The incident on Sunday was recorded by a witness in a graphic video. It showed Nuezca pull out a pistol and shoot the gray-haired mother in the head and then her son as they clutched each other, before shooting them each a second time. The video quickly went viral, prompting an administrative investigation and murder charges against the police officer. He has since turned himself in to authorities.
The incident is the latest to spark public outrage over the thousands of police killings in the country since the populist Duterte was elected in 2016. Under his bloody drug war, official figures report almost 6,000 killed in police operations as of the end of September.
Human rights watchdogs estimate the deaths could reach 30,000 — including people killed by masked vigilantes. Human Rights Watch said drug war deaths spiked by more than 50 percent from April to July during the pandemic lockdown.
Philippine news media reported that the confrontation in Tarlac became heated as Nuezca moved to arrest Frank Gregorio for using an improvised noisemaker — a small cannon made out of bamboo or tin cans — typically used during new year celebrations. His mother wrapped her arms around him so he couldn’t be taken away.
Nuezca’s daughter, a minor of unconfirmed age, was also present and was seen in the video walking around before telling Sonya Gregorio to release her son.
“My father is a policeman!” the girl yelled.
“I don’t care!” Sonya Gregorio answered, mocking her.
“You son of a whore,” Nuezca said. “Do you want me to finish you off right now?” He then shot them both as witnesses screamed and the clip was cut short.
Alyssa Calosing, who reportedly recorded the video, told local radio broadcaster DZMM that others had seen Nuezca hit Gregorio beforehand and that people there were crying and appealing for him to stop.
Calosing said that after shooting the two, Nuezca collected his daughter and “they walked off like it was nothing. . . . I felt I was numb, like my soul left my body. Then when I felt something move, I began jumping in anger and crying.”
Nuezca could not be reached for comment, but a police chief in Tarlac, Noriel Ramboao, told DZMM that he had admitted killing the Gregorios. “He said that when he saw the argument between his daughter and the old woman, his view darkened and he couldn’t control himself,” Ramboao said. Philippine media reported that Nuezca previously faced two charges of homicide that were dismissed on grounds of a lack of evidence.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque condemned the killings, which he said were “not service-related.” Nuezca had been off duty and visiting his home in Tarlac, away from his assignment in Metro Manila.
“That policeman will be punished — no ifs, no buts,” Roque said. “The president will not protect him.”
Debold Sinas, chief of the country’s National Police, said the killings were an “isolated” case, but human rights advocates and Duterte’s critics saw them as part of a broader culture of impunity and violence.
An International Criminal Court report said last week there was a “ reasonable basis ” to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed during Duterte’s term. The ICC is set to decide on whether to pursue a full investigation of the Philippines within the first half of next year.
Nuezca’s case is hardly the first in which police shootings have been caught on video.
In April, the police killing of former soldier Winston Ragos also went viral. Ragos, who was later revealed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, was also shot point blank after an argument with police on allegedly violating quarantine restrictions. An investigation later found that the police involved murdered Ragos and planted evidence against him.
The killing of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in 2017 also sparked outrage. Police at the time claimed that he was involved in drugs and opened fire first — but surveillance video showed police dragging his body to the place where it was later found. Three officers were convicted of his murder a year later.
Despite the flood of killings, however, both Duterte and his drug war remain overwhelmingly popular in the country. He even scored a 91 percent approval rating in a Pulse Asia survey earlier this year.
Various hashtags on the murder of the Gregorios, including #StopTheKillingsPH and #JusticeforSonyaGregorio, trended in the Philippines on Monday.
One social media user, Anthony Siy, tweeted about how a video of a police killing in the United States sparked protests. “That video [of Nuezca] is even worse,” he wrote. “Don’t call it an isolated case — it’s the logical conclusion of a culture of impunity and unchecked abuse.”
Duterte has yet to comment on the case, but he has a history of assuring police of his protection.
On Twitter, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno shared a news item that Duterte had allowed police to carry guns while off duty.
“This happens because of the tolerance for crookedness and abuse,” Diokno wrote. “To those who do not see the truth, I hope this video finally opens your eyes.”