In the Philip­pine drug war, some too poor for a fu­neral

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JOE FREE­MAN for­eign@wash­post.com

navotas, philip­pines — Eric Clap­ton’s “Tears in Heaven” played over a loud­speaker as pall­bear­ers lifted the cas­ket of Ron­nel Jaraba out of the hearse and car­ried it into the depths of the San Jose Catholic Ceme­tery for burial.

Un­der a glar­ing sun, the cas­ket was opened one last time as the mourn­ers, many dressed in black shirts, said good­bye. His fa­ther leaned over the body, sob­bing, re­peat­ing the same words: “I did ev­ery­thing! I didn’t lack in any­thing!”

The burial fol­lowed a wake that lasted 12 days — as Jaraba’s fam­ily des­per­ately tried to raise money for the fu­neral.

Found with a gun­shot wound through the eye, he was be­lieved to be one of the more than 7,000 vic­tims of Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s “drug war,” car­ried out by the po­lice and vig­i­lante groups. Duterte has promised to rid the Philip­pines of drugs and the crime associated with the drug trade.

But the war on drugs here has been la­beled a war on the poor, and gen­er­at­ing the money for a fi­nal rest­ing place can be too dif­fi­cult for some fam­i­lies.

In Jaraba’s case, first the fam­ily “hag­gled” with the fu­neral home to bring down the price for ser­vices from $1,000 to about $750, said his older brother Rizaldino Jaraba, 40.

But wakes have associated costs, such as food for guests. The fam­ily held a wake that was twice as long as nor­mal as they tried to find a way to raise money for the burial.

Through the fam­ily of an­other vic­tim, they got help from a church pro­gram that as­sists with burial costs. Oth­er­wise, they didn’t know what they would do.

“We were afraid; that’s why we sought some­one we could ask for help,” Rizaldino Jaraba said.

The av­er­age fam­ily in­come for drug users in the Philip­pines is just over $200 a month, ac­cord­ing to a Jan­uary re­port by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional that cited gov­ern­ment statis­tics.

An anti-drugs po­lice of­fi­cer told the rights group of a scheme in which fu­neral homes give au­thor­i­ties a kick­back for each body, in­cen­tiviz­ing the po­lice to seek out pricey fu­neral homes when cheaper ones might ex­ist.

“Some­times, if I’m the in­ves­ti­ga­tor, I’ll bring the body to the big­gest and most ex­pen­sive [fu­neral home], be­cause they give the big­gest cuts,” the of­fi­cer re­port­edly said.

Orly Fer­nan­dez, the man­ager at Euse­bio’s Fu­neral Home, a busi­ness ac­cred­ited with law en­force­ment, de­nied that there are kick­backs, say­ing it would be dif­fi­cult for fu­neral homes to make any money if that were the case.

Dante Lu­bi­ciano, the chief of po­lice in Navotas, one of the com­mu­ni­ties most af­fected by the drug war, said he was un­aware of the al­leged ar­range­ment.

“This is the first time that some­body like you called me and tell [me about] that kind of prob­lem,” he said.

Duterte vowed to re­fo­cus his at­ten­tion on cor­rupt po­lice af­ter a South Korean busi­ness­man was killed, al­legedly by po­lice, in Oc­to­ber, spark­ing a diplo­matic scan­dal and prompt­ing the pres­i­dent to con­sider bring­ing in the mil­i­tary to deal with his drug war. In the in­terim, the killings have slowed but not stopped.

At a tra­di­tional wake in the Philip­pines, card games are held to keep vis­i­tors oc­cu­pied, and a por­tion of the win­nings is al­lot­ted to the be­reaved fam­ily. The stakes, how­ever, are nor­mally small and not enough to cover the costs of a fu­neral pack­age.

One day last week, Aileen Aquino, 19, was sit­ting by the cas­ket of her hus­band, Mark Chris­tian Me­sias, in Metro Manila’s Que­zon City as play­ers shuf­fled and dealt cards nearby.

“We still have a prob­lem with his burial,” she said. “We just need money for the place where he will be buried.”

Me­sias was shot four times in the head, and 17 bul­lets were re­cov­ered from his body, she said, adding that the au­topsy showed the bul­lets came from dif­fer­ent guns.

Although the fam­ily was still in need, she felt rel­a­tively more for­tu­nate than oth­ers who had to make more dras­tic choices. Some wakes have lasted weeks, while other fam­i­lies could not even af­ford them.

“They didn’t even have a cas­ket,” she said of an ac­quain­tance whose rel­a­tive was also killed as part of the drug war. “It was just a wooden box that they used to bury . . . . They just buried that one in the back yard be­cause they re­ally had no money at all.”

In the Navotas Pub­lic Ceme­tery, there have been sev­eral mass buri­als for vic­tims whose bod­ies were un­claimed. A man living at the ceme­tery said the bod­ies ar­rived in trucks.

The Baclaran Church in Manila has set up a pro­gram to help fam­i­lies with fu­neral costs.

Pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor Den­nis Fe­bre said that the church had al­ways of­fered sup­port but that the drug war com­pelled it to al­lot more help for vic­tims of ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings.

“We can­not wait for gov­ern­ment agen­cies to help,” he said. “These are the poor peo­ple who can­not even af­ford to buy their food for the day.”

He said the church has spent more than 1 mil­lion pe­sos, or nearly $20,000, help­ing fam­i­lies.

“It dou­bles, or triples even, [com­pared with] the num­ber of those clients that we ex­pe­ri­enced [be­fore],” he said.

Jaraba’s fam­ily was one of the re­cip­i­ents. They are thank­ful not to be in debt. But they are in pain.

“We can’t do any­thing about this. We don’t know the iden­tity [of the killers]. Even if we are rich, if we file charges, we don’t know the iden­tity, who the sus­pects are, noth­ing. Noth­ing will hap­pen. My brother will be an un­solved case,” Rizaldino Jaraba said.

“We al­ready ac­cepted it, the hard­ship. We’ll feel it for the rest of our lives.”

ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS

Grave­yard work­ers carry the closed cas­ket of Mar­lon Pepito, 42, to be placed in a tomb next to his brother Max­imo Pepito, 49, in Navotas, Philip­pines, on Jan. 31. Both were be­lieved to have been ex­e­cuted.

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