Espenido was previously involved in high-profile drug operations that left 2 town mayors dead.
This grim image has become all too familiar in the Philippines’s poorer neighbourhoods: the body of a barefoot, shirtless man, slumped against a wall with blood dripping from bullet wounds, the latest victim of President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting anti-illegal drugs campaign that has killed thousands.
On the morning of Sunday, March 23, police and anti-narcotics enforcers from the central island of Cebu carried out an operation against a “high-value individual”.
The “buy-bust” mission resulted in an “armed confrontation” and the killing of the suspect, Buen Chiong, according to a Cebu provincial police report obtained by Al Jazeera. Police added that Chiong was on their “provincial-level watchlist”.
The Cebu radio station, DYSS, quoted authorities as saying that the suspect was linked to “drug trading and burglary” in his community. Al Jazeera also learned that a calibre .45 pistol was recovered from the scene of the shooting – a detail missing in the police report, which initially misspelt the dead man’s name as Buena.
Chiong’s death was filed under Control Number 20002-032020-0502.
Amid a national health emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is no stopping Duterte’s so-called deadly “war on drugs” and human rights advocates are warning that the outbreak and the lockdown that followed would “exacerbate social inequality” in the country, leading to further human rights abuses.
Right groups are urging Duterte to immediately stop the “drug war” and ensure that the coronavirus containment measures being implemented adhere to the standards set by the United Nations and World Health Organization.
Since Duterte declared a partial lockdown starting on March 15, Al Jazeera has learned that at least eight other people, including two police officers, have been killed by unknown gunmen under suspicious circumstances in Cebu Province alone. One of the fatalities was previously in jail due to a drug-related case.
“Reports of drug-related killings continuing amid the lockdown order are deeply concerning, but not surprising,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“The climate of impunity in the Philippines is so entrenched that police and others remain free to kill without consequence.”
According to the latest report published in mid-December 2019, at least 5,552 people have been killed during police operations since Duterte came to office on June 30, 2016. However, an earlier report published in June 2019 already showed a death toll of 6,600. Meanwhile, rights advocates say at least 27,000 people were killed as of mid-2019 – including the victims killed by unknown gunmen.
The president himself has repeatedly promised that his “drug war” will last until the final day of his presidency. As recent as early March, he was quoted on separate occasions saying, “Don’t be president, if you can’t kill” and that it was his job “to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.”
Since then, the attention of the country has shifted to the battle against the coronavirus, which has already killed 88 Filipinos as of March 31, forcing the lockdown of the entire northern island of Luzon, with 57 million people. Provincial and town executives also imposed similar measures in their own communities, putting virtually the entire country of 104 million people under quarantine.
Marit Stinus Cabugon, a Cebu-based columnist for a national newspaper, said the anti-drug police operations, as well as the extrajudicial killings have been going on in her province for a while. What was surprising was the brazenness of the recent attacks given the lockdown and the heightened security across the country, she said.
“The killers were not afraid that they would get caught, or stopped at checkpoints,” said Stinus Cabugon, who has compiled an online list of killings in Cebu since 2018. She said most of the killings were drug-related.
Since she started compiling a list in June 2018, Stinus Cabugon has recorded at least 159 fatalities during police anti-drug operations, 399 extrajudicial killings mostly linked to drugs and 114 other murders and homicides in and around Cebu.
“All my years in Cebu, we’ve never experienced anything like this,” said the longtime Cebu resident and native of Denmark, who previously worked with the International Labour Organization.
Among the most recent incidents she documented was the killing of Bobby Badajos on March 21. The 45-year-old driver of an electric-powered rickshaw was shot by four unidentified assailants on two motorcycles, according to a news report.
Police Major Gerard Ace Pelare, the station chief in the area where Badajos was killed, told reporters the killing could be drug-related. But relatives told The Freeman, a Cebu newspaper, that Badajos was no longer involved in the drug trade after being released from jail last year on a plea bargain agreement.
Badajos’ daughter, Rica, wrote on social media: “I know you are not perfect, but for us you’re already perfect, you’re the best father. Pa, nobody’s going to wake me up any more every morning before school.”
Two hours after Badajos was killed, a police corporal named Marlon Belleres was also killed by an unknown gunman in the same district. Belleres was the second officer killed in seven days. In the early hours of March 15, Police Corporal Vincent delos Reyes Arboladura was shot dead while driving home.
In another incident on March 19 in Cebu, a man’s body was dumped in a gutter with his hands tied at the back and a gunshot to his head – similar to numerous victims dumped in the dark alleys of Metro Manila, when the “drug war” began during the second part of 2016.
On March 26, 19-year-old Denver Aying was killed in the Lapu-Lapu district of Cebu. A relative wrote on social media that it was drug-related, but the victim’s brother disputed the claim.
Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines said that while it might seem ironic that the killings are going on at a time when the government is trying to save lives from the deadly coronavirus, “it is not hard to see” it from the perspective of the president.
“He has pretty much put them in a category that deprived them of their sense of humanity, so he doesn’t view them as worth saving,” Conde told Al Jazeera.
He added that even before the coronavirus emergency, the “intensity of the killings” in Cebu had already raised alarm.
“The problem in Cebu is that unlike Manila, there aren’t a lot of NGOs, civil societies and human rights groups that monitor these killings in Cebu. So a lot of them are unreported,” Conde said.
But the killings in Cebu follow the same pattern as in Metro Manila, with the same kind of people being singled out – mostly those living in sprawling slum areas – he said.
“The government should stop the ‘drug war’, especially that this point when these communities are suffering from COVID-19,” Conde said, warning the way Duterte’s emergency declaration is being set up allows the authorities “a lot of leeway to pretty much do whatever they want” thus increasing the “potential of misuse”.
In an interview with Manila-based radio station DZMM on Tuesday, Police Lieutenant General Guillermo Eleazar, commander of the Joint Task Force Corona Virus Shield, declared that since the declaration of the lockdown, crimes have declined by 52 percent across the entire country.
He also warned those who violated curfew measures during the lockdown that they would be punished, while promising that the police would “not abuse its authority” in enforcing the law.
Stinus Cabugon, the newspaper columnist based in Cebu, conceded that with the coronavirus health emergency, it would become even harder to report and gather information about drug-related killings in her community.
She said that with the lockdown, many residents of Cebu were now faced with overwhelming economic hardship and would be preoccupied with simply surviving.
Just the same, she vowed to continue her work documenting the deadly “drug war”.
“I wish I didn’t have to add names to the list,” she told Al Jazeera. “I hope that one day, we will really get to the bottom of it, and there would be justice, and whoever was responsible for mass murder, would also be held accountable.”