By Juni Gonzales and Fernando Cabigao Jr.

ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group

Photos by Jonathan Cellona

ABS-CBN News Digital Media

HOW do they fight the war on drugs? Let the police as well as the relatives of the slain drug suspects count the ways.

Celso Guites, also known as Picos, was sipping a cup of coffee on the morning of July 16 when five policemen came to his house in Barangay 193, Pasay City. They had suspected the 48-year-old man of selling prohibited drugs.

Cops in uniform

All five policemen were in uniform except for one who was wearing a black jacket, according to a witness who refused to be identified.

The policemen arrived, according to a post-operation report, to explain “Oplan Tokhang,” an operation where police knock on a drug suspect’s door to invite him for a lecture on drug abuse.

Fatal gunfight

Picos instead opened fire, the police said, prompting them to retaliate, severely wounding him. He died in the hospital.

The report said the police recovered from Picos a .45-caliber pistol, one magazine assembly loaded with ammunition, five empty cartridge cases, a deformed bullet, six sachets of suspected shabu, drug paraphernalia, and some cash.

Different version

A woman witness, however, told a different version of the story.

“Hindi lumaban si Picos,” said the witness. “Nagmakaawa ‘yung tao sa kanila. Hindi nila pinakinggan.”

She said that Picos neither owned a gun nor engaged the authorities in a gunfight. She heard him say: “’Sir, nagbago na ako. ‘Di na ako [tulak] ng droga, ang asawa ko lang po.”

Picos was pleading for his life, she said; his hands raised in surrender while his back was at the police when three gunshots were fired. And then Picos slumped on the ground.

In surrender

“Patalikod na siya," the witness said, recalling the precise moment he was gunned down. “Alam na niya ‘eh, nakatingin siya sa akin ‘eh. Si Picos, nakatingin talaga sa akin.”

If the witness’ account were to be believed, then the police might have done something outside their own rules. Based on the Revised Criminal Investigation Manual of the Philippine National Police, the use of force should be avoided during the conduct of operations.

Reasonable force

The police may only use reasonable force when they “(have) probable cause to believe that the suspect poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the police or other persons,” the manual said.

“(It) is justifiable only by virtue of the Doctrines of Self-defense, Defense of Relative, and Defense of Stranger,” it added.

PNP spokesperson Dionardo Carlos

No shoot-to-kill order

In an interview with ABS-CBN news team, PNP spokesperson Dionardo Carlos said PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa had not issued any shoot-to-kill order in handling drug suspects.

Rather, the policemen were told to look out for one another and ensure each other’s safety.

“We use the use of force continuum,” Carlos said. “When a little force is used against the police officer, a little force will be used against the criminals.”

Cops face danger

“(When suspects) put in danger the lives of our police officer, we will defend ourselves,” he said.

But if the people had any information against the police operation, Carlos said, they are free to go to the higher police authorities.

“Sabi ni Chief PNP, hindi namin i-to-tolerate ‘yung mga mali,” he said. “If they are saying there are irregularities in the conduct of police operations, let us know, sign the affidavit, we will make sure that these policemen will answer for their mistakes o kung mayroon pang kriminal na kasong puwedeng isampa, sasampahan ho natin ‘yan.”

Known drug pusher

According to the police, Picos was a known drug pusher in the area affiliated with Edgardo Enriquez, a top drug personality and the leader of drug syndicate Eagle Drugs group in Pasay City.

According to his relatives, Picos was detained in 2009 and 2016 for drug-related cases. Although they were not sure if he still used drugs, they were certain that he stopped selling drugs.

They also said that Picos had surrendered under the Oplan Tokhang prior to his death.

House-to-house visit

Based on PNP Command Memorandum Circular No. 16-2016, Oplan Tokhang is part of the Project Double Barrel, an anti-illegal drug campaign of the Philippine National Police launched on July 1, which “involves the conduct of house visitations to persuade suspected illegal drug personalities to stop their illegal drug activities.”

Tokhang is the lower barrel approach while the upper barrel is called the High Value Target, which is focused on “targeting illegal drugs personalities and drug syndicates.”

Drug list

Under Tokhang, drug suspects are primarily identified through the watch list submitted by the Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Council to the police. The police then validate the list with their own.

According to some barangay chairmen interviewed by ABS-CBN news team, the lists of drug pushers and users were gathered through reports of their concerned constituents.

Some chairmen said they regularly created a list of drug users and pushers even before Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in May 2016.

Police verification

Upon validation of the BADAC’s list, the police then visit the houses of these alleged drug suspects. Some barangays, on the other hand, post an announcement in common areas regarding when the drugs users and pushers can surrender.

Upon surrender at the barangay, they are asked to fill-up a prepared personal sheet and sign a “voluntary-surrender” form. They are also asked to take an oath
promising to stop their involvement in illegal drug activities.

Continuous monitoring

After the surrender, the police monitor these individuals to determine if they have indeed stopped or have continued their involvement in illegal drug activities. The monitoring conducted by the police is a continuous surveillance that does not end after a specific period of time.

According to Carlos, Tokhang has not only reduced the illegal drug activities on the ground, but it has also brought about an impact on the high-value targets and drug syndicates.

“If there are no people pushing on the streets, there are no drugs going to the street level, maapektuhan ‘yung sa taas. Mawawala yung business niya… We disrupt the business, the drug trade, the nefarious illicit activity,” he said.

Six-month deadline

A few months before Double Barrel was launched, Duterte promised to suppress crime and illegal drugs in just a span of three to six months, encouraging the police force to focus on the war on drugs.

“Ang utos ko, patayin? Bakit?” Duterte said during a speech in Tagaytay City on January 31.

“Well, if you are committing a crime in my presence, sabihin ko sa pulis, ‘wag na yang surrender, surrender. ‘Pag sa loob ng bahay, sugurin ninyo yung bahay at kapag hindi pa nakahawak sa baril, bigyan mo ng panahon makahawak ng baril at todasin mo. Ako ang bahala. Ako ang mananagot.”

Anti-drugs operations

These anti-illegal drugs operations vary from Oplan Tokhang to One Time Big Time Operation, to buy-bust operations.

These are often carried out by the Anti-Illegal Drugs Operations Task Groups, Special Operations Unit, Special Weapons and Tactics, and the Intelligence branch of regional, provincial, city, and municipal police stations as well as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

How others died

While Picos was killed under Oplan Tokhang, others were killed in buy-bust operations.

Buy-bust operations differ from Tokhang; it is classified as a “caught- in-the-act” operation, which refers to “an entrapment technique employed by a Peace Officer as an effective way of apprehending a criminal in the act of committing an offense.” These are “subject for warrantless arrest, search, and seizure and classified as an unplanned operation.”

Surveillance operations

Those who are targeted in buy -bust operations are individuals who are involved in illegal drug activities based on the surveillance conducted by the intelligence unit of police.

A buy-bust operation team is usually composed of a leader, assistant leader, poseur buyer, arresting officer, an investigator-on-case, seizing/inventory officer, back-up security, and recorder.

How many cops in raid

Carlos said that the number of operatives involved in buy-bust operations depends on the circumstances and availability of PNP personnel.

“’Pag known to be armed and dangerous, then we put enough force to overwhelm the target. Due to the nature of the operation, the operatives, including the poseur buyer and back-up security are not required to be in uniform,” he added.

Rommel Parsaligan, alias Omeng, 30, was among the fatalities in the series of buy- bust operations conducted during the intensified anti -illegal drugs campaign in Barangay Tumana, Marikina City.

Begging for life

His younger cousin Jonah recalled that more than 30 police officers, including PDEA and SWAT, took part in the buy-bust operation. Some police officers were in uniform while others were wearing civilian clothes.

Jonah said that the police just barged into their house and shot Omeng at around 3pm of July 24. Omeng’s mother, Lester, was trying to protect him when the police entered their house, but the police slapped her and forced her outside of the house. Just when his mother turned her back, the cousin said, the police shot him.

"Isang putok pa lang po nagmamakaawa na yung kuya ko sabi sa kanila, na hindi naman daw po siya lalaban. Susuko siya. Tapos ang sinigaw po ng pulis 'Magsitago kayo nanlalaban'. Ganun yung sinigaw nila," she said.

The police, she added, fired around six shots.

Killed in front of grandma

Omeng died in front of his 67-year-old grandmother who could not leave the area because she was bedridden. She suffered from a stroke nine months ago.

She said her grandson could have been still alive had the police listened to her when she asked them to bring him to the hospital, “as he was still alive for thirty minutes.” It was already too late by the time the paramedics arrived, she added.

Contrary to the police report, Omeng did not own a gun, the cousin said.

Guns and shabu

But police said they recovered from Omeng a .38-caliber revolver and three plastic sachets containing suspected shabu.

In the middle of the buy-bust operation, police said Omeng drew his gun and opened fire upon noticing that the buyer was a policeman.

According to one officer, the poseur buyer did not carry a gun as part of their standard operating procedure, which left him defenseless.

Gun didn’t fire

Luckily, Omeng’s gun malfunctioned and the back-up policemen came to the rescue and were able to return fire, the officer said.

Just more than a month after Duterte assumed the presidency, from July 1 to September 29, a total of 1,276 drug suspects were killed during police operations, according to PNP. In addition to this, 725,791 drug users and pushers voluntarily surrendered while another 19,907 were arrested.

No motive to kill

Picos and Omeng were only two of the thousands of reported fatalities since Duterte’s war on drugs began.

“These 1,000-plus (suspects),” Carlos said, “we don’t want them dead; however, they fought it out.”

Omeng left three children behind, his nine-year-old twin daughters and a
five-year-old daughter. He used to work as a tricycle driver and as a part-time construction worker. He had difficulty in finding a job for the past two months and thus ventured into drugs, the cousin said.

No second chance

Picos wanted to start his life anew, a life away from prohibited drugs, before he was killed in an anti-illegal drugs operation.

The PNP aims to hit 70-percent or 1.2 million of the 1.8 million drug users before the end of six-month promise of Duterte.

And there lies the problem, according to Ellecer Carlos, spokesperson of human rights group iDEFEND.

"Ang panganib dito, itong napatay na ito, pumirma na ito doon sa form at sinabi na siya ay pusher o drug dependent. Ginagamit tuloy siya na dahilan ng ating kapulisan para masabi na nag strike one na itong tao na ito o nag strike two na kaya siya napatay," he said.

"Kasi kung binibigyan mo ang sarili mo ng deadline, binibigyan mo ng quota ang ating kapulisan. Pinepressure mo sila to produce results and if you pressure our law enforcement agency, nanganganib na sila ay mag-commit ng kalabisan."

Duterte’s promise

It appeared that the police were not planning to slow down.

“We’re focused on the six months given,” PNP spokesperson Carlos said. “If it’s going to be another six months or a year, we’ll still stay focused. If it’s going to be six years, we will do our part in enforcing the law.”

Based on the results of the police’s anti-drugs operations, Duterte might be able to keep his promise to suppress illegal drugs in just three to six months, albeit at a bloody price.