Philippines: Playing dead to survive Duterte’s drug war

Al Jazeera speaks to a man who used an extreme tactic to survive a war on drugs that has killed more than 3,000 people.

Santiago was taken to the hospital by police following his 'rise from the dead' [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Manila, Philippines – He was left for dead for an hour, his bullet ridden body slumped face down in a dimly lit corner near Manila Bay, soaked in his own pool of blood dripping onto the concrete pavement. 

Police said that Francisco Santiago Jr and another man, George Huggins, were shot dead during an anti-drug operation in the early hours of September 13.

But, as reporters arrived at the scene of the police shooting, Santiago, who had been shot multiple times, started showing signs of life.

Stunned onlookers watched as his legs began twitching. Moments later, the 28-year-old sat upright, propping himself against a car and holding his bloodied arms in the air.

Police officers at the scene surrounded Santiago – pistols ready – before putting him in a car and taking him to the hospital.

Death toll rises as Philippines intensifies war on drugs

Speaking from his hospital bed last weekend, Santiago told Al Jazeera that his rise from the dead was not a miracle, but a tactic to stay alive.

He alleged police had shot him multiple times and tried to kill him.

Breathing with the assistance of an oxygen tank and his bullet wounds bandaged, Santiago said he played dead “for about an hour” after being shot by a plain-clothes police officer.

Lying on the street, he hoped he would not succumb to his wounds as he waited for anyone but the police to find out he was still alive.

He denied the official police account he had sold methamphetamine, locally known as shabu, to an undercover anti-narcotics agent in the early hours of that morning. He also was not armed, he said, denying a police report that he had pointed a .22 Black Widow revolver at the undercover officer.

The driver of a motorised rickshaw, Santiago claimed that he was the victim of a police buy-and-bust “set up”, and that he had been picked up by police for questioning about 12 hours before being shot.

Santiago also said that the officer who shot him that night was the same plain-clothes policeman who had boarded his rickshaw earlier that day and took him to the station for questioning.

Twelve hours later, he was shot in the chest, upper abdomen and both arms. The second man shot at the scene, Huggins, died of his wounds.

Francisco Santiago Jr during the police operation [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]
Francisco Santiago Jr during the police operation [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]

Over 3,000 drug-related killings

Santiago is a rare survivor of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s all-out war on drugs, his mother and a human-rights worker said.

Since June 30, when President Duterte took power and launched his war against drug traffickers and users, the police have reported over 3,000 drug-related killings, including 1,105 people killed in police operations up to September 16. Police revised that number down from 3,541, as reported earlier by the Philippine police chief Ronald Bato. 

Despite mounting international condemnation as the death toll spirals upwards, Duterte told a gathering of troops near his home city of Davao on Tuesday that he had ordered authorities who are taking part in anti-drug operations, to “stick to your mandate and do no wrong”.

The drug problem in the Philippines was more serious than he expected, Duterte said, before offering some of his familiar advice: “If a suspect draws out a gun, kill him. If he doesn’t, kill him anyway”.

“Duterte’s frequent exhortations for extrajudicial violence against suspected drug users and drug dealers have effectively given Philippine police a ‘license to kill’ without any fear of accountability for their actions,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The case also underscores the “dire need for an urgent, impartial investigation into the circumstances of the alarming surge in killings by police” since Duterte came to power, he said.

Santiago was discharged from the hospital on Wednesday and is now detained at a Manila police station, his mother said.

Santiago was taken to the hospital after 'rising from the dead' [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]
Santiago was taken to the hospital after ‘rising from the dead’ [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]

During his brief detention at the police station prior to being shot, Santiago was coerced into admitting he was a “tulak” – slang in the Philippines for a drug dealer – and was forced, though he refused, to “try out and hold” a pistol, his mother, Ligaya Santiago, told Al Jazeera.

She also said police had pressured her son to fabricate a story to the media about the events on the night of shooting.

Between his detention and the shooting, Santiago and Huggins were ordered to board the rickshaw and drive around the area near the station, before they were shot.

Roy Candelario, the police investigator who first reported the double shooting to his station, insisted that the shooting of Santiago and Huggins was a legitimate police operation. If police had wanted to execute the men, both would have died, he assured.

“If it was a summary execution, then the shooter would have already done the ‘finishing’ on the suspect,” Candelario told Al Jazeera.

“Do you know what ‘finishing’ is? It’s shooting someone in the head.”

Manila district police chief Joel Coronel was quoted in a newspaper as saying that Santiago was the “main target and was on the drug watch list”.

‘Police poseur buyer’

The official police report into the double shooting identified Huggins as a gang member, who previously surrendered to authorities after being linked to the illegal drugs trade.

According to the report, an undercover police officer acted as a “police poseur buyer” and bought one sachet of shabu in the amount of 500 pesos ($10.64) from Santiago.

“However, after having received the marked money”, Santiago reportedly noticed “that their client was an undercover law enforcer who eventually pushed him hard outside” the motorised rickshaw.

Huggins then “pulled out a caliber .38 revolver and fired successive shots” at the undercover police officer “but missed”.

“Sensing that his life is in jeopardy”, the undercover officer, Orlando Gonzales, “traded shots” with Huggins, “who sustained gunshot wounds and met his untimely death”.

Around the same time, Santiago also reportedly pulled out a .22 revolver “and [levelled] the same towards the police poseur buyer”.

Santiago “sustained gunshot wounds in the body and collapsed to the ground”. He was later taken to a nearby hospital after showing “sign of life”, the report added. 

Santiago admitted to Al Jazeera that he had used drugs, but was adamant: “I am not a drug dealer.”

Francisco Santiago Jr during the police operation [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]
Francisco Santiago Jr during the police operation [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]

On the night of the shooting, a man wearing a light-coloured shirt and dark jacket was in the area, according to a witness who could not see if Santiago and Huggins were armed or not because it was dark.

“After the shooting, I saw police officers kick the bodies of the two suspects, as if to check if they were still alive or not,” the witness said.

“The police couldn’t do anything because the reporters were already there. So, they just rushed the man to the hospital, while the reporters chased after them.”

Santiago is facing four charges, including violation of the Philippine drug law, assault on a police officer, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, and frustrated murder, according to the Manila Police District report.

His mother also said that he was being denied a lawyer.

An organisation of lawyers in the Philippines, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), has offered Santiago its assistance and condemned Duterte’s war on drugs as “an assault on the fundamental constitutional rights to life, due process and presumption of innocence”.

“By undertaking tactics … such as killing rather than arresting suspects and bringing them before the bar of justice, law enforcement officials are betraying public trust,” FLAG secretary-general Maria Socorro I Diokno said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.

Law enforcement officials, Diokno said, must remember to perform their duties “with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice”.

Philippine ‘death squads’ blamed for killings of criminals

Source: Al Jazeera