'The cops were showing off' | Part 2
After more than two years and an estimated 23,518 deaths under investigation, Rappler tells the story of Rodrigo Duterte's drug war from the eyes of the killers.
In early 2017, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested members of a vigilante gang suspected of preying on drug suspects and criminals in Tondo, Manila. The group was a local chapter of the Confederate Sentinels Group (CSG), a national volunteer organization that the police had officially accredited as force multipliers. More than a year after the arrests, most of the men implicated remain free.
Rappler’s 6-month investigation shows strong indications that the police were outsourcing extrajudicial killings to the same vigilante gang they accused of murder. (READ: PART 1 | 'Some People Need Killing')
According to individuals with knowledge of CSG Tondo Chapter 2’s activities, officials of the PNP coordinated with vigilantes, took credit for murders, and on occasion paid for assassinations in the name of the war against drugs.
This second of seven stories, published in installments, includes on-the-record testimony from community members as well as two of CSG’s self-confessed vigilantes. At their request, Rappler has changed or withheld their names for their own safety. Angel and Simon are not their real names.
The public arrests of vigilantes from the Confederate Sentinels Group (CSG) came at the tail end of a bad few weeks for the Philippine National Police (PNP).
In January 2017, reports surfaced that a South Korean businessman named Jee Ick Joo had been abducted and strangled inside the national police headquarters by an anti-drug cop.
The story made international news. The South Korean embassy called for an investigation. There were hearings in the Senate. Two police officers were charged with kidnapping and homicide. There were reports Jee's head had been wrapped in packaging tape and his corpse cremated before the ashes were flushed down the toilet by a panicked funeral parlor employee.
President Rodrigo Duterte called the incident an embarrassment. While he refused then PNP chief Ronald Dela Rosa's offer to resign, the President said the police were "corrupt to the core."
By the time the police paraded the CSG vigilantes before the national media on February 9, 2017, it had been eleven days since police anti-drug operations were dismantled, ten days since the entire police force was suspended from the drug war, and nine days since Amnesty International released a scathing report claiming police had been fabricating evidence and assassinating drug suspects for pay.
According to Dela Rosa, the arrest of CSG vigilantes for the murder of 16-year-old Charlie Saladaga – found shot in the face inside a sack along Isla Puting Bato – was proof cops had little to do with the rising death toll. Official numbers from the PNP at the time of the CSG arrests listed more than 7,000 killed in the first seven months of the drug war. At least 2,555 were dead in the hands of police during “legitimate operations.” Another 3,603 were listed as deaths under investigation, or DUIs, the euphemism the government began using to replace the more politically tenuous “extrajudicial killings.”
The arrests, said Dela Rosa, was “a solution of some of the DUI cases, or what the media refers to as EJK – extrajudicial killings – which were presumably being attributed to the police.”
“It dispels some accusations,” Dela Rosa said, "that these DUIs were sanctioned by the police, or were the work of the police.”
The police implicated six CSG members in the deaths of at least four men, including Charlie Saladaga. Three of the suspects were already in custody: Manuel Murillo, Marco Morallos and Alfredo Alejan Jr. The PNP announced a manhunt for three others still at large – village councilor Michael Sibucao, a man known only by the alias Onic, and alleged mastermind Ricardo Villamonte, known as Commander Maning.
According to then Manila Police District Director Joel Coronel, "this group has been engaged in summary killings of alleged suspects in criminal activities."
It is an accusation Commander Maning denied in an interview with Rappler.
"The police were wrong," he told Rappler. He admitted he was the leader of CSG Tondo Chapter 2. "We didn't do anything wrong. We were the ones helping the police. Now we're the bad guys?"
A self-confessed CSG vigilante named Angel told Rappler that those who escaped the February 2017 police raid lay low in the immediate aftermath of the arrests. The vigilantes hauled their guns everywhere, terrified they would be arrested – even to the shower, where they took baths with their .45s wrapped in towels.
The CSG raid was sabotage, said Angel.
“It was like the cops were showing off," he said. "Like they were saying, ‘Here, let's present these guys from this place, let’s say they’re guns for hire. So that’s what happened. Like they were showing off. But they knew that the guys they caught were like us: we were the police’s men on the ground.”
“That’s when I lost heart,” Simon, another CSG vigilante, told Rappler. “We don’t have a salary, we’re volunteers, and if we die, we get nothing. It’s our parents who’ll have to pay for our funerals. I know [General Dela Rosa] knew about us. But he was on TV. Of course he wanted to be a star.”
Dela Rosa told Rappler that while he was unaware of any allegations CSG vigilantes were under police orders, it did not make sense for police to arrest vigilantes they actively colluded with. Were it true, he said, it would have been "foolish" for the PNP to arrest their own hitmen.
"That would have gotten them implicated," Dela Rosa said.
Rappler spoke to nine sources who claimed cops had actively supported CSG Tondo Chapter 2’s vigilante activities. “They were the killing arm of the police,” said a community volunteer.
Commander Maning, while vehement in his denial the CSG was involved in murder, remained silent on any question asking of police involvement in murder.
"We have no comment," Commander Maning told Rappler. "We have no comment on that."
Four of Rappler’s sources said that at least one police officer ordered the extrajudicial killings of criminals and drug suspects from the last quarter of 2016 to early 2017. His station, Police Station 1 (PS-1) along Raxabago, provided policing to CSG Tondo Chapter 2’s stomping ground – Village 105.
His name, they said, is Police Superintendent Robert Domingo.
Both Angel and Simon said their leader, Commander Maning, got his kill orders from Domingo.
“It was Domingo,” said Angel. He later pointed to Domingo's face in a photograph. "That's him."
Simon said it was Domingo who gave Commander Maning the target list. He added that cops under PS-1 Raxabago were also involved. Police would give vigilantes the all clear whenever there was a job inside Tondo – "so we wouldn't accidentally shoot at each other."
Rappler's third source, a resident living in the same area as a number of vigilantes, related an exchange with a confirmed member of CSG Tondo Chapter 2.
“He said it was the colonel from Station 1 who paid them to kill,” said the source.
A fourth source, a veteran journalist who was investigating the CSG before his broadcast network halted the story, dictated to Rappler his interview with another CSG vigilante who admitted to murdering drug suspects. (Rappler has independently confirmed the same vigilante was implicated by a witness in the killing of a drug user, and has admitted his kills to a number of individuals on at least two occasions. )
According to the journalist, “He said that it was Domingo who ordered them to kill.” – Rappler.com
Editor's note: All quotes in Filipino have been translated into English. Rappler has made repeated requests to interview Police Superintendent Robert Domingo, who said over both text and a phone call that he preferred not to comment. He also confirmed receipt of Rappler's letter listing 22 detailed questions about allegations published in this story.
Rappler also sought an interview with former National Capital Region Police Office head and now PNP chief Oscar Albayalde, who was unavailable. Manila Police District Director Joel Coronel, at the time of this publication, had yet to send a response.
PART 1 | 'Some People Need Killing'