MANILA — The epicenter of the Philippines’ war on drugs is shifting away from the capital as the body count continues to spiral upward, according to a new Amnesty International report on Monday that calls for the United Nations to investigate the deaths of thousands of mostly poor Filipinos at the hands of police and vigilantes.
In the three years since President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed the crackdown, at least 6,600 people have been killed in police anti-drug operations, with more than 20,000 others killed by unknown perpetrators, according to the report. In the only case so far that has led to a conviction, three police officers were found guilty in November of murdering 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in 2017.
The slaughter “has had the effect of creating a climate of total impunity in the country, in which police and others are free to kill without consequence,” the report said.
Bulacan province, north of Manila, has become the bloodiest killing field, the trend spurred on by the transfer to the region of police commanders who had overseen abuses in the Manila region, Amnesty International said. Among them is a provincial director who oversaw police operations in Caloocan City, part of metropolitan Manila, when Delos Santos was killed.
The findings place new pressure on Duterte, who has remained defiant ahead of a U.N. vote expected this week on an Iceland-sponsored resolution calling for an investigation of the bloodshed. In recent days, the president’s office has vowed to block any such move and said it would bar investigators from entering the Philippines.
Those who initiated the proposal have been “hoodwinked into believing false narratives” from Duterte’s critics, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Friday.
“They have no business interfering with us,” he said. “They are insulting the intelligence of the Filipino people. At the same time, they are insulting our sovereignty.”
On Monday, Panelo accused Amnesty International of politicizing the killings and urged victims’ families to file charges.
Duterte has previously threatened to arrest any investigators from the International Criminal Court, which has expressed interest in probing thousands of drug-war deaths. He withdrew the Philippines from the court in protest.
Amnesty also urged the ICC to expedite an investigation. “Investigations can be done even if the country does not cooperate,” said Butch Olano, the rights group’s section director.
Among the recent victims of the drug war was a 3-year-old girl who was fatally shot by police officers during a drug raid. Police claimed that her father used her as a human shield, but her mother said otherwise.
Responding to the case in recent days, former police chief-turned-senator Ronald Dela Rosa said, “S--- happens.”
In a statement Monday, the Philippine National Police said the criminal justice system was fully functional and that any investigation by a foreign body was unnecessary.
The drug war has been the signature policy of Duterte, who won office in 2016 vowing to eliminate the narcotics scourge and exterminate drug dealers. At the same time, he has distanced himself from the United States, Manila’s long-standing ally, and pursued closer ties with China.
The Amnesty International report examined 20 cases covering 27 killings from May 2018 to April 2019. Eighteen of the 20 cases involved deaths in police operations. In all cases, authorities claimed that the victims “fought back,” a detail Olano said seemed “copy-pasted” across police reports.
Family members and witnesses contradicted the police accounts. In some cases, they said, the victims were asleep when police arrived. In others, the victims went missing before turning up dead. Some families reported they were too poor to afford a gun. In one case, the autopsy showed the gunshot had a downward trajectory — indicating that the victim could have been kneeling when shot.
“There was a palpable sense of despair and helplessness at the prospect of any form of domestic accountability,” said Rawya Rageh, one of the researchers behind the Amnesty International report. “This is a vital vote, and member states will make it very clear that something has to be done about the situation. Those who choose not to vote or not to partake are supporting the thousands of killings.”
Despite the carnage, Duterte remains popular with Filipinos. The president’s allies won a big victory in midterm elections in May, and the latest polls show him with a roughly 80 percent satisfaction rating. Still, an almost equal percentage from a March survey showed that Filipinos worry that they or someone they know will fall victim to an extrajudicial killing.