Gov't probes Tondo drug raid killings

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 28 2017 01:09 PM | Updated as of Nov 28 2017 01:53 PM

MANILA - Malacañang on Tuesday said an investigation is now underway into the killings carried out by policemen in a drug raid last month in Barangay 19 in Manila’s impoverished Tondo district.

A Reuters report said three men were shot and injured by the policemen in Barangay 19 in Manila last October 11, in what the police described as a legitimate operation wherein the suspects fought it out with them.

However, various closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage and eyewitness accounts suggest the three men were executed. An officer was also captured turning one of the CCTV cameras away from the scene.

An old man sits in an alley entrance where Rolando Arellano Campo, Sherwin Bitas and Ronnie Cerbito were killed during a police drug operation captured on CCTV, on October 13, 2017 in Tondo, Manila. Reuters

“I assure you authorities are now looking into this matter. We are in the process of authenticating the video,” Roque said in a news conference in Malacañang.

“The President will not tolerate any abuses committed by some personnel of the Philippine National Police. We don’t tolerate police violence, brutality or killing.”

Roque said the PNP will most likely be the one to look into the incident. He said it is not clear yet whether the President will also order other government agencies to probe the matter, adding he will also watch the video since he is the concurrent Presidential Adviser on Human Rights.

News of the alleged execution of the three Manila residents came as the President mulls on bringing the police back to the drug war.

A boy sits near the spot where Rolando Arellano Campo, Sherwin Bitas and Ronnie Cerbito were killed during a police drug operation captured on CCTV in Tondo, Manila. Reuters

Duterte on October 10 issued a memorandum circular putting the much smaller Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) at the forefront of the drug war, as the PNP was under intense criticism over the death of teenagers in drug sweeps around Metro Manila. The Manila shootings happened a day after the President issued the order.

Roque said it remains uncertain whether the Manila shootings will again trigger the ire of the President and force the latter to reconsider his decision to give the PNP the lead role in the war on drugs.

The officers in the Barangay 19 footage belong to an anti-drug unit from Police Station 2 in Manila, according to a police report of the incident. Of the 15 officers who appear clearly on the footage, only one is wearing a mask.

Relatives of Rolando Arellano Campos and Sherwin Bitas attend at their wake October 13, 2017 in Tondo, Manila. Picture taken October 13, 2017. Reuters

The report said Rolando Campo, 60, sold drugs to an undercover officer, who signaled for back-up. Campo "sensed the presence" of the police officers and ordered his two associates - Sherwin Bitas, 34, and Ronnie Cerbito, 18 - to draw their guns and open fire on them, the report said.

The police retaliated, leaving the three men "fatally wounded," it said.

But the footage shows Campo chatting with people in the neighborhood in the minutes before the police arrive, and not, as the report said, selling drugs to an undercover officer.

Arlene Gibaga, Bitas' wife, told Reuters that she witnessed the shooting and the three men were unarmed. "We don't have the money for guns," said Gibaga, who has three young children with Bitas. She said her husband did not deal drugs.

Police detained the men in an alley next to her house, she said, and asked her to get Bitas' ID. When she produced it, said Gibaga, one officer shouted "Positive! Positive!" and then the officers fired on Bitas.

"Don't do that to my husband!" she screamed, as the police shot Bitas. "I will report you! There are CCTV cameras here!"

One of the officers then aimed his gun at Gibaga and ordered her inside, she said.

The footage does not show the police shooting the three men, but does show an officer appearing to open fire on an unseen target. Campo then falls backwards into the frame, his body hitting the ground. His arms move for a while before resting motionless.

Less than a minute later, the camera that captured the scene of the shooting is effectively put out of action: someone turns it to face the wall. A second camera shows a police officer reaching up and turning it away. It’s unclear why the officer disabled the camera after the shooting.

Station commander Santiago Pascual said the camera was turned off for a “valid security reason” and to ensure the operation was not compromised. His statement reiterated the police report’s version of events - “that the suspects first drew firearms and shot the operatives,” who returned fire in self-defense.

Later that day, at Police Station 2, Gibaga said officers told her it was useless to complain.

“It’s the government you will be fighting against,” she recalled one officer saying. “Don’t get angry at us. We are just following orders.”

The government has many times defended Duterte’s war on drugs, where some 3,900 have died in legitimate police operations since Duterte came to office in June 2016, according to police statistics.

The police say the slain suspects were usually armed and were only shot by cops in self-defense.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, estimate the death toll at 13,000, including killings carried by so-called “vigilantes”. This figure has been repeatedly dismissed by the government as overblown.

With the possible return of the police to the drug war, PNP chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa vowed his men will now exercise "extreme caution" in carrying out their mandate. - with Reuters