‘Left behind’ families look to ICC for Philippines drug war justice | News

Manila, Philippines — Ephraim Escudero had been missing for five days when a neighbour showed his family a news clipping.

The bodies of two unknown men had been found in Pampanga, about five hours from their home east of Manila in Laguna, but the report contained enough identifying details that the family knew instantly. “It was Ephraim,” said his sister, Sheerah.

“Both [victims] were wrapped with packaging tape around their heads,” Sheerah recalled. “[Ephraim] was hogtied. His hands were behind his back. His feet were tied with plastic and brown packaging tape. He also had gunshot wounds.”

When 18-year-old Ephraim first went missing in September 2017, local police had shown little interest in helping. An investigator in Pampanga acknowledged that Ephraim may have been killed because of the drug war unleashed by then President Rodrigo Duterte, but after the family submitted evidence, “we heard nothing from them,” Escudero said. “They were just fooling around, pretending like they were investigating, but they’re really not.”

Seven years and one president later, Escudero is no closer to finding justice.

While drug-related killings have slowed since their peak in 2017, they have begun to climb since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took power, according to data from the Dahas project, an initiative of the University of the Philippines.

Dahas recorded 331 drug casualties in 2023. That is seven more than the 324 it recorded in 2022 – 149 in Duterte’s final six months as president, and 175 in the six months after Marcos took office on June 30.

Women from Rise Up. They are holding photos of people killed in the drug war
Rise Up for Life and for Rights supports women who have lost relatives to the drug war [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Philippine National Police chief Benjamin Acorda Jr admitted in February that people were still killed in police drug operations after Dahas project data showed there had been 28 drug-related killings in January.

He insisted the killings were not intentional.

“There will be aggressive operation[s],” Acorda said. “We want it done honestly.”

Marcos has repeatedly ordered his government not to cooperate with investigators from the International Criminal Court (ICC) who are probing Duterte for the thousands of killings that took place in the years up to 2019, when Duterte pulled the country from the ICC.

Although many have speculated the ICC will issue an arrest warrant for Duterte in the coming months, the Philippine National Police have already promised not to enforce it.

Escudero and other victims, nevertheless, see the ICC as their last hope for justice. There have been only three prosecutions of extrajudicial killings related to the drug war since 2016, according to a report by the US Department of State.

Marcos “hasn’t supported the families of victims,” said Jane Lee, whose husband, Michael, was killed in a 2017 police operation.

Lee and Escudero both received support from Rise Up for Life and for Rights, an organisation supporting women who have lost relatives to the drug war.

“We’re still saying the same thing,” Lee said. “Nothing has really changed.”

‘Collateral damage’

Lee had initially hoped Duterte’s harsh anti-drug campaign would “clean up” drug use in her neighbourhood in Caloocan, a city in Metro Manila.

But when the killings began, many of the victims “were not users or sellers,” she said. “They ended up becoming collateral damage.”

The bloody anti-drug campaign did not have the effect Duterte had promised. “There are still drugs,” she said. But now, under Marcos, the government has also failed to support the families of victims left behind.

“In some ways, it’s even worse,” Lee said. “I’m a solo parent. If my husband were alive, life would [still] be hard. But I’m the only one.

“There are no programmes for the children who are left behind,” she said. “We have not experienced any help and support.”

During the coronavirus lockdowns in 2020, police began visiting the homes of Lee and other family members of drug war victims, asking whether they would file court cases – which they saw as a thinly veiled attempt at pressuring them not to draw the attention of the ICC. The house visits continued until recently, Lee said. She was not sure if the police were continuing to visit other families.

But filing cases in domestic courts remains a futile exercise.

Christine Pascual filed a case against the police officers who killed her 17-year-old son, Joshua Laxamana, in 2018 when he was in Pangasinan, a region north of Manila, for a video game tournament. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court before it was dismissed in 2020.

Pascual said the pending ICC investigation “lessens the heaviness” she has felt since her son was killed.

“I was very disappointed” when the case was dismissed, she said. “In the Philippines, there’s no chance for justice.”

Out of all the cases filed against police involved in drug war killings, only one remains active in a regional court.

Going through the court system is like “aiming for the moon,” said Kristina Conti, a lawyer with the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers who is involved in the remaining case.

The government has told the ICC it is investigating certain drug war cases.

According to Conti, the cases involve police officers who allegedly “went rogue,” and do not constitute the kind of investigations families, activists and lawyers, believe are necessary.

“What we want to ask is, is there something wrong with the war on drugs? Is there something wrong with the police?” she said. “If you phrase it [that way], neutrally, you say, ‘Why did my son die?’”

‘Tiny speck’ of hope

The Marcos administration has yet to give the victims’ families reason for hope.

Joel Ariate
Researcher Joel Ariate expects the killings will continue [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Joel Ariate, the lead researcher of the Dahas project, noted that killings have decreased in much of the country – including Metro Manila – since Acorda was installed as police chief in April 2023. However, they have increased in Davao, Duterte’s hometown, where his son, Sebastian, serves as mayor.

The improvements made by Acorda are still far from enough, Ariate said.

Marcos himself has been “ambiguous at best” when describing his feelings about the drug war, Ariate said. While members of the Marcos administration have pledged to take a new approach centred on rehabilitation, there has been no evidence of this actually happening.

“The underlying countermeasure is very much bent on singling out individuals and killing them,” Ariate said. “So as long as that mechanism and thinking is there, I think the killings will continue.”

Human rights organisations have criticised Marcos for failing to prosecute those behind the drug war killings, but their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has repeatedly promised to keep the ICC out of the country and has denied there is a “culture of impunity” in the Philippines.

“The ICC is like a tiny speck of light for us,” Escudero said. “We know we’ll get nothing from regional trials. We’ve seen it already from the other cases.”

When he died, Ephraim left behind two small children.

Now eight and six, they are getting old enough to use Google, and the eldest has already found news about his father and started asking questions.

Escudero held up a placard she had made depicting her brother smiling. She showed the original, blurry image on her phone, which she had digitally altered. “I used AI,” she said. “We didn’t have a good photo.”

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