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‘They were shot in the head’: morgue gives up truth of Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war

Rebecca Ratcliffe, South-east Asia correspondent, The Guardian, Sun 26 Feb 2023

Crusading pathologist Raquel Fortun finds evidence of multiple murder at the direction of ‘a madman’ in the exhumed remains of young Filipinos

it was in an old university stockroom, with wooden tables salvaged from a junkyard, that Raquel Fortun began to investigate the merciless crackdown launched under the former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.

Fortun, one of only two forensic pathologists in the country, has now spent more than 18 months examining the exhumed remains of dozens of victims of the so-called “war on drugs”, revealing serious irregularities in how their postmortems were performed – including multiple death certificates that wrongly attributed fatalities to natural causes.

Most recently, her findings have raised questions about examinations carried out on the body of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old boy whose death at the height of the shootings provoked global outrage.

The Philippines does not automatically provide postmortems in cases of violent death, says Fortun. The standard, where they do occur, is poor, with evidence often missed.

“We have very weak institutions, unqualified people. We have a law that’s so ancient. And here comes a madman, ascending to the top as president, and I think he just took advantage,” she says.

Duterte repeatedly ordered the police to kill drug suspects. “And that’s it – they did,” says Fortun.

The international criminal court (ICC) said in January that it would proceed with its investigation into the killings, which it estimates led to between 12,000 and 30,000 deaths. Its work had been suspended while it assessed a claim by the Philippines, which said it had begun its own investigations and therefore the case should be deferred – an argument that was rejected.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr – who took office last year after a joint campaign with Duterte’s daughter, Sara, who is now vice-president – has called the ICC investigation an “intrusion into our internal matters”, saying that the country has a “good” police and judicial system.

For campaigners, however, Fortun’s findings are further proof that the Philippines’ institutions are failing to deliver justice. She is aware of 12 death certificates, including 11 from the 74 remains she has examined, that wrongly attribute deaths to natural causes, such as pneumonia or sepsis. “It would make one wonder, were they involved, were they complicit? Was it just them making a short cut?” says Fortun.

The Catholic priest Father Flaviano Villanueva blesses the urns of drug war victims during a ceremony for their families in a church in Manila, Philippines, in 2021.

The Catholic priest Father Flaviano Villanueva blesses the urns of drug war victims during a ceremony for their families in a church in Manila, Philippines, in 2021. Photograph: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Kian delos Santos was found dead, bent in a foetal position, in a dark alley in Caloocan, Metropolitan Manila, in 2017, with a gun in his left hand. Police argued they killed him in self-defence. Yet his family pointed out that he was right-handed.

CCTV footage showed police dragging a male matching Delos Santos’s description towards the spot where he was killed. His is the only known case where police have been convicted of murder. Despite intense scrutiny at the time of his death, examinations by both the Philippine National Police and the Public Attorney’s Office failed to spot a bullet that was still lodged in his neck, according to Fortun’s findings. “It’s evidence that has been missed,” she says.

Such omissions are not uncommon; Fortun has found at least one bullet left in about 15 other victims’ remains. She also found that only superficial cuts had been made during autopsies on Delos Santos’s body, meaning no internal examination was carried out. This is despite a report, signed by a doctor, referencing Delos Santos’s stomach contents.

Fortun began looking at the remains of exhumed victims in 2021. It was then about five years since Duterte had launched his crackdown, and the families of those killed, who had only been able to pay for short leases on graves, were increasingly facing eviction from cemeteries.

The Catholic priest Father Flaviano Villanueva began offering to help families exhume and cremate their loved one’s remains through an initiative called Project Arise. The option of an examination by Fortun, to document evidence, was also offered to families.

The stockroom Fortun uses has been renovated, but her work is still carried out on a shoestring. She works for free, with a small budget to cover the cost of plastic bags, superglue, a lighter adhesive for teeth and special paper. Remains are delivered to the hospital for X-ray after midnight because the local hospital is too busy to handle them during the day. An examination can take weeks as she tries to juggle the process with her university role and handling other cases.

The remains she has seen represent just “a pinch of tens of thousands of those killed”, says Fortun. “But the picture is showing.” The victims are overwhelmingly men, and young. “They’re the poorest of the poor. I see that in their teeth.”

Some are buried with printed tarpaulin images of their faces, clothes, footwear or religious items. In two cases, Fortun has examined victims wearing a Duterte-branded wristband. “There was [a widow] who said the husband actually felt safe with that on his wrist,” says Fortun.

Her examinations add to evidence contradicting police narratives that officers acted in self-defence. “They were shot not to immobilise them or render them safer for police to apprehend – they were shot multiple times in the chest, in the head,” she says.

According to government figures, officers killed 6,252 people during anti-drug operations from 1 July 2016 to 31 May 2022. Fortun wonders if it will ever be possible to accurately calculate how many were killed. “Who is keeping count?” she asks. “What about the [victims] who were never recovered? Bodies thrown into rivers, buried in some clandestine grave?” Even less is known about killings outside Metro Manila.

Known for taking on politically sensitive cases, Fortun is aware that her work brings risks. She has worked abroad previously, but the temptation to do so again has long passed. “I feel: OK, this is the reason why I stayed. I needed to. What if I left?”

When she meets families, Fortun makes no promises that the examinations will bring justice. “But at least I tell them: thank you for giving us the chance to document the findings. I don’t know if at some point it is going to court, but at least we tried.”

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