Philip­pines po­lice use hos­pi­tals to hide drug killings

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The res­i­dents of Old Balara hid in their homes when gun­fire erupted in their Manila district last Septem­ber. They didn’t see the po­lice op­er­a­tion that killed seven drug sus­pects that night. But they wit­nessed the gory aftermath and it haunts them still. That night, Her­lina Alim said she watched po­lice haul away the men’s bod­ies, leav­ing trails of blood. “They were dragged down the al­ley like pigs,” she said. Her neigh­bor Lenlen Magano said she saw three bod­ies, face down and mo­tion­less, piled at the end of the al­ley while po­lice stood calmly by.

It was at least an hour, ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents, be­fore the vic­tims were thrown into a truck and taken to hos­pi­tal in what a po­lice re­port said was a bid to save their lives. Old Balara’s chief, the elected head of the district, told Reuters he was per­plexed. They were al­ready dead, Al­lan Franza said, so why take them to hos­pi­tal? An anal­y­sis of crime data from two of Metro Manila’s five po­lice dis­tricts and in­ter­views with doc­tors, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials and vic­tims’ fam­i­lies point to one an­swer: Po­lice were send­ing corpses to hos­pi­tals to de­stroy ev­i­dence at crime scenes and hide the fact that they were ex­e­cut­ing drug sus­pects.

The drug men­ace

Thou­sands of peo­ple have been killed since Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte took of­fice on June 30 last year and de­clared war on what he called “the drug men­ace.” Among them were the seven vic­tims from Old Balara who were de­clared dead on ar­rival at hos­pi­tal. A Reuters anal­y­sis of po­lice re­ports cov­er­ing the first eight months of the drug war re­veals hun­dreds of cases like those in Old Balara. In Que­zon City Po­lice District and neigh­bor­ing Manila Po­lice District, 301 vic­tims were taken to hos­pi­tal af­ter po­lice drug op­er­a­tions. Only two sur­vived. The rest were dead on ar­rival.

The data also shows a sharp in­crease in the num­ber of drug sus­pects de­clared dead on ar­rival in these two dis­tricts each month. There were 10 cases at the start of the drug war in July 2016, rep­re­sent­ing 13 per­cent of po­lice drug shoot­ing deaths. By Jan­uary 2017, the tally had risen to 51 cases or 85 per­cent. The to­tals grew along with in­ter­na­tional and do­mes­tic con­dem­na­tion of Duterte’s cam­paign. This in­crease was no co­in­ci­dence, said a po­lice com­man­der in Manila, who spoke to Reuters on con­di­tion of anonymity.

In late 2016, he said, po­lice be­gan send­ing vic­tims to hos­pi­tals to avoid crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tions and me­dia at­ten­tion that might show they were ex­e­cut­ing drug sus­pects. A Reuters in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year found that when po­lice opened fire in drug op­er­a­tions, they killed 97 per­cent of peo­ple they shot. The Manila com­man­der said po­lice de­pended on emer­gency room doc­tors be­ing too fo­cused on the pa­tients to care about why they were shot. The doc­tors “aren’t ask­ing any ques­tions. They only record it: DOA,” he said.

But five doc­tors told Reuters they were trou­bled by the ris­ing num­ber of po­lice-re­lated DOAs. Four said many drug sus­pects brought to hos­pi­tal had been shot in the head and heart, some­times at close range - pre­cise and un­sur­viv­able wounds that un­der­mined po­lice claims that sus­pects were in­jured dur­ing chaotic ex­changes of gun­fire. Os­car Al­bay­alde, Metro Manila’s po­lice chief, said he had never heard of of­fi­cers tak­ing dead sus­pects to hos­pi­tal to cover up crime scenes. “We will have that in­ves­ti­gated,” he told Reuters. If that in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed po­lice were “in­ten­tion­ally mov­ing these dead bod­ies and bring­ing them to the hos­pi­tals just to al­ter the ev­i­dence, then I think we have to make them ex­plain.”

Duterte’s of­fice de­clined to ex­pand on Al­bay­alde’s re­sponse to Reuters’ ques­tions. Ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports about the in­ci­dents, sus­pects shot dur­ing op­er­a­tions were “im­me­di­ately rushed” to hos­pi­tal. “The most im­por­tant (thing) is the life of the per­son,” said Randy Llan­deral, a precinct com­man­der in Que­zon City. The po­lice re­ports re­viewed by Reuters showed Llan­deral had led or joined op­er­a­tions in which 13 drug sus­pects ended up dead on ar­rival. Llan­deral said all sus­pects were shot in self-de­fense dur­ing le­git­i­mate op­er­a­tions.

The Manila po­lice com­man­der, a re­tired se­nior of­fi­cer and some doc­tors be­lieve there is a cover up. Hospi­tal­iz­ing drug sus­pects who have been shot al­lows po­lice to project a more car­ing im­age, said the Manila com­man­der. The re­tired of­fi­cer agreed. “It is ba­si­cally a ploy to make the pub­lic be­lieve that the po­lice are mind­ful of the safety and sur­vival of sus­pects,” he said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. The Manila com­man­der said his of­fi­cers were in­structed to shoot at “sen­si­tive ar­eas.” Sus­pects who sur­vived were shot again to fin­ish them off or smoth­ered with their own cloth­ing, he said.

A Reuters ex­am­i­na­tion of the Old Balara in­ci­dent and sim­i­lar op­er­a­tions also sug­gests that the pur­pose of hos­pi­tal runs was to de­stroy ev­i­dence rather than save lives. Po­lice man­han­dled gun­shot vic­tims and showed no ur­gency in get­ting them med­i­cal treatment, said three sets of fam­ily mem­bers and other wit­nesses. Re­mov­ing bod­ies makes it harder to work out what re­ally hap­pened. “You oblit­er­ate the crime scene - the ev­i­dence,” said Rizaldy Rivera, an agent at the Philip­pines’ Na­tional Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion who has in­ves­ti­gated al­le­ga­tions of po­lice bru­tal­ity. Po­lice foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors at the scene, said Rivera, must carry out their work on what is ef­fec­tively a “tam­pered crime scene.”

Scene of Crime Op­er­a­tives, or SOCO units as po­lice foren­sic teams are called, process crime scenes and con­duct au­top­sies. Aure­lio Trampe, the po­lice gen­eral who over­sees SOCO, said po­lice of­fi­cers haven’t been re­mov­ing bod­ies to al­ter crime scenes. He said they have the dis­cre­tion to dis­re­gard crime-scene in­ves­tiga­tive pro­ce­dures “just as long as they could save lives.”

SOCO can still col­lect ev­i­dence from bod­ies once they reach the hos­pi­tal, but doesn’t al­ways do so. In­stead, said SOCO foren­sic chief Rey­naldo Calaoa, that task falls to a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor as­signed to the case. That in­ves­ti­ga­tor of­ten hails from the same sta­tion as the col­leagues who killed the sus­pect. Such prac­tices can leave the sys­tem open to abuse, said Raquel Del Rosario For­tun, an in­de­pen­dent foren­sic sci­en­tist and chair of the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines Manila pathol­ogy depart­ment. “They do the shoot­ing, they do the killing - and they in­ves­ti­gate them­selves,” she said. “Im­punity, that’s what’s hap­pen­ing.”

Cold to the touch

Old Balara is part of Que­zon City, the largest of the 17 cities and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that make up Metro Manila, and the most pop­u­lous city in the Philip­pines. Old Balara district chief Franza said po­lice in­sisted his staff of vol­un­teer se­cu­rity guards bring drug-war ca­su­al­ties from op­er­a­tions to the hos­pi­tal - even when it was clear they were dead. Be­cause he has as­sisted the po­lice by trans­port­ing ca­su­al­ties, the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies have ac­cused him and his staff of com­plic­ity in the killings, he said.

In March, Franza de­cided he had had enough. Keep re­spond­ing to po­lice calls, he told his staff, but don’t take a body to hos­pi­tal with­out the go-ahead from SOCO crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tors. “I de­cided not to take ac­tion which I think is not proper,” said Franza. The seven vic­tims from Old Balara ar­rived at East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter stacked in a flatbed truck and another ve­hi­cle, said Jerome Paez, an at­tend­ing physi­cian at the emer­gency room that night. Most had been shot in the head and many also had mul­ti­ple gun­shots in their chests, he said. None were breath­ing or had a pulse.

“All of them were cold to the touch,” said Paez, who has dealt with 21 drug sus­pects pro­nounced dead on ar­rival. The vic­tims had been re­fused ad­mis­sion ear­lier at Que­zon City Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal’s emer­gency room, a 15-minute drive away, be­cause they were al­ready dead, said district chief Franza. The hos­pi­tal told Reuters it had no record of re­ceiv­ing pa­tients from Old Balara that night. The Old Balara bod­ies were al­ready in the morgue of East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter by the time the mother of vic­tim Elmer Gayoso ar­rived. She asked Reuters to with­hold her name, say­ing she feared ret­ri­bu­tion from the po­lice.

Gayoso had been shot through the head and the heart, she said, and the head­shot had de­stroyed his face. She said her hus­band iden­ti­fied him by scour­ing his corpse for fa­mil­iar child­hood scars. The wounds were so grave that she didn’t be­lieve that the po­lice took Gayoso to the hos­pi­tal to save his life. “That was their pre­tense,” she said, weep­ing. The killings also trou­bled Paez, the ER doc­tor. “We doc­u­mented ev­ery­thing, just in case in the fu­ture it is needed for in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said.

Even if doc­tors at East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter sus­pect a new ar­rival is dead, hos­pi­tal pro­to­col re­quires them to try to re­sus­ci­tate the pa­tient, said Paez. This is costly and wastes time at a big pub­lic hos­pi­tal teem­ing with pa­tients. In a re­cent visit by Reuters, old peo­ple wear­ing oxy­gen masks lay un­mov­ing on gur­neys. New pa­tients ar­rived ev­ery few min­utes. Asked about the num­ber of drug sus­pects ar­riv­ing dead at hos­pi­tal, the act­ing di­rec­tor of the East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Vic­to­ria Abe­samis, said: “I can­not cat­e­gor­i­cally say that the po­lice are bring­ing these dead bod­ies be­cause they want to cover up. I think I will give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt.”

Lawrence Bello and three other doc­tors at East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter in­ter­viewed by Reuters also ex­pressed un­ease about han­dling dead-on-ar­rival cases from po­lice op­er­a­tions. Bello said the po­lice would some­times de­liver bod­ies that were al­ready dis­play­ing rigor mor­tis, which sets in sev­eral hours af­ter death. East Av­enue would get two or three such bod­ies per month, he said. Bello has dealt with 20 cases where sus­pects were dead on ar­rival fol­low­ing a po­lice op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Que­zon City Po­lice District data. One of them, Bello said, had a sin­gle gun­shot wound. The bul­let had en­tered be­low the chin and ex­ited through the top of the head. Bello said he found the in­jury “quite ques­tion­able.”

Such an in­jury is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with vic­tims of sui­cide or ex­e­cu­tion, said Homer Ven­ters of Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights, a group based in New York that in­ves­ti­gates mass atroc­i­ties. “It is very hard for that to hap­pen when a per­son isn’t fully com­pli­ant,” he said. Ven­ters didn’t ex­am­ine the body that Bello re­ferred to. Pa­tel Mayuga, another ER doc­tor at East Av­enue Med­i­cal Cen­ter, has pro­nounced 10 vic­tims of po­lice shoot­ings dead on ar­rival, ac­cord­ing to Que­zon City Po­lice District data. Sus­pects who are dead on ar­rival usu­ally have “clean shots” in the fore­head or chest, sug­gest­ing the killings were in­ten­tional, said Mayuga. “If they are shot in the chest or head, there was time for the at­tacker to pre­pare,” he said.

Many other drug sus­pects brought to hos­pi­tals in Que­zon City by po­lice were also shot in the head and heart, of­ten from less than a me­ter away, four doc­tors said. One Jan­uary evening, po­lice de­liv­ered five bod­ies in a small jeep­ney bus to the state-run No­valiches District Hos­pi­tal in Que­zon City. The floor of the jeep­ney bus was pud­dled with the vic­tims’ blood and ex­cre­ment, re­called Lawrence La­guno, the ER doc­tor on duty. Ac­cord­ing to po­lice, the vic­tims had all pulled guns and opened fire on un­der­cover of­fi­cers dur­ing an anti-drug op­er­a­tion. They missed, and the po­lice re­turned fire. —Reuters

MANILA: Po­lice of­fi­cers in­ves­ti­gate a dead body of an al­leged drug dealer (his face cov­ered with pack­ing tape) in Manila. —AFP

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