Police stand guard at the ancestral home of Zenaida Luz in the Philippine town of Gloria. (Kimberly Dela Cruz for The Washington Post)

For years there have been rumors about the masked men on motorbikes.

The “vigilante killers” who stalk the Philippines ride two by two, sidling up to targets, shooting at close range. They hit their mark, then speed away. They almost always escape police.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power promising to “kill all” the country’s criminals, there have been thousands of these deaths, part of a rush of violence that has claimed at least 4,500 lives in less than five months.

Duterte has repeatedly urged on the killings yet denies a state link. It is gangland justice, he says — it is out of his control.

But a murder on the island of Mindoro offers the most compelling evidence in years of what many have long believed: Some “vigilante killings” are coordinated hits with links to the police.

In October, a 51-year-old anti-crime activist named Zenaida Luz stepped out of her home and was shot to death by two men on a motorbike. 

Police who happened to be near the scene apprehended two suspects in flimsy disguises — not drug dealers, but high-ranking officers. Both were arrested and charged. 

The case sent a shock through the Philippines. Local journalists and rights groups have worked for years to find links between summary executions and the state, stymied by the fact that few cases are ever investigated.

As a rare instance in which “riding in tandem” shooters were actually caught, and suspects actually charged, Luz’s case adds to a body of evidence that stretches back two decades to Duterte’s time as a city mayor.

Then, as now, there was talk of state-linked “death squads” targeting crime suspects and taking out foes. Then, as now, this type of killing was dismissed as drug-world violence, giving would-be assassins license to shoot. 

“They kill activists and pass it off as drug-related. They kill their enemies and pass it off as drug-related,” said Jose Malvar Villegas Jr., president of Citizens Crime Watch, an anti-crime group for which Luz worked. “They kill everything.”

It is not evident why Luz was murdered, but her killing was clearly supposed to look like it was linked to the drug trade. From the approach on motorbikes to the costumes, every step was standard operating procedure for the would-be “vigilantes” of the day.

The killers came at night, as they often do. Luz received a text message from a man who said he needed help — not unusual for an activist who took on local oligarchs and law enforcement. 

About 11:40 p.m. on Oct. 9, she stepped into the humid island air and was ambushed, shot in the back, the stomach and the leg, according to the police report. 

When Luz’s son Edward saw her on the pavement, he feared she had been framed. “If they weren’t caught,” he said, “everyone would have connected my mom to drugs.”

A shrine at the family home of Zenaida Luz dedicated to her awards and accomplishments. (Kimberly Dela Cruz for The Washington Post)

Members of the Gloria police department were in quick pursuit. They chased the gunmen down rural roads and saw a second motorbike — backup — peeling away.

A shootout sent the lead bike skidding. As officers approached, the injured men yelled “Tropa! Tropa!” or “Troops! Troops!” to signal they, too, were police — Senior Inspector Magdaleno Pimentel Jr. and Inspector Markson Almeranez, in mask and wig.

Both men were graduates of the Philippine National Police Academy assigned to work on Mindoro. In September, Almeranez was given an award by Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa, a Duterte ally who is the face of the war on drugs.

Ruel Magtibay, a police officer from the town of Socorro, where Almeranez was the chief, said the whole station was “surprised” by the arrest. He declined to speculate on whether Luz’s death was linked to police or personal matters — both are possible, rights groups say. 

The Socorro police station, where Inspector Markson Almeranez was the chief. (Kimberly Dela Cruz for The Washington Post)

Inspector Ruel Magtibay, deputy chief of the Socorro police, said the station was surprised by the arrest. (Kimberly Dela Cruz for The Washington Post)

Duterte’s endorsement of extrajudicial killing and hints that perpetrators will walk “serve as a dog whistle for the formation of death squads that operate at the behest of local government and police,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Once a government — any government — has implicitly or explicitly given the green light for death squads to operate,” he said, “it’s extremely difficult and dangerous to keep them under control and to rein them in if or when they go rogue.”

For those who have tracked Duterte’s rise, none of this is surprising. As the mayor of Davao, a city in the southern Philippines, Duterte earned the nickname “the Death Squad Mayor” because of the hit men who stalked his streets, killing suspected criminals and government critics alike.

A 2009 investigation found that hundreds of people, including children as young as 14, were executed by assassins with ties to local officials and the police. The model was later copied by other cities, most notably Tagum, where city-supported killing teams morphed into pay-for-hit operations.

Rather than distance himself from the “Death Squad” label, Duterte embraced it. “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination,” he told the media in 2009.

Killing became a campaign promise. “If I make it to the presidential palace,” he said when he was running for president, “I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men and do-nothings, you better get out, because I’ll kill you.”

Faced with criticism at home and abroad, Duterte now alternates between denying involvement and calling for blood. In September, when a man claiming to be a former member of a Davao death squad testified that Duterte ordered hit men to kill dozens, the president’s team called it a lie.

But on Oct. 16, days after Luz was murdered, Duterte told the press that it was “fine” for him to encourage vigilantes. “If the vigilante would take over, I cannot control it,” he said.

Perlita Alvarez stands inside the office of Citizen Crime Watch, where her sister Zenaida Luz had been a volunteer for years. (Kimberly Dela Cruz for The Washington Post)

The call to chaos is what terrifies Luz’s family members, who are now living under police protection. With Duterte promising to protect police who kill, will the men who allegedly killed Luz ever face trial?

Gloria’s police chief, Ruel Lito Fronda, acknowledged that it may be tough. The suspects were “uncooperative,” he said, and had yet to surrender key pieces of evidence, including their phones.

On Mindoro, the killing continues. In late November, Wilson Viray, 51, a former member of the town council in Naujan, succumbed to 13 gunshots wounds. 

They came for him on a motorbike, then they sped away.

Kimberly dela Cruz contributed to this report.