his brother could have orchestrated a million-dollar drug deal.

“They wouldn’t have fought, even in a fistfight,” said their sister, Rosita Montoya, 35.

“They say they brought out guns, but those two didn’t even have a peso,” said Carreon. “They had to bum cigarettes.”

Other things also didn’t add up, they said. Why had the brothers vanished two days before the alleged shootout? What had happened to the girlfriend’s driver, who was now missing? Why did Ronnie have a new bruise over his eye? And why, according to the family, had the brothers been found wearing different clothing than when they disappeared — clothing that had no bullet holes?

The family suspected the brothers had been delivered to police by other drug suspects — a practice known as palit-ulo, or “switch heads” — and then killed.

As the family was mourning, Rosita Montoya received a Facebook message from a stranger instructing her to call a number. The man who answered said he was a police officer and asked if she wanted a bag of money that “could not be used” as evidence, as it might belong to the brothers. The family felt it was a bribe to keep them quiet.

The police did not respond to requests for comment.

Four witnesses who spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution cast doubt on the official explanation. Three said they heard at least 10 shots, but they all seemed to come from one direction. A fourth witness said he saw police remove a body wrapped in a plastic sheet from a car and lay it on the ground before the gunfire.

“They weren’t killed here,” the witness said, adding that police “pretended to run and have a shootout.”

The Montoya family weren’t aware of the witnesses but were nonetheless convinced of the brothers’ innocence. As he sat in the cramped room Ronnie had built for him so he didn’t have to sleep in his car, Rolando “Rolly” Montoya scoffed at the idea that his younger brothers had tried to sell $1.25 million worth of drugs.

“Look at our house,” he said, gesturing to the uneven floors and walls made of plywood and packaging foam. “We have nothing.”

Ronnie had voted for Duterte, the family said. Now he and his brother were among the thousands of victims of the president’s drug war.

“They kill people like rats,” Rolly said.

‘What about those left behind?’

As the Montoya family prepared the next morning for the funeral, the Rev. Villanueva was busy bringing up the dead. After disinterring Patricio Baran, the priest hurried across town to another cemetery for the four other exhumations.

Father Flavie, as he is known, had spent the past six years challenging officials over the drug war. A former meth addict who left a life of “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” for the priesthood, Villanueva launched a program to support the soaring number of victims’ families. At a time when drug users were considered radioactive, Villanueva’s advocacy had earned him both death threats and a sedition charge he is still fighting.

But Villanueva was also battling time. Poor Filipino families often rent a grave for an initial five years. If they can’t renew, unclaimed remains are thrown into a mass grave. Now the first wave of drug-war dead were coming to the end of their leases.

Villanueva had been anticipating the expirations, however. And, ironically, the end of the leases offered families that had been too poor to pay for an autopsy a second chance at getting answers.

This morning the priest was unhappy to find that the four exhumations had already been completed. Villanueva preferred to supervise so no remains would be left behind, but instead, the bodies had been packed into cardboard boxes with their gravestones on top.

Roel Canibel, 42, had been slain on June 25, 2017, inside his house by an unknown assailant.

Armando David, 62, was gunned down by intruders the next day in front of his wife of 40 years. The family moved out of the house for three months because they couldn’t sleep.

Royroy Caraan, 30, was killed around the same time. His partner found his body in an empty lot.

“He was completely naked — no shorts, no briefs, like a pig,” said Jacquelyn Delumen, 29, who was left with four kids. “There was no blood, too. It was clean. They say that if it’s like that, they’re tortured.”

The last box belonged to Frederick Shoemaker. The 47-year-old was fixing a friend’s motorcycle on Feb. 20, 2017, when two men pulled up on a motorbike and fatally shot him. His partner, who was three months pregnant at the time and had begged him to quit using shabu, later heard that the gunmen were police officers.

“We have a law, so why do they judge people like that?” asked Malyn Alameda. “They end a life so quickly. What about those left behind?”

Now those left behind were gathered in front of Villanueva, who sprinkled the boxes with holy water and then led the relatives in a prayer.

“We ask your guidance, peace, justice and healing for their souls,” he said. “Please give the truth that is due so their stories will be whole and their healing will be complete. This we ask in Christ and the Holy Spirit, amen.”

“Amen,” the families said. Each group held a bright plastic folder of police reports and other documents. The priest explained that the remains would be examined by Raquel Fortun, one of only two forensic pathologists in the entire country. Then they would be cremated and returned to the families in urns.

Some families vowed to bring cases against the authorities for the killings. But others were simply relieved that their loved ones could have a better resting place. They had gotten to know one another through Villanueva’s organization. They hugged before leaving the cemetery in small groups, clutching their folders.

‘A bitter heart’

The coffins arrived at the cemetery with the rumble of engines. First it was dozens of motorcycle taxis with mourners in “Justice for Ronnie and Jay-Ar” T-shirts. Then it was two white SUVs bearing the bodies and blaring Celine Dion’s “The Prayer.” The procession wound past mausoleums that had been turned into homes, even restaurants.

The SUVs stopped and pallbearers bore the coffins for a few hundred yards until they reached the Montoya family plot.

As children clambered up mausoleums to get a better look, Carreon stood near the head of Jay-Ar’s coffin, clutching a photo of him and weeping behind oversize sunglasses. A few feet away, Sarmiento wailed over the body of her husband, Ronnie, lifting the glass cover so that she could stroke his face and clutch his hand one last time.

Then the coffins were closed and the pallbearers lifted them again, squeezing between tightly set mausoleums and passing them over tombs until they reached two open slots in an above-ground vault overlooked by a pigeon coop.

As masons began resealing the vault, Carreon sat on the ground, still gripping Jay-Ar’s photo as she watched his gravestone go up. Rosita Montoya hung near the back.

It had been almost two weeks since her brothers were killed. The family had paid authorities almost $250 — a sum the Montoyas couldn’t afford — for autopsies that would reveal little about what happened. The killings had left Rosita with “a bitter heart,” she said. But Villanueva was now helping the family, and she dared to hope.

It was almost dusk by the time the masons finished. The family rose to their feet and filed past the graves, patting them and whispering goodbye.