ISLANDOn May 11, 2017, Crisanto Lozano left early in the morning from his home in Manila. He had to renew his guard license, a requirement for his profession. By afternoon, he still had not returned, nor did he pick up the phone. Then the family realized that Crisanto’s younger brother, Juan Carlos, was also missing.
The next day, they heard news that two bodies had been discovered nearby. The brothers had been shot dead during a police operation.
“If they died of disease, I might be able to accept it with a free feeling in my heart,” says their mother, Llore Pasco. Instead, she says they were killed by police officers who operated with innocent impunity on the instructions of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
After declaring a so-called “war on drugs”, he had repeatedly called for the killing of drug addicts and everyone involved in drug trafficking. “If you know of any addicts, kill and kill them yourself, as it would be too painful to get their parents to do so,” Duterte said after a speech after joining in 2016.
“Of course the cops shoot and shoot and shoot,” Pasco says. “Because he ordered kill, kill, kill.”
The ICC prosecutor estimates that as many as 30,000 people were killed between July 2016 and March 2019.
For more than four years, Pasco, a massage therapist and now an activist with the Rise Up for Life and for Rights alliance, has fought for accountability and for bringing killings to an end. Along with six other mothers, she was among the first to publicly submit a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) calling for Duterte’s indictment.
Last month, the ICC confirmed that it would continue its investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed during Duterte’s war on drugs, declaring that it appeared to be a “widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population”. The announcement was “probably the best news on the human rights front since Marcos’ fall,” said Carlos Conde, a senior Philippine researcher at Human Rights Watch.
For Pasco and other mothers, the ICC Declaration offered a glimmer of hope. “It really is as if half the sun is shining over us,” she says.
It was in August 2018 that the mothers organizing themselves through Rise Up for Life and Rights, which has documented hundreds of drug war cases, first submitted their testimony to the ICC. The group was concerned, said Kristina Conti, a lawyer from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which represents the families. “At the time, this was the height of the killings,” she adds. Many other mothers had been reluctant to say no, for fear that more of their relatives might be targeted.
Lawyers working on drug war cases have also faced serious security risks. During Duterte’s presidency, 61 lawyers have been killed, including some of Conti’s colleagues. Earlier this year, Angelo Karlo Guillen, also a NUPL lawyer, was stabbed in the head. Fortunately, he survived the attack.
The large number of cases that lawyers are working on means it is difficult to determine why they have been targeted, Conti says, but many of those killed have been involved in drug cases. “There is a general fear – it is really unsaid – but taking on the defense of drug cases begs for the death penalty. You set a goal against your own head. ”
Despite the risks, the families decided to publicly request the ICC, believing that this was the only way to end the killings. “I think this kind of bravery or perseverance from a few of the mothers was transmitted,” Conti says. “Hope is contagious.”
‘Why should we be afraid?’
When the ICC announced a first investigation in 2018, Duterte responded by withdrawing from court and threatening to arrest the then prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, if she stepped foot in the country. However, the recall did not take effect until March 2019, and the ICC therefore still retains jurisdiction from the start of the Philippines’ membership in 2011 until that time.
Since then, Duterte, who is nearing the end of his six-year term, has continued to fire the ICC, refusing to cooperate with it and even stating that he will slap the judges.
However, he recently abandoned a controversial plan to run for vice president, which critics said would be a violation of the Constitution, saying he would prepare his defense. Many suspect he will be succeeded as president by his daughter Sara Duterte, who could protect him from prosecution. She has denied plans to run and did not run for office last week ahead of Friday’s deadline. Replacements are allowed until November 15th.
It is believed that only one of the deaths in connection with the anti-drug operations – the murder of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos – has led to a verdict. Three police officers were found guilty of murder.
The president is very lucky, Pasco points out, because he has been given a chance to defend himself. Her own children were denied the right to do so.
Pasco was told that her sons had been involved in a robbery and that they were shot because they had tried to fight back against the police. The narrator knows ugly about activists and human rights advocates; the same reasoning — that the victims fought back — is routinely given by Philippine police to defend extrajudicial killings carried out during their operations. According to the ICC, this allegation is “consistently undermined by other information” regarding drug war killings.
Both Pasco’s sons had previously used drugs but had since stopped doing so, she said. Crisanto, 34, who was married with four children, worked in another province as a security guard. He returned home once a month when he received his salary, to see the family. Juan Carlos, 31, worked as a janitor and worker. He was a sweet son, she says. Every time he was paid, he tried to give some of his salary to her, and when she refused, he would treat his nieces and nephews instead. He did not have to get married, he wanted to tell them, because they were already his family.
When Duterte came to power, both sons responded to official calls for drug addicts to surrender to their local rehabilitation authorities. Many other victims of the drug operations had done the same and thought they would be spared from police crashes. The opposite was true. “They were not helped, they were killed,” said Deaconess Rubylin Litao, a coordinator of Rise Up for Life and Rights.
Pasco is aware, she adds, that it will be a long battle for justice. “Our opponent, our enemy is not just an ordinary person, it is the leader of the state of the Philippines and also his comrades.”
As Duterte – and possibly his successor, if they are sympathetic to him – deny ICC members access to the Philippines, activists, human rights lawyers and families on the ground to gather evidence will become even more important.
Pasco hopes other mothers will move forward. “Why should we be afraid? They should be afraid, because we are telling the truth. That’s what’s really happening here in the Philippines, ”says Pasco. Even now, she adds, the killings continue, but less emphasis is placed on such deaths due to the pandemic.
“We must show courage, go out and show our testimony so that we may soon win in this battle.”