President Rodrigo Duterte is unlikely to stand trial in his remaining few months in office for crimes against humanity over his so-called war on drugs, but bereaved families of the victims said they will continue to fight it out whether in an international or a domestic court.
Duterte, whose populist campaigns since taking office in 2016 included the brutal anti-drug war, has claimed he had so many dead bodies of narcotics offenders dumped in Manila Bay that the "fish will grow fat." He recently said he wants his successor to continue "killing" them to stop substance abuse.
With the May 9 presidential elections looming, survey frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and closest rival and opposition icon Vice President Leni Robredo both said they will carry over the anti-drug campaign but with emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation.
But unlike Marcos Jr., Robredo said she will cooperate with the International Criminal Court in investigating the deaths of 12,000 to 30,000 civilians, including children caught in the crossfire, and reinstate the Philippines' membership to the Rome Statute that governs the ICC.
Duterte, whose daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio is running for vice president under Marcos' ticket, is unbothered and told citizens to "never mind" the ICC.
The election is seen as a "game changer" in prosecuting Duterte and erring policemen, who routinely claimed self-defense in killing small-time drug dealers and other criminals, said Edre Olalia, the president of the National Union of People's Lawyers, or NUPL, that helps victims' families.
He said it will be an "interesting scenario" when Duterte loses presidential immunity from lawsuits after his six-year term ends on June 30, though the government could use his leaving office to justify its willingness and ability to investigate the issue independent of the ICC.
The Philippines in 2018 withdrew from the Rome Statute as Duterte accused the tribunal of "being utilized as a political tool against the Philippines." He denied committing genocide or war crimes as "the deaths occurring in the process of legitimate police operation lacked the intent to kill."
On Sept. 15, 2021, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber authorized an investigation into the killings committed between November 2011, when Duterte as mayor of the southern city of Davao was accused of running a hit squad there, and March 2019, when the Philippines' withdrawal took effect. The ICC investigation, however, was suspended two months later after a deferral request by the Philippine government that also began its review of 52 drug raids during drug war operations in which the authorities said over 6,200 individuals were killed for resisting arrest.
"Drugs are still rampant to this day, yet no one dares speak out. It's useless to report it to the police because we think they're involved," said Sharon Tayactac, a barista in a coffee shop run by victims' relatives in Metro Manila. On Nov. 12, 2016, her brother Christian, 20, was shot dead by masked vigilantes in a low-income neighborhood in Quezon City.
Sharon said the police did not thoroughly investigate the case. "How could we file a case in the court when we didn't know who to file it against?" she said.
Sharon said Christian, who earned money from fixing cellphones, never used drugs.
Massage therapist Llore Pasco, 67, said her sons Crisanto, 34, and Juan Carlos, 31, who had been found dead with multiple gunshot wounds, were drug users though they quit long before Duterte took office.
In fact, Crisanto went on to become a security guard and was supposed to renew his license on May 11, 2017, when he and Juan Carlos went missing, Pasco said. Their bodies turned up the next day, each with 17 gunshot wounds.
"The police said they were involved in a robbery and that my sons tried to escape so the police chased them. But all the gunshots were on the front of their bodies," she said.
Pasco worries about how the investigation will turn out once Duterte steps down. NUPL's Olalia said the ICC could lift the suspension or permanently end the investigation, but either way his group will pursue charges.
"It was a shameful legacy that the next president must undo," Olalia said.
Duterte's government touted the war on drugs as a success, citing a 64 percent reduction in drug-related crime, the arrest of over 300,000 suspects, and the seizure of over 75.4 billion pesos ($1.4 billion) worth of drugs since 2016. A survey of 1,200 Filipinos by a public opinion firm WR Numero showed that 61 percent of respondents in 2021 wanted the anti-drug campaign continued.